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Sony MDR 1000X headphones

If you have $700 to spend, these Sony MDR-1000X headphones do a fine job cancelling noise.

Sony MDR-1000X at a glance

For: Excellent noise cancellation, seamless Bluetooth, first-class sound.
Against: Erratic touch controls.
Maybe: Features can complicate use.
Verdict:
Price: $700.
Website: Sony.

It would be easy to dismiss Sony’s marketing promise as hype. The company claims the MDR-1000X headphones deliver “industry-leading levels of noise-cancelling”. We’ve all heard words like that before. This time they may be true. If there are headphones with better noise cancellation, I’ve not heard them.

The MDR-1000X headphones do a fine job blocking the background noise. I tested them at home, in a noisy shared space and riding on public transport. I have yet to test them on an airplane, but am looking forward to the experience.

In each case they cut out a lot of noise. Our neighbours love power tools and leaf blowers. While the MDR-1000X headphones didn’t end the noise, they cut it to a dull drone. It meant I could listen to Mozart without grinding my teeth. They cut the buzz of a noisy shared office space to near silence and worked well on a bus ride.

You can choose to listen to music or enjoy the near silence. I also tested them to listening to a podcast.

If you choose music, they will surprise and delight you. The sound is wonderful. Although you’d expect that from $700 headphones.

Sony says its DSEE HX audio processing technology can boost the quality of compressed music. It’s another bold claim, usually when technology messes around with sound you lose as much as you gain. That’s not the case here, there is no booming over-cooked bass or too much brightness. Both can be annoying when a speaker or headphone maker adds them.

Listen in comfort

The build quality is impressive. The MDR-1000X look good and feel solid. Sony decided not to pimp their look with anything tasteless. You could wear these in an office or the Koru Club without feeling like a dork.

Sony designed the headphones so they stay comfortable if you wear them for a long time, say on a long-distance flight. There’s foam padding to help keep more noise out. If you like, it’s a passive version of the active noise cancellation. The padding also keep your ears from rubbing against hard surfaces. The headphones sit on your head, there’s no clamping sensation.

Sony MDR-1000x

When they’re not in use the MDR-1000X fold for storage. They come with a hard protective case to make that even easier.

Bluetooth performance

There’s a jack socket so you can connect the headphones to devices with a wire. The box also includes an adaptor for airplane-style audio sockets. But most people and all iPhone 7 owners will turn to Bluetooth.

Bluetooth audio connections can be flakey. I found the MDR-1000X to be more reliable than most connections once connected. They did run into problems when I had many Bluetooth devices to choose from. If, say, you connect the headphones to the iPhone, changing to the iPad is far from easy.

Sony packed useful Bluetooth device controls into the headphones in a clever way. You can swipe up and down on the right headphone to raise or lower the music volume. Swiping from front to back and in reverse will skip one track forward or backward. Tapping the centre pauses music. The swipe commands work well, the pause-tap action takes practice.

Pause for thought

Another gesture command turns off the noise-cancellation. You hold your hand against the right ear to do this. You may want to do this if someone wants to speak to you. The action turns the outside speakers on. They then relay the speech without you needing to take the headphones off.

On one level the feature is impressive, but how lazy do you have to be to not take headphones off?

There are buttons on the left headphone to control power, the noise cancellation feature and ambient noise. Finding them by feel is hard, but a disembodied voice tells you what’s going on.

There’s a charge port with a USB at the other end so you can pull power from almost anywhere. Sony says a full charge gives you twenty hours of noise cancellation. Confirming that is difficult, so we’ll have to take Sony’s word.

Sony uses optimising software that calibrates the headphones as you wear them. It takes into account the conditions around you and the way the headphones sit on your head.

Sony MDR-1000X verdict

At $700 the MDR-1000X are for serious buyers. They deliver on their promise. You get one of the best noise-cancelling experiences around and a great sound. The features are a nice balance of useful extras. I would buy these.

Sony Xperia XZ

The Sony Xperia XZ is a solid high-end Android phone with an excellent camera and great sound. 

Sony Xperia XZ at a glance

For: Great camera
High-definition audio
Water resistance
Clean software
Against: Generic design
Maybe: Chunky performance
Verdict: Solid Android contender, gets important things right
Price: NZ$1100
Website: Sony Xperia XZ

While Sony’s Xperia XZ is late to the 2016 party it gets a lot of things right. The phone isn’t as pretty as the Samsung Galaxy S7 or the Apple iPhone 7, but it gets all the basics right. And anyway, the Xperia XZ has enough of its own charms to keep Sony fans from switching brands.

Sony has always emphasised the cameras on its phones. The company made great digital cameras long before Steve Jobs stood on a stage with the first iPhone. That tradition is alive in the Xperia XZ. It packs a superb 23-megapixel rear camera. The camera draws on Sony’s experience and pulls technology from other parts of the business.

Sony Xperia XZ - Triple sensor camera
Triple sensor camera

Triple sensor camera

The Xperia XZ has the same 23-megapixel paper specification as last year’s Xperia Z5. But, the XZ camera comes with what Sony calls its triple sensor technology.

The first sensor is the main 23-megapixel sensor with built-in phase detection for auto-focus. Next to this is a laser range-finder that measures the distance to the main subject in the image. Knowing the distance helps the camera calculate AF speed and accuracy.

An RCBC-IR sensor measures colour values in the image. That helps to tune the white balance in the picture. Sony’s autofocus is predictive and can track moving subjects. There is also five-axis stabilisation.

The Xperia XZ uses Sony’s G lens which has a 24mm focal length and an F2.0 aperture. The phone camera can handle 4K resolution video, but you need to use one of the included apps to do this. When it comes to taking selfies or videoconferencing, the front camera has a 13-megapixel sensor with an F2.0 aperture. It can handle 1080p video.

A lot of camera technology

On paper the camera specification is impressive. In practice the Xperia XZ gets mixed results. Some of this is down to how you use the phone.

Although Sony automates everything, there are times when you need to override these settings. That requires a degree of fiddling that you wouldn’t find on, say, a digital SLR.

Sony’s laser focus is impressive. It is fast and accurate, yet if you shoot pictures of fast-moving objects you can still end up with blurring. The Xperia XZ does a great job with low-light conditions. This is important for journalists who often need to snap images in poor light.

Comparing camera results between phones is never easy. On balance the results are not always as good as you’d get from an Apple iPhone 7. Nor are they up to the standard of the Samsung Galaxy S7.

What you always get from the Xperia is incredible levels of detail without artifacts. And the camera is excellent with capturing colours.

The camera’s dynamic range isn’t always as impressive. But then that’s often a weak spot even with expensive digital SLRs. When it comes to shooting video, the Sony Xperia XZ is on a par with the best that Apple and Samsung can offer. At least in the limited testing done so far.

In practice the camera doesn’t always live up to the paper specification. And it isn’t consistent. At times the Xperia XZ manages detail and clarity that you couldn’t find on any other phone camera.

HD audio

Away from cameras, Sony’s other strength is audio. The Xperia XZ doesn’t disappoint in that department. It can play HD audio and lossless .flac files.

The phone’s stereo speakers pump out more volume than you might expect from a small device. The sound tends towards the treble end and there’s not much bass.

Headphones are another story. The sound is excellent.

As an added bonus, Sony offers a compatible noise cancelling headset. If you listen to a lot of music, this might be enough to get you over the line when making a buying decision.

Performance good, but…

Inside the case is a Snapdragon 820 processor, 3GB of RAM and 32GB internal storage. This is the standard specification for a high-end 2016 Android phone. It is nothing to sniff at. Yet the phone arrives at the tail-end of the year up to nine months after other phones with similar hardware. It’ll be more than enough for the near future, but could soon  look dated.

Battery life is another traditional Sony strength. Like other phones with a similar specification, you can expect a day from a single battery charge.

The 2,900mAh battery has a touch more capacity than other recent phones. But the hardware is more demanding.

Sony has a Stamina mode for when you want to cut back on the battery drain. There’s an Ultra Stamina mode when you want to push it futher again. You will notice the performance drops while these are in use.

Without conducting scientific tests, it feels as if the Xperia XZ lasts longer than a Galaxy S7.

Should you buy the Xperia XZ?

With a list price of NZ$1100, Sony is asking a premium price for the Xperia XZ. It’s lovely, yet people willing to pay that much may find another $100 and buy the better-equipped Samsung Galaxy S7. Or, you might choose to save a few hundred and buy the Huawei P9.

Sony has most things right with the Xperia XZ, but the phone market remains as competitive as ever. You’d need to be a Sony fan, need its photography features or want HD audio to choose the Xperia XZ over the Galaxy S7.

If you want to rock the house you need a big, heavy sub-woofer that moves a lot of air. The bad news is, car sound systems apart, it is hard to take big subwoofers with you. That’s where you might want Sony’s $300 SRS-XB3 speakers.

They are portable, battery-powered, Bluetooth speakers that can add respectable oomph-oomph at the bottom.

The front is a solid metal grill. On the top are buttons including one to use the SRS-XB3 as an over-powered speaker phone. The review model was dark blue. Sony offers a variety of colours, some are garish or as they say in the marketing world: fashionable.

Heavy, heavy monster sound

Each speaker is about the size of a supermarket packet of biscuits. They’re much heavier than biscuits, weighing-in at about 900 g. This weight is important. The extra heft is one reason the speakers can move enough air to do loud and low. It has the added advantage of stopping the speakers from jumping around while playing.

Sony packed a lot of battery into the case. That’s where some of the weight comes from. I can’t tell you how long the SRS-XB3 will play for on a single charge. I’ve used them for many hours over the past few days after only one initial charging session. Sony says they last for 24-hours on a charge. That seems plausible.

Buy two speakers and you can pair them for stereo. Sony only sent one, so I conducted my tests in glorious mono.

Electronic dance music

Sony says they’re ideal for electronic dance music — and they might be. It’s not my taste.

They do OK for other music styles too. to test the speaker I dug out some old, old Reggae to hammer out a heavy beat with a lot of bass. This works well in mono. Hell, some of the old Reggae tracks were only recorded in mono.

The sound is loud. You can crank one little speaker up to the point where neighbours might call the noise control patrol. It’s enough for a small party, but maybe not enough for a big house full of dancing, talking guests.

Thumping bass

If you hit the Extra Bass button you’ll get the full doof-doof effect. It’s not clear to me as a casual listener if hitting the button pumps up the bass volume. It could just change the internal equalisation setting to emphasise low notes. Either way, it thumps.

You have to like bass to enjoy the extra bass feature. You have to like it a lot. With some types of music you can hear bass distortion. There’s a notable touch of mid-range compression.

My usual Bluetooth speakers are a pair of Logitech Z600s. The Logitech speakers sound better than the SRS-XB3 for most of my music. If anything they take the edge off the bass and treble. I tried classical, jazz and blues and prefer how the Z600s sound. It’s a line-ball call on some flavours of rock music.

SRS-XB3 made by Sony

Remember, Sony made the SRS-XB3 for electronic dance music. That seems niche to me, but I’m not working for the marketing department of a large corporation.

Sony’s speaker has the advantage of portability over the Z600s. At the same time Sony might beat the Logitech’s on loudness. I say might because cranking both up to the top for comparison is antisocial. And at those volumes it is hard to hear which is louder.

Would I buy the Sony speakers? I’m not the customer Sony is aiming for. Sony optimised the speakers for a different sound to my normal listening. That said, they’d be great to take away to a bach or similar.

exhibition hall at Mobile World Congress

Barcelona’s Mobile World Congress is the telecommunications industry’s annual showcase and conference.

As the name says, the emphasis is on mobile technology. That’s where you’ll find today’s action. Everyone from consumers to small businesses to corporations depends on devices you can carry.

Apple wasn’t at MWC 2016, but every other technology company worth talking about was at the show. This makes it an ideal place to get a taste of where technology is heading.

If the device makers get their way, we’ll all be using more virtual reality. The devices were everywhere. At the moment they are no more than expensive toys and there’s little worthwhile VR content. The technology may take off, but don’t hold your breath.

Phone innovation stalls

One possible reason for the VR product surge is that phone makers have reached the end of the line with conventional devices.  This year’s crop of phones from the big brands offered little that is new or revolutionary. Screens were not bigger. They did not offer higher resolution. Most phones are still flat touch screen glass slabs with metal cases.

In almost every case, the changes were incremental with phone makers refining their wares.

Samsung, the world’s largest phone maker, used MWC to launch the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge models. Launch razzmatazz aside, there’s something tired and stale about the Galaxy S range. The phones offer little that’s new or exciting.

That doesn’t mean existing Samsung users won’t want to upgrade.

Samsung fixes shortcoming

From what I saw in Barcelona the new models were fixes correcting flaws in the lacklustre S6 models. Samsung’s Galaxy S7 phones have more rounded bodies. There are no sharp corners making them more comfortable in the hand. Samsung has restored the microSD slot — something many Galaxy fans missed in the S6.

Samsung says the new phones have bigger batteries than the S6 models. They need to be bigger, a busy S6 user might struggle to get past lunch time on a single charge.

None of this is groundbreaking.

There was no new phone buzz at the Samsung pavilion when I visited. The new models were only on show behind glass cases. Visitors appeared more interested in Samsung’s virtual reality products than in the phones.

While you can’t write Samsung off, it is clear we have gone past peak Galaxy. 

LG tries a different approach

The lethargy around Samsung contrasted with the hands-on excitement at LG’s stand. Demonstrators showed how the modular G5 can change features by snapping-in new capabilities. You can add a better camera, hi-fi sound or even something resembling a tiny robot.

A modular phone is a clever idea, but in its current form it feels like novelty for novelty’s sake.

Even so, this was the most radical phone innovation on show at MWC. It could put life back into LG which has struggled to make money from phones. Show visitors seemed interested in LG’s modular approach.

For me the curious aspect of this is that the underlying G5 is LG’s best every phone. I only had hands on for second, but I could get a lot more excited about owning the G5 than the Galaxy S7.

Sony: A new hope

Sony showed mid-range Xperia X and XA models. The phones I saw on the stand show a possible new direction.

Xperia X and XA phones have less heroic specifications than the flagship Xperia models with emphasis on camera and battery life. Sony says the phones will cost less than rival models although how that works in New Zealand isn’t clear. They’ll need to come in at less than NZ$800 to make an impact.

The market hasn’t been kind to Sony. The company loses money and there’s no obvious sign than will stop. Which is a pity because the Sony Xperia phones are a good choice for less geeky users. I suspect many Samsung Galaxy customers would have a better experience with a Sony phone.

HTC chooses VR

HTC’s phone losses are so bad I doubt we’ll see much more from this once-great brand. There were new midrange phones from HTC, but the emphasis was on the Vive virtual reality headset.

You couldn’t get close to the HTC stand for the crowds queuing to try the Vive. HTC sent a press release earlier this week saying Vive is available for pre-sale, whatever that means. You’ll need deep pockets HTC says it will cost US$950 in New Zealand. That includes GST but doesn’t include shipping — a strange way of telling us the price. At a guess that means you’ll need to pay around NZ$1500.

There were new phones from ZTE and Xiaomi at MWC. I ignored them as they are unlikely to make it to New Zealand, at least not through official channels.

Bill Bennett travelled to Mobile World Congress as Huawei’s guest. 

 

The Sony Xperia Z5 is a great flagship Android phone at a time when great is not enough to mean sales and profits.

Premium phones from brands not called Samsung or Apple struggle to stand out in a crowded market.

Sony hopes the fingerprint reader, camera and extended battery life in its Xperia Z5 will catch your eye. If that doesn’t work, then there’s always the marketing tie-up with the new James Bond Spectre movie[1].

Comparisons

Samsung and Apple both have fingerprint readers. Neither of them match Sony’s claim of two-day battery life, but that needs taking with a pinch of salt: electronic goods companies’ promises are often over-optimistic in this department.

Which brings us to the camera. On paper the Xperia Z5 camera has a higher specification than you’ll find in a Samsung or Apple phone.

The Xperia Z5 has a 23-megapixel Sony Exmor sensor. Samsung’s Galaxy S6 also uses an Exmor sensor, but there are just 16 megapixels. The iPhone 6S has a 12-megapixel sensor.

Megapixels, schmegapixels

A high number of megapixels isn’t always an advantage. It can mean individual sensors are smaller and get less light. The Xperia Z5’s 23 megapixels is far more than you need for most images, but it does make for worthwhile 5x digital zoom and practical oversampling.

Sony has solid experience with cameras and that shows as much in the software as the hardware.

At the phone launch in Auckland I got to play with the camera. Images showed great colour even in the poor light conditions during the product demonstrations. Focusing is fast, that’s immediately noticeable. We didn’t have time or suitable conditions to test the flash.

Although the Xperia Z5 gets good still pictures, that’s now par for the course with premium phones. I can’t think of any flagship phone I’ve seen in recent years that takes bad photos.

Killer video

A first sight, the Z5 shoots still pictures that are as good as you’ll get from an iPhone or Galaxy phone. When it comes to shooting video, the Xperia Z5 is a cut about the competition.

Software reduces camera shake for beautiful, clear moving images. The camera can record 4K video, but that means 1GB of data for every three minutes so you’ll need to use the SD card slot to store your movies.

One other feature that may tempt you to choose a Xperia Z5 over, say, a Samsung Galaxy or iPhone, is the built-in noise-cancelling technology. You have to spend another NZ$75 for proprietary ear buds to use the feature, but that’s a fraction of the NZ$400 or so you might pay for noise-cancelling headphones. It’s also a lot more convenient as there is no need for an extra power pack.

Sony has avoided the trap Samsung falls into and kept the Android software overlay to a minimum. I discussed this with the product manager who said the decision was in part to make it easy for customers to get future Android software upgrades.

Sony Xperia Z5 Spark exclusive

In New Zealand the Sony Xperia Z5 is a Spark exclusive. It sells for NZ$1200 outright and is also available on a plan.

There are two other Xperia Z5 models. The NZ$1000 Z5 compact is the same phone with a smaller 4.6 inch screen in place of the Z5’s 5.2 inch display. Spark sells it in New Zealand, but it’s not an exclusive.

At the time of writing Sony’s Xperia Z5 Premium is not officially on sale in New Zealand. It has a larger 5.5 inch 4K display, which boasts more than 800 pixels per inch. That’s far more than the eye can see, but you might plug the phone into a 4K display.

All three Sony Xperia Z5 phones are waterproof. They also all have fingerprint scanners on the side under the power button, not the front of the case. I’m told this means more room is given over to the display and that the fingerprint site makes the phone easier to use.

Overall, the Sony Xperia Z5 phones are excellent alternatives to Samsung and Apple models. They are the most competitive Sony phones to date. Sony offers interesting differences, especially noise cancelling audio. There’s enough here to tempt Android fans away from Samsung, at least for the next six months.


  1. I asked the Sony product manager and found that doesn’t mean you can kill people with one of these phones. ↩