This review/comparison of the Bowers & Wilkins PX7 and the Sony WH-1000XM3 almost reads like a piece of self-help literature. But, as the images illustrate, that’s what you get when you combine scenic landscapes and superb wireless headphones.
Wireless active noise cancelling headphones do two things that normal headphones don’t: they ditch the cable and drown out my surroundings. It’s as simple as that; and it’s as simple as it is crucial. When I’m out and about getting rid of the cable is key – so Bluetooth is mandatory. I don’t mind: sometimes sound quality is secondary to convenience. When I’m on the move, keeping track of my phone, a DAC, a cable and a pair of headphones is not my idea of a good time. I can barely bear the cable when I’m lounging at home.
ANC is (practically) as important as not having to struggle with the cable and an outboard DAC, even though dongle DACs like the Audioquest DragonFly-line make it almost bearable. Isolation from my surroundings is everything. Without ANC, listening to music on headphones outside is like watching a movie while someone in the back row are talking: pure frustration.
The Green Choice?
The green approach to out-of-the-house music listening would be to use my closed-back Audioquest Nightowl/DragonFly Cobalt combo. For my use that is not a viable option. The cable alone makes it a non-starter. And there is no ANC which means any chance of getting lost in the music is marginal.
That is why a site like Green Audio Review will also tackle products like Bluetooth headphones. We live in the real world. Bluetooth headphones offer a wonderful solution to listening to music out of the house. Besides, from a green perspective we shouldn’t underestimate the fact that a pair of wireless headphones need neither an extra DAC, amp, or cabling. Potentially, we lose several products by going wireless. In that sense we can compare a wireless headphone with a pair of active speakers. They might not be green in and of themselves, but they remove a rack of gear that we don’t need anymore. From a sustainable point of view that is a significant plus.
I live in the countryside and use my Sony WH-1000XM3 when I take walks in the forest or on the beach. Those are probably the most unwinding hours I spend in a week. I’ve tried using normal headphones and the result is always the same: my appreciation of music is ruined by wind-noise, the sound of my breath and my graceless stumbling through the underbrush and gravel crunching beneath me. Not to mention an endless struggle with the cable. It’s the same in the city. Cars and buses and the general hubbub make an immersive listening experience impossible. And that’s what I want, to be immersed in the music: physically moving through the world, with a soundtrack to reality.
With wireless headphones and ANC that is what I get. And there’s no cable, no microphonics, no fuzz, just (slightly compressed) music that sounds warm and enveloping. Given the choice between hi-res, a pair of passive headphones, a cable, a DAC and my phone, vs. just my phone and a pair of ANC headphones, well, when it comes to out-of-the-house listening, there’s really no competition.
Conversely, Bluetooth headphones at home are a non-starter. At home we’re talking streamers, DACs, amps, cables, open-backs, lounge chairs, and so forth.
Fit n’ finish
I like the look of the PX7 from Bowers & Wilkins. They look and feel like quality. The color is an understated grey and the arms are made of a carbon fiber composite. The headband is covered in a nice and soft padding and there’s an even distribution of pressure. The cups are dressed in a car seat-like fabric. The overall impression is of an unadorned sharpness, an understatement that suits headphones like these – and most others – because, more than a stay at home headphone, they are a tool. Or maybe it’s just that I’m not much for ostentatiousness.
The PX7 doesn’t fold. At first this bothered me. But very quickly the way they fit into the carry case became second nature. The case is a bit bigger than the Sony WH-1000XM3, but not by much and I find the difference negligible.
You control the PX7 from several buttons on the earcups. On the left there’s a single button for noise cancelling, where we can cycle through Low, Medium, and High. On the right there’s a slider for Bluetooth pairing, and there’s volume up and down, play/pause, skip. If you lift one of the earcups music stops. When you put it back on your ear the music continues. Neat.
The WH-1000XM3 don’t have that the same luxurious feel to them. They are almost entirely made from plastic. However, I like plastic. Not in the ocean, not in the rivers or on the beaches, and single-use plastic is an embarrassment to our species, but when it is implemented correctly it has almost miraculous attributes. A couple of those: it is inexpensive; you can shape it and mold it; and it’s durable. For headphones that’s perfect. Particularly headphones that go outside in the wind and the sun, the cold, the heat, maybe even a light drizzle, and in and out of a bag.
While the PX7’s design, even though it is understated, make it stand out in the crowd, the Sony WH-1000XM3 are less conspicuous. They are sleek and there’s a timeless functionality about them that I like. The PX7 are more distinct. As ever, which you prefer comes down to taste.
I prefer the controls of the Sony. The touch sensitive earcups are intuitive. Skipping tracks and controlling volume is very easy. Cover the right earcup with your hand and volume drops and ANC is cut off. Very handy – and a smoother solution than the PX7.
The PX7 are less comfortable than the WH-1000XM3. I have a bigish head and the PX7 feel a bit hard in their clamping. I notice it right away, then it dissipates and then after an hour it draws attention to itself again. The clamping might disappear after more extended use than was available to me. Maybe the force loosens a bit after a month or two. The earcups also seem a bit smaller and while they didn’t exactly clamp or squeeze my ears, they did make themselves known.
On the other hand, the Sonys are among the most comfortable headphones I know. They simply disappear when I put them on. Quite like the Audioquest Nightowl. There’s no clamp and there’s ample room for my ears.
Another clear advantage of the WH-1000XM3 over the PX7 is weight. The Sonys are 255 grams while the PX7 is 310 grams. 55 grams might not sound like a lot but when you wear the headphones for hours either walking around or maybe a flight across the Atlantic it could become significant. The disappearing act the Sonys manage is partly because they are so light. You know what else is light? Plastic…
The PX7 have one advantage when it comes to comfort. They don’t get as warm around the ears as the Sony do. That can be crucial if it’s hot. There is the same build up of heat and moisture in the PX7, but it happens more slowly than the Sonys.
Goodbye cruel world…
The importance of active noise-cancellation can hardly be overestimated. The PX7 have what I would deem acceptable ANC. There’s Low, Medium, High, and it does an okay job. With ANC set to High I feel somewhat isolated but not completely. Listening to music at moderate volume and ANC set to High I could easily hear the kids wreaking havoc around the house. Likewise, I could hear people bustling about in the mall. I could hear people talking on the metro and the cars going by. Not as intrusive loud sounds but as drones and murmurs. The ANC was working and doing its thing, and it helped, but it is not as good as on the Sony.
The Sony WH-1000XM3 does a better job at drowning out my surroundings, be it kids, engine noise, or people shopping in a completely packed mall. With the Sony playing at moderate volume I basically hear nothing but music.
The Sony has another advantage over the PX7: it has a much better app. Here you can adjust anything and everything regarding the headphones and playback, including the ANC. One of the most useful settings for me is the noise-cancelling that specifically targets different noise-scenarios. In my case the culprit is often wind. Even a light breeze is audible on the PX7, it’s like a constant whirring. If you get wind noise on the Sony, you adjust the ANC and even brisk wind is completely quiet. That is super useful when walking around in a city. On windy day at the beach is it critical. It can specifically target cars, voices, etc., as well. That is a just a very impressive and practical feature.
For my use, the Sony are in a league of their own when it comes to ANC. The PX7 are ok, but there’s quite a way up to the versatility of the Sony.
The PX7 is a very capable Bluetooth headphone. It’s even a very capable headphone, period. It has a midrange clarity in its presentation that the Sony doesn’t have. The PX7 is crisper, cleaner, also in the bass. The Sony has more bass, but it is less distinct and the highs appear almost muted. The Sony is much smoother in its presentation, richer, with a serious low end.
From a technical standpoint the PX7 has better sound quality. The bass is tighter, it’s better controlled perhaps, it goes deep but compared to the Sony it is not as cavernous. The midrange is more prominent and flows more naturally. That is important when I listen to Agnes Obel. On the WH-1000XM3 her voice doesn’t touch me like it does on the PX7 and being touched is what it’s all about. Her voice on Trojan Horses is lifelike and clear on the PX7. Natural. The cello is crisper, there’s a dryness to it that I really like. It’s not a cardboard dry, it’s a dryness, a clarity, that better outlines the instrument, the strings, the vibration. Instruments are better separated.
On the other hand, the opening slow strokes on the cello have a depth and low-end spaciousness on the Sony that the PX7 can’t match: the Sony envelops you in sound. The PX7 sounds clearer and more natural, but the Sony is smoother, and the low end is deeper and wider by far. Can bass be wide? Yes, and certainly if wide points to its immersive qualities. That tendency is also obvious on Obel’s piano. On the PX7 there’s clarity, but maybe too much of it? It becomes too hard sometimes. That is not a concern on the Sony where even high notes on the piano are almost lush – but maybe excessively so. The PX7 is maybe too taut, the Sony might be too rich.
When I say that the PX7 has better sound quality and sounds more natural, this is what I mean: On the PX7 I come closer to hearing the cello as an instrument, the metal, the wood, the body, the strings reverberating, the air moving. The PX7 are closer to a pair of wired headphones in their realism and intimacy. On the Sony the cello sounds like a cello, or rather, like the (recorded) sound of a cello. For some that’s an important difference. Natural doesn’t mean organic or warm. Natural means that we can hear the instrument behind the sound.
Some are more equal than others…
The Sony does, however, have more than a few tricks up its sleeve. The first of these is equalization. Without EQ the Sony comes across as spacious with a big and rich sound, but excessively so, and, maybe, even a bit dull for some genres. I find it to be too soft or distant, not enough flavor, in the mids and highs and over-saturated in the bass, particularly for vocals and acoustic music like jazz and folk, but also for rock. I would imagine the same goes for classical. It is too dulled and can make music too soft. It doesn’t sound alive. But when I EQ the Sony that becomes more of a non-issue. I can tame the bass a little and nudge the mids and highs forward and I can save my settings in the app. I find that small changes make a world of difference. Rock has more bite and acoustic music becomes less processed, and more, well, natural.
But EQ can only take you so far. The PX7 has no EQ, and even when I EQ the hell out of the Sony I can’t get the naturalness and clarity from the PX7. That makes the PX7 the better sounding headphone for many traditional music genres.
Case in point: Hitchhiker by Neil Young is one of his best albums. On the Sony it’s an easier listen, too easy. It’s slightly glossed over, sort of defused, EQ or not. On the PX7 the edginess, the rawness in the guitar and his voice is closer to what I want. His voice is positively shrill at times – which is exactly how Neil Young is supposed to sound. From where I’m sitting, Hitchhiker shouldn’t sound laid-back. It’s an album that demands your attention. There’s a vagueness to the sound of the Sony. The PX7 assures that you are attentive.
If I listened mostly to acoustic music, to jazz, to classical, to rock, these would be my preferred headphones. If I used them to commute and maybe at an office these would also get the nod over the Sony.
…there’s more to music than acoustic instruments and Mozart. There’s more to music, even, than rock and jazz.
The recent Burial compilation Tunes 2011-2019 is awe-inspiring. There’s melancholy here, there’s rain and a dark ambience and there’s vinyl crackle and unknown textures. It sounds enormous and intimate and violent and delicate. That first track, State Forest, is ominous and beautiful all at once – and seems effortless.
On the PX7 it is sharper and colder. It’s almost strident at places. The production seems cut with a sharper knife. But we’ve moved onto electronic music, here, and, for me, the PX7 seems too controlled, too thin even. This is where the Sony pulls ahead.
The Sony makes State Forest sound enormous, enveloping, it’s all around me. For me, headphones are about intimacy and immersion. The Sony offer that in a way the PX7 can’t. Not intimacy as in detail retrieval because I can hear more detail with the PX7. The Sony offer something rarer: transcendence.
There’s an EQ preset on the Sony that’s called Excited which gives me exactly what I need to be immersed in an album like Tunes 2011-2019. The same goes for most other electronic music. The Sony give me all the detail and tone that I need; the PX7 give me more detail and naturalness, yes, but the cavernous quality of the Sony makes it a more immersive listen.
The opening tracks on Burial’s Tunes feels like a deeper, more sinister and distilled version of Vangelis’ soundtrack for Blade Runner. When I’m listening to State Forest or Beachfires and I’m walking in a city at sundown or on a deserted beach with waves crashing, I can almost feel like I’m a new Deckard, armed with headphones and music and maybe cup of coffee, hunting for replicants.
The Sony allow me to have that experience better than any other wireless headphone I know.
Looking at sound quality alone the PX7 is a better headphone. But the Sony WH-1000XM3 has other virtues that, for me, are more important. It’s much better with electronic music and electronic music is what I listen to when I’m out and about. Its bass performance is impressive. It has an app that allows you to EQ the sound and adjust the ANC to your surroundings. Its also more comfortable.
When I add up these virtues, I get a headphone that offers something of a miracle: a truly immersive listening experience away from the couch, in the (state) forest, at the beach(fires). No cable, no fuss, no noise.
The world and I. Silence and music.