Sony WH-1000XM4 review: A nearly flawless noise-canceling headphone


Table of Contents

  • Glorious sound and top-notch noise canceling
  • Barely extra snug
  • Improved voice calling
  • Pairs with two gadgets on the similar time
  • New Communicate-to-Chat mode
  • Upgraded Bluetooth system-on-chip
  • Good battery life

Do not Like

  • It is costly
  • Appears just about the identical because the earlier mannequin

When Sony’s WH-1000XM3 headphones arrived in 2018, they have been the primary noise-canceling headphones that basically gave Bose’s QuietComfort models a run for his or her cash. Now, Sony’s successor mannequin has arrived. And like every good Hollywood sequel, the eagerly awaited WH-1000XM4 is equal elements acquainted and satisfying, with a touch of slight disappointment thrown in. In the event you anticipated main modifications and upgrades, you may be a little bit underwhelmed. However in the event you thought the 1000XM3 was fairly nice, which I did, and simply wanted to repair a few of its small flaws, chances are you’ll very nicely be glad that Sony has made some incremental enhancements that deal with many (although not all) of the little gripes customers had. The lengthy and in need of it’s what could have been one of the best noise-canceling headphone of the final two years has gotten a little bit higher. By how a lot? That is what this assessment is all about.

On the surface anyway, little has modified. Just like the WH-1000XM3, the WH-1000XM4 nonetheless is available in the identical black and silver shade choices (the black case has a slight shade variation) and carries a listing worth of $350 (£330, AU$499). It is available for preorder now and ships in mid-August. In the event you look intently, there are some refined alterations which can be designed to make the headphones match extra comfortably. The earpads are ever so barely greater — the oval inside is a little bit wider, and the padding can be a contact softer. On high of that, a number of the padding has been shaved off the highest of the headscarf.

Additionally obtainable in silver, the WH-1000XM4 ships in mid-August.

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All these little modifications are supposed to cut back the strain on each the highest of your head and round your ears. I did discover them barely extra snug to put on over longer listening periods. Oh, and so they do weigh a gram lower than the XM3 (254 grams, or 8.96 ounces). We did not get the larger loss in weight that we obtained after we went from the XM2 to the XM3, however Sony did add a sensor — extra on that in a minute — and nonetheless managed to shed a gram.

There isn’t any change to the buttons, at the very least to their placement. The button that was once labeled NC/Ambient is now labeled “customized.” From the app (for iOS and Android), now you can program the button to do what it did earlier than: toggle between noise canceling and a transparency mode that lets sound in from the surface world. Or you possibly can program it to carry out one other operate, comparable to activate Amazon’s Alexa or Google Assistant. Additionally, in the event you maintain it for just a few seconds, the headphones go right into a calibration mode to detect the form of your head and whether or not you are sporting glasses. It optimizes the headphones primarily based on these readings. (The XM3 additionally did that.)


The WH-1000XM4 (left) has a barely wider earcup than the XM3.

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The larger modifications are on the within. One you possibly can see. Contained in the left earcup there is a sensor that detects when you have got the headphones on and routinely pauses the audio once you take them off. It would not appear to have an effect on battery life adversely; in actual fact, it is supposed to assist save battery life. Just like the XM3, it is nonetheless rated at 30 hours with wi-fi and noise canceling on — fairly good by noise-canceling wi-fi headphone requirements. And also you get 5 hours’ price of juice from solely 10 minutes of charging through USB-C.

Now the hidden stuff. There is a new Bluetooth system on a chip that has extra processing energy. The headphone nonetheless makes use of Sony’s QN1 chip that is discovered within the XM3, however Sony tweaked its algorithms for noise canceling and digital sign processing to barely enhance each the sound and noise canceling. Each have been already wonderful within the XM3 and now they seem to be a contact higher.

Sony had pulled even with Bose so far as noise canceling goes after which arguably went barely forward with the discharge of the XM3. (Bose made some small enhancements with its wonderful Noise-Cancelling 700 Headphones, which got here out later.) The noise canceling of each corporations’ headphones is sort of efficient, however in my restricted testing with the Sony WH-1000XM4 (I did not fly on a airplane with it), it does appear to be a tad higher at muffling ambient noise than the XM3. This mannequin seems to be tops for noise canceling, however I will should conduct extra assessments to say that for sure. (Be aware that some individuals are delicate to energetic noise canceling, which may create the feeling of strain in your ears and really feel oppressive.)

Like their predecessor, you possibly can manually choose the quantity of noise cancellation or interact adaptive noise canceling that adjusts on the fly in accordance with your environment. I am not in love with the adaptive noise canceling, as a result of when it switches modes your music pauses for a second and also you get a little bit dinging noise within the headphones letting you recognize that it is tailored. That may be a bit jarring.

The brand new mannequin solely has refined exterior design modifications, with greater upgrades on the within.

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General, the upgrades are refined enhancements slightly than game-changers. The headphone does a little bit higher job at upconverting streaming music from companies like Spotify to pseudo excessive decision, in accordance with Sony. The XM4 is healthier at processing highs, including again in a little bit of lacking element that is misplaced once you’re coping with compressed streaming audio. Sony refers to this expertise as DSEE, which stands for Digital Sound Enhancement Engine, and says it is engineered “to boost the sound high quality of compressed audio information by restoring high-range sound eliminated by the compression course of.”

The headphone helps SBC, AAC and LDAC streaming codecs, however not Qualcomm’s AptX codec, which is on the market with sure Android gadgets however not iOS gadgets (though Macs do support it). The odd factor is that the XM3 supported AptX. It is not an enormous omission, however some individuals swear that streaming utilizing AptX sounds higher (AAC is simply effective, nonetheless).

Just like the XM3, this headphone additionally helps Sony’s new encompass sound music format, 360 Reality Audio. A handful of streaming services — Tidal, Deezer and Nugs.web — have libraries of tracks recorded within the new format. 

The brand new sensor and the marginally wider earpads.

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With the improved processing energy, the headphones do appear to sound barely extra refined and detailed, though the {hardware} — and by that I imply the drivers — are the identical as these discovered within the XM3. The bass is full but punchy and nicely outlined. They have a pleasant openness to them with a comparatively extensive soundstage. Do they blow away what’s on the market from Bose, Sennheiser and others? No, however they sound actually good. Whereas they’re dynamic sounding, additionally they have sufficient heat that you do not expertise listening fatigue over longer listening periods. That is necessary.

Options-wise, there are just a few respectable upgrades. The primary is multipoint Bluetooth pairing. That lets you pair these headphones with two gadgets on the similar time and hot-switch backwards and forwards between them. It is an necessary characteristic for some individuals, significantly these of us who prefer to concurrently pair with our phones and computer systems whereas working from dwelling. Or possibly it is your telephone and a pill. I used to be utilizing an early model of the software program, so the characteristic wasn’t utterly dependable, however Sony says that it will likely be when the headphones formally ship and the software program is up to date. (Sony has regularly up to date its headphone apps and firmware over the previous couple of years, so it would not really feel like an empty promise.)

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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.

The headphones charge via USB-C and there’s a cable for wired listening. 

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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.  

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David Carnoy