Sony Wh-1000XM4 wireless headphones review
Sony Wh-1000XM4 wireless headphones review
Sony’s already legendary wireless headphones just got even better and PAT PILCHER’s ears are thanking him for it.
My go-to over-ear noise-cancelling cans, Sony’s WH-1000XM3 headphones scored a perfect 10/10 back in December 2018. They quickly became a personal favourite thanks to their industrial-strength noise-cancelling and impressive audio. In the review, I asked, “Are these the perfect wireless headphones?”
Two years on, Sony is a force to be reckoned when it comes to earphones and earbuds, and now they’re back with the XM3’s successor, which Sony has creatively branded the WH-1000XM4 (kinda rolls off the tongue doesn’t it?) Despite the boring name, they’re cracking good cans.
Sony has stuck with the sensible strategy of, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. The XM4 is more about improving on what was special with the XM3 headphones than radical re-invention. In short, if you loved the XM3’s, you’ll probably be very impressed by the refinements incorporated into the XM4’s.
One of the best noise-cancelling cans around may now be even better, but just how much better than the XM3’s are they?
Looks-wise, you’d be hard-pressed to tell one from the other. They still come in black or silver, and like their older siblings, they come with a nifty carry case that has an inflight adaptor and cable bundled. That said, Sony has engineered several subtle tweaks to their design to improve wearability. Because of this, the XM4’s come with slightly larger earcups, along with softer memory-foam padding. Padding has also been trimmed off the top of their headband. Both these small tweaks might not sound like a lot, but they do help to prevent one’s head from feeling as if it is stuck in a vice.
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On the controls front, the XM4’s button layout is unchanged from that used with the XM3 – with one exception. The NC/Ambient button is now labelled “custom.” This is because you can now choose the button’s function. By default, it’ll switch between noise cancelling and the ambient sound modes, but you can tell it to do tasks such as firing up the Google Assistant (or Alexa). As with the earlier model, holding down the Custom button switches the XM4 into calibration mode, which means they can detect air pressure, the shape of your noggin and if you’re wearing glasses. Noise-cancelling and audio parameters are then optimised accordingly.
Most of the improvements with the XM4’s are hidden away under their metaphorical hood. An example of this is the sensor in the left earpiece, which pauses audio if you take the XM4’s off. Software optimisations and thoughtful additions like the left ear cup sensor combine with a larger battery to give the XM4 a solid 30+ hours of use (or 38+ hours using a wired connection with active noise cancelling disabled). They also fast charge, with a mere 10 minutes of charging giving the user five hours of goodness. (I managed to get the XM3 cans to last flying from NZ to LA, and LA to Spain on a single charge). In fact, they still had juice leftover, so the XM4’s improved battery life makes them ideal for long haul air travellers.
The Bluetooth radio and audio silicon have also been given more processing power. Although the XM4 uses the same QN1 silicon as the XM3’s, Sony has tweaked the software to improve noise cancelling and audio. It was great in the XM3’s, and is now even better with the XM4 cans.
On the noise-cancelling front, the XM4 ear-gear did a sterling job of killing ambient environmental noise. With the rather excellent Sony headphone app, you use a slider control to dial in the amount of noise cancellation or ambient noise your ears require. You can also choose adaptive noise cancelling, which is tweaked based on the noise environment you’re in, as well as your location (more on this later).
Another welcome addition comes in the form of Sony’s audio upscaling tech. It did an impressive job with the highly-rated WF-1000XM3 buds and made their audio sparkle. Sony calls it DSEE, or Digital Sound Enhancement Engine. With it enabled, highs and midrange detail in low to medium bitrate compressed and streamed audio magically returns. Compressed audio can sound like it was recorded in a concrete lavatory at the bottom of a lake. Still, the audio on the XM4’s shone. With Clear Bass enhancement on, equalisation tweaked and DSEE fired up, the sound felt nuanced and richly textured. Hi-hats and vocals dazzled.
Listening to Diana Krall’s ‘Gentle Rain’, it was almost as if I was standing next to her as she sang. I could practically feel her inhale and exhale. Musically, the improved audio processing grunt translated into a far more precise and refined sound. With Clear Bass on, the XM4’s cranked out bass that packed some serious weight while sounding tight. There was no flabby, waffly bass at all. The synth drums in New Order’s ‘Blue Monday (Hard Floor Mix)’ almost left me with a concussion.
The XM4’s delivered a spacious soundstage too. Precise audio with kicking bass can make for fatiguing extended listening. Still, the warmth in the XM4’s audio helps to make them super engaging for extended listening bouts.
Further helping things along is their Bluetooth codec support. Not only do the XM4’s support low-fi SBC, but higher quality AAC and LDAC codecs are catered for too. Oddly, the AptX codec is MIA, even though it was supported with the XM3’s. Being Sony gear, there’s support for the 360 Reality Audio format. In short, Sony seems to have cracked the audio side of over-ear headphones as well as earbuds. Because of this, the XM4 cans are a delight to use.
Noise-cancelling and audio improvements aside, Sony also baked in a load of other nifty features. Perhaps the handiest of all is Quick Attention mode. Anyone who has flown long haul knows the distraction that comes from cabin crew asking you something that requires you to remove headphones. Quick Attention mode works by holding your hand over the right earcup. Audio pauses and the cans switch to ambient sound mode, allowing you to have a quick conversation without removing the headphones. While Quick Attention mode still works with the XM4’s, an updated and even better version, called Speak-to, gives you the same thing, but with no hands needed. Instead, you just start talking, and audio pauses with the headphones switching into Ambient mode. Audio resumes after a set period (which can be from 15 seconds to a minute). You can also continue audio by touching an earcup.
Anyone who wants to use the XM4’S with multiple devices will also appreciate Multipoint Bluetooth Pairing. With it, you can pair the XM4’s with two devices at the same time and seamlessly move between them. This makes moving from a phone to a laptop hassle-free.
Another killer feature involves the XM4’s using your phone’s GPS to work out where you are and what you’re up to. Based on your location and activity, the XM4’s can automatically tweak their audio/noise cancelling to suit.
So, just how much better are the WH-1000XM4’s than the XM3’s? Subtle refinements to comfort adds to their wearability. Battery life means they just won’t quit, while audio processing and noise cancellation tweaks make a big difference over the XM3’s, with the XM4’s sounding crisper and more nuanced. While none of the extra features would be described as must-haves, they’re all useful. All told, if I had a spare $599.95 to spend on noise-cancelling headphones, the XM4’s would be where I’d be spending it.