The Sony WH-1000XM3 and Bose QC35ii are widely considered the gold standard for wireless noise cancelling headphones, but both these models cost well over Rs. 20,000 in India. More affordable headsets do exist, offering similar features and decent sound quality, but there is a considerable difference in performance as you come down the price ladder. Sony hopes to change that with its latest product, the Sony WH-XB900N.
As the model number suggests to anyone familiar with Sony's often confusing naming conventions, the Rs. 16,990 Sony WH-XB900N falls into the company's ‘Extra Bass' lineup. This pair of headphones also features wireless connectivity and active noise cancellation, making it the most advanced and expensive product in the Extra Bass range. It sits just under the WH-1000XM3 in the pecking order for headphones.
There's a lot on offer here, including most of the features seen on the Sony WH-1000XM3 at a lower price, along with more bass. Can all of this make the Sony WH-XB900N an acceptable and more affordable alternative to the WH-1000XM3? We find out in our review.
Sony's headphones have a distinct aesthetic which we quite like, particularly the shape and styling of the WH-1000XM3. The Sony WH-XB900N has a predominantly plastic exterior, and is roughly the same shape and size as the WH-1000XM3; the differences are largely in the texture and colours. The lower parts of the headband and the ear cups have the same colour and texture, with only the embossed Sony logos on either side and the small NFC logo on the left breaking this continuity.
The upper part of the headband has foam padding on the underside, which is similar to the foam padding around the ear cups. The colour of the padding is almost the same as that of the plastic parts, contributing to the stark, single-tone look of the headset. The top parts of the two ear cups right below the headband have a glossy finish. This is also where you'll find the bass vents that contribute to the bass-heavy nature of Sony WH-XB900N's sound, but more on that later.
The right ear cup houses one of the microphones and the touch-sensitive control panel, while the left has all the buttons and ports, along with the second microphone. There are two buttons on the headset — one for power, and a second button that can be customised to either control the active noise cancellation and ambient sound modes, or invoke the voice assistant on a paired device. The Sony WH-XB900N also have a USB Type-C port for charging and a 3.5mm socket for wired connectivity.
The touch-sensitive control panel on the right was familiar to us, since it's the same system used on the WH-1000XM3 and even the older Sony WH-1000XM2 headphones. Gestures control playback (double-tap to play or pause), track selection (swipe left or right for the previous or next track respectively), and volume (swipe up or down for volume up or down respectively), and the panel was usually accurate and responsive to our gestures.
Thanks to the large ear cups, around-ear fit, plush padding, and proven design, the Sony WH-XB900N is an extremely comfortable pair of headphones. We were able to use the WH-XB900N for many hours at a stretch without feeling any discomfort.
The padding ensured satisfactory noise isolation as well as an immersive listening experience in indoor environments, even when active noise cancellation was switched off. Outdoors, the noise isolation wasn't excellent, but active noise cancellation made up for that to an extent. Despite the thick padding, we didn't have any issues with heat-related discomfort to our ears. The headphones also fold up for easy storage when not in use.
The Sony WH-XB900N headphones are powered by 40mm dynamic drivers, with a frequency response range of 20-40,000Hz when used with the LDAC codec at 990kbps. Connectivity is primarily through Bluetooth 4.2; Sony surprisingly hasn't gone with the newer and better Bluetooth 5 standard. There is also NFC for quick pairing, and support for Google Assistant, Alexa, and Siri when connected to compatible smartphones.
While other headphone makers tend to ignore the importance of Bluetooth codecs, Sony has been paying attention. The Sony WH-XB900N headphones don't skimp in this department, with support for the SBC, AAC, aptX, aptX HD, and LDAC codecs. If you intend to use these headphones with an iOS device, only the AAC codec is relevant to you. However, Android users and anyone using more advanced source equipment will appreciate the additional codec support, which made a significant difference to our listening experience, which we will get to in a bit.
The sales package of the Sony WH-XB900N includes a USB Type-C cable for charging, a stereo cable for wired listening (with a 3.5mm plug on both ends), and a carry pouch for the headphones.
We were able to get impressive battery life, coming in at around 28 hours of use on a full charge with active noise cancellation switched on for around half of the time. The headphones were able to be fully charged in around three hours when using a 10W wall charger. The WH-XB900N also has a fast charge function that gives you around one hour's worth of use after 10 minutes of charging (from a near-zero battery level).
As with many of Sony's high-end headphones, the Sony WH-XB900N works with the Sony Headphones Connect app, which is available for iOS and Android. The app detects which headphones are connected to the device and sets things up according to the features available — for the WH-XB900N, this includes adaptive sound control, ambient sound control, sound position control, an equaliser, and sound quality mode selection, to name a few.
Some of the settings for the headphones can only be controlled through the app, such as the voice guidance (which gives voice prompts when cycling through various functions), the function of the Custom button, Sony's DSEE sound enhancement system, equaliser settings, sound position control, and adaptive sound control. A lot of these can safely be kept switched off, though some can be specifically tweaked for your needs, such as the amount of sound the headphones let through with ambient sound control.
The headphones have a feature called Adaptive Sound Control, which is similar to the ‘Moments' feature on the Jabra Elite 85h headphones. This lets the app detect your surroundings and actions to automatically set the ambient sound control to the most appropriate setting. This worked well, but we preferred having control over when to use active noise cancellation and let ambient sound in through the microphones. On the whole, the app was just something we needed to set the headphones up when they were new, and after that we didn't need to go back to it too often.
We consider the Sony WH-1000XM3 to be a notch above its nearest competitor, the Bose QC35 II, in terms of sound quality, and its technical specifications have a lot to do with that. In addition to its high-quality drivers, the Sony WH-XB900N has similarly good technical specifications, supports advanced Bluetooth codecs, and has a well-tuned sonic signature that offers exactly what is promised on the box - extra bass.
We used the Sony WH-XB900N primarily with a OnePlus 7 Pro (Review), which let us test it with a wide variety of Bluetooth codecs and all types of audio including streaming music, high-resolution files, and video content. We also tested the Sony WH-XB900N with an iPad mini (2019) using both Bluetooth and the 3.5mm wired input.
While wired connectivity is a great thing to have, the Sony WH-XB900N is meant to be used wirelessly. Regardless of which of our devices we used, the Sony WH-XB900N sounded excellent. When used wirelessly with the iPad mini and the AAC Bluetooth codec, the headphones sounded decent enough. However, the best performance was when the WH-XB900N headphones were connected to the OnePlus 7 Pro, with the LDAC or aptX HD codecs enabled.
Sound on the iPad mini using Bluetooth tended to be a bit shrill in the highs and ever so slightly loose at the low-end. When using the cable, but with the headphones switched on and using both active noise cancellation and internal amplification, the sound improved a fair bit.
The shrillness and loose lows pretty much vanished when using the Android smartphone wirelessly with either of the two advanced codecs. What resulted was a sound that was clean, precise, and composed across the frequency range, and quite possibly among the most detailed we've heard on a pair of wireless headphones yet. We also quite liked the immersive and wide soundstage of the Sony WH-XB900N headphones.
The sound was particularly impressive when using the 990kbps encoding option of the LDAC codec, but this led to some connection issues for us with frequent glitches in the sound. Dropping to 660kbps or using the aptX HD codec (which encodes and transfers at 576kbps) offered a good balance between sound quality and connection stability. Keeping active noise cancellation on was necessary for optimal sound quality in noisy environments. In quieter settings, sound was ever so slightly better with ANC switched off.
On the whole, we found that the superior codec support makes a huge difference to sound quality, and we could hear the difference even when rapidly switching between codecs on the same device. We find it surprising that other headphone makers aren't paying more attention to codec support; the Sony WH-XB900N headphones significantly benefit from being technically up-to-date.
With all of that said, we finally come to the sonic signature. The ‘Extra Bass' branding on the box is absolutely accurate — the Sony WH-XB900N headphones do offer a considerable boost in the low-end. Fortunately, with the right codec in operation, that bass boost came across as tight and refined. The increased responses and raw punch were best heard in the sub-bass, and the mid-bass frequencies also sounded tight and clean for the most part.
While the bass boost was certainly enjoyable with most popular music, it could also become fatiguing at high volumes. The sonic signature of the Sony WH-XB900N can best be described as channeled aggression; it's a sound that we quite liked, provided we had a few minutes of quiet time every hour or so. Users do, of course, have the option to tone things down using the equaliser, but that's not something we enjoy doing on any headphones since it skews their intended tuning and reduces some of the qualities of the sound.
The Sony WH-XB900N features active noise cancellation, but the actual implementation is a bit simpler than what the Sony WH-1000XM3 offers. While the more premium pair of headphones lets you improve noise cancellation by adjusting parameters such as atmospheric pressure optimisation and customise the effect based on your head size, hair, and other factors, the WH-XB900N has nothing as fancy in this department. You can either switch noise cancellation on or off, that's it.
When you do have it on, active noise cancellation on the Sony WH-XB900N does a decent job of cutting out ambient noise, of course to the extent that modern noise cancellation headphones can achieve. There was a noticeable difference in the amount of noise we could hear, with the headphones cutting off much of the droning sound in our typical environments, including the hum of the air-conditioning in our office and traffic sounds when outside.
However, the starkness of the silence wasn't quite the same as we have experienced when using the Sony WH-1000XM3 and Bose QC35 II headphones; we could still hear a bit of the sound that should ideally have been muted, albeit very softly. If active noise cancellation quality is important to you and you can stretch your budget, we'd recommend the Sony WH-1000XM3 over the Sony XB-900N for this reason.
The Sony WH-XB900N isn't quite as capable as the WH-1000XM3 in some small ways, but is practically as good when it comes to factors that matter most. Sound quality is excellent for a number of reasons, including good drivers, proper tuning, and support for advanced Bluetooth codecs. Furthermore, these headphones are comfortable to wear, and the extra bass on offer can be a lot of fun, depending on the music you listen to.
Active noise cancellation, while not the best we've heard, is still very good for the price of the Sony WH-XB900N. If you're okay with the slight fatigue that the boosted bass brings, and the not-perfect noise cancellation, the Sony WH-XB900N is a capable no-frills alternative to the flagship WH-1000XM3, and is, by a large margin, our favourite pair of headphones priced below Rs. 20,000 today.
Price: Rs. 16,990
Ratings (out of 5)