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Sony INZONE H9 review: The XM5 of gaming headphones

Sony's new INZONE H9 borrows the best features from its WH1000-XM5 sibling to create the ultimate gaming counterpart.
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Written by June Wan, Tech Editor on
Pros
  • Spatial sound is precise and gives a competitive advantage
  • Lightweight and comfortable design
  • Digital noise canceling is satisfyingly effective
  • INZONE Hub software is rich in settings
Cons
  • Plastic frame feels cheap
  • Earpads are not the most sweat-resistant
  • Mic quality is mid-tier
  • No wired option

In the electronics industry, we often see manufacturers branch into new markets by leveraging their existing products and tech. Samsung's done it with the Odyssey line. LG's done it with UltraGear. And now, it's Sony's turn. Sort of.

While the gaming sector isn't uncharted territory for the PlayStation maker -- and Sony has released a number of gaming monitors that we'd love to forget -- the company's new arm, dubbed INZONE, ushers in a new class of hardware dedicated to PC and PS5 users.

First to release under the INZONE namesake is a trio of headphones: H3, H7, and H9. Priced at $99, $229, and $299 respectively, the three headsets marry the best features of Sony's top-selling WH1000-XM5 with aesthetics that PlayStation users will feel at home with.

I spent the past two weeks testing the highest-end model, INZONE H9, putting it through rounds of first-person shooters (FPS) like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, third-person shooters like Fortnite, and other genres that include NBA 2K22, Fall Guys, and League of Legends. Here's how the new Sony headphones fared. 

Specifications

H9

H7

H3

Noise-canceling

Digital and ambient sound

N/a

N/a

Headband material

Soft fit leather

Plastic

Plastic

Battery life

32 hours

40 hours

Wired

Connection

Wireless (2.4GHz) or Bluetooth

Wireless (2.4GHz) or Bluetooth  

Wired USB

Compatibility

PC and PlayStation 5 (PS5)

PC and PS5

PC and PS5 

Price

$299

$229

$99


Design

At first glance, the H9 looks like a fancier, beefier version of another Sony headset, the PlayStation PULSE 3D. From the two-tone finish to the frosted white shell that surrounds the sides and top of the headband, the new INZONE headphones look new but feel familiar. All three models are only available in this classic Sony white, which plays well in any PS5 setup. I don't fault Sony for sticking with the one colorway, especially for its first product under the INZONE brand. 

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The H9's two-tone finish deviates from the flashy looks of competing headsets.

June Wan/ZDNet

Take a closer look at the H9 headphones and you'll also notice some design elements from Sony's WH-1000XM5. From the 10-click slider for height adjustment to the soft fit leather that dresses the earcups, Sony has taken what's worked in the mass market and applied it to the H9. (Note that the soft-fit leather material is only available on the H9 model. The H7 and H3 use a blend of PU leather and plastic instead.) When not in use, the headphones can rotate inwards and be laid face-down, just like the XM5. 

However, I've found myself laying the headphones face-up more often than not. Unfortunately, there are no holes or perforations on the earcup cushions, so they're not as breathable as a standard mesh material. That means that with just an hour of gameplay, there's a noticeable amount of sweat and moisture that needs to be wiped off the soft-touch fabric. I can't even imagine what longer gaming sessions entail. 

Over-ear headphones are the antithesis of glasses-wearers due to their encapsulating nature and pressure that pushes against the head. Add on the number of hours that gamers spend online and you have a recipe for headaches (and a stylish dent in your hair). Sony alleviates the side pressure issue by prioritizing the headband support more than how tight-fit the earcups are. The headband, which features a flexible strip of black leather, does an effective job of being a counterweight to the rather large earcups. As someone who wears glasses, I can attest to how comfortable and cloud-like the headphones feel. 

More: Sony leaps into PC gaming hardware with new INZONE line of monitors and headsets

sony-inzone-h9-height-adjustment

Look familiar? The slider is nearly identical and functional to that of the WH-1000XM5.

June Wan/ZDNet

Like the XM5, the H9's shell is built with a lightweight plastic that, while sustainable, lacks the premium essence of a $299 headset. It's natural for us to associate weight with value (think gold bars), but the choice of material here is questionable. Had I not known the price of the H9, I would've estimated it to be between $100-$150 by the hand feel alone. 

Perhaps what's more important is how durable the H9 is. I don't expect the headphones to show much wear or tear after two weeks of use and that's certainly been the case. The white finish makes scratches, if any, unnoticeable, and the ear cup cushions remain springy. These headphones are not certified for dust or water resistance though, so I would stay cautious of leaving drinks nearby.

More: Sony WH-1000XM5 brings more comfort and better ANC

sony-inzone-h9-buttons

There are a total of 5 buttons on the bottom side, along with a USB-C port and volume rocker. 

June Wan/ZDNet

On the bottom of the headphones, you'll find the power button, Bluetooth pairing button, "NC/AMB" toggle, "Game/Chat" toggle, USB-C port, and volume rocker. An LED charging indicator sits beside the USB-C, given that's the ports only function. The H9 can pair to a PC or PS5 via the included 2.4GHz USB dongle or Bluetooth, but there is no wired option. 

Lastly, a boom mic that stems from the left earcup completes the gaming headset requirements for the H9. It's not detachable but is malleable enough to twist, rotate, and flex to your ideal microphone position. Sony also added a clicking mechanism to the mic so that when you lift it back up, your audio output switches to mute. As for the input quality, there's definitely something left to be desired. On either connection channel, my voice sounded raspy and lacking in clarity. The H9's microphone isn't the worst that I've tested but falls behind the likes of the Corsair Virtuoso and Audio-Technica ATH-G1

Performance

The best way for me to describe the sound quality of the H9 headphones is rich and multi-dimensional. I was surprised to find the default sound profile of the H9 to be adequate and balanced just right. But if you're more in favor of a bass-heavy sound or want to emphasize the higher frequencies, Sony's companion software, INZONE Hub, lets you tweak the equalizer settings of the headphones. More on the app later.

Spatial Sound

A key selling point of all three INZONE headsets is Spatial Sound, Sony's interpretation of surround sound. For music listening and watching movies, Spatial Sound matches the audio to where subjects are positioned and the direction they're headed. (Imagine hearing a car zipping from your right headphone to the left.) This feature isn't new by any means, but it's one of the most realistic and accurate audio-tracking technology that I've listened to in a while -- and is fully realized when you start gaming.

Sony says that the INZONE H9 works best with FPS games like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, so that's where I headed first in my testing. In the game, maps like Inferno and Mirage have plenty of obstacles and houses, meaning spatial awareness plays a significant role in surviving. With Spatial Sound turned on, the direction of gunshots and footsteps became so easy to distinguish that I felt like I was cheating.

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There's a delightful blue ring that glows when the H9 is turned on.

June Wan/ZDNet

The same mechanic was demonstrated when I played Fortnite, a cross-platform battle royale that emphasizes knowing where your enemies are and catching them when they're most vulnerable. Between listening to footsteps to chests being opened, the H9's Spatial Sound made a Fortnite amateur such as myself feel confident enough to strike the unsuspecting. That said, while Sony recommends the H9 for FPS titles, I'd highly suggest third-person shooters as well, as the 360-degree camera panning adds another dimension to the audio tracking. 

More: Best gaming headsets

Noise canceling

Another feature that Sony touts is Digital Noise Canceling, which is exclusive to the highest-end INZONE model. While I don't have the WH-1000XM5 to compare with, Sony says that the H9 uses the same noise-canceling technology that's on the fifth-generation headset. 

From listening, the H9 certainly does an effective job at blocking out ambient noise and keeping you focused on in-game audio. There's only one level to the noise cancellation which, in my home office, managed to cover up the sound of my air conditioner, the reverberant barks of my neighbor's dogs, and the occasional plane that lifts off from the airport miles away.  

What's particularly impressive to me is how the white noise -- generally used to counteract inbound soundwaves -- is hardly noticeable. On cheaper noise-canceling headphones, you'll hear a hissing sound when there's no audio playing. That's fortunately not been the case with the H9.

sony-inzone-h9-side2

An external mic helps to combat incoming ambient sounds.

June Wan/ZDNet

Reversely, the INZONE H9 also has an Ambient Sound feature that amplifies external noise, while keeping your in-game audio intact. This is especially useful if a family or friend is calling you while you're gaming, or you just want to stay aware of what's happening around you. During my in-person briefing for the H9, a Sony representative spoke to me about its various features while I tested the headset. To my surprise, I was able to comprehend what the product person was saying without missing out on the gameplay.

More: Best noise-canceling headphones

Connection features

Bouncing between the 2.4GHz and Bluetooth connections, there wasn't any noticeable delay or problems with latency, which is great for a wireless-only headset. In fact, Sony encourages pairing the H9 to both the USB dongle and Bluetooth simultaneously; using one channel for game sound and the other for voice chat.

If you're pairing the H9 to a PlayStation 5, you'll even gain support for Tempest 3D Audiotech and on-screen indicators for volume and battery levels, mic status, and game/chat balance. Note that the overlays are only available for the H9 and H7 models.

Software

Beyond the scope of physical settings buttons, the H9 can be modified via Sony's INZONE Hub. As companion apps should, the program allows you to fine-tune the equalizer settings of the headset, its noise-canceling modes and strength, volume levels for the master channel and game/chat channel, and more. The Spatial Sound setting is turned off by default, so make sure you toggle it to get the immersive gaming experience that I praised earlier.

sony-inzone-hub-software
June Wan/ZDNet

INZONE Hub is delightfully exhaustive, with additional settings for app sync and Sony's 360 Spatial Sound Personalizer. The latter of which is an app that lets you capture images of your ears so that the H9 headset can adjust its sound profile to your shape. It's a magical service that makes the INZONE experience all the more user-focused. The only issue that I had with the 360 Spatial Sound Personalizer was how it paired seamlessly with my Android device, but took multiple attempts on an iPhone. That seems to be a reoccurring issue based on other users' reviews. 

Battery

The INZONE H9 is rated for 32 hours of battery life, which is on par with the 30-hour range of competing gaming headsets. After using the headphones for two weeks -- hovering between noise-canceling and Ambient Sound for two hours a day -- INZONE Hub estimates that I have 1/5 of the battery left. That's sufficient enough for an ANC headset. My only complaint is that there's no way to see the actual battery percentage, not even in the software. 

sony-inzone-h9-handle

A blue LED ring glows when the H9 is turned on or in pairing mode. 

June Wan/ZDNet

Bottom line

There's a lot to like about the INZONE H9, including its sound performance, clean design, and software support. It helps immensely that Sony carried over key features from its WH1000-XM line, including the same noise-canceling tech that earned the XM5 a top spot on ZDNet's headset rankings

Is this the perfect gaming headset? Almost. I'd love to see Sony implement some form of vibrational feedback in the INZONE H9, much like Razer's HyperSense technology on its high-end headphones. That, paired with the PS5's DualSense controller would make the H9 the undisputed accessory to buy for PlayStation owners. 

Alternatives to consider

The Sony INZONE H9 is priced to compete, which means there are plenty of formidable alternatives that you may also want to consider: 

If you're seeking a flagship gaming headset that supports a wired connection, check out the HyperX Cloud Alpha S. Currently sitting atop ZDNet's best gaming headset list, the Cloud Alpha S delivers a surround sound experience that rivals that of the Sony INZONE H9.

Like the Sony, the SteelSeries Arctis Nova Pro is a wireless gaming headset that comes with dual connectivity, fully customizable audio, and noise cancelation. It's also built with a steel frame finish that gives it a more premium feel.

Before there was INZONE, there was the Pulse 3D, a wireless headset dedicated to PlayStation 5 users. The headset is significantly cheaper at $99, supports Sony Tempest 3D, and sports a design that is arguably cleaner than the H9.

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