Are the Sony WH-1000XM4 the best headphones ever made?
06 Aug 2020
Sony WH-1000XM4 Wireless Headphones review
By Gerald Lynch, Nick Pino
The Sony WH-1000XM4 deliver excellent noise-cancellation and surprising sound quality all in a lightweight, comfortable design. While they don't look significantly different from their predecessors, a number of new features including multipoint pairing, DSEE Extreme upscaling, conversational awareness and auto-play/pause using a built-in sensor all help the WH-1000XM4 claim the title of best headphones in 2020.
|Improved noise-cancellation||Imperceptible design changes|
|DSEE Extreme audio upscaling||Not water-resistant|
|Multipoint pairing||Call quality still isn’t perfect|
|Auto-play/pause and conversation awareness||Singing can pause the music|
By every possible metric, the Sony WH-1000XM4 is a wonderful pair of wireless noise-cancelling headphones. They deliver exactly what they promise and then some thanks to their exceptional noise cancellation and cutting-edge codec support.
While they haven’t seen a massive overhaul aesthetically from the Sony WH-1000XM3 that was released back in 2018, the WH-1000XM4 pack in a number of new improvements like DSEE Extreme audio upscaling and multipoint pairing that should be real crowd pleasers.
On top of the adjustments listed above, the Sony WH-1000XM4 support Sony’s 360 Reality Audio format that enables spatial audio on stereo headphones plus the LDAC codec that can send a bitrate of up to 990 kbps. The unfortunate bit there, though, is that it no longer supports aptX or aptX HD, so your Hi-Res Audio support mileage may vary.
We consider them general use and completely recommend them for travelers, however they’re not great for workout enthusiasts who need a secure fit and water-resistance or business people who need the best-in-class microphone. For nearly everyone else, however, these are the best headphones you can buy (so far) this year.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 were announced on August 6 2020 and are Sony’s flagship headphones for the time being, sitting above the mid-range Sony WH-CH710N and true wireless Sony WF-1000XM3.
In terms of price, you’re looking at $349.99 / £349 / AU$549 - which is exactly what the Sony WH-1000XM3 launched in 2018 in the US, and £50 in the UK.
That puts the Sony WH-1000XM4 in the same price range as the Bose Noise-Cancelling 700 Headphones that come in at $339.99/ £349.95 / AU$599.95, and slightly less than the more upscale Bowers and Wilkins PX7 that cost $399.99 / £349 / AU$600.
- Imperceptible design changes to the 1000XM3
- Sturdy build and comfortable padding
- New SoC for improved noise cancellation
- Lacks any sort of water-resistance
Though the Sony WH-1000XM4 have added a slew of new components inside the headphones themselves, there’s not a major difference between them and their predecessors in terms of aesthetics. In fact, put them next to each other and you’d have a hard time telling the 1000XM3 from the 1000XM4.
That’s not the end of the world, though, as the design of the 1000XM3 is refined and subtle, allowing it to blend in on subway stations, planes and offices without drawing any attention.
In terms of materials, you’re mostly looking at a high-quality plastic build with supple pleather padding. The result is a product that feels mostly durable while remaining extremely comfortable to wear for an extended period of time.
Around the outside of the earcups you’ll find two physical control buttons for power/pairing and a button that cycles through noise-cancelling modes, as well as a 3.5mm aux. jack and a USB-C port for charging. The outer part of the earcups act as a touch-capacitive control panel that can be used to play, pause or skip music, and raise or lower the volume.
Inside the headphones is where the magic happens, though. Sony has swapped out the old system-on-a-chip (SoC) for a new one that promises better noise cancellation. Key to that, of course, is the Sony QNe1 Processor that constantly samples ambient audio to reactively adjust the level of noise cancellation. It’s an ingenious setup and design that separates it from the one-size-fits-all noise cancelling algorithm from other manufacturers.
The bad news here, however, is that the Sony WH-1000XM4 aren’t water-friendly - they’re not splash-proof, water-proof or even very water-resistant. Sony recommends keeping them dry and far away from any source of water that might damage them. That sounds like common sense - and fairly easy to achieve - but that does limit the places you can bring them: if you’re looking for a pair of workout or outdoor headphones, these aren’t them.
- Class-leading noise cancellation
- Situational and conversational awareness
- Multi-point pairing to connect to two devices
- May pause the music if it hears you singing along
The Sony WH-1000XM3 were feature-rich upon release, full of inventive control schemes and intelligent applications of their noise cancellation technology. All that was great about the WH-1000XM3 headphones has carried over to the new WH-1000XM4 successors, and with some all-new tricks, too. These aren’t just gimmicks either – they’re useful additions that actually work as advertised.
So let’s kick off with the brand-new stuff. First, and perhaps most importantly, Sony has refined its wireless noise cancelling approach. Like all good design, it’s subtle to the point where you may not notice it at first (such was the strength of the previous system, anyway). But with the WH-1000XM4 newcomers, you’re getting a much greater sense of noise cancellation in the mid-ranges – those sorts of areas where you get a low-level humming kind of sound that you could attribute to a fan, or air conditioning unit, or engine noise. It’s never fully silenced, but it’s remarkably quiet, and as soon as you have actual audio playing through the cans, you can’t hear the outside world at all. Though high wind can still cause a bit of extraneous noise to come through, it’s otherwise among the best (if not, the best) noise cancelling system we’ve heard from a pair of wireless headphones.
These noise-cancelling modes are intelligent, too – with your permission, the WH-1000XM4 headphones can learn where you are using geo-location access, and apply your preferred level of noise-cancellation or ambient sound passthrough depending on where you are. So, at home you may prefer a fully cancelled noise mode, while in the office you may want voices to come through. With the feature activated, the Sony headphones play a small chiming tone when it’s reached one of your set locations, and dials the noise-cancellation up or back appropriately. Though GPS requirements mean it won’t be able to work during a subterranean commute, you can preset your station or travel hub in the accompanying Headphones Connect app, and have it activate your preferred noise cancelling settings whilst above ground before descending.
The best of the new WH-1000XM4 features though are those that pander to convenience. They’re simple and effective additions. A sensor in the earcups will recognise when you take the headphones off, and pause music accordingly, resuming playback automatically when you replace them. If they’re paused for a few minutes (at a delay of your choosing), they’ll automatically switch off to save battery life. A new multipoint connection lets the headphones connect to two devices at once, intelligently switching between both as the requirement of each device dictates – say, to deliver a notification or answering a call.
Most impressive is a new Speak-to-Chat feature. With this option switched on, the headphones’ microphone will intelligently recognise when you’ve started talking, and pause your music while ramping up ambient noise being funnelled into the cans. It’ll let you have a chat naturally without taking your headphones off, with a short pause occurring after you stop chatting before resuming music playback. However, it’s a double edged sword, as it’s almost too effective – if you decide to break into song and sing along with your tunes with the feature activated, it’ll pause your track, ending your karaoke session. Convenient then – so long as you’re restrained with your vocal gymnastics.
- Uses circumaural 40mm drivers
- Warm and balanced, clear and powerful bass
- Supports 360 Reality Audio for spatial audio
- LDAC and AAC but not aptX or aptX HD
Sony’s using the same 40mm drivers in the WH-1000XM4 as it had in the WH-1000XM3, so tonally and in terms of mix, there’s not much to separate the WH-1000XM4 from the WH-1000XM3 headphones that preceded them. It’s a warm and balanced sound that does well to offer a wide soundstage when required and detail that can pierce through a powerful bass performance.
On the noise-cancelling front, Sony’s using its Dual Noise Sensor tech, making use of two mics in each earcup to suck in sound and analyse it with the QN1 noise cancelling processor. This allows the headphones to adjust its noise cancellation response imperceptibly quickly, at more than 700 times a second. It’s fantastically powerful, and never gets in the way of your tunes.
While aptX HD support would have been welcome, the Sony’s LDAC codec, present here, does a good job with devices that support it, pushing lots of detail through wirelessly. The introduction of DSEE Extreme, an AI-driven process that looks to restore detail from lossy compressed formats, does well to bring clarity to even the lower quality formats and files you may throw at the WH-1000XM4. Sony’s still pushing its 360 Reality Audio offering too, which is its homegrown immersive audio format, putting you in the middle of a surround-sound mix, and it’s still impressive – even if actually accessing its library is limited to just a few streaming services, and the catalogue’s growth has been slow.
As ever, we put the headphones through their paces with a mixture of streaming services, file formats and spoken word clips, and the Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones impressed across the board.
Jeff Buckley’s elegiac Last Goodbye shimmers into action, its slide guitar giving way to a warm bass groove and layers of acoustic guitars, jangling electrics and orchestral strings. It’s a complicated mix, but the WH-1000XM4 headphones do it justice, soaring with Buckley’s falsetto comfortably sitting at the fore.
Putting the bass to the test by jumping over to Bjork’s Army of Me, you can hear the can’s masterful management of bass frequencies, with the arpeggiated bass line walking through the song as the machine-like snare snaps through.
For something a little softer, Bright Eyes’ First Day of My Life has a great warmth - great vocal clarity is paired with sparkly finger picked guitars and a comforting, guiding double bass that never sounds flabby.
At the other end of the spectrum, Janelle Monae’s absolute-banger Make Me Feel sounds supremely powerful on the WH-1000XM4 headphones. From the bop of the percussion to the wall of sound that accompanies the pre-chorus, it sees the Sony WH-1000XM4s firing on all cylinders, with expressive dynamics and clear and distinct separation between each instrument. It’s a pleasure at the best of times, and Sony’s cans bring out the best of the track.
From the perspective of a work-at-home, share-the-kitchen-table-with-a-flatmate user scenario, those around us did notice a substantial amount of noise leakage from the Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones – enough to distract at even half their maximum volume level. You may not be able to hear the outside world, but it can hear what you’re listening to, so keep that in mind if you’re planning on taking these to a quiet office or library.
- No improvement on battery life this year
- 30 hours with noise cancelling on / 38 hours with it off
- Quick charging (five hours of charge after just 10 minutes)
- Lasts just as long or longer than the competition
While the Sony WH-1000XM4 didn’t get a boost in battery life compared to their predecessors, you're getting a substantial 30 hours with noise cancelling turned on and around 38 hours with noise cancelling turned off.
At first, that number somewhat disappointed us - how could a product not improve battery life year-on-year? But then it dawned on us that now the headphones have speech detection, a new SoC and algorithm, plus new sensors, too. The fact that it remained the same in spite of adding a host of new features is actually kind of impressive.
And though it doesn’t have better battery life this year, the 1000XM4 does stretch things as far as possible thanks to the new auto-on/off and play/pause sensor inside the earcup that can tell when you’ve taken the headphones off. It’s a huge boon to folks who might forget to turn off their headphones at the end of the day only to find that they’re dead 24 hours later.
The 30 hours should be enough to get you through multiple international flights or a few days to the office, but it’s also good to know that the headphones can be charged in a matter of minutes thanks to fast-charging. According to Sony, you can get about five hours of charge from 10 minutes of power and a full charge after about three hours.
So how does the Sony WH-1000XM4 comapre to the competition? Quite favorably. The Bose Noise-Cancelling 700 only clocked in at around 20 hours of battery life with noise cancelling turned on, while the Bowers and Wilkins PX7 matches the Sony at 30.
Should I buy the Sony WH-1000XM4 Wireless Headphones?
Buy them if...
You want the best noise cancelling headphones
There’s no doubt in our minds that, when it comes to reducing background noise, you can’t do any better than the Sony WH-1000XM4. They’re the perfect carryon for your flight thanks to their long battery life and exceptional ANC, and are well-worth it for travelers.
You want versatile headphones that sound good
Usually you’re forced to pick between a pair of noise-cancelling headphones that do a good job of blocking outside noise, or ones that excel at audio playback. The Sony WH-1000XM4 is great at both, meaning you don’t have to pick.
You're working from home and need some peace and quiet
With the volume turned up and the noise cancelling up and running, there’s little doubt in our mind that these headphones can finally bring you that much-needed respite at home. If you’ve been homebound due to Covid-19 and need some peace and quiet, the Sony WH-1000XM4 can provide that aural nirvana you’ve been searching for.
Don't buy it if...
You plan on bringing them to the gym or beach
Although they certainly could help you tune out the grunts of the person next to you at the gym, the WH-1000XM4’s looser fit and lack of water-resistance should make you think twice before putting them inside your gym bag.
You take tons of conference calls
While the Sony WH-1000XM4 are the best headphones to use when getting from meeting to meeting, they’re not the best headphones to use in your meetings. Go for a pair of Jabras instead if you’re constantly making phone calls and need top-tier voice quality.
You hate tinkering with apps
Sony has hidden a number of neat features inside the Sony Headphones app. That’s the spot where you can tweak the EQ, turn on Speak-to-Chat and Ambient Sound Control, plus enable DSEE Extreme and set your preferred smart assistant. Even if you hate downloading standalone apps, we recommend you download and use this one regularly.