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Sony WH-1000XM4 review: The best gets even better
Sony Sony WH-1000XM4
What we like
What we don't like
Update, January 2, 2021: This review was updated to address the Apple AirPods Max.
We’ve been waiting to see what would come next from Sony since it stole the wireless headphone crown from Bose with the WH-1000XM3. After two long years, the day has finally come — we have the WH-1000XM4 in our hands and it’s time to see how it stacks up. Sony has upgraded its noise-cancelling technology but the headset makes some sacrifices. Let’s find out if the headphones are worth it in our Sony WH-1000XM4 review.
See also: The best Sony headphones you can buy
Who should get the Sony WH-1000XM4 Bluetooth headset?
- Everybody will get a kick out of the Sony WH-1000XM4. This may seem like a lazy answer, but if you have the money it’s easy to recommend these all-purpose headphones.
- Noise-cancelling die-hards are well aware of the Sony WH-1000XM3 and all its greatness, and will appreciate the WH-1000XM4 improvements that have made Sony’s noise-cancelling even better.
- Travelers and commuters need the powerhouse battery life of the WH-1000XM4. It isn’t all about battery, though, because sound quality and noise-cancelling are also excellent.
What’s it like to use the Sony WH-1000XM4?
The Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones may look a whole lot like the previous version, but that’s why you don’t judge a book by its cover. It’s the changes on the inside that count, namely Bluetooth multipoint connectivity. You can connect to two devices at once, for optimal productivity.
You can go from listening to a podcast on your laptop to working out with a playlist on your phone and back again without much fuss. Multipoint was notably absent on the WH-1000XM3, so this is a big improvement but there’s one big hitch — both connected devices must use the AAC Bluetooth codec.
Learn more: Bluetooth codecs 101
Other than the AAC hiccup, there are a few features that you can only access through the Sony Headphones Connect app. One such function is the Speak-to-Chat feature, which pauses your music whenever the headphones detect that you’re speaking. The feature works well, but the embedded microphones are very sensitive. This sensitivity caused the headset to misinterpret latent background noise as my voice, and paused music played when I wanted it to keep playing. During my Sony WH-1000XM4 review period, this feature was more of a nuisance than a perk, and I disabled it in the mobile app.
Music playback automatically pauses when the headphones are removed.
A more useful feature is auto-pause, which happens when you remove the headset. A small sensor inside the left ear cup identifies when you remove the headphones and stops playback immediately. It’s not a game-changing decision, but it’s the type of touch you expect from a high-end pair of headphones.
The ear cups are thicker on the Sony WH-1000XM4, which means better isolation even with noise-cancelling disabled. Unfortunately, they may have taken that padding from the headband as there was a definite sense of pressure across the top of my head that wasn’t there with the WH-1000XM3.
Touch controls can be improved
Sony hasn’t changed the touch controls much at all: both cups are still sensitive to taps and swipes. That being said, the double-tap to pause feature isn’t perfect. It usually works, but not every time — almost making it faster to pause by simply removing the headphones each time.
If you cup your hand over the left ear you’ll be treated to ambient noise mode, which drops the volume in the left ear so you can hear the outside world. It might become more useful for catching subway announcements once commuting becomes routine again, but it’s not always helpful in a quiet house.
Noise-cancelling really is top-notch
Sony has reached another level of noise-cancelling with the WH-1000XM4, as it uses an advanced algorithm that analyzes background noise up to 700 times per second. This may seem like overkill, but it allows the ANC technology to constantly adapt to your surroundings. Sure, it uses the same Q1N processor as the already-great WH-1000XM3, but the AI integration really makes the WH-1000XM4 shine.
As depicted in the chart above, sub-bass frequencies (airplane engines and A/C units) sound half as loud, or quieter, with noise-cancelling enabled. Distant conversations are also quieted by the headset thanks to the huge spike in ANC performance from 175-400Hz.
How is connection strength?
Like many high-end modern headphones, the Sony WH-1000XM4 is equipped with Bluetooth 5.0. Further, it supports SBC, AAC, and Sony’s LDAC codec. LDAC will offer the best quality streaming, though it’s less stable than some of the other options. If your device doesn’t support the advanced options, it’ll default to SBC as a universal base. Or, you can go old school with the included 3.5mm aux cable. Before buying the headset, remember that multipoint connectivity only works via AAC, so the WH-1000XM4 may not be worth your while depending on your setup.
Sony forwent aptX support in favor of Bluetooth multipoint functionality.
I didn’t have issues with connectivity in my mid-sized New York City apartment regardless of which device I had connected. When paired with my laptop, I was able to walk around freely without skips or drops. I achieved similar results with my Pixel 3 no matter which pocket the phone was in.
How does the microphone sound on the WH-1000XM4?
Sony already had a good microphone in the previous generation, so you’ll be happy to hear that the WH-1000XM4 is more of the same. The high-pass filter is common in embedded headset microphones, and is used as a way to combat the proximity effect which amplifies bass notes and makes voices sound “boomy” when the speaker is too close to the mic. It’s slightly noticeable, but shouldn’t impact your phone calls too much.
Sony WH-1000XM4 microphone demo:
How does the microphone sound to you?
Is the Headphones Connect app worth using?
The Sony Headphones Connect app is effectively a requirement if you want to use the WH-1000XM4 to its full potential. Unlike some smartphone manufacturers, Sony makes its app available to all operating systems. Sure, you can use the headphones as-is right out of the box, but you won’t be able to customize anything or use Sony’s new features. For starters, you’ll need the app to map select buttons, such as toggling noise-cancelling or activating your smart assistant. Even with the app, you can’t have it both ways — but at least you can choose between Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa.
Noise-cancelling optimization and 360-degree sound are also app-exclusive features. The noise-cancelling works well straight from the box, but you’ll need the app in order to fine-tune your settings. The app is also required if you want to adjust ambient passthrough intensity when it’s enabled.
While most of these in-app features are fairly normal, Sony 360 Reality Audio is what really justifies the download. Rather than having a basic left and right channel like stereo sound provides, Sony 360 Reality Audio assigns each channel as its own sound object. This technology allows listeners to perceive sound as if it’s actually moving around them instead of coming starkly through the left or right ear cup. It only works with high-quality platforms like Deezer and Tidal, but it might make it worth your while to set up a new subscription.
How is the battery life?
Sony claims these new headphones will match the WH-1000XM3 at 30 hours of playback, but we couldn’t match those claims in our tests. We ran the headphones at a constant 75dB with active noise-cancelling enabled until the battery hit 0%, and we only managed 19 hours and 59 minutes. While it falls short of the specified listing, nearly 20 hours is a great result. It should be more than enough for most people, though it’s actually less than the predecessor’s 24-hour tested playtime.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 rely on USB-C for charging, and just 10 minutes on the plug should net you five hours of playback. If you tend to procrastinate and only charge at the last minute, five hours should be more than enough for a long commute.
How is the sound quality?
In a few words — better than before. The frequency response has been subtly altered from the previous model, and bass notes are less emphasized, which effectively makes it easier to perceive higher-pitched notes. You may not love the idea if you’re a bass-head, but the average listener should be pleased since it’s a more versatile sound. Anyone with a wide range of music preferences will notice that everything sounds as it should, and clarity is great. Sony kept the same attention to detail with mids and lyrics, so wailing guitars and crashing cymbals shouldn’t overwhelm the all-important lyrical performances. If you want that bass back, you can always fix your EQ in the app.
Should you get the Sony WH-1000XM4?
If you want the best, you’ve got to buy the best, and the Sony WH-1000XM4 should be on your list. Sony’s previous version is one of our favorite pairs ever, and the improvements make this new hotness even better. Bluetooth multipoint is the most obvious perk, but the subtle changes help to inch the WH-1000XM4 even further ahead of the pack.
That being said, if you have the WH-1000XM3 then it may not be worth the money to upgrade your setup. However, if you’re looking to invest in your very first pair of high-end headphones, you may as well start at the top.
What about the Apple AirPods Max?
The Apple AirPods Max cost nearly double what the Sony WH-1000XM4 noise-cancelling headphones cost, making the AirPods Max among the most cost-prohibitive consumer headsets around. To warrant the cost, Apple packed in two H1 chips, one in each headphone, for maximum processing power. The headset needs all the help it can get in order to perform difficult tasks like effective ANC, Transparency mode, hands-free Siri access, and more.
It has a unique mesh headband, which should provide even distribution across the crown of your head, and it has a few tactile controls. Surprisingly, the headset lacks any touch controls, which deviates from its competitors. It relies on Apple’s Adaptive EQ to optimize the audio quality depending on the efficacy of the ear pads’ seals.
If money is no object to you, and you’re an iPhone owner surrounded by Apple devices, the AirPods Max may very well be worth saving up for. Most of us consumers will be perfectly happy with Sony’s headset, and the extra cash in our bank accounts.
What are some good alternatives to the Sony WH-1000XM4?
The Sony WH-1000XM4 is great, but it’s not the pair for everyone. There are plenty of other options that fall in a similar price range, and they mostly make the podium as top Bluetooth options. You can also opt for some less expensive options or try the Sony WF-1000XM3 on for size — Sony’s true wireless noise-cancelling flagship earbuds.
The Sony WH-1000M3 deliver for less
Let’s face it — much of this review has been a back and forth comparison between the new WH-1000XM4 and the previous Sony WH-1000XM3. The previous generation is hardly out with the bathwater, as it still has great battery life, noise-cancelling, and aptX support. You can also probably track down a pair on sale as Sony looks to move past its last generation. To learn more, check out our full comparison between the two industry leading headsets.
The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 also use AI technology
Ah yes, the pair from which Sony stole the crown. The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 may cost more and have fewer codecs to support, but the minimalist design looks and feels incredible. Sony still takes the cake in terms of performance, but the Headphones 700 look great and get the job done.
The Microsoft Surface Headphones 2 have great touch controls
The Microsoft Surface Headphones 2 may not match the WH-1000XM4 in terms of performance, but they’ll save you $100. They look great and have intuitive controls and the Surface Headphones show that Microsoft isn’t messing around when it enters a new category.