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Sony WH-1000XM4 review

Sony is coming for Bose’s crown

Sony WH-1000xM4 Headphones review
Editor's Choice
(Image: © Laptop Mag)

Our Verdict

The Sony WH-1000xM4 headphones offer excellent audio, powerful ANC and tons of audio customization options in a comfortable frame.

For

  • Excellent audio quality
  • Powerful active noise cancelling
  • Light, comfortable frame
  • 30 hours of battery life
  • Plethora of sound customization options

Against

  • Finicky touch controls

 
Sony’s not taking any prisoners with this one. The latest revamp to its flagship wireless noise-cancelling headphones, the WH-1000xM4, has improved upon its predecessor’s key complaint –– call quality. It’s now crystal clear whether you’re in or outdoors. 

Now that that’s been taken care of, music lovers can enjoy everything this $349 pair of headphones has to offer, including excellent audio quality, 30 hours of battery life and a host of audio customization features that make the 1000xM4 some of the smartest headphones on the market. And you get active noise cancelling that, dare I say, is a serious contender to Bose’s crown, making the WH1000xM4 the latest entrant to our Best Noise Cancelling Headphones and Best Wireless Headphones pages. 

Sony WH-1000xM4 Headphones design

Sony didn’t bother tweaking the 1000xM4’s design too much which is fine because that black chassis with its minute copper accents still looks great –– especially with the Sony badges stamped on both sides of the yolks. With the exception of the black, brushed aluminum extenders, the majority of the headphones’ frame is made of plastic while the headband and earcups are made from memory foam covered in black leatherette. The earcups swivel to lay flat against your shoulders, making for a more comfortable fit when you’re wearing them around your neck.

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

However, there are some slight changes. The earpads, for instance, are 10% longer than its predecessor while the headband is somewhat slimmer. 

The WH-1000xM4 has a similar button and port placement as its predecessor, the 1000xM3. The USB Type-C charging port is under the right earcup while the Power and Custom buttons are located on the underside of the left cup with the audio jack in case you want to plug the headphones into a waiting laptop or smartphone. The NFC chip is embedded in the left earcup while the motion sensor sits on the interior. 

And like the xM3, Sony’s latest cans are also available in Champagne Gold. 

Sony WH-1000xM4 Headphones comfort

The 1000xM4 are super comfy. Seriously, I wore them for an entire 8-hour workday and there was never an uncomfortable moment. The only time I really noticed them was when I turned them on and off. The increased surface area of the earcups pressed ever so gently against my head, doing a great job of alleviating any undue pressure. The large oval shape of the earcups totally fits over my tiny ears, and it should easily accommodate those with larger ears. 

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

The xM4 weighs 8.9 ounces, which is just a little lighter than the 9-ounce Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700. However, when I hold both pairs of cans, the Bose does feel heavier. 

Sony WH-1000xM4 Headphones setup

You can connect your 1000xM4 to your device in several ways. There’s the traditional Bluetooth pairing, which takes less than a minute to complete. And for compatible devices, you have NFC, which allows you to touch the devices together to initiate pairing. 

Sony WH-1000xM4 Headphones controls

Just like its predecessor, you’ll find the touch controls cleverly hidden in the right earcup. The functions are identical with upward/downward strokes adjusting the volume while a right/left swipe skips tracks. Double tapping the center of the cup will pause/play tracks or answer/ignore incoming phone calls. Placing your hand over the right earcup activates Quick Attention, which pauses the music momentarily so you can have a conversation.

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

And a long press, or the Custom button depending on how you map it, will either activate your device’s digital assistant or the Ambient Sound control. Since summoning Google Assistant with my voice worked so seamlessly, I programmed the controls to react to the latter command. 

Speaking of voice commands, you can program the headphones to stop playing audio when you talk and switch to Ambient Noise mode via the Sony Headphones Connect app. 

The touch controls can take some getting used to. You can’t indiscriminately swipe as you’ll accidentally activate the wrong command. There were several instances where I accidentally skipped tracks when I was trying to adjust the volume. It was annoying, but I found the best way to engage with the panel is slow, deliberate strokes and taps. 

Sony WH-1000xM4 Headphones app

Now, this is a companion app! The free Sony Headphones Connect app (Android, iOS) unleashes a ton of functionality, setting the 1000xM4 far apart from the competition. In addition to turning the headphones on and off, you can see the battery life, volume levels and track information. You can also adjust the Adaptive Sound Control levels from total noise cancelling to Ambient Sound Control level 20. 

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Other features include Speak-to-Chat and the Noise Cancelling Optimizer, which takes measurements of your ear to create the ideal listening environment depending on head size and whether or not you wear glasses. There’s also Atmospheric Pressure Optimization that adjusts pressure depending on altitude. It’s a feature that shines best on an airplane. 

The app also allows you to set sound quality priority (quality vs stable connection). And new to the WH-1000xM4 is Digital Sound Enhancement Engine (DSEE) Extreme, Sony’s technology to enhance compressed audio by restoring high-range audio via the company’s proprietary Edge-AI. Another long-awaited feature is the ability for the headphones to simultaneously connect to two devices. Other useful tools include the ability to change the Custom button functionality, toggle the touch sensor panel on and off, enable/disable the motion sensor and automatically power the headphones off.

And if that isn’t enough, the app also has an equalizer with 12 presets. Plus, you get Sony’s 360 Reality Audio functionality, which creates a 360-degree soundscape, giving the illusion of being in your own personal concert hall. 

Sony WH-1000xM4 Headphones active noise cancelling

Sony has put together a complex system dedicated to keeping out the noise. The xM4 has two Feedforward microphones that capture ambient sounds and uses the company’s proprietary Dual Noise Sensor technology to pass the information to the HD Noise Canceling Processor QN1 chip. From there, the data is analyzed at over 700 times per second by the Bluetooth System on Chip (SoC), which uses an algorithm to filter out the noise. 

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

What does that mean in layman’s terms? This is some seriously powerful active noise cancelling. So powerful in fact, that they matched the Bose in blocking out my LG TV when the volume was set to 17 and there was no music playing. And when I took my daily walk around the neighborhood, all but the loudest noise (loud conversations, an overhead train) was blocked out. And once I started playing music, even that was drowned out. 

Using the app, the 1000xM4 has 20 levels of Ambient Sound Controls to access compared to the Bose’s 10 levels of ANC, just in case you need to be aware of your surroundings. And while both headphones’ apps let listeners adjust how much ambient noise enters the soundscape, the Bose definitely does it better. 

Although I could hear my TV on the 1000xM4 with the music playing at half volume, it was a very hollow sound once I went past the wind resistance setting. It actually sounded like the headphones were introducing wind interference, even after turning off my air conditioner. The Bose had a warmer presentation overall allowing me to listen to why a particular chef was being sent home on Chopped: Sweets Edition without sacrificing the upbeat tempo of Chloe x Halle’s “Ungodly Hour.”

But there’s one more layer to Sony’s noise cancelling tech, and that’s Adaptive Sound Control. This feature also appeared on the 1000xM3 and it basically turns the headphones into the smartest cans you’ll ever use. Adaptive Sound Control keeps track of your frequent locations and activities and learns which ambient settings work best in the situation then switches automatically. 

For instance, after using the 1000xM4s in my home for a number of days, I received a notification asking to register the location. Since I tended to be sitting when wearing the cans, the app created a profile with the setting preset to maximum noise cancelling. But about 2 minutes into my daily walk, I heard a beep and Adaptive Sound Control automatically switches into the Walking profile, which switched to 12 on the Ambient Sound Controls and, when I picked up the pace, it switched over to Running, which increased the Ambient Sound Controls to 20. 

While it’s really cool to have headphones that can predict your needs in real-time, the feature can be a little sensitive and switch too frequently. That takes away from whatever you’re listening to as you get the beep and a second of silence every time the app adjusts.

Sony WH-1000xM4 Headphones 360-degree audio

Sony’s audio tricks don’t stop with the ANC. The 1000xM4 are the latest headphones to use the company’s 360 Reality Audio technology, which creates a spatial 3D audio soundscape. That meant when I listened to Britany Spears’ “Toxic” on one of the approved playlists on Tidal, I felt like I was in my own private concert hall and I half-expected Spears to come out wearing the blue stewardess outfit from the video. 

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

The spatial audio effect meant that the singer sounded like she was standing right in front of me, while the haunting violin strings were to the sides and the bass guitar was located to my right. And when I turned my head to the right or left, the lead vocal got louder in the ear facing virtual Britany and softer in the other. It’s a cool, trippy feature that really has to be heard to be believed. 

And I have to tell you, I felt goosebumps hearing Marvin Gaye whispering in my left ear and then my right in the opening on “Sexual Healing.” The artist’s main vocal was appropriately front and center in the soundscape while his backup vocals sat to either side of my ear. The guitar was positioned to my left while the drums were on my right and the piano and chimes were in front. 360 Reality Audio adds a missing dimension to music that helps it feel more dynamic and intimate. 

As cool as the feature is, it’s currently limited to three music services: Tidal, Deezer and nug.net. I really wish Sony would partner with Spotify and Google Music so everyone can experience it. It’d also be cool if the technology could be integrated into movie streaming services as a relatively inexpensive way to get that surround sound effect from your laptop or smartphone. 

Sony WH-1000xM4 Headphones audio quality

Okay, so Sony has all these bells and whistles, but how does the audio sound? In a word, fantastic. 

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

I started with the submerged instrumentals of Rihanna’s “Needed Me” with the equalizer turned off. The boss kiss-off song sounded at once ethereal and dark with the bass seeming to rise from beneath the soundscape while the synthesized instrumentals still have room to float around Rihanna’s raspy, assertive alto. And despite what should be overwhelming bass, I can still clearly hear the drum kit. 

Listening to the same track on the Bose wasn’t as forceful. It’s not bad by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, the headphones are very precise; I definitely heard the drums in the background more clearly. It should also be noted that what passes for 50% volume on the 1000xM4 is about 70% on the Bose. 

When I started playing “Sometimes I Wonder” by Darius Rucker and Jill Scott, I was immediately taken by how full the keyboard sounded. Rucker’s vocals were rich like molasses while Scott’s was light and airy, and when the violins began to swell, it was simply beautiful. Again, the track wasn’t as dynamic on the Bose, although that lack of fullness did allow me to hear more of the guitar strums and the violins. 

For my last track, I listened to Derrick Hodge’s “Color Of Noize” and the 1000xM4 presented a powerful organ, crisp drums with plenty of cymbal crashes, and a synthed-out keyboard. And while the keyboard and organ should have been competing for space, there was never any distortion. On the Bose, the cymbals were a bit more precise, and I heard the gentle tinkling of a bottle in the background. The keyboard and organ were bright and open.

Sony WH-1000xM4 Headphones battery life and Bluetooth

They’re still going. Despite wearing the 1000xM4 for 20 hours over the course of 3 days, the headphones still have 30% battery life. That falls in line with Sony’s 30-hour estimate with the ANC enabled. Turn off ANC and you get 38 hours of juice, which, with 3 hours of listening a day, should last nearly two weeks. Both times are significantly longer than the Bose, which has an estimated battery life of 20 hours. 

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Eventually, you’ll have to take the 1000xM4 off to charge them via the USB-C port. It won’t be a long wait since Sony says you’ll only need 10 minutes of charge to get 5 hours of battery life. 

The 1000xM4 uses Bluetooth 5.0 which means it has a theoretical range of 800 feet. During my testing, I had no problem leaving my phone upstairs while I worked downstairs or when I went into the backyard. However, when I left my apartment building to stand on the street, I started to hear some sputtering. 

Sony WH-1000xM4 Headphones call quality

One of the biggest complaints about the 1000xM3 was the call quality (or lack thereof). Sony heard you and made several improvements to the xM4. First off, the headphones have five microphones working to block out noise and amplify your voice. Controlled by Sony’s Precise Voice Pickup technology, the mics perform audio signaling processing to deliver optimal audio quality during calls. 

I made several phone calls on the 1000xM4 and regardless of whether I was sitting in front of my TV or walking to the store, each of my callers reported they could hear me clearly. The audio was great on my end as well as I heard my niece clearly in the background when I called my brother to provide a little tech support. And when I was walking to the fish market, my mom said she couldn’t hear the train rushing past overhead. And while I could hear it on my end, it wasn’t enough to distract me from the conversation. 

Bottom line

Sometimes, the biggest changes are the ones you don’t see. Aesthetically, the Sony WH-1000xM4 doesn’t look that much different than its predecessor, but a few slight tweaks make for an even more comfortable pair of cans. But the biggest changes to Sony’s flagship wireless headphones can be found in the chips and other components along with the accompanying Sony Headphones Connect app. 

Together, the 1000xM4 are some of the smartest headphones on the market, able to pause whatever you’re listening to the second you speak, adjust the noise cancelling depending on your activity or location, and create a 3D audio experience. And this is all before we get to the excellent active noise cancelling that’s nearly equal to Bose, the incredibly rich audio experience, the 30 hours of battery life and the MIF (Most Improved Feature) of the review, the crystal clear call quality.

But for $349, I want more precision from the touch control panel and it’d be nice to get some additional colors. If you want slightly stronger ANC and a more precise audio experience with a more modern look, you should check out the $339 Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700. However, if you’re looking for some of the smartest headphones on the market with excellent audio and powerful active noise cancelling, the Sony WH-1000xM4 headphones should be at the top of your list.