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Sony's newest headphones eased my XM5 envy with all-day comfort and plenty of bass

Sony's Ult Wear 1 headphones punch well above their price point with rich audio and technology found in premium-tier devices.
Written by Jada Jones, Associate Editor
Sony ULT Wear headphones on a MacBook Air
Jada Jones/ZDNET

ZDNET's key takeaways

  • Sony's Ult Wear headphones debut with a novel audio feature and are perfect for anyone looking for an everyday pair of headphones for $200.
  • An enjoyable sound, all-day comfort, and premium software features and design elements set these headphones apart from others in the same price range.
  • You can only access higher-quality Bluetooth codecs and spatial audio technology if you have a compatible device or music streaming platform.

It's official – premium headphones are out, and mid-range headphones are in. At least, that's my opinion, as many big-name consumer audio brands have beefed up their midrange headphones catalog with impressive offerings. 

Nowadays, a $200 pair of headphones can sound, feel, and look just as good as a $400 pair, and Sony's latest Ult Wear headphones fit that ticket as one of the coolest mid-range pairs on the market. The all-new headphones borrow audio, design, and noise-canceling features found in the company's high-end flagship 1000X-series of headphones, but flaunt a more accessible price. 

Also: The best over-ear headphones: Expert tested and reviewed

When I think of Sony headphones, I envision warm sound, a utilitarian design, and a high level of functionality. The Ult Wear have all those things, plus a fun feature that other Sony models lack, which I'll touch on in a moment. These headphones might be your next best option if you're considering buying the XM5 but can't justify the price. So what makes the Ult Wear so impressive?

View at Sony

First, let me clarify that this review covers Sony's over-ear headphones, in case the suspiciously simple product name confused you. You may have noticed that Sony stopped naming its products after a seemingly-random string of letters and numbers. That alone should show you that these headphones exhibit a fresh, new vibe from Sony, and I like it.

Now, let's talk about sound. The Ult Wear's 40mm drivers convey Sony's standard warm, bass-forward sound properties. In the upper range, treble reproduction is bright and clear without being too harsh on the ears. This out-of-the-box sound makes bass-heavy genres like hip-hop and EDM electrifying and exciting while keeping lead vocals and instruments at center stage.

When I listened to Tame Impala's Is It True, the groovy bassline was present, heavy, and full of energy. The lead singer's vocals and the quirky synth sounds in the upper midrange were transparent, clean, and highly enjoyable.

Perhaps the most impressive element of the Ult Wear headphones' audio is called Ult Power Sound, a new feature Sony implemented into its line of newly released audio products. At the push of a button, the headphones automatically adjust their sound to provide deeper, richer bass, which Sony says is "designed to make the heart tremble." 

I love deep, rumbly, almost obnoxious bass, so this feature piqued my interest, but that's also because I've seen it before. I have to be fair; Skullcandy did the whole "bass you can feel" thing first with the Skullcrusher ANC 2 headphones. However, I will admit – Sony did it better.

Sony ULT Wear headphones on a MacBook Air
Jada Jones/ZDNET

With a push of the holographic Ult button on the left ear cup, the music you're listening to receives considerable depth, delivering boomy bass you can feel at the base of your ears. Sony's Ult Power Sound is much easier to tame than Skullcandy's Crusher Bass, but it's still intense and requires some EQ tweaking to avoid significant muddying of the midrange.

Additionally, Ult Power Sound has Sony's high-quality audio technology on its side, and despite a heavier bass presence, harmonic layers and minute details don't get lost in the mix.

Sony lent its high-performing V1 chip from its 1000X-series headphones to the Ult Wear, which offers effective noise-canceling technology in their own right. Sony used this same chip in its more affordable WH-CH720N headphones, but the Ult Wear have significantly better noise-canceling properties.

Also: The best noise-canceling earbuds: Expert tested and reviewed

In the Sony Headphones app, you can toggle between noise-canceling and transparency modes, and I found the Ult Wear's noise-canceling effectiveness to be on par with noise-canceling headphones in the $300 range, like the Bose QC45. However, activating the noise-canceling or transparency mode does significantly alter the sound quality. This phenomenon is typical for headphones in this price range – even for Sony.

Sony ULT Wear headphones on a MacBook Air
Jada Jones/ZDNET

The Ult Wear have a premium design, blending the simplistic design of the XM5 headphones with the functional elements of the XM4 headphones. They have roomy, plush oval ear cups made of polyurethane leather and are very comfortable. Their build is primarily plastic, aside from the metal headband extenders. A wholly plastic build is typical in this price range, which ultimately makes these headphones incredibly lightweight.

Also: These $99 Sony headphones are almost as good as the XM5 for less than half the price

Tap and swipe controls on the right ear cup dictate volume and track skips, and these headphones have wear detection and external ear cup microphones for wind noise reduction.  Sony also includes a 3.5mm cable, USB-A to USB-C charging cable, and a sturdy cloth-covered carrying case with your purchase. Not bad for $200.

ZDNET's buying advice

The Sony Ult Wear headphones are ideal for commuters, frequent flyers, and anyone who enjoys a good bass kick. Sony headphones usually have a bass-forward sound, so if other Sony headphones already have enough bass for you, the Ult Wear may be too much.

If you want a great-sounding pair of Sony headphones without the extra bass, consider the Sony WH-CH720N. If you're looking for headphones with a neutral sound and adequate noise-canceling properties, try the Sennheiser Accentum Plus.

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