Thursday 20 September 2018

Tech Review: pricey Sony headphones fail to impress despite excellent record in noise-cancelling field

Sony WF1000x, €259, PC World

Rating: 2/5

The new Sony WF1000x
The new Sony WF1000x
Apple’s AirPods

With most phones now moving away from 3.5mm headphone sockets, wireless headphones are becoming a lot more popular.

Sitting atop this category are noise-cancelling wireless headphones, which promise to enhance your audio even further by dampening any external noise.

Sony has excellent pedigree in this field, especially with its MDR-1000x overhead wireless headphones, which are consistently my choice as the best noise-cancelling headphones you can buy for under €400.

Sadly, the same can't be said for its new in-ear WF1000X headphones. For the money, you can get a lot better.

I'll be comparing these headphones a lot to Apple's AirPods (€179), mainly because the little white earbuds are now the leading wireless earphones on the market and, although squarely aimed at iPhone and iPad users, also work as basic Bluetooth headphones with Android devices.

Like the AirPods, Sony's WF1000X earphones have their own small charging box. The idea is that you charge the earphones through the box, which keeps a repository of backup power.

Right off the bat, Sony is struggling here. Unusually for Sony, the charging box is not very well designed.

The case is slightly awkward to open and close and is arguably too big, at around twice the size of Apple's AirPods charging case. But the main issue is that you have to double-check your earphones are actually charging each time.

This is because placing them in their small pods doesn't automatically start the charging process - they need to be additionally pressed down rather firmly, with no guiding click or feedback to indicate you've done it right.

For the first two days with the earphones, I thought I had a faulty unit as they weren't charging.

It was only after tinkering around that I discovered how to do it 'properly'. (A further consultation with official documentation confirmed the firm press requirements.

But it's not a good sign when you have to check a manual to find out how something works.)

The physical design of the earphones is problematic, too.

Unhelpfully, there is a button on each one of the ear pieces, leading to initial confusion over how to turn the actual earphones on and off (pro tip: it's the left earpiece button). I also found that they do not stay in the ear as solidly as Apple's Airpods. There is a choice of earbud cover fittings to cater to differently-sized ears, but none were entirely reliable for me.

There's also a confusing issue with connectivity that makes for a frustrating experience.

On my Samsung S9, the two earphones register as separate Bluetooth devices. My phone then asks me whether I want to treat them as such.

As I learned, acceding to this request is a serious mistake - you lose about 75pc of your volume straight away and it takes a fair bit of tinkering and consultation of manuals and googling to figure out how to get it back. (Sometimes, only one of the earpieces comes on with a delay for the other one, which appears to be expedited if you turn the Bluetooth on your phone on and off again.)

Most of these issues could be forgiven given some sort of outstanding audio experience.

Frankly, that's not what you'll get here. Unless I was doing it wrong (which, given the other design issues I experienced, is possible) I found the audio quality to be utterly unremarkable both for music and the spoken word.

There's no sense of bass to speak of, for example. Now these comments have to come in the context of what to expect from in-ear audio devices: it's generally accepted that they will rarely match decent overhead headphones.

And in that sense, I am spoiled with one of the best pairs of wireless, noise-cancelling headphones on the market (also made by Sony), the MDR-1000x. But my experience of these earphones is that they absolutely provide an inferior audio experience to rivals such as the AirPods. The element I was most disappointed was the noise-cancellation technology.

Sony excels at this generally, with my overhead MDR-1000X set knocking out almost all annoying external noise (for reviews I've written of these headphones, see Independent.ie). But here, there's barely any difference.

In short, I can't recommend these headphones at all, especially as they cost between €50 and €80 more than Apple's AirPods, which deliver a significantly better experience all round.

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