In times gone by, the Sony name was one that created a stir among those who enjoyed quality sound but perhaps made wallets scream for mercy. We’ve seen though, that Sony doesn’t make your wallet scream any longer and haven’t compromised quality.
For the last couple of weeks, we’ve had the Sony WH-XB910N headphones on the test bench and it’s been a very enjoyable time. They bring quality sound, comfort and modern conveniences to users at an affordable price.
All the right elements are here
Sony is arguably one of the leaders in consumer grade noise cancelling headphones keeping strong company with the likes of Bose and Sennheiser. The WH1000 range shows their true capability in terms of ANC and these follow that pedigree closely.
Sticking true to the Sony “look” these particular headphones are very similar in appearance to the aforementioned WH100 range. They’ve got a matte finish and come in either a black or steel blue both of which look great.
The headphones are lightweight and comfortable, with plenty of padding in all the right places and hinged ear cups that are easy to position. If I were to compare directly with a recent review, the WH-XB910N aren’t quite as comfortable as the Bose QC45. That’s not to say they’re uncomfortable, just that the headphones are a little heavier and the headband on the Sony is a touch tighter. While this isn’t really an issue, it does create a better seal that helps create a better audio experience.
Some of the cheaper over-ear headphones often miss certain elements of a good user experience. Sony has — for a while now — adopted the right pathway to charging with USB-C being the right way to go. To top that off, these have a surprisingly solid case that will allow you to protect your headphones in your daily carry bag.
You can easily drop them in your bag and forget them for days at a time with around 30 hours of playback in the battery. If you are caught short with battery, just 10 minutes of charging will restore up to 4.5 hours of playback time to the battery. That huge battery life will see you through significant travel times (even overseas when the borders are open) even if you’re using noise-cancelling the whole time.
That noise cancelling is an absolute blindside if you’re expecting capabilities in line with the price. The white noise of an open plan office simply disappeared when the ANC was turned on. People talking, keyboards clacking as well as the general hustle and bustle of the office are all completely drowned out. These really are genuine surprise packet when you consider the low price.
Based on the experience it would be easy to expect a cost near the $500 mark, but they’re a very reasonable $299.00 so it’s probably fair to ask: What’s missing?
Touch controls and Smart Assistant
There are options when it comes to controls on over-ear headphones. The Sony WH-XB910N headphones have a bit of a hybrid option between physical buttons and touch controls across the left and right ears.
On the left ear, you’ll find the power and ANC buttons as well as a USB-C port for charging and a 3.5 mm port to plug into old-school equipment.
On the right, there are no buttons but the touch controls have a huge amount of functionality. You can easily control playback with a double-tap (play/pause), swipe up to turn the volume, swipe down for volume down. A forward swipe will advance a track, backwards swipe will go back a track.
The same double-tap control answers and hangs up on calls which bring in a surprisingly good experience. Call quality on these is excellent for the wearer and the caller, several times during calls I was treated — to my amusement — to a “are you still there?” simply because of the quality of audio and noise suppression on the mics, so they just weren’t hearing anything unless I was speaking.
There is a bit of a problem with the touch controls though: When you’re taking the headphones off and on, it’s really easy to trigger volume changes or even your assistant without meaning to or even realising it.
The app is simple, yet powerful
The counterpunch to that issue with touch control is the app-controlled multi-device connection. What is beyond impressive with this is how easy it is to switch between devices from within the app. You can connect two phones, a phone and a tablet, or even a laptop/desktop. As long as you’ve hooked your primary device up to the app, you then also have the convenience of ensuring that your calls will always take priority over any other stream.
The Sony Headphones app is one that has evolved over time with great functionality. Obviously, some of the functionality is hardware related, but it’s so useful. One of those features, easily controlled through the app is pre-programmed equaliser settings to easily tune the sound to your liking. If none suit, you can do your own customised setup but the default sound balance is exceptionally good, providing great listening across a broad range of music and media.
Short of spending $500 or more on headphones, I haven’t heard better sound.
There really isn’t that much to say about the audio – it lives up to the Sony name, with clean, crisp audio through all response ranges. There are no shrill notes to the higher end, even at high volume listening to media that is conducive to drawing that from audio playback equipment.
Smart features are customisable
It’s great to have smart features on headphones but if they’re hit and miss, or just intrusive to your listening – then they’re not really “smart”. Sony has done a great job in making sure that users can engage their smart assistants the way they want to.
I like to use the smart assistant linked to my primary device which is triggered by a long press. Then you have full control over your device, routines and smart home exactly as you expect to. One thing that did annoy me a touch till I turned it off was the constant interruptions to my audio from notifications. Clearly, I have too much running on my phone and it’s unusual to go more than about 15 minutes without notifications during the day, so being able to turn off the notifications to my ears was a blessing.
I tried with both Google Assistant and Alexa with the full suite of connectivity and features.
As someone who spends a lot of time with headphones on, it’s useful to have Assistant read notifications to you. It’s also very useful to not need to take your phone out of your pocket to complete a lot of tasks. All in all, while not necessary for audio pleasure – having access to your chosen assistant is exceedingly useful.
Should you buy some?
The short answer is that if you’re considering a new set of over-ear headphones then I can’t think of any reason not to. The hardware lives up to the sony name, the sound is excellent, the noise-cancelling capabilities are high level, the battery life is more than acceptable and you get a decent case with them
You get the necessary — charging and 3.5mm — cables in the box and they’re exceptionally easy to connect using Google fast pair. The biggest bonus of all is that the WH-XB910N will only — during the current sales — set you back $299.00 with the normal price at $349.00 retail.
While you can get better sound, you’re going to be spending hundreds of dollars more. You’re unlikely to find anything significantly more comfortable and the controls are so simple to learn. This really is an outstanding user experience and well worth the money you’ll spend. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend these for people shopping on a budget or seeking quality sound.