Active noise cancellation (ANC) has been all the rage lately in the headphones and in-ear monitors market. It seems after Apple got heavily praised for their AirPods Pro, every somewhat serious electronics manufacturer released their own design incorporating this technology.
The first headphones with ANC I remember trying on (in the early 2010s) were the Bose QuietComfort 15. Although the concept did work (they indeed cancelled some sounds), they weren't amazing and did a great job of convincing me ANC was some weird fad for people who flew often.
As the years passed, chip size decreased, battery capacity improved and machine learning blossomed — truly a perfect storm for the wireless ANC headphones market. I had mostly stayed a sceptic of this tech until recently a kind friend offered to let me try a pair of Sony WH-1000X M3.
Having tested them thoroughly, I have to say I'm really tempted to buy them from him, as they truly are fantastic headphones1. They are very light, comfortable, work without a proprietary app and sound very good with the ANC on2 — if a little bass-heavy for my taste3.
The ANC itself is truly astounding and is leaps and bounds beyond what was available five years ago. It still isn't perfect and doesn't cancel ALL sounds, but transforms the low hum of the subway I find myself sitting in too often these days into a light *swoosh*. When you turn the ANC on, HVAC simply disappears. Most impressive to me is the way they completely cancel the dreaded sound of your footsteps resonating in your headphones when you walk with them.
I won't be keeping them though.
Whilst I really like what Sony has achieved here, I've grown to understand ANC simply isn't for me. Some of the drawbacks of ANC somewhat bother me: the ear pressure it creates is tolerable, but is an additional energy drain over long periods of time and eventually gives me headaches. I've also found ANC accentuates the motion sickness I suffer from, probably because it messes up with some part of the inner ear balance system.
Most of all, I found that it didn't provide noticeable improvements over good passive noise cancellation solutions, at least in terms of how high I have to turn the volume up to hear music or podcasts clearly. The human brain works in mysterious ways and it seems ANC cancelling a class of noises (low hums, constant noises, etc.) makes other noises so much more noticeable. People talking or bursty high pitched noises bothered me much more with ANC on than without.
So for now, I'll keep using my trusty Senheiser HD 280 Pro4 at work and good in-ear monitors with Comply foam tips on the go.
As most ANC headphones, they don't sound as good when used passively through the 3.5mm port, but that's just a testament of how a great job Sony did of tuning the DSP. ↩
Easily fixed using an EQ. ↩
Retrofitted with aftermarket sheepskin earpads, they provide more than 32db of passive noise reduction. ↩