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Lifewire / Jason Schneider
Beautiful, natural sound quality
Next-level active noise cancellation
Premium build and design
Tons of features and customization
Solid battery life
No more aptX codecs
Features can be complicated
With top-notch ANC, excellent sound quality, and a design to match, the Sony WH-1000XM4 are the best in the business.
We purchased the Sony WH-1000XM4 so our expert reviewer could thoroughly test and assess it. Keep reading for our full product review.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones had some pretty big shoes to fill, and I don’t mean from a competitor. I’m literally talking about the 1000XM3 version that was released just a couple years back. Alongside the Bose QuietComfort line, Sony’s flagship noise-cancelling Bluetooth headphones are truly the most impressive feat of consumer audio technology.
The 1000XM4 take a refreshing approach to a next-gen—specifically, they just don’t try to add too much. They look and feel every bit as premium and high-end as the 1000XM3, and their sound quality is virtually identical. That’s a great thing, too, because when I reviewed the third generation for Lifewire last year, I found these to be the best possible ANC Bluetooth headphones you can buy for most people. But, as a true tech reviewer, I couldn’t let this new version pass me by, so I got a pair of XM4s in black and put them through their paces to try and determine what meaningful updates were made.
The sleek, simple design employed by Sony is something most users will find pretty likeable. When Bose launched the 700 series headphones, the company did so with a serious design update. Sony on the other hand as decided to mimic last year’s WH-1000XM3s and keep the one-color design with the single copper-like pop of accent color (on the ANC microphone ports and emblazoned on the Sony logo on the ear cups).
The earcups aren’t completely round, but the corners are rounded a bit, allowing them to blend more naturally with the oval curve of your head than with fully round headphones. Measuring just over two inches thick (from the part that touches your ear to the back of the cup), they are also a lot slimmer in profile than some other top-tier ANC headphones. This sleekness is the name of the game here for Sony, because these headphones are meant to be brought around with you on your commute, used at your desk at work, or worn a flight.
In other words, they need to look professional and unassuming, but also just fancy enough to warrant the price tag. The design language is also carried through to the cloth-covered hardshell case, right down to the copper-toned zipper. In short, these look about as good as you could expect for a pair of over-ear headphones.
The material choices on the WH-1000XM4s go a long way toward making them among the most comfortable headphones available on the market. The super-soft leather-like material covering the cups is just distressed enough to rest delicately against the side of your head without feeling too flimsy. The foam used on this generation is the same as last year’s, and it is pretty great, sitting somewhere between springy and true memory foam. It offers plenty of give, but also form-fitting support. It might be my imagination but I think the pads themselves are just a bit thicker than the XM3s, and that is great for added support. The same material is used on the rugged, adjustable headband.
The whole construction, though light, feels substantial, and the matte finish of the plastic looks the part, too.
It all makes for a pair of headphones with one goal: to virtually disappear on your head once you put them on. Plus at right around 250 grams, these headphones are quite a bit lighter than you might expect. I was able to wear these for full workdays with minimal breaks, heavy music-listening sessions, and everything in between. Like many other over-ear cans, they do get a tad sweaty after long periods, but really no worse than anything else I’ve tried.
Sony has made some great choices here to make these feel like premium headphones. The first thing you’ll notice is the soft-touch plastic used for most of the housing of the headphones. The goal here is to make the overall chassis feel very similar to the leather pads, and I think Sony has succeeded. The whole construction, though light, feels substantial, and the matte finish of the plastic looks the part, too
When you use a lot of softer materials like this in order to serve the comfort side of the equation, the unfortunate converse of that is that you can lack durability. To be fair, the softer materials on the outside of the XM4s will likely be prone to some physical scuffs and scratches (though not fingerprints like some other high-gloss plastics). However, I found the bones of the WH-1000XM4s to be very sturdy. Most importantly, the adjustable inner band of the headphones is a sturdy metal with a firm, sliding mechanism.
This leaves little concern that the band would wear out over time. It is important to note that there isn’t any official water/dust resistance, as there’s no allocated IP rating. This is the case with most of the rest of the over-ear ANC market, so it isn’t really a ding against Sony on these headphones, but don’t expect to wear these in the rain. Due to the seal on these headphones, I also wouldn’t recommend using these headphones at the gym or on the run, as the sweat will likely degrade the soft fabric. The case that comes with the headphones is a great addition to the package as it is very rigid and holds the headphones nicely suspended in a felt interior.
At this price point, it’s not very surprising that the Sony WH-1000XM4s have an incredibly full, incredibly rich sonic response. The detail provided by these headphones is, in part, owed to the fantastic isolation the headphones provide, even without the active noise cancellation in use. You’ll be surprised at how much of your music you can hear with these.
The spec sheet puts the frequency response (when plugged in) at 4Hz-40kHz, meaning that these headphones cover quite a bit more than the theoretical hearing range for the average human. The story changes a bit when operating via Bluetooth at the 44.1k sampling rate, putting the range at 20Hz-20kHz (exactly the theoretical human hearing range). This is all expected for a premium pair of headphones, and it’s nice to see plenty of coverage here. The 105dB sensitivity actually feels very loud, and I think that’s mostly due to the 1.57-inch dome-type drivers. These large speakers provide a nice amount of support for the bass end of the sound.
A lot of this is just jargon, so I do want to spend time talking about the true, anecdotal listening experience. The XM3s from last year felt very even but perhaps had a little more power in the low-to-mid part of the spectrum, muddying things up but also providing thickness in denser music. The XM4s, for some reason, feel a little flatter in response, and a little more like studio headphones. This is not common for consumer headphones, because while this frequency response provides a nice even reference for music, it doesn’t accentuate top 40 mixes. I actually really like the even response of the XM4s, but some might find it a tad lacking in bass (though you can customize this a bit with the app, which I’ll get to later).
Another key difference between the two generations is the noise-canceling. Sony promises the XM4s will offer improved ANC, which I initially found surprising considering just how good the XM3s were in this category. But the noise cancellation does seem better, almost stiflingly so. This is probably due to what Sony calls a “personal NC optimizer” and the impressive QN1 HD Noise Cancelling Processor.
The optimization discussed in Sony’s marketing description is actually a feature that aims to measure the sound pressure inside the earcups as it relates specifically to your ear and head shape, all to better optimize how it cancels noise. One thing that is actually pretty impressive about these headphones is how they handle music while ANC is activated. With some headphones, active noise cancellation can make the sound too sterile, but the M4s do a nice job at just clearing the noise floor for your music to shine through.
With some headphones, active noise cancellation can make the sound too sterile, but the M4s do a nice job at just clearing the noise floor for your music to shine through.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record here, I’ll say it again: these headphones are just about as good as the last generation when it comes to battery life. When using these headphones to their full potential, with noise-canceling on and toggling occasionally between transparency mode, all while listening to music at a reasonable volume, you can expect 30 hours of battery. Though, I was trending more toward the mid-twenties, because I was testing all the features I could for my review.
If you tend to use active noise cancellation sparingly, you’ll get far better battery life, close to 40 hours of continuous listening. These totals are objectively excellent for this category of product, and there’s definitely nothing worth being disappointed about here. The USB-C charging is also pretty snappy, with a decent amount of juice using a simple 20-minute quick charge. It will take close to three hours to top them off, but that’s expected for such a large battery.
One of the very few (but very important) differences between the third and fourth generations of this pair of headphones is the presence of third-party codec options. On the XM3s there was Qualcomm aptX functionality, allowing for better compression of your audio over the Bluetooth protocol. On the XM4s, Sony has completely removed this in favor of the lower-def AAC and SBC and the less frequently used LDAC options.
This might, at first shake, seem like a downgrade, and if you subscribe to what Qualcomm has done with aptX (especially when it comes to latency), then this might actually be a con for you in getting the newer 1000Xs. But, it seems like Sony has intentionally made this concession to allow their DSEE Extreme technology to upscale the compressed audio once it reaches the headphones.
Sony is clearly confident in their software tricks here, and for the most part I did find the quality to be pretty solid. This could be thanks to Sony’s Hi-Res Audio capabilities, too. In other words, you’re relying on Sony’s end-line polish, rather than a less lossy compression format on the front end. Though it’s important to note that there is slightly more video-to-sound latency than with aptX.
There is Bluetooth 5.0 on-board (compared with Bluetooth version 4 found on the last generation) with a 2.4GHz band of transmission. This allows for around 30 feet of line-of-sight connectivity, on paper, and in practice, I was impressed with just how well these headphones held a connection. And because you can now use Bluetooth 5.0 to connect two devices at once for seamless switching, the experience is pretty great.
One minor hiccup I came across with these headphones was trying to pair them to three different devices. It’s simple enough to knock them into pairing mode (just hold the power button from the off position for as long as it takes to tell you that you’re in pairing mode). But, when I tried to force pair them this way to a MacBook it took a few tries to connect properly. This is likely a side effect of how solid the connection is to the XM4s’ remembered devices, making it tougher to force it into pairing mode. It’s a minor issue, but it was there.
The key takeaway with most of Sony’s flagship headphones is that they come packed with a head-spinning amount of customizable features—almost to the point of choice paralysis. That is certainly the case with the WH-1000XM4s. I’ve already gone through the DSEE Bluetooth upscaling tech and the High-Res Audio that Sony has become known for, but that isn’t the whole story as far as tech with these headphones goes.
There’s a new little party trick with the 360-degree audio included this year, which uses a software-designed surround sound algorithm to help you spatialize sound within the headphones. This isn’t real surround sound, mind you, because there are only two speakers, but Sony has done something pretty cool with the software here. It worked well in the test audio provided, but because there just aren’t too many apps that support this kind of proprietary software functionality right out of the gate, it is a bit of a novelty.
These headphones also pack a host of interactive features that allow the headphones to better blend into your day-to-day life. When you look inside the left ear cup, you see a small, odd-looking square. This is actually a proximity sensor that allows the headphones to sense when you take them on or off (or when you just remove that earcup from your ear but leave the other one on). This will automatically pause the music because the assumption is that you’re taking the headphones off to have a conversation. Another helpful feature for keeping your surroundings in focus (when you want) is to activate “ambient sound” mode, which passes the surrounding noise through the microphones.
The key takeaway with most of Sony’s flagship headphones is that they come packed with a head-spinning amount of customizable features—almost to the point of choice paralysis.
And if you want to momentarily activate to start up a conversation with a coworker, you can just cup your hand over the right headphone. This right earcup is also where you control your music using touch gestures, swiping for track skipping, and volume adjustments. A really interesting feature on these headphones is the speak-to-chat feature that tries to sense when you start talking. Once it picks up your voice, it then automatically pauses your music for a predetermined set of time and passes ambient sound through. All of these features could be useful for certain users, but could also be novel (at best) and annoying (at worst), to others. It’s nice to see premium tricks on a device of this price level, though.
And then there’s the Sony app which controls much of the above features, and then some. You can do everything from setting the auto-power-off time limit to choosing what the “custom” button does (it toggles noise cancellation by default). A lot of this is expected, but I found myself using the most mundane feature the most: the EQ.
Here you can vastly change how the headphones sound, and it’s a great way to punch up the admittedly flat default frequency response you get with the XM4s out of the box. In general, I like having apps to control headphones like this, because it allows for way fewer buttons on the headphones themselves. Overall, I think Sony does a pretty good job in general, but don’t expect to wrap your head around all the options and features right away; there’s certainly a learning curve.
This is a premium pair of ANC headphones, there’s not doubt about that. Unless you are looking at truly audiophile headphones (you know, the wired cans you use with a tube amp), this is almost as expensive as you’d expect to pay for consumer headphones.
Just like last gen, Sony launched the XM4s at $348, which is certainly not affordable, but because you get the same amazing build quality, comfort, and sound response, it’s worth it for the right user. I’ll put it this way: Sony has taken the time to give every aspect of these headphones the attention they need to feel and sound premium. Provided you can afford these from the outset, you likely won’t have buyer’s remorse.
In case it wasn’t obvious throughout this review, by the number of times I’ve compared the two most recent generations of the WH-1000XMs, I think these two Sony headphones are each other’s closest competitors. While Bose has strong contenders in this category, and Microsoft’s Surface Headphones are a unique entry as well, the WH-1000XM3s were already my favorite flagship, ANC, over-ear headphones. It’s no surprise that I think the XM4s are the new best.
You could go with the Bose 700-series and find similar features, and normally a new generation of an old headphone of the same brand will have enough modern updates to make the old ones obsolete. However, in this case, the XM3s were just so good that I think they’re a viable option if you are on the fence. The key differences are slightly thicker earpads, a slightly more natural sound response, and more software bells and whistles with the XM4s. You could save some dough with the XM3s, though, and if you already have the XM3s, I don’t recommend updating unless you just want the latest Sony has to offer.
The unsurprising king
The better noise cancellation, the flatter, more natural sound quality, the slightly more comfortable feel, and the tried-and-true build quality all make the Sony WH-100XM4 a no-brainer if your pockets are deep enough. Whether you need something that will be comfortable enough to get you through a work-from-home day, or you want something that sounds great and will blot out an airplane roar, these headphones are just fantastic.
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