A Quick Rundown of Sony’s Different Headphone and Audio Technologies

Sony loves their weird acronyms. But what do they *mean*?

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“close up photo of audio mixer” by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash

ver the last few years, Sony has made a real push into the mainstream and high- end headphone and audio markets. They’ve developed several portable players, noise-cancellation systems, and wireless headphones.

In the process, they’ve also developed, patented, and trademarked a number of technologies. In grand Sony fashion, they all have names that are incomprehensible on the surface, and it’s impossible to know what they do without digging through random support sites and promotional videos.

Well, I like to go look through all that stuff, so here, in no particular order, is a breakdown of Sony’s current audio technologies and what they actually do for the consumer.

WHAT’S A DSP?

Most of these technologies rely on DSP, or “digital signal processing,” to in some way affect the audio. They’re essentially a collection of software programs running on a tiny chip inside your device adding enhancements to your audio in as close to real-time as possible.

Whether you actually find then enhancing or not is going to be down to personal taste.

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“worm's eye-view photography of ceiling” by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash

DIGITAL/ “AI” NOISE CANCELLATION

First developed a couple of years ago alongside the original H.ear On headphone lineup, this is Sony’s cheaper noise-cancellation software.

You’ll find it inside many of their mid-range wireless headphones, like the WH-CH700N, the XB950N1, and the WH-H900N.

Yes, those are the names of real headphones. Ugh.

Unlike their more advanced Sense Engine system, the Digital/AINC system (it goes by both names) isn’t the most powerful cancellation system on the market. It won’t aggressively block out ambient audio, but it still does a decent job, and it still automatically scans your current sound environment while you listen and changes seamlessly between different pre-built profiles to try and compensate. Unlike their other system, there’s no user input or control, hence the “AI” they sometimes use in the name.

Why might you want this cheaper system aside from the fact that it costs less? Well, it has almost none of the sometimes-unpleasant ear pressure or hissing noises that can result from more intense systems. Noise cancellation beams additional sound into your ear cups to try and cancel out the environment, and the more powerful systems can exert physical pressure on the ear drums of some listeners, depending on how sensitive your ears are.

The performance of the AINC system is about 20 percent less effective Sony’s flagship technology, but if you don’t need the best of the best it’s still quite good, and still able to adapt to different sound environments. I’ve owned multiple headphones that use it and I’ve always been surprised by the results, for the price. It’s come a long way in the last few years.

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“woman sleeping on white textile” by Jessica Flavia on Unsplash

SENSE ENGINE

Sony’s flagship noise-cancellation technology, featured in the 1000X lineup of headphones. This system is able to measure your ear with sonar-like pulses, measure for any breaks in the seal of the pad around your head to compensate for things like glasses or hair, and actively measure the level of audio in your ambient environment to increase or decrease noise reduction accordingly in near real-time.

It’s the most advanced noise cancellation system available on the market today, and its level of reduction is absurd. If you ever have the chance to check it out, even at a demo kiosk, I highly encourage trying it.

I suspect that it’s also the result of some of Bose’s long-held patents on ANC technology expiring a few years ago, which allowed Sony to push their research in directions that they might not have otherwise been able to legally pursue.

Yes, it’s going to exert a little more pressure on your ears than Sony’s other system, but the level of noise reduction will be worth it if you need the absolute best-of-the-best.

Sony has been iterating both of these ANC technologies on a yearly basis for a while now, and it’s clear that they’re trying to push Bose and others right out of the market.

No one else has two different mature noise-cancellation systems in play across a range of products.

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“white disc on laptop computer disc player” by Chris Yates on Unsplash

DSEE/ DSEE HX

These are both different names for essentially the same thing, Sony’s Digital Sound Enhancement Engine. This is an upscaling algorithm they use to try and “add detail” to compressed streaming or wireless audio.

I say “add detail” in quotation marks because there’s no real way to do that once it’s been removed.

DSEE adds a bit of emphasis to the high frequencies in your music, and it also very gently artificially expands the soundstage. It also sometimes applies a modest digital correction to further refine the tuning of certain Sony headphones.

It’s why some of their headphones sound a little punchier or more impressive when powered on.

I like the way that DSEE sounds, but it’s not going to be to everyone’s taste. It’s free of the obvious artifacting or harshness that other “enhancement” software can sometimes create.

Fortunately, most of Sony’s modern lineup lets you turn off this feature if you don’t like it, through their mobile app. I’d prefer it if there was more direct control on the headphones themselves, but it’s better than nothing.

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Photo by Leo Wieling on Unsplash

S-MASTER HX

This is the name of Sony’s digital headphone amp system…and I have no idea what the deal with the name actually is or who/what the “S-MASTER” is.

Basically, it’s a headphone amp that’s built into some of their devices, and unlike some audio chains that use a mix of digital and analog parts, the S-MASTER system keeps things in the digital domain until the very end of the chain where it hits your speakers or headphones.

Does this make things better? By itself, not necessarily. But Sony does a lot of DSP-trickery inside their S-MASTER products to, once again, make audio “sound better.” Unlike the DSEE function, you usually can’t turn the S-MASTER tweaks off since they’re built into the amplifying device at the hardware level.

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“grayscale photography of full size wireless headphones on textile” by John Soo on Unsplash

LDAC

LDAC is Sony’s proprietary Bluetooth Audio Codec, designed to conquer the problem of Bluetooth audio quality by throwing a whole lot more data and bandwidth at the problem. You’ll find it inside Sony’s high-end audio gear lineup.

Does it make a big audible difference? Well, just like the S-MASTER, no, not on its own. In fact, you’ll have to listen very closely to discern a difference, and as with all transmission systems, the quality of the original mix will make the biggest difference. LDAC is for folks that must absolutely have the best quality wireless audio, no matter the cost. And it allows for easier Bluetooth transmission of higher bitrate audio without any additional compression.

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“black speaker on table” by Paul Esch-Laurent on Unsplash

WHAT DO THE HEADPHONE NAMES *MEAN*?

Sony has a history of putting a lot of weird letters at the front of their headphones, but sometimes those letters actually mean something!

MDR- This stands for “Micro Dynamic Receiver,” and it’s basically referring to the little dynamic speaker driver used to create audio inside the headphones. You’ll still see this acronym used in a lot of Sony products that contain small speakers, though lately you’ll also see…

WH- As far as I can tell, this one just means “Wireless Headphone.”

Yeah. I know, right?

If you see an “N” in a Sony headphone name, it most likely means that model is like a previous model, but it now includes Noise Cancelling.

This is true across their whole lineup…except for the new WH-1000XM3 which doesn’t contain the letter N.

Sigh.

My favorite name for the 1000X series was the name of the first one: MDR-1000X. It was borderline simple compared to some of the tongue twisters Sony’s audio department cranks out now.

FINAL THOUGHTS

I wish that Sony would drop all these acronyms and just go with real-world names for everything. Every year or so, I have to re-look-up what these things mean so I can remember the difference between DSEE and S-MASTER again.

While that’s fun for me and leads to a night of coffee drinking and headphone geekery, it’s probably not fun for everyone, so that’s why I compiled this article. Happy listening.

Written by

I do radio voice work by day, and write by day and night. I studied film and production. I love audio, design, and music. Also video games.

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