Sony WF-1000XM4 Earbuds REVIEW
What’s a reviewer supposed to do when a 10/10-rated product gets even better with its next iteration? PAT PILCHER tests Sony’s new buds.
We were so impressed with Sony’s last wireless earbuds (the rather excellent WF-1000XM3’s) that we gave them Witchdoctor’s coveted 10/10 award. Now Sony is back with their latest wireless earbuds, the creatively named Sony WF-1000XM4. Dull name, dull earbuds? Not so!
In fact, they’ve managed the near-impossible and topped last year’s 10/10 product. Unfortunately, Witchdoctor just doesn’t do 11/10 accolades! Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last week, the odds are that you’ll know the global tech media has been collectively wetting their pants over these buds. Having stuffed a pair into my noggin, it isn’t hard to see why. In nearly every aspect, the updated buds offer notable improvements over their already excellent predecessors.
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From a design perspective, Sony has managed that ever so tricky task of making their next buds distinctive, quirky, and yet as practical as last year’s model. The big news is that design-wise the XM4’s sport a more compact design. One of the first things you notice when looking at the XM4’s is that they have obviously spent some serious time at Jenny Craig’s. The single biggest complaint laid at the door of the WF-1000XM3’s centred around their bulk. There really is no other way to put it, they were chubbers, and their charging case was huge.
Sony clearly took this feedback on board, and as such, the XM4’s charging case is now 40% more petite. This means you can pocket it and not worry about strangers walking up to you on the street and saying, “Hey, is that a Sony earbud charging case in your front pocket, or are you just pleased to see me?”
It isn’t just the charging case, either. The earbuds are 10% more compact. Now you can plunk them in your ears, and you won’t look like a Prince Charles wannabe who has overdosed on ear Viagra. Most important of all, they’re a comfy fit. Another bonus is that their new memory foam tips offer excellent sound isolation on top of their active noise cancellation (more on that later).
As an aside, Sony earns big brownie points from this writer because there’s no plastic packaging used. Copious amounts of plastic packaging destined for landfill has long been a staple of consumer electronics. The WF-1000XM4’s are sold in paper-based, recyclable and eco-friendly packaging. I don’t know about you, but I find the amount of pointless plastic packaging used for TVs, phones and other doodad’s infuriating. Other tech companies should follow Sony’s example.
Sony has migrated a bunch of features from their over-ear cans onto the XM4’s. These include Speak-To-Chat, DSEE Extreme audio upscaling, and adaptive noise cancellation. In combination, these new goodies mean the XM4’s are not only outstanding sonically and quiet in the ANC department, but they’re a joy to use.
Much of what makes the WF-1000Xm4’s shine comes down to Sony’s rather excellent Headphone Connect app (Android/iOS). With it, you gain granular control over all the buds’ features. I particularly like that the app lets you get to choose what controls you’d like. These range from volume up/down, play/pause/skip forwards/skip backwards/voice assistant, active noise-cancelling on/off/adaptive.
There is a dedicated sound tab in the app. Here you’ll find an EQ (it comes with many presets and, crucially, the ability to manually adjust EQ settings along with a bass booster). With the EQ, you also get the option to save custom presets. Then there’s the rather excellent DSEE Extreme audio upscaling option, which can make even low-fi 128kbps MP3 tracks and audio from Spotify sparkle. Sony’s 360 audio is also present – even if setting it up is a bit of a pain. You also get to choose your voice assistant. Available options are Google Assistant, Alexa, and (for fruity phone owners) Siri. These will handily do your bidding once you utter their ‘wake’ words.
As with all the ear gear tested by Witchdoctor, the XM4’s were put through their paces by wandering around the noisy and crowded RF environment of Wellington’s CBD. This showcased how stable their Bluetooth connection was and put audio, calling and noise cancellation to the test.
With three mics in each bud, the call quality was excellent. This is thanks to a combination of mics and bone conduction sensors as well as wind noise cancelling. The combination meant that the XM4’s delivered clear audio, even in the chaotically noisy (and windy) Willis St during the lunch hour. Using Ambient mode, I could hear myself speak, which meant I didn’t feel the need to raise my voice during the call. The XM4’s bone conduction capabilities meant my voice was picked up, but ambient street sounds weren’t. The caller had no idea I was using earbuds from a busy street corner. Not bad.
On the connectivity front, I used the Headphone Connect app to switch the blue tooth setting from audio quality to connection stability, which served me well. While the XM4’s didn’t perform as well as the Huawei Freebuds 4i on the connectivity front, Bluetooth only dropped out twice. Much of their performance in Wellington’s CBD comes down to the fact that they’re using Bluetooth 5.2. As well as more reliable connectivity, Bluetooth 5.2 also allows for transmission to both left and right earbuds. With the LDAC codec enabled, Hi-Res Audio is possible wirelessly too.
Another benefit of Bluetooth 5.2 is battery life. This translated into 12-24 hours of use (this will vary depending on a host of factors such as active noise cancellation use, listening volumes and so on). Handily the XM4’s charging case is also Qi wireless charging and wired fast charging compatible. This means plunking on the charging pad for the night means the buds are fully topped up in the morning when you’re most likely to need them. A mere five minutes plugged into a charger also delivers an hour’s use.
On the audio front, the Wf-1000XM4’s chewed some gum, kicked some ass and took some names. Their output across a variety of genres was nothing short of superb. Testing them out with some low-fi 128kbps Mp3 New Order tracks saw the rhythmic thump of the kick drum in ‘Blue Monday’ become a palpable thing. Switching to some Lou Reed FLAC files delivered a pile of sonic detail delivered that I’d not previously heard with other earbuds.
DSEEE Extreme upscaling really adds something, with audio feeling crisp yet super listenable. That said, the upscaling trick has its limits. While the theory is that DSEE upscaling can extract high-res audio from an SD digital audio file, I’m yet to be fully convinced. It does, however, add a layer of sparkle to audio that is noticeably absent in other ear gear lacking upscaling capabilities.
Either way, with everything I threw at them, the XM4’s audio impressed me. Bass has a texture and nuance that I’d never noticed with other earbuds. It feels sculpted, controlled and yet precise. Thankfully overall audio output is balanced. The upshot of this is that everything feels super engaging to listen to, with nothing being shrill or muddy.
Mids and lower treble deliver a tonne of sonic detail. This is nothing short of a revelation when walking down the street. Witchdoctor’s own Nathan Haines’ Poets Embrace packed a tonne of warmth and was highly engaging, showcasing the musicality of these buds. If you’re thinking the audio from the XM4’s impressed, you’d be right on the money. Sony’s Xm4’s are definitely the buds to beat when it comes to audio output.
It isn’t just their sonic capabilities that impressed. The active noise cancelling is also a success, even if it isn’t as robust as that with Bose’s QuietComfort buds. Although the WF-1000XM4 cut environmental noise down to a barely audible whisper, a tiny amount of noise snuck through into whatever I was listening to. Much of this comes down to their adaptive noise cancelling. The buds learn from the environments you’re in, tweaking their active noise cancellation in real-time. Regularly visited spots are recorded using your phone’s GPS. ANC settings learned from that location are re-applied and tweaked based on what the earbuds pick up when you revisit that location in the future. Over several days, it seemed like the XM4’s ANC performance steadily improved.
The WF-1000XM4 buds are curious beasts. Most manufacturers improve one or two features over their previous ear gear. Sony has pulled off the astonishing feat of delivering gains across the board. Excellent audio, a comfy fit, solid battery life and good active noise cancellation make the XM4’s a solid choice for anyone in the market for a good pair of wireless earbuds. If you’re the owner of last years models and are wondering if the XM4’s are a worthy upgrade, the answer is a definite yes.