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Sony WH-CH720N review: Budget-friendly headphones with premium sound

Great audio and a comfy fit make these a compelling, affordable option.

Photo by Billy Steele/Engadget

Sony has a great track record when it comes to budget headphones. The company’s WH-CH710N were excellent, but overpriced initially. Sony made them an incredible value at $150 after it cut the price shortly after their debut in 2020. Great sound quality, capable ANC, good battery life and a comfy fit made the WH-CH710N a compelling, affordable alternative to the premium WH-1000XM3, which was the company’s flagship model at the time. Earlier this year, the company debuted the follow-up to that three-year-old set: the WH-CH720N.

On paper, the 2023 edition should keep Sony’s reputation for solid mid-range and budget headphones as alternatives to the pricey WH-1000XM5. The WH-CH720N houses the same V1 chip from the M5, which powers both active noise cancellation (ANC) and overall sound quality. There’s also an updated design and a lower price following another early cut ($130), but battery life remains the same at 35 hours. So, is the WH-CH720N another mid-range hit for Sony?

Sony

Sony has been king of the headphone heap for a while with its 1000X line, but the company is staking its claim on the mid-range too.

Pros
  • Affordably priced
  • Lightweight and comfy
  • Great sound quality
  • Some handy features
Cons
  • ANC struggles in certain environments
  • Lots of plastic
  • No automatic pausing
  • Advanced features reserved for pricier models
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Let’s start with the design. The WH-CH720N takes cues from Sony’s more recent 1000X headphones and the WH-XB910N, primarily the headband and ear cup hinges. The outside of the ear cups are flatter and they’re just hard plastic – no soft-touch material here. Like previous mid-range Sony models, the WH-CH720N has physical controls with a power/pairing button on the left beside the USB-C charging port and 3.5mm jack. On the right side, there’s a dedicated noise canceling button that cycles between ANC and transparency mode. There’s also the typical three-button array with volume controls flanking the multi-function track and call button. That center control also summons your preferred voice assistant. While the buttons work reliably, the raised dash on the middle button is low, so it’s difficult to place your thumb quickly.

Like the WH-CH710N, this new model is supremely lightweight and comfy. I can easily wear these for hours at a time. There’s also ample cushioning in the ear pads and the headband hinge isn’t wound so tight it pinches my head. I liked a lot of what the 710N had to offer, but overall comfort was near the top of the list, so it’s great to see that Sony didn’t overlook this aspect when designing the follow-up version. The only real issue is that it uses a lot of plastic. While this helps keep the weight down, it also ensures the 720N look decidedly cheap.

The suite of features for the WH-CH720N inside the Sony Headphones app is where you’ll notice key differences from the WH-1000XM5. Most notably, the 720N doesn’t have Speak-to-Chat, a feature that automatically pauses audio when it detects you’re talking. Related, this new model also doesn’t have automatic pausing when you take them off your head.

Sony has been king of the headphone heap for a while with its 1000X line, but the company is staking its claim on the mid-range too. With the WH-CH720N, the company continues its track record of great sound quality and a comfy fit in a set of more affordable headphones. You’ll have to forgo some premium features, but there’s still plenty to like here.

Despite a few omissions, there are still some handy tools available. First, Adaptive Sound Control allows the app to automatically adjust settings based on your location or activity. This allows you to turn on ANC when you arrive at the office or activate transparency mode when you start a run, for example. Here, and in the general sound settings, you can specify a level of ambient sound and choose to pipe in voices while this mode is active.

Additionally, Sony offers an EQ slider for manual adjustments as well as a separate bass adjustment. There’s also a collection of audio presets if you’re in a hurry. 360 Reality Audio is available on the WH-CH720N (with a compatible streaming subscription) and the app gives you the option of DSEE upscaling to improve compressed content. The app also allows you to activate multipoint Bluetooth for two devices and a Safe Listening feature is there to help preserve your hearing.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the WH-CH710N was the overall sound quality. I was amazed at what Sony managed in a set of headphones that cost half as much as its flagship model. There was ample bass with an open soundstage and great clarity in the details. Thankfully, the WH-CH720N is more of the same. These headphones allow the subtleties of boygenius’ the record to shine, from the somber guitar effects to the quieter keyboard/organ parts of songs like “True Blue.” There are lots of more subdued parts on the record that you can easily pick up on. The fingerpicked acoustic guitar and banjo on “Cool About It” are also quite dynamic and textural.

Heavier, more chaotic genres fare just as well. Better Lovers’ gritty, thrashy metal track “30 Under 13” is quite a ride. Even the fastest, grindiest riffs are captured with surprising clarity. All the instruments stand on their own, and at no point do they become a smashed together mess. The dynamics of tracks like O’Brother’s “Halogen Eye'' also come through well. There’s plenty of grainy, thick distortion on the verses and these headphones get every bit of that texture, in addition to reverb and other effects that create the band’s atmospheric, moody soundscape.

Lastly, on Nickel Creek’s Celebrants – a modern bluegrass record – the WH-CH720N allows you to feel like you’re in the room with the band. Helped in part by the positioning of the guitar, mandolin, fiddle and bass in the mix, the headphones keep the sensation of sitting in on a private performance rather than simply listening to a recorded track.

Sony has been king of the headphone heap for a while with its 1000X line, but the company is staking its claim on the mid-range too. With the WH-CH720N, the company continues its track record of great sound quality and a comfy fit in a set of more affordable headphones. You’ll have to forgo some premium features, but there’s still plenty to like here.

In terms of noise cancellation, I think the WH-CH720N are a slight step back from the 710N. The ANC will do just fine for you in most cases, especially with constant noise. However, these headphones really struggle with human voices, which doesn’t make them the best option if your primary aim is to block out a nearby phone call or chatty colleagues. Transparency mode offers a great natural sound that comes in especially handy when you’re taking video and voice calls. Speaking of calls, the 720N does a decent job blocking background noise and the overall audio quality makes you sound better than speakerphone and most earbuds. It’s not pristine, but it’s a cut above the status quo.

When it comes to battery life, Sony promises up to 35 hours with ANC on. During what I consider normal use – a mix of noise canceling and transparency mode for music and calls, plus powering off a few times overnight – the app showed 40 percent remaining after 28 hours. The Bluetooth menu in macOS backed this up. The company says you can expect up to 50 hours with ANC off, so my mixed-use trials were on par with that. Battery life estimates have never been a problem on Sony headphones and that’s not the case here either. Plus, 35 hours is on par with most flagship models these days, even if it’s the same figure as the previous model.

The WH-CH720N is a strong contender to replace the current budget pick in our best headphones guide, but if you need a solid alternative look to Audio-Technica. While the $79 M20xBT is our current low-cost selection, the M50xBT2 is a more apt comparison. The M50 doesn't offer active noise cancellation, but they do have a more refined design, physical controls and warm, inviting sound. If you don’t need extra help blocking out distractions, they’re currently available for $199 – $69 more than the 720N. Sony introduced the WH-CH520 alongside the WH-CH720N, which could be an option if you’re really pinching pennies. This on-ear model doesn’t have ANC either, but it does have 50-hour battery life and multipoint connectivity alongside onboard controls. What’s more, they’re only $50.

Sony has managed to build another compelling set of affordable noise-canceling headphones without cutting too many corners. Sure, there are some premium features you’ll have to live without, but the WH-CH720N covers the basics well. Good sound quality with specific attention to finer details and ample bass is combined with a handy transparency mode and automatic sound profile switching. The noise cancellation does a decent job, but it’s not the best, and you’ll have to make do without automatic pausing. Still, for well under $150, you’d be hard pressed to find a better option at this price.