Sony’s 350 wireless headphones join Bose as the gold standard in wireless noise-cancelling headphones
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- Sony’s WH-1000XM4 headphones are among the best wireless noise-cancelling headphones you can get in the 350 price range.
- They have excellent noise cancellation, phone call quality that cuts out a tremendous amount of ambient noise, great battery life, and amazing audio performance.
- If you’re not satisfied by the way they sound out of the box, you can use Sony’s Headphones app to tweak them. It’s worth doing, because you can get better sound than the historical gold standard in wireless noise-cancelling headphones — the 400 Bose 700.
- If you’re looking at wireless noise-cancelling headphones, chances are you’re also looking at the Bose 700. If so, check out our direct comparison between the Sony WH-1000XM4 and the Bose 700.
Right off the bat, the Sony WH-1000XM4 wireless noise-cancelling headphones should be serious contenders for your head and ears.
Indeed, “wireless” and “noise cancelling” have been popular criteria, and Sony gets these two aspects absolutely right. You’re also getting great sound quality that you can refine to your liking by using the Sony Headphones app, and you might even like them more than the historical gold standard in wireless noise-cancelling headphones — the 400 Bose 700.
If 350 is in your budget for wireless noise-cancelling headphones, the XM4 should absolutely be high up in your shortlist, but make sure to read the full review below to ensure they’re for you.
Comfort and design
The XM4 are very comfortable headphones. The earcups covered in smooth leatherette are plush and don’t grip onto my head, but they’re just tight and lightweight enough that the headphones stay on while tilting and turning my head in every direction. For reference, my head around my brow and tips of my ears measure in at about 23 inches. The headband is made of something firmer, but also covered in smooth leatherette, and it doesn’t apply too much pressure, nor does the top of my head get sore after long periods of listening.
Design-wise, the XM4 are pretty neutral and modern looking. Their matte plastic exterior is available in black and “silver,” which looks more like a kind of light tan or gray beige. You could make the argument that there should be more metal for a pair of 350 headphones, but metal would probably add more weight, and it wouldn’t really add much more to their premium feel.
What’s objective and definitive is that the XM4 gets the basics right — they have a very rich sound and a good, fairly wide soundstage. Sony also boasts that it collaborated with Sony Music Studios Tokyo for the sound quality of the XM4s. To be honest, I’m not the right person to tell you how much that counts for, but I thought I’d mention it.
Outside of that, it’s hard for me to tell you whether these sound good or not, because everyone hears differently and everyone has a preference to how their music sounds. And that happens to be an area where the XM4s shine. Their sound is customizable via the Sony Headphones app, and you can change the sound to however you want it to be. Customizing sound through equalizer (EQ) settings isn’t new, it’s just particularly effective with Sony’s app and the XM4 headphones.
Thank goodness the XM4s are customizable, because their out-of-the-box sound isn’t my favorite. In their default state, the XM4s have big, powerful sound that leans heavily towards bass and doesn’t give very much attention to higher frequencies, which leads to a muffled sound that frankly isn’t very impressive. If you like clarity and a better balance that features a little more treble and highs, the XM4 won’t be for you, and you’ll want to go into the Sony Headphones app to customize the sound.
So that’s what I did, and I found an adjustment that makes my music sound amazing to me, and it was pretty easy and quick. In fact, my own customization turned the XM4 into a pair of headphones that are going to be hard to replace. It was worth going into the app and playing around with the sound settings, as I prefer the way the XM4 sound compared to the Bose. (If you’re curious, I use the “Bright” preset, and set the “Clear Bass” to 5 or more.)
Some don’t really care too much and just want a pair of headphones that they’re told sound good without fiddling around in an app, and for those people, I’d suggest the 400 Bose 700 that can often be had for less. They offer excellent sound out of the box.
Noise cancellation and battery life
Noise cancellation on the XM4 is excellent and on par with Bose, which have set the standard for noise-cancelling wireless headphones with the Quiet Comfort line, and most recently its 700 line.
In an office-type environment at about 53 decibels, including air conditioning droning and a couple of loud fans, I could listen to music at significantly lower volumes than without noise cancelling. The ambient noise from the air conditioning and fans, and even the sound of my wife on a phone call in the same room was all but forgotten while listening to music.
Sony WH-1000X M3 or Bose QC35 II: Which to buy?
Without music, some higher frequency fan noise was still audible, but the XM4 made the room significantly quieter and more comfortable to work in. I could also still hear my wife’s phone conversation, but again, it was totally tolerable, and I could still easily work comfortably without feeling distracted.
I even tested the XM4 next to my home’s 10KW backup power generator, which produces between 65 and 85 decibels — a range that decently represents a Midtown Manhattan avenue. The XM4 did remarkably well at cancelling out the generator’s noise considering my proximity to the generator, and that the noise was coming exclusively from one source rather than the “everywhere” nature of noise in Manhattan.
In a sentence, the XM4 will absolutely make subway and walking commutes in busy cities significantly more tolerable and comfortable.
As for battery life, Sony touts an impressive 30 hours, and five hours of listening time from a quick 10-minute top-off charge with 1.5A or more adapter. All in all, battery life in real life is great — it never felt as if I was constantly charging the XM4.
Sony has worked to improve the ambient noise reduction during phone calls, and that work paid off. I had a phone conversation at around the 65-75 decibel range (near my generator), and the person I was speaking with said, for the most part, they wouldn’t know I was next to a noisy engine that produces 10,000 watts of power at 240 volts.
Basically, that means you can walk around a city’s busy streets and have a comfortable conversation with barely any city noise making its way into the phone call.
That brings the XM4s up to the Bose 700 region for phone call performance, which is saying something. The Bose 700 were a revelation for ambient noise control for phone calls.
Apps and other features
Sony has loaded the XM4s with one feature that’s incredibly important for a pair of wireless headphones in 2020 and beyond, as well as a bunch of features that aren’t entirely necessary, even questionable.
First, the important feature the XM4s include is Bluetooth multipoint technology, which lets you connect to two devices at the same time. Multipoint is essential if you often switch between your phone and computer — you can listen to music from your computer with the headphones, as well as pick up a phone call from your phone without any manual switching.
Another feature that works well is “Quick Attention,” which reduces your music’s volume and turns off noise cancelling when you place your hand over the right earcup. That’s great when you need to communicate with someone briefly, like when you’re buying something. Volume and noise cancellation come right back when you remove your hand from the right earcup. I’d still think I’m being rude if I kept my headphones on while communicating with another human being, but at least the motion of putting your hand to the earcup is an indication that you’re doing something to pay attention to them.
There’s also “Speak To Chat,” where the headphones detect when you’re talking, and music and noise cancellation are totally turned off. When the headphones detect that you’re no longer talking, music and noise cancellation are re-engaged after a set amount of time. It works well, but if I’m going to chat with anyone for more than a brief amount of time, I’m going to take off the headphones. If it’s not obvious, this is one of the questionable features.
The Sony app includes a noise cancellation optimizer designed to, well, optimize noise cancellation for you by analyzing anything that might alter the earcups’ seal around your ears. I’m not entirely sure if it works, to be honest, but optimized or not, sound quality and noise cancellation remain excellent.
There’s also a “360 Reality Audio” feature that supposedly enhances audio with some kind of surround sound enhancements. The setup process is odd, as you need to take photos of your ears, and it only works with the Tidal, Nugs, and Deezer streaming apps. I don’t use any of these apps, so I couldn’t test this feature. Honestly, these kinds of features rarely end up enhancing anything for the better.
Should you buy the Sony WH-1000XM4?
I could leave it at that, but I need to disclose that the XM4s work best if you use the Sony Headphones app. Maybe you’ll like the default sound, but I find it lackluster. After a little effortless tweaking, the XM4 became one of my favorite pairs of all-around headphones — you’re getting some of the best sound quality, comfort, noise cancellation, and phone call quality in the 350 price range.
If 350 is on the higher side, you could still pick up Sony’s previous generation in the XM series, the WH-1000XM3. Sound quality, noise cancellation, and comfort are all just a hair under the new XM4, but for the sub-250 price tags we’re seeing these days for the XM3, they’re a bargain. To note, the XM3s would also benefit from some minor finagling with the app to get the sound you like. See what we said about the XM3 headphones around the time they were released.
If you’re truly not interested in playing around with an app and you “just want a good pair of headphones,” I’d recommend the Bose 700 instead. You can check out the Bose 700 review here.
Pros: Comfortable, long battery life, excellent noise cancellation, great audio quality, incredibly effective sound customization, impressive ambient noise reduction for phone calls
Cons: Default sound is muffled and lacks highs and clarity, app is utilitarian and not super intuitive
Sony WF-1000XM4 long-term review
The Sony WF-1000XM4 TWS earphones have been on the market for a while now and have built up a reputation for themselves. Widely praised for their audio quality and especially their active noise cancellation feature these quickly become an industry benchmark. Our review from last year echoed similar sentiments, with my colleague coming out very impressed from his experience with the earbuds.
Having spent some time now with the WF-1000XM4, I had some thoughts to share myself. Like how there’s no easy way to shorten the name; you can’t just call them 1000XM4 because then someone will confuse them with the WH-1000XM4 over-the-ear headphones. And it’s not like you can call them WF, either. Sony really doesn’t make this easy for us. I wonder if regular users even acknowledge these names.
Aside from that, I do have some other thoughts on the WF-1000XM4 (sigh) as well, particularly related to the sound quality and comfort aspect of these earbuds. So read on to find out.
Design and comfort
The WF-1000XM4 continue Sony’s tradition of oddly shaped earbuds. They have a strange globular design with steampunk gold vents for the microphones. It’s certainly distinctive but whether it’s attractive is something for you to decide.
The outer shell of the earbuds have large touch-sensitive areas for gestures. You can just touch lightly on these to activate the gestures, which certainly beats prodding your ears the way most other earbuds require.
On the inner side of the earbuds are the optical proximity sensors that detect when the earbuds are placed inside your ears and play/pause the audio accordingly. Speaking of which, does anyone want to see a magic trick?
Yup, the location of the sensors on the back is such that if you place the earbuds a certain way on a surface it will block the sensor and make the earbuds think they are back inside your ears. I’ve often come back to the audio still playing when I had removed the earbuds and placed them on the desk even though I wasn’t wearing them. Definitely an oversight on Sony’s part.
As for the case, I found it surprisingly difficult to pull the earbuds out at times. Only part of the earbuds stick out and they are all smooth and rounded with little grip. There’s not much room to maneuver your fingers as the case lid gets in the way and there’s little gap between the earbuds. The earbuds are also held in place by surprisingly strong magnets. All of this leads to a fair bit of struggling every time I’m trying to take them out.
The WF-1000XM4 come in a very interesting minimal gray packaging that looks like a mini egg carton. It’s all very eco-friendly and nice. Inside you get the earbuds along with a small USB-C charging cable and two additional pair of foam ear tips (small, large) alongside the one pair already applied on the earbuds (medium).
The packaging has specific indentations made to accommodate the small and large earbuds, which always amuses me because if you were to, say, swap the default medium tips with the small ones, then the now spare medium tips won’t fit inside the indentation for the small tips so you’ll just have to put them somewhere else.
Since we are on the topic of tips, now is a good time to talk about comfort. Sony has made an interesting choice to ship the WF-1000XM4 with only foam ear tips. As mentioned before, you get three sizes but there’s no silicone option. In comparison, the WF-1000XM3 came with three pairs of foam tips and four pairs of silicone tips in different sizes.
Unfortunately, I found the foam ear tips on the WF-1000XM4 to be quite uncomfortable. The default medium size swells up to be a bit larger than my ear canal and the small size just isn’t big enough. This forces me to stick with the medium size, which tends to put quite a lot of pressure on my ears as it tries to expand.
The solution for this was rather simple. I just plucked the silicone ear tips from another pair of earbuds and put them on the WF-1000XM4. These tips provided just as good passive isolation as the foam tips and were light years ahead in terms of comfort.
I always say in these reviews that comfort is a subjective topic and your mileage will vary. However, I’ve heard reports from other users and reviewers as well of the WF-1000XM4 being uncomfortable to use in the long run. Sony could have made things easier by either offering more sizes for the foam tips or offering silicone tips in addition. The sizes currently being offered simply aren’t enough and the foam being used is too thick and stiff for comfort.
That aside, I didn’t have issues with having the WF-1000XM4 in my ears. Despite the oddball shape, they don’t put any undue pressure on any other part of my ears and after I swapped out the foam tips I was able to wear these for hours at a stretch.
The WF-1000XM4 use relatively small 6mm dynamic drivers. You get support for SBC, AAC, and LDAC along with Bluetooth 5.2 connectivity.
The tonality of the WF-1000XM4 is biased towards warmth. There is a greater emphasis on the bass region and a de-emphasis on the treble region.
The bass has a gentler elevation than what we find in most Sony earbuds so it doesn’t drown the sound in excessive bass energy. There is a more gradual bass shelf that starts off in the upper bass region and goes all the way into the lower octaves. The broader shelf prevents any peculiar boominess in any specific region and you get a more uniform boost to the bass overall.
The mid-range is much more balanced, especially in the lower ranges. Male voices do sound neutral and full-bodied as a result with just a hint of residual warmth from the bass boost. The mid-range does taper off a bit at the higher end as it goes into the treble, which can cause female vocals to be pulled back into the mix along with percussion and string instruments.
The rest of the treble then continues this downward slope and is noticeably quieter compared to the rest of the frequency range. Sony has de-emphasized this region compared to the WF-1000XM3, which causes the treble to come across as dull and muddy at times. This may not be an issue on recordings that tend to be hot, particularly pop music from the 70s and 80s, but modern, well-recorded tracks will lack the bite at the high end.
The overall sound thus has a darker edge and mostly just comes across as warm due to the bass tilt. The previous generation WF-1000XM3 had a more balanced sound in comparison, as it had slightly less bass boost and a much more filled-out treble response. In fact, it went a bit too far in the other direction at times and could be a bit sibilant in the high-end. I’d still personally pick the WF-1000XM3 tonality but the WF-1000XM4 doesn’t sound bad, either. The dips in the treble aren’t as severe as some other bass-focused earbuds and can thus still be enjoyable even if it’s not as accurate.
In terms of technical performance, the WF-1000XM4 do okay. Detail and resolution are a step above most earbuds, particularly the more affordable offerings on the market, such as the OnePlus Buds Pro, although it’s still not close to good wired IEMs. Imaging performance is decent but is affected negatively by the dull treble. Soundstaging is unremarkable and typical for in-ear products. It’s mostly focused between your ears and never quite expands beyond it.
All things considered, the WF-1000XM4 are an enjoyable pair of earbuds to listen to and one of the best sounding wireless earbuds on the market even in 2022. Have I heard better at a fraction of the cost from wired earbuds? Absolutely. But WF-1000XM4 are also vastly more convenient with many other features that make it even in my opinion. importantly, the gap isn’t huge so you don’t feel like you’re sacrificing a lot in terms of audio quality to get those other creature comforts over wired IEMs.
The WF-1000XM4 have above-average microphone performance. The audio sounds reasonably natural in a quiet room and remains audible even in a noisy environment. This is one area where wired earbuds definitely do have a commanding lead still but the WF-1000XM4 do a decent job and should be fine if you make a lot of voice calls.
Sony has come to be known for its exceptional digital noise-canceling performance and the WF-1000XM4 are no exception. Despite their diminutive stature, the earbuds do a fantastic job of blocking out most of the noise around you.
Compared to the cheaper earbuds on the market that also claim to have this feature, the WF-1000XM4 have a much more comprehensive noise filter. It tackles much more of the ambient noise audio spectrum, including the mids and the higher frequencies, while the cheaper models often tend to cover just the low frequencies. The end result is much more complete control over ambient noise.
Where the WF-1000XM4 take a backseat is in the quality of the transparency mode, which Sony calls Ambient Sound. It feels a bit tinny and artificial sounding compared to some of the alternatives out there, such as the Airpods Pro. Even the OnePlus Buds Pro have a more natural-sounding transparency mode, in comparison.
The WF-1000XM4 have good latency performance for video content. There is an extremely minor delay, which most people won’t be able to notice, and is easy to adjust to even if you are sensitive to it as your brain bridges the gap over time.
While gaming, the latency is more noticeable so it’s not quite ideal unless it’s casual stuff. For more serious gaming you are always better off with wired audio, especially if you also need to use the mic.
Connectivity and reliability
The WF-1000XM4 performed mostly reliably in my testing. When testing with SBC and AAC codecs, there were no issues with the connection and the audio never dropped.
With LDAC, things tend to be a bit more variable. While 330kbps and 660kbps worked completely fine, 990kbps would occasionally cause pretty severe dips in sound, which would require dropping down to at least 660kbps. The odd thing, however, was that this didn’t happen every time, as there were times when playing at 990kbps produced no issues at all.
The issues with LDAC are something I noticed with the WH-1000XM4 as well while reviewing them back in 2020. It seems to be a recurring issue with Sony products, which is odd considering it’s a Sony codec. However, this will only be an issue if you like to manually set the bitrate to 990kbps and if you just leave it at auto then you won’t have any issues.
The WF-1000XM4 have a claimed battery life of up to 8 hours with ANC on for audio playback. That may be the case with either SBC or AAC but when I tested with the more demanding LDAC set to 990kbps, I was able to get only 6 hours of continuous playback. That’s not too bad compared to other products on the market but a fair bit off from Sony’s claim.
I also tested how long the earbuds would last on a quick 10-minute charge from flat and they went on for 2 hours at the same settings as before.
The WF-1000XM4 are a pair of high-quality wireless earbuds and continue to be a great option in 2022. They are certainly expensive but having tested a bunch of the cheaper options on the market today you are definitely getting what you pay for here. Key aspects such as the audio quality, the active noise canceling, the microphone quality, and even the battery life are head and shoulders above cheaper alternatives.
Where I’d like Sony to improve is in the comfort department. This was an issue with the previous WF-1000XM3 as well for different reasons and with the WF-1000XM4 it’s the stiff foam tips that come in limited sizes that are the culprit. size options or a choice of silicone tips would certainly be welcome and not too much to ask for the price.
There were also some other minor gripes, such as the stuttering when using 990kbps LDAC at times, and the transparency mode, which could sound more natural.
Aside from that, there really isn’t much to complain about the WF-1000XM4. At around 250, you’ll be spending a small fortune on these but it’s an investment I’m comfortable recommending.
Sony WF-1000XM4 Wireless Earbuds review
Sony is largely responsible for the rude health of the active noise-cancelling true wireless in-ear headphones market, and with the WF-1000XM4, the company has combined performance, ergonomics, and build quality more effectively than ever before. They’re not perfect, but as an overall package they’re hard to beat.
- Rapid, full-bodied and eloquent sound
- Impeccable ergonomics and some truly useful features
- Impressive call quality
- – Unremarkable battery life
- – ‘B’ noise-cancelling
- – Can take a few moments to position comfortably
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Voted Best In-Ear Headphones at the TechRadar Choice Awards 2021
The latest model in Sony‘s wildly successful WF-1000 line of true wireless earbuds are smaller, lighter and greener than ever – oh, and the Sony WF-1000XM4 also sound even more articulate and immediate than the model they replace at the top of the range.
It’s true to say there’s no one area (with the possible exception of control-app excellence) in which they truly lead the field; but if you want to beat them for their combination of sound quality, noise-cancelling and battery life you’ll have to buy three pairs of noise-cancelling earbuds.
In every respect, the Sony WF-1000XM4 are either ‘very good’ or ‘very good indeed’ –and taken as a complete package they’re very difficult to lay a glove on.
Compared to their predecessors, the Sony WF-1000XM3, the new wireless earbuds offer enough quality-of-life features to make them worth upgrading to, even if they are slightly more expensive.
A more compact design means the Sony WF-1000XM4 are more comfortable and easier to carry around, while the accompanying app makes it simple to adjust the controls and your EQ settings, rivalling the best headphones.
Meanwhile, features taken from the over-ear Sony WH-1000XM4, including Speak-To-Chat, DSEE Extreme audio upscaling, and adaptive noise cancellation, mean you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more comprehensively-specced pair of wireless earbuds, even when seeking out the best wireless headphones.
While other true wireless earbuds surpass the Sony WF-1000XM4 in particular areas – noise cancellation, for example – no other model comes close to offering such excellent quality across the board. That’s why the Sony WF-1000XM4 are hands-down the best true wireless earbuds you can buy today.
Read on for our full Sony WF-1000XM4 review.
Sony WF-1000XM4: price and release date
The Sony WF-1000XM4 are on sale now, priced at 279.99 / £250 / AU449.95, and when you consider that the outgoing WF-1000XM3 started life at a nominal 230 / £220 / AU399 back in 2019, with the last few pairs currently available for around 170 / £150 / AU200, that price seems fair enough.
In terms of the competition, the WF-1000XM4 compares pretty favorably with alternative designs from the likes of Bose, Grado and Sennheiser, and looks a bit of a bargain next to Bowers Wilkins’ outstanding (and dizzily priced) PI7.
Sony WF-1000XM4: design and controls
The outgoing WF-1000XM3 gave us plenty of reasons to recommend them, but ‘discretion’ was not high on that list. The earbuds were big, and so was their charging case, and Sony has wisely chosen to try and reduce some of this bulk in this new model.
Frequency response: 20-40,000Hz
Battery life : 8 hours (earbuds) 16 hours (charging case)
The charging case is a full 40% smaller, while the earbuds themselves are 10% smaller. The fact that they’re still among the heftier examples of this type only serves to illustrate how big the WF-1000XM3 were – but at least the new charging case might conceivably slip into a trouser. while the earbuds don’t protrude from the wearer’s head like a prop in a sci-fi movie.
(Sony has taken a big chunk out of the packaging, too. The box the WF-1000XM4 arrive in is 40% smaller than the WF-1000XM3 box, and it’s entirely paper-based, recyclable and eco-friendly.)
The WF-1000XM4 incorporate some of the features first showcased on last year’s WH-1000XM4 over-ears: active noise-cancellation that can ascertain what you’re doing and where you’re doing it in order to adapt to your circumstances; fast pairing for Android and Windows devices; and ‘speak to chat’, which simply requires you to make a noise in order to pause your music so that you can have a brief chat without removing the earbuds. Noise cancelling is augmented by new polyurethane eartips (small, medium and large are all provided) designed to provide improved passive noise reduction.
Your one-stop-shop for controlling the WF-1000XM4 is Sony’s fully featured, fully stable Headphones app. Here’s where you can fiddle with all the features (both great and small) that are partially duplicated on the capacitive touch surface of each earbud. In the app you can decide what you’d like the left and right earbuds to control: ‘volume up/down’, ‘play/pause/skip forwards/skip backwards/summon voice assistant’, ‘active noise-cancelling on/off/adaptive’, or the rather less helpful ‘nothing assigned’.
There’s also EQ adjustment (the numerous presets include one racily titled ‘Excited’), with space for a custom preset or two, and the option to turn auto-pause and DSEE Extreme on or off. Here’s where you can submit pictures of your ears, too, in an effort to help Sony optimize those music streaming apps that offer 360 Reality Audio or Dolby Atmos, and where you can decide whether you’d like your Bluetooth connection to prioritize sound quality or connection stability.
Control is also available via the big three voice assistants – Siri, Google Assistant, and Alexa – which can be summoned via their established ‘wake’ words. No matter your assistant of choice, the WF-1000XM4 prove sharp-eared and alert to instructions, even in unpromisingly noisy environments.
There are three mics in each earbud, taking care of active noise-cancelling, call quality, and interaction with voice assistants. A combination of feed-forward and feed-back mics capture the wearer’s voice directionally (from the mouth), though the feed-forward mics will automatically mute when adverse conditions (wind noise, most likely) are detected. Sony has also included a bone conduction sensor, which picks up voice vibration, but doesn’t register it as ambient sound.
Sony WF-1000XM4: audio performance and noise cancellation
Positioning the WF-1000XM4 comfortably takes a little longer than it really should – we found them a little fiddly to insert, and felt they should fit more deeply in the ear than is the case – but once it’s done you can set up the touch controls, the EQ levels and the myriad other options to your liking. All done? Good. Time to stick some music on.
We kicked off our testing with a Tidal Masters file of Burner by Ross From Friends, and the WF-1000XM4 immediately impressed. They don’t give any area of the frequency range undue prominence, they don’t let any details go unnoticed, and they don’t let rhythms or tempos hang around. There’s vigor and enthusiasm to their presentation, but it’s tempered by unarguable control.
Down at the bottom end, the earbuds freight bass sounds with substance, texture, and an absolute stack of detail. There’s drive and momentum to spare here, but the WF-1000XM4 never lose the run of themselves – there’s an equal amount of poise to go along with it. Entry into and exit from bass notes is clean and well-defined, which helps prevent the bottom end smearing up into the midrange.
The midrange itself is equally information-rich – listening to Kate Bush’s Lake Tahoe, the ability of the WF-1000XM4 to identify and incorporate the tiniest details or the most fleeting transients into a much broader picture was obvious. ‘Communicative’ may seem a redundant word when discussing a person’s singing voice, but here it’s absolutely appropriate: if they’re anything, the WF-1000XM4 are communicative.
The handover from midrange to top end is smooth and naturalistic, and treble sounds themselves have plenty of shine and bite without ever getting shouty about it. Both Kate Bush and Ross From Friends are more than happy to pile on the high-frequency information, but the WF-1000XM4 control it as deftly as they do the rest of the frequency range.
(All of the above assumes an unchanged EQ setting, we should point out. Sony is slightly unusual in allowing the end-user to fiddle endlessly with the sound of their earbuds, but the most natural and convincing sound comes from the WF-1000XM4 when their EQ is flat.)
Dynamically, too, there’s little to criticize. The WF-1000XM4 are capable of switching from ‘ear-splitting’ to ‘almost silent’ and back again in an instant, and even the most subtle harmonic dynamics of Bush’s piano-playing are given full description too. As far as rhythmic certainty and expression goes, their combination of control and attack ensures that, like James Brown, they’re always on the good foot. All of this is helped no end by convincingly natural timing and unity of presentation.
The active noise cancelling is a success of the slightly more qualified kind. The problem for every other pair of ANC true wireless earbuds is that the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds have demonstrated that it’s possible to utterly reject external sounds, without leaving any counter-signal and without impacting on the quality of the music you’re listening to.
The WF-1000XM4 can’t quite pull off the same trick – but they certainly minimize the impact of ambient noise on your listening experience. They may not be the market leader where noise-cancellation is concerned but, for most of the people most of the time, they’re extremely capable.
Sony WF-1000XM4: battery life and connectivity
Even within the new and reduced physical dimensions of the WF-1000XM4 there’s much more going on than there was before. Connectivity is now via Bluetooth 5.2, which means simultaneous transmission to the left and right earbuds, and (when using Sony’s bespoke LDAC codec) Hi-Res Audio Wireless certification.
Bluetooth 5.2 should, in theory, mean better battery life, too – but the best-case real-world scenario of 24 hours (between eight and 12 in the earbuds, depending on whether active noise cancellation is on or off, plus another couple of charges in the case) is really nothing special. Still, at least the WF-1000XM4 are Qi charging pad-compatible, and five minutes plugged into an outlet will deliver another hour of action.
As well as LDAC, the WF-1000XM4 are compatible with SBC and AAC codecs – but there’s no sign of aptX in any of its guises. They also incorporate DSEE Extreme capability, in case you’re a believer in an algorithm supposedly capable of extracting high-resolution sound from a standard-definition digital audio file (we’ve never been entirely convinced).
Buy them if.
You need the best all-round true wireless earbuds The WF-1000XM4 can be beaten (just a little) for sound quality, and for noise-cancelling, and for comfort – but only by a combination of alternative models.
You know a great control app when you use one The Sony Headphone app is an absolute tour de force of stability, functionality and general usefulness.
You love life’s little conveniences ‘Speak to chat’. Adaptive noise-cancelling. ‘Quick attention’. IPX4. The WF-1000XM4 just want to make your life easier.
Don’t buy them if.
Noise-cancelling is more important than sound quality Taken on their own, the WF-1000XM4 cancel noise well. But other true wireless buds – the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds in particular– do it better.
You’re away from an outlet for long periods A best-case 24 hours of battery life isn’t bad, but it isn’t anything special either.
You think aptX is the pinnacle of wireless sound quality Sony doesn’t agree, but its LDAC is a good alternative, and is supported by most newer Android phones (sorry, iPhone users).
Not convinced by our Sony WF-1000XM4 review? Here are three more pairs of true wireless earbuds to consider.
Bose QuietComfort Earbuds If active noise cancellation is your priority, the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds are the best model on the market for blocking out environmental sound. Read our full Bose QuietComfort Earbuds review
Apple Airpods Pro If you’re an iPhone fan, you might be better off with the Airpods Pro. They offer excellent integration with iOS devices, Spatial Audio support, and decent noise cancellation. Read our full Apple Airpods Pro review
Audio-Technica ATH-SQ1TW If you’re looking for a much more affordable true wireless earbuds option, we recommend the Audio-Technica ATH-SQ1TW. They look unusual and there’s no ANC here, but for the price the performance is excellent. Read our full Audio-Technica ATH-SQ1TW review
- See where the Sony WF-1000XM4 rank in our guide to the best earbuds.
- Check out our guide to the best wireless earbuds for the competition
Sony WH-1000XM4 review: A nearly flawless noise-canceling headphone
The much-anticipated new version of Sony’s top noise-canceling headphone has finally arrived, and it makes small improvements to an already top-notch product.
Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET’s Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He’s also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Nook e-books and audiobooks.
Expertise Mobile accessories and portable audio, including headphones, earbuds and speakers Credentials Maggie Award for Best Regularly Featured Web Column/Consumer
- Excellent sound and top-notch noise canceling
- Slightly more comfortable
- Improved voice calling
- Pairs with two devices at the same time
- New Speak-to-Chat mode
- Upgraded Bluetooth system-on-chip
- Good battery life
- Battery Life Rated up to 30 hours
- Noise Canceling Yes
- Multipoint Yes
- Headphone Type Over-ear wireless headphones
- Water-Resistant No IP rating
When Sony’s WH-1000XM3 headphones arrived in 2018, they were the first noise-canceling headphones that really gave Bose‘s QuietComfort models a run for their money. Now, Sony’s successor model has arrived. And like any good Hollywood sequel, the eagerly awaited WH-1000XM4 is equal parts familiar and satisfying, with a dash of slight disappointment thrown in.
While we reviewed this earlier in 2020, it’s stood the test of time versus products that have come after in the category. As such, we’re awarding it an Editors’ Choice.
If you expected major changes and upgrades, you’ll be a little underwhelmed. But if you thought the 1000XM3 was pretty great, which I did, and just needed to fix some of its small flaws, you may very well be happy that Sony has made some incremental improvements that address many (though not all) of the little gripes users had. The long and short of it is what may just have been the best noise-canceling headphone of the last two years has gotten a little better. By how much? That’s what this review is all about.
On the outside anyway, little has changed. Like the WH-1000XM3, the WH-1000XM4 still comes in the same black and silver color options (the black case has a slight color variation) and carries a list price of 350 (£330, AU499). It’s available for preorder now and ships in mid-August. If you look closely, there are some subtle alterations that are designed to make the headphones fit more comfortably. The earpads are ever so slightly bigger.- the oval inside is a little wider, and the padding is also a touch softer. On top of that, some of the padding has been shaved off the top of the headband.
All these little changes are supposed to reduce the pressure on both the top of your head and around your ears. I did find them slightly more comfortable to wear over longer listening sessions. Oh, and they do weigh a gram less than the XM3 (254 grams, or 8.96 ounces). We didn’t get the bigger loss in weight that we got when we went from the XM2 to the XM3, but Sony did add a sensor.- more on that in a minute.- and still managed to shed a gram.
There’s no change to the buttons, at least to their placement. The button that used to be labeled NC/Ambient is now labeled “custom.” From the app (for iOS and Android), you can now program the button to do what it did before: toggle between noise canceling and a transparency mode that lets sound in from the outside world. Or you can program it to perform another function, such as activate Amazon’s Alexa or Google Assistant. Also, if you hold it for a few seconds, the headphones go into a calibration mode to detect the shape of your head and whether you’re wearing glasses. It optimizes the headphones based on those readings. (The XM3 also did that.)
The bigger changes are on the inside. One you can see. Inside the left earcup there’s a sensor that detects when you have the headphones on and automatically pauses the audio when you take them off. It doesn’t seem to affect battery life adversely; in fact, it’s supposed to help save battery life. Like the XM3, it’s still rated at 30 hours with wireless and noise canceling on.- quite good by noise-canceling wireless headphone standards. And you get five hours’ worth of juice from only 10 minutes of charging via USB-C.
Now the hidden stuff. There’s a new Bluetooth system on a chip that has more processing power. The headphone still uses Sony’s QN1 chip that’s found in the XM3, but Sony tweaked its algorithms for noise canceling and digital signal processing to slightly improve both the sound and noise canceling. Both were already excellent in the XM3 and now they’re a touch better.
Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones have subtle design changes
Sony had pulled even with Bose as far as noise canceling goes and then arguably went slightly ahead with the release of the XM3. (Bose made some small improvements with its excellent Noise-Cancelling 700 Headphones. which came out later.) The noise canceling of both companies’ headphones is quite effective, but in my limited testing with the Sony WH-1000XM4 (I didn’t fly on a plane with it), it does seem to be a tad better at muffling ambient noise than the XM3. This model appears to be tops for noise canceling, but I’ll have to conduct more tests to say that for certain. (Note that some people are sensitive to active noise canceling, which can create the sensation of pressure on your ears and feel oppressive.)
Like their predecessor, you can manually select the amount of noise cancellation or engage adaptive noise canceling that adjusts on the fly according to your surroundings. I’m not in love with the adaptive noise canceling, because when it switches modes your music pauses for a second and you get a little dinging noise in the headphones letting you know that it’s adapted. That can be a bit jarring.
Overall, the upgrades are subtle improvements rather than game-changers. The headphone does a little better job at upconverting streaming music from services like Spotify to pseudo high resolution, according to Sony. The XM4 is better at processing highs, adding back in a bit of missing detail that’s lost when you’re dealing with compressed streaming audio. Sony refers to this technology as DSEE, which stands for Digital Sound Enhancement Engine, and says it’s engineered “to enhance the sound quality of compressed audio files by restoring high-range sound removed by the compression process.”
The headphone supports SBC, AAC and LDAC streaming codecs, but not Qualcomm’s AptX codec, which is available with certain Android devices but not iOS devices (although Macs do support it). The odd thing is that the XM3 supported AptX. It’s not a huge omission, but some people swear that streaming using AptX sounds better (AAC is just fine, however).
Like the XM3, this headphone also supports Sony’s new surround sound music format, 360 Reality Audio. A handful of streaming services.- Tidal, Deezer and Nugs.net.- have libraries of tracks recorded in the new format.
With the enhanced processing power, the headphones do seem to sound slightly more refined and detailed, even though the hardware.- and by that I mean the drivers.- are the same as those found in the XM3. The bass is full yet punchy and well defined. They’ve got a nice openness to them with a relatively wide soundstage. Do they blow away what’s out there from Bose, Sennheiser and others? No, but they sound really good. While they’re dynamic sounding, they also have enough warmth that you don’t experience listening fatigue over longer listening sessions. That’s important.
Features-wise, there are a few legitimate upgrades. The first is multipoint Bluetooth pairing. That allows you to pair these headphones with two devices at the same time and hot-switch back and forth between them. It’s an important feature for some people, particularly those of us who like to simultaneously pair with our phones and computers while working from home. Or maybe it’s your phone and a tablet. I was using an early version of the software, so the feature wasn’t completely reliable, but Sony says that it will be when the headphones officially ship and the software is updated. (Sony has frequently updated its headphone apps and firmware over the past couple of years, so it doesn’t feel like an empty promise.)
From the beginning, the 1000XM4’s signature extra feature was a “quick attention” mode. If you hold your hand over the right earcup, it pauses whatever audio you’re listening to and lets sound in so you can quickly have a conversation, then go right back to what you were listening to. That’s still there, but there’s a new mode called Speak-to-Chat that’s essentially hands-free quick attention.
If someone comes up to you and wants to chat, you can simply start talking.- say, “Hey, what’s up?” for example.- and your audio pauses and the headphones go into ambient mode. That’s pretty cool. The audio then resumes after a set period of time.- you can set if from anywhere from 15 seconds to a minute. Or you can manually resume it by touching the earcup.
I did make the mistake of having it on while I was out walking my dog. Every time I’d say something to him, my music would pause, which was irritating. Since dogs don’t talk back, I didn’t need to hear what he was saying. Remember to turn it off if you frequently have conversations with animals.
I’ll finish up by talking about the two biggest complaints people had about the previous XM3 model. The first was that voice calling wasn’t that great. And the second was that the touch controls just wouldn’t work in freezing cold weather.
On the first issue, Sony says it’s improved the noise reduction while making calls and also says the upgraded microphones now pick up your voice better. Alas, Sony wouldn’t tell me exactly what the microphone differences were between the XM3 and XM4, which seemed odd. The official company line is that the “WH-1000XM4 features new Precise Voice Pickup technology, which controls five microphones in the headphones optimally, and performs advanced audio signal processing to pick up voice clearly and precisely for hands-free calls and Speak-to-Chat.” The long and short of it is that it’s unclear how many microphones were being used in the XM3, but it was probably less than the XM4.
In my tests the voice calling does seem improved. People said they could hear me clearly and while the noise reduction wasn’t stellar, it did noticeably muffle background noise. I don’t think the XM4 is quite as good as the Bose Noise Cancelling 700 headphones for voice calling, but it’s definitely better and not a weakness like it was on the XM3 when it first launched.
As for the touch controls’ response in cold weather, Sony says it has made some improvements with that issue as well. I’d love to test it, but it’s summer where I am and I don’t have a walk-in freezer handy. But once the cold weather comes I’ll update this review. I’m not convinced the touch controls will work flawlessly at really low temps, but then again, a lot of electronics can’t handle sub-zero weather. I will say they’re still pretty toasty on your ears in hot weather.
That’s Sony’s WH-1000XM4 in a nutshell. If you already own the WH-1000XM3, it’s probably not worth upgrading.- it’s just not that big a leap forward. But this is a great headphone that’s now about 15-20% better, thanks to a few small but significant upgrades and it should improve a bit further with firmware updates.
It remains one the top noise-canceling headphones, if not the top one out there, having the best combination of comfort, sound, performance and extra features. We’ll see what competitors like Apple. Bose and others have in store over the next six months, but if I was going to drop 350 on a noise-canceling headphone today, this would be at the top of my list.
Originally published earlier in August.
Sony WH-1000XM5 vs WH-1000XM4: What’s new, what’s different?
The WH-1000XM4 launched in August 2020, two years after the XM3. The headphones were at 349 / £349 / €379 at launch.
Like the XM4, the WH-1000XM5 are Sony’s first update to its flagship over-ear line in two years. The headphones will be available to buy from the end of May at a price of £380 / €420.
This makes the XM5 around £30 / €40 pricier than the XM4.
The XM4 were available black, platinum silver, white and midnight blue colours. In terms of fit, the earpad cushions are soft and pliable, and the fit was snug with minimal pressure on the ears.
Sony included a sensor to detect when the headphones were on the ears and the ear cups featured touch controls for easy playback control. They’re also capable of rotating and swivelling to fit inside a carry case.
The XM5 feature an all-new noiseless design with soft fit synthetic leather and a stepless slider designed to fit snugly without putting pressure on the head for all-day comfort. They come in black and platinum silver colours and are paired with a collapsible carry case for easy storage. They can’t, however, be folded like the older model can.
Sony has made an effort to be sustainable in 2022, completely removing plastic from the XM5’s packaging and building the product box from recycled and sustainable materials. The headphones themselves include recycled plastic from automobile parts.
One of the best features on the XM4 was their excellent noise cancellation – and Sony claims to have topped that with the XM5.
The XM4 used the HD Noise Cancelling Processor QN1 chip and Sony’s Dual Noise Sensor microphones to suppress high and mid-frequency sounds effectively. The headphones also took advantage of an algorithm capable of cancelling out noise in real-time, alongside a Bluetooth Audio SoC that could sense and adjust music and noise at over 700 times a second.
We found that the XM4 did a fantastic job at keeping sounds at bay, while the Quick Attention Mode let users listen to the outside world when called upon.
Sony has squeezed two processors into the XM5 to control the eight microphones in the aim to dramatically reduce noise in the high and mid-frequencies – the HD Noise Cancelling QN1 and the Integrated Processor V1 which is designed to unlock the QN1’s full potential.
There’s also the Auto NC Optimiser, which automatically optimises noise cancellation depending on the setting you’re in, and the 30mm driver unit in the XM5 is specially designed to enhance the ANC.
Meanwhile, both headphones Adaptive Sound Control to automatically tailor ambient sound settings to fit your environment, along with Speak-to-Chat to automatically pause and let ambient sound in when you stop for a quick conversation.
When it comes to call quality, the XM4 included five microphones and Precise Voice Pickup to better pick up on voices. The XM5 feature the same Precise Voice Pickup technology but with four beamforming mics and an AI-based noise reduction structure design to isolate the voice. There’s also a new wind noise reduction structure to get rid of wind distractions.
Both the XM4 and the XM5 support Google Fast Pair, allowing the headphones to quickly connect to Android devices, while the XM5 also feature Swift Pair for Windows 10 and 11.
The XM5 also come equipped Quick Access, allowing you to resume Spotify playback without taking out your smartphone, while both headphones feature support for Google Assistant and Alexa.
Sony dropped aptX support in favour of LDAC high-resolution audio with the XM4, and the XM5 are no different. The newer pair also support real-time upscaling of lower quality files with DSEE Extreme support.
As far as battery life is concerned, the XM4 offered 30 hours with ANC on and up to 38 with ANC off. Listeners can also get five hours of playback from a quick ten minute charge. The XM5 also offer 30 hours of battery (40 with it off, an improvement of two hours) and USB Power Delivery now allows for 3 hours of listening from a swift 3 minutes of charging.
All-in-all, the XM5 appear to offer improved noise cancellation, better call quality and additional features like Spotify Quick Access and Microsoft Swift Pair over their predecessors.
The XM4 packed the same 40mm driver units with Liquid Crystal diaphragms as the XM3 before them, but offered a more controlled and smoother sound. We found the headphones to be effortlessly dynamic, precise and clear with tight, well-defined bass, refined treble and detailed mids.
The XM5 feature a 30mm driver with a light and rigid carbon fibre composite dome for better high frequency sensitivity and more natural sounding audio.
The XM5 are also 360 Reality Audio-certified which should offer a more immersive, 360-degree listening experience, though you’ll have to wait for our full review for more on how the newest Sony pair sounds.
Bose QuietComfort vs Sport Earbuds In-Depth Review | The Real ANC King
The WH-1000XM4 will be tough to beat with their superb audio performance, fantastic noise cancellation and comfortable fit but if anyone can challenge them its Sony’s own WH-1000XM5.
The XM5 offer a brand new noiseless design, improved call quality, better noise cancellation and support for features like Microsoft Swift Pair, Spotify Quick Access and 360 Reality Audio, though you’ll have to wait for our review for our in-depth take on the headphones.