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The Sony WH-1000XM5 Noise-Cancelling Headphones Review

This review covers the Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones. I’ll go over why you might want them, and I’ll debunk some myths that I think have built up over time.  

The Sony 1000XM5s are the latest in series of wireless headphones that have been a home run for Sony. Sony has built these for the traditional listener on the go who cares about quality and who also cares about features. 

In the US their list price about $400, though they are generally available below that price. They run off of a Bluetooth signal or you can hook up a cable to them. Critically for commuters and frequent flyers, they have noise cancellation. They also have adjustable frequency response. And they’re quite lightweight. 

The 1000XM5 features a new design from Sony, which does not fold up as compactly as prior generations. I found them to be rather comfortable for a long period of time, while there’s just enough clamping force so that they don’t really want to move around on your head when, say, you look down at your keyboard. These are, however, not workout or running-appropriate. Really, no over the ear headphone is.  

The Sony 1000XM series, and particularly the 1000 XM5, has built up quite a reputation over time. If you look at reviews in the popular press and on consumer electronics review sites you will see superlatives. Phrases like “the best” or “among the best” or “top of the line” or “top shelf”. 

I think that’s complete balderdash. Not that these aren’t good headphones. I think these are quite good headphones for the money for a certain listener who wants what these do. That’s a lot of caveats.  

And sonically there are many better headphones, including some at lower prices. So, let’s go into a little bit of depth on why this is not the best headphone in the world under all circumstances, mostly to illuminate what you do and do not get with the Sony 1000XM5.  

Sound Profile and Target Listener 

These headphones have a particular sound profile. That particular sound profile is largely suited to application for background listening. For example, you’re at work, and you work in an open plan office and you want to listen to music while you’re working on spreadsheets or writing or producing code or whatever you do, and in those cases you don’t necessarily want the most exciting sound and you don’t necessarily want the most dynamic sound. You want something that’s smooth and not distracting. 

The 1000XM5 might be a good choice under those circumstances. They have pretty good top to bottom frequency response, which I think may be why they get the accolades that they do, but that frequency response is pretty uneven as we go from 20 to 20 khz. There are lots of ups and downs along the way that lead to, again, a particular, somewhat veiled and somewhat inaccurate sound character, if you really want to get picky about it. Which is what we do.  

Now let’s think about what this headphone was designed for and what it’s really built for. It’s a bluetooth headphone for convenience on the go and in the office. Let me just put it out there that there’s no way that a Bluetooth headphone can be the best when fed by Bluetooth. Because you’ve already massively handicapped it by the data rate of the musical signal that you can put into it. The musical data rate of Bluetooth is about 300k bits per second. There are higher data rate versions of Bluetooth, Sony offers LDAC for example, but they require particular connections that can be tricky and in the end, even with these, you’re not going to get even CD data rates much less high res. To put numbers on this, the data rate of Bluetooth is about 300k bps. Red Book format, originating with old-fashioned CDs like you could have bought in1987, delivers about 1.5 megabits per second, so it’s about five times the data rate. High-res digital can deliver 6 or 8 megabits per second, which is going to be 20 times the amount of data. Now, sound quality isn’t linear with the amount of data, but experience teaches that with high-res you get better detail, better tone colors and a better sense of the acoustic environment.  

So I’m not faulting Sony for the fact that it’s a Bluetooth headphone, if that’s what you want. And you can listen at home via a wired connection and drive them with higher resolution signals if you accept the need for wires and other ancillary gear.  

Let’s move on to the sound profile of the 1000XM5, because you are dealing with this regardless of the input signal.  

Having listened to over 100 headphones in my reviewing work, I’ve learned to convey a broad, summary idea. The Sony 1000XM5 is in a group of headphones that have a sound profile that I call “warm and soft”. I think the warm and soft profile is one that can be enjoyed if your primary listening mode is background music. This is great when you’re doing something else. Reading a book. Working on a computer. Commuting. The 1000XM5’s warm and soft profile works very well there because it’s not too dynamic, it’s not too punchy, it doesn’t surprise you or interrupt you. This can be quite enjoyable. Just like a comfy sweater.  

There are two other profiles, seen in other headphones, that may be helpful in thinking through whether this sound profile is what you want.  

The central one I want to talk about is what I call the “dynamic transparency” profile. In my experience, the best headphones in the world, and they’re often quite expensive, are trying to have a high level of dynamics and a high level of transparency that reveals the musical event as accurately as possible. They want to bring the listener to the original performance as recorded. That means these headphones are going to have a very low noise floor. That means they’re going to be able to resolve low level detail. That means they’re going to be able to deliver dynamics very strongly without distortion. That means they’re not going to blur instruments together. And it often means they need significant amplification because the amplifier has to be able to follow the game as well. So that’s the dynamic transparency profile.  

The Sony 1000XM5s are not in that category. Not due to any failure; I think they are trying to do something else. 

The third sound profile I’ll talk about is one I call “midrange focused”. These are headphones that have a little bit of roll off in the bass a little bit of roll off in the treble. They bring the focus into the mid-range. The manufacturer has concentrated on midrange purity and midrange accuracy, which tends to be very important in reproducing music. If you were a designer, you might realistically say, hey, there are tradeoffs in how I make these headphones, and I’d rather get the core bands of the music right, because it takes a lot of extra effort to get the low frequencies and the high frequencies nailed and balanced out with the midrange. And I don’t have the budget to be able to do that, so I’m going to give the listener what is really essential. So that’s the mid-range focus profile.  

So, I urge you to think about which profile is what you want. 

The 1000XM5s do a pretty nice job as “warm and soft” headphones. They have good bass balance in that context.  The overall frequency response is relatively level with the bass balanced in such a way that you get the slightly elevated bass that many people want.  

The 1000XM5’s noise canceling, from a resolution standpoint, would seem to be nice. 

But I don’t hear them as a highly resolving headphone. Which makes sense in the context of the warm and soft, background music idea. Which leaves the noise cancellation as something really beneficial if you’re in a commuter situation or traveling a lot on airplanes or anywhere that the ambient noise level is just very high and it would get in the way of the music or you’d have to turn up the volume so high that you’d risk damaging your ears.  

Realistically, noise cancellation is a thing if those are your primary listening environments. And the 1000XM5 has a very good ANC circuit.  

So, we have a nice, “warm and soft” sounding headphone that’s got good basic frequency balance for the intended use. And comes with good noise cancellation.  

Sound Quality 

Well, those of you who have watched or read our reviews, know that we like to go into some detail, and we have a lot of descriptors to talk about.  

As you might expect, the Sony 1000XM5 headphones have a somewhat polite, sound quality. What you might not expect is how this affects sonic details.  

The 1000XM5 bass is a little bit on the warm side. But the big problem is that the bass isn’t very well defined. You don’t get the sense that you’re hearing a plucked string on a bass guitar, with overtones coming through the way it would when you’re actually listening to a bass. On the Sony’s bass is not quite a turgid thud, but there’s some lack of definition in the mid-bass and upper bass. The warmth that is a positive for background music gives a slightly unnatural sound when viewed from the perspective of foreground listening.  

The midrange has a kind of hooded sound. Again, I think this is because the 1000XM5 has frequency response deviations in each band that leave the overall balance seeming okay, while reducing the clarity and messing up the tonality of specific instruments. 

And so, to my ear, somewhere in the upper mid-range it feels like there’s a little bit of a dip. Voices and some mid-range instruments, like piano, sound a little bit more cupped, without the openness they would have in real life.  

Completing our tour of frequency ranges, the treble can sound a little bit splattery or hashy But the 1000XM5 is not bright. They simply have frequency response variations that don’t render the smoothness and the detail that you would hear on say a real cymbal strike or on violin tones. The Harman curve is hard to match in the treble and almost every headphone has some deviations there, and this certainly is the case with 1000XM5. 

While I’m talking about frequency balance, you should know that the 1000XM5s have an equalizer in the app and you can do some tuning of the tonality of the headphones to suit your needs. I made a few adjustments, but I didn’t find that the frequency bands were narrow enough to really nail the issues that I would have liked to have addressed. The EQ could work under the right conditions, but you’re not going to be able to solve all the problems of driver design using the equalizer settings.  

Alternatives 

Okay, let’s remember that the 1000XM5 is an under $400 headphone, and I’m kind of being hard on them to be clear to those not interested in a “warm and soft” headphone that these probably are not your cup of tea. And for careful, engaged listening to CD quality or high-res music, I think these are not the answer, because you need to use the 1000XM5 in wired mode and there are more accurate wired headphones for less, starting with the Sony MDR-7506 at under $100. If you want both noise cancelling and wired modes in a single headphone, though, these might be on your list.  

There are other choices that can, I think, compete for musical satisfaction with a product like the 1000XM5s. We will also be talking over the next months about other headphones that are in this wireless category. Please check our Focal Bathys headphone review for a product (at a higher price) that addresses some of the sonic issues we found with the 1000XM5 for listeners who would prefer a “dynamic transparency” sound profile.  

But background music listening while in noisy environments is the application that a lot of people have. So, I would understand the common praise for these Sonys if reviewers would just be honest and say “for under $400 noise canceling headphones that primarily are used with Bluetooth these are pretty good”.  

To summarize, the Sony WH-1000XM5 is a very good headphone for the listener it’s trying to serve. It’s just not trying to be an audiophile headphone. 

Tags: HEADPHONES SONY VIDEO

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