03 Sony WH1000XM2 aSony’s $499 WH1000XM2 noise cancelling headphones remind me of a few crusty university academics I’ve known; brilliantly clever but no common sense at all. These are among the best noise cancellers I’ve tried, but take them flying, as most people who buy noise cancellers do, and they’re unbelievably dumb. When you stop the music playing they shut off automatically.

Scenario: You’re eight hours out of LA and you’re finally tired. You settle back with the music off and the noise cancelling on, creating your own, blissfully quiet little sleep cocoon. You’ll get precisely five minutes in there before a voice announces ‘power off’. Then all the cabin noise hits you in the head like a number four shovel. And automatic shutoff cannot be disabled. Doesn’t anyone at Sony fly anywhere?

There are three ways around it that you won’t find in the manual. Leave Bluetooth turned on, leave a plug in the input jack or buy Bose QC35s instead. Same price, no automatic shutoff.

03 Sony WH1000XM2 bMaybe this is why Sony chose to demonstrate these in a busy shopping centre in Chatswood just before Christmas, showing shoppers how effectively they negate the hubbub of Yuletide crowds. I tried it in my local shopping centre the same weekend – not as big but every bit as crowded, and the Sonys were great. In the parking lot the cars whispered by eerily silent, inside the canned carols were nought but a vague distraction and the queue for Santa was unnervingly subdued. Then; ‘power off’ and all those small, excited voices caved in on me.

So the WH1000XM2s put listening to music in noisy environments first and flyers somewhere further down the list. In noisy environments they sound just great no matter what’s unfolding around you. Download the app and you can tailor the equaliser to your own preference or choose from any of eight presets. I didn’t like any of them much so I set one of a couple of customisable ones to my own parameters and finally got happy.

The clarity, nuance and body these deliver are excellent and the Bluetooth is high definition, but you can still use a cable if you’re ultra-fussy. You’d have to be ultra-fussy.

There are touch controls on the right earpad – tap twice for pause, swipe forward or back for track advance and return, up and down for volume. I’ve been a harsh critic of this idea since I first struck it a few years ago, but here it works nicely. For example, tap once and nothing happens, which means it doesn’t respond to most accidental knocks.

03 Sony WH1000XM2 cAnd so to a feature called Atmospheric Pressure Optimising which sounds compelling but in practice, well I think it’s something the engineers did for the marketers. The speed of sound slows as you get higher and the air thins. Indeed at 40,000 feet (12,200 metres), around which many long-haul aircraft cruise, sound is more than 13 per cent slower than at sea level and detecting this altitude, Atmospheric Pressure Optimising makes a 13 per cent timing adjustment to the generation of the equal and opposite soundwaves that make noise cancelling work.

Neat technology that forgets aircraft cabins are pressurised usually between the equivalent of 5000 to 8000 feet (1520 to 2440 metres) at which the difference in the speed of sound is practically negligible. I thus suspect Sony has created the solution to a problem no one has. Nepalese Sherpas excepted of course.

No matter what elevation you’re at Sony’s WH1000XM2s are great for listening to music when it’s noisy, but for sleeping in aircraft, nup, nup, nup.

Originally published on smh.com.au as ‘Sony WH1000XM2 review: newest noise cancellers just don’t fly’. January 2018.


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