The Apple ecosystem of connected devices provides seamless integration between iPhone, iPad, Mac, and even accessories such as the AirPods Pro. Many iOS users have defaulted to picking up the AirPods or AirPods Pro, but are those earbuds really the best available option? The Sony WF-1000XM4 present as a strong challenger to the Apple earbuds, with superior active noise-cancelling (ANC) and a bevy of features. We’re putting the earbuds head-to-head to see if Sony has done enough to pull users over the walls of the Apple garden.
Apple AirPods Pro vs Sony WF-1000XM4
The AirPods Pro sport Apple’s now-iconic white, glossy design with protruding stems. The stems make it easy to insert and remove the earbuds from your ear, though they can get caught on a mask or towel, sending your expensive earbuds flying away. Each stem contains a small imprint for touch and pressure controls. Addressing the fit issues of the original AirPods, Apple includes three silicone ear tips in the box with the AirPods Pro, or you can pick up a pair of memory foam replacements for a better seal.
Sony’s earbuds don’t have protruding stems and are available in classy black or silver color variants, each with copper accents. Even with a smaller overall footprint, they still manage to fit a larger surface area to operate the touch controls. Most people will find a comfortable fit from the Sony WF-1000XM4, with earbud housings that follow the contours of the human ear. Sony includes three sets of memory foam ear tips for a more comfortable and stable fit compared to the AirPods Pro.
Both sets of earbuds make for good workout companions, with an IPX4 rating that can handle sweat and light splashes of water without a problem. Memory foam tends to wear down faster than silicone though, so you may need to replace the Sony ear tips before the AirPods Pro’s. Both earbuds include pressure relief vents, so you won’t experience an uncomfortable suction sensation when noise-cancelling is enabled.
Comprehensive touch controls on both sets of earbuds control music playback, ANC, transparency modes, and voice assistant. iOS or iPadOS device owners can remap the AirPods Pro gesture and touch controls from the settings app, while Android users are stuck with the default controls. Both headsets support automatic ear detection for auto-pause/play functionality.
Both charging cases stand horizontally and support wireless charging. Wired charging on the AirPods Pro requires a lightning cable, whereas the Sony case uses a USB-C cable. The cases are compact and portable, although neither boasts any durability accreditation.
While many AirPods Pro features are restricted to Apple device users, Sony makes its software available on all platforms. The Sony Headphones Connect app is available on both the Google Play Store and Apple App Store, and includes a host of customization options. You can use the multi-band equalizer to adjust the Sony WF-1000XM4’s sound to your liking, toggle between listening modes, view battery status, remap touch controls, select preferred voice assistant, and more.
The app also includes an ear tip fit test to ensure you’ve installed the correct ear tips on your WF-1000XM4. A good fit and tight seal is critical to the noise isolating performance of the earbuds, as it blocks out the environmental sounds around you to accurately hear your music. Apple also offers an ear tip test, but you can’t access it on Android.
Google Fast Pair on the Sony earbuds makes for immediate pairing to an Android device, while Swift Pair support for Windows 10 devices ensures a quick connection to your PC. You can also locate your earbuds with a loud ring or check their last known location via your phone.
A pop-up card makes for quick pairing between AirPods Pro and an Apple device. Once connected to an iPhone, you’ll unlock a host of features including Find My AirPods, hands-free Siri requests, battery optimization, Adaptive EQ, and Spatial Audio. Those deep in the Apple ecosystem will also enjoy the automatic device switching between iCloud devices. Audio enthusiasts on the other hand will be disappointed by the lack of a custom EQ for the AirPods Pro to adjust the sound.\
See more: The best true wireless earbuds
Apple seems committed to making its software features exclusive to its hardware. Even essential things like AirPods Pro software and firmware updates require an iPhone or iPad.
Sony 360 Reality Audio on the XM-1000XM4 is supported on Tidal, Deezer, and Amazon Music HD. Meanwhile, Apple’s Spatial Audio only works on Apple Music and with Dolby Atmos content streamed from a compatible Apple device.
The Sony WF-1000XM4 stands above and beyond the competition when it comes to noise-cancelling. The foam ear tips ensure great passive isolation, with strong ANC nearly eliminating any remaining environmental sounds. Bass and low-midrange frequencies are actively quieted, reducing them down to one-eighth as loud. Incidental noises (1000Hz and higher) are quieted and made to sound up to one-sixteenth as loud as they would without the earbuds in. This easily outperforms the AirPods Pro, which at most reduces ambient noises to one-sixth the loudness.
Apple’s noise cancellation isn’t bad — it’s actually quite good compared to most earbuds — it just can’t keep up with the Sony WF-1000XM4. Midrange frequencies are quieted to sound roughly half as loud with ANC enabled compared to how they’d sound if you weren’t using the AirPods Pro at all. Both earbuds reduce your likelihood of experiencing noise-induced hearing loss, as the passive and active isolation will prevent you from cranking up the volume to counter background noise.
Ear tips that seal to your ear canals are the best way to block out unpredictable noise and optimize noise-cancelling, with the Sony memory foam ear tips excelling in this regard.
Out of the box, the AirPods Pro performs better against objective testing measurements than the Sony WF-1000XM4. Casual listeners will enjoy the sound from either set of earbuds, but only Sony lets you adjust the frequency response.
Compared to the SoundGuys house curve (pink), you can see in the chart above that the Sony earbuds (cyan) are slightly bass-heavy. Notes up to middle-C will sound a bit louder than the artist intended, which can inadvertently mask vocal harmonics and higher-pitched instruments. This sound profile may be pleasing to fans of pop and hip-hop music but it may seem as if detail is missing from your favorite songs. You can remedy this by lowering the bass and midrange frequencies in the EQ settings of the Sony Headphones Connect app.
With a more accurate frequency response, the AirPods Pro is versatile across a range of music genres and doesn’t require any tinkering. The AirPods Pro place noticeably less emphasis on bass and more emphasis on treble compared to the Sony earbuds. There is also a very accurate mid-range response on the AirPods Pro, leading to an overall neutral sound that most people will enjoy.
While you aren’t going to get the same microphone quality as an external boom mic or dedicated desktop microphone, both earbuds work fine for professional and personal calls. They each feature wind-reduction technology for taking calls on the go. You can also select which earbud microphone the headset uses, or leave it on auto.
We’ve included demos below so you can hear exactly how well each microphone performs and decide for yourself which is best.
Apple AirPods Pro microphone demo:
Sony WF-1000XM4 microphone demo:
With more Bluetooth codec support, the Sony WF-1000XM4 can attain a better connection on a wider variety of devices compared to the AirPods Pro. The Sony earbuds support SBC, AAC, and LDAC, whereas the AirPods Pro only offer SBC or AAC. AAC allows for higher transfer speed with Apple devices but is unreliable on many Android devices. Therefore, if you end up using AirPods with an Android phone you’ll likely want to force SBC playback.
Learn more: Understanding Bluetooth codecs
The AirPods Pro uses Bluetooth 5.0, which is great for power efficiency. However, once again Apple is outdone by Sony, which offers upgraded Bluetooth 5.2 with the WF-1000XM4. This version offers better battery life and opens the door to LE audio. Sony also gives you the option to prioritize sound quality or connection stability from within the Headphones Connect app.
In our testing with constant playback at 75dB (SPL) with ANC turned on, the Sony WF-1000XM4 earbuds lasted much longer than the AirPods Pro earbuds. The Apple earbuds lasted five hours and six minutes when connected to an iOS device, whereas the Sony earbuds lasted seven hours and 43 minutes. The AirPods Pro charging case provides over four charge cycles before it needs a recharge via Lightning cable or wireless mat, while the WF-1000XM4 case provides an extra two charge cycles.
The Sony earbuds also recharge faster than the AirPods Pro. Five minutes in the WF-1000XM4 charging case provides 60 minutes of playtime, whereas it takes 10 minutes to achieve 60 minutes of playback with the AirPods Pro.
Since the battery cells in true wireless earbuds are so small, it’s unlikely either of these earbuds will last for more than a couple of years. The physical limitations alongside daily charge-deplete cycles result in a short-lived product. If you’re looking for a long-term investment, the larger batteries found in Bluetooth headphones make for a more compelling option.
Battery optimization software on iOS devices slows the degradation process of the AirPods Pro. iOS learns your usage habits, and then prevents the case from charging beyond 80% until you’re ready to listen to music. Still, if you care about the environment you’re better off sticking to wired earbuds and headphones with replaceable parts.
Apple AirPods Pro vs Sony WF-1000XM4: The verdict
An important factor we’ve yet to mention is the price of the earbuds. The AirPods Pro retail for $30 USD less than the Sony WF-1000XM4. With frequent sales dropping the AirPods below $200, Apple’s ‘buds are a much better value than Sony’s. I money is no object, or you can find the Sony WF-1000XM4 on sale, you should grab the Sony earbuds instead as they are the better set of noise-cancelling earbuds.
If you don’t own an iPhone, the Sony WF-1000XM4 clearly makes more sense, with more customization options on Android. Even on Apple devices, the Sony earbuds still offer far better active noise-cancelling, a better fit, and better battery life.
Still, we won’t blame you if you are an iPhone user and decide to stick within the Apple ecosystem with the AirPods Pro. You have fewer customization options with these earbuds, but nearly anyone can pick them up and have an enjoyable experience. The AirPods Pro sound great right out of the box, and at the very least are a far superior option to the standard AirPods.