I'm not one of those New Yorkers who enjoys walking around with large headphones, especially noise-canceling cans. Situational awareness is an important thing when you're dodging pedestrians, traffic and the daily surprises of city life. Typically, I just stroll with a pair of wireless earbuds, wearing just the one in my left ear. I felt less anxious moving around town with the 1000XM3, though, since its ambient sound modes did a fantastic job of bringing in outside noise.
You can access it by hitting a button on the left ear or by jumping into Sony's Connect mobile app, which lets you adjust how much external sound you let in. There's also a handy option to focus on voices, which is useful if you're wearing the headphones in a noisy office but still need to hear when a colleague is trying to get your attention. And if you don't want to deal with changing the settings constantly, there's Adaptive Sound Control, which tweaks the noise cancellation based on your environment. It usually reduces all noise when you're sitting still but lets in ambient sound once you start walking around.
Sony's app also lets you customize the noise cancellation to your ear profile by playing back a series of tones while you're wearing the headphones. And it can also tweak the feature based on your current atmospheric pressure, which should make it work even better on planes. I'll be honest: it's tough to tell if those app tweaks actually improved things. But it was enough of a placebo to make me think the headphones were actually custom-tuned for me. You can also integrate Google Assistant into the 1000XM3 through Sony's app, which turns the noise-canceling button on the side of the left earcup into an Assistant prompt. While the feature works fine, I prefer having sound controls within easy reach. If Sony really wants to go all in with Google Assistant, it should at least have a dedicated button.
Sony claims the 1000XM3 gets 30 hours of battery life, and that's not far off from my testing. It survived my flight to Berlin as well as several more days of constant use without needing a recharge. Sony also added a USB-C port for charging, which is convenient if you're already gathering devices supporting that new standard. If you have a well-powered USB-C connection (or Sony's AC adapter), the headphones will have five hours of charge after just 10 minutes.
Bose has long been the king of noise-canceling headphones, but Sony has put up a good fight over the years with the 1000XM line. This latest iteration is the knockout punch Sony needs (especially since Bose is still struggling to combine decent noise cancellation with high-quality sound in its headphones). The biggest downside with the 1000XM3 is its $350 price tag. That's the same as Bose's latest QuietComfort, so at least it's competitive. If you want something that's almost as good, though, take a look at Sony's h.ear on 2 headphones. They're not as comfortable as the 1000XM3, but you can find them refurbished for less than $150.
Based on its fit and sound quality alone, the WH-1000XM3 is one of the best headphones I've ever used. But the addition of killer noise-canceling integration also makes it one of the most useful pieces of gear you can have. During one particularly busy morning on my Brooklyn block, the 1000XM3 helped me keep my sanity as a semi-truck and a row of cars honked outside my window for half an hour. It didn't completely drown out the noise, but it reduced the truck's horn from ear-piercing to minor nuisance. And once I started playing music, I was able to ignore it entirely. Sometimes it's just nice to have instant quiet on demand.