Sony WH-1000XM4 full review
The eagerly awaited successor to Sony’s much-lauded WH-1000XM3 over-ear noise cancelling headphones, the inevitably christened WH-1000XM4 introduce some intriguing AI features, and make minor improvements, to an already class-leading noise cancelling set of cans.
Long story short, the best got a little bit better. And in 2021 they are still the pair to beat and now come in a new colour. You might also be interested in the Sony WF-1000XM4 wireless earbuds.
Design & Build
Cosmetically, the WH-1000XM4 look almost identical to their predecessor. The cups appear a tad larger, and there’s now a visible sensor in the left-hand earpiece which enables auto switch-off when you take them off, but general comfort and build is the same.
The faux leather pads remain divinely-soft, and the headband nicely cushioned. Wearing them for a long office stint or journey certainly wouldn’t be onerous at all.
Your colour choice remains black or silver-grey and as of June 2021, a new Midnight Blue model that looks particularly stunning. If earbuds might be a better choice, Sony has announced the WF-1000XM4.
So what of those new AI (artificial intelligence) features? Let’s talk smart Adaptive Sound Control, Speak-to-Chat, and enhanced DSEE Extreme...
Like the other smart features on-board, this Extreme iteration of DSEE (Sony's Digital Sound Enhancement Engine) uses Edge-AI - which is to say AI that can operate on a local device, without need for a cloud connection - to compensate for audio lost during digital compression.
This implementation can analyse music in real-time, recognising instruments, music genres and even individual musical elements, effectively restoring high range sounds.
What makes it particularly interesting is that it’s been designed in collaboration with Sony Music Studios Tokyo, which goes some way to explaining it’s sonic integrity. The results are entirely convincing.
Similarly, the new Adaptive Sound Control is geo-aware and can adjust automatically based on locations that you frequently visit. You can set up frequently visited locations - such as your home or office - with your preferred sonic settings in the Sony Headphones Connect App. The headphones will adjust as you move between environments.
Possibly the most interesting of the smart AI features is Speak-to-Chat, wherein the resident AI learns your voice so that it can pause music when you speak, meaning you don’t have to take the headphones off.
It’s certainly clever, but the jury’s out on whether we’d use it every day. For one thing, speaking while wearing active noise-cancelling headphones is just weird. Your disconnected voice sounds like it’s funnelling down a tube.
Secondly, it seems a tad rude not to just drop your ‘phones, particularly as tunes auto-pause anyway and the other person is unlikely to know about the feature anyway.
Music automatically starts playing 30 seconds after you’ve last spoken, which is a bit too long, although you can adjust this in the app to a more responsive 15 seconds.
Additional new tricks include Multi-Point two device Bluetooth pairing, and wearing detection.
The latter works perfectly. Using a proximity sensor and two acceleration sensors, the headphones automatically pause when you remove them and eventually power down.
While the WH-1000XM4 employs the same dedicated QN1 noise cancelling processor as the WH-1000XM3, Sony claims to have improved cancellation further by curtailing high and mid frequencies. This seems particularly evident when it comes to ambient speech.
The noise cancelling here is eerily good. Sony’s ANC really does isolate you from the outside world.
Contentiously, there’s no Bluetooth aptX support though. Normally this would be the go-to codec of choice for higher quality wireless streaming.
However, Sony has opted to focus on its own LDAC Bluetooth solution, which also offers Hi-Fi streaming. With LDAC now part of the Android specification, it seems Sony may well be right to do so. Users probably won’t even notice the absence of aptX.
Check out our chart of the best noise cancelling headphones.
The WH-1000XM4 sing like angels in heavenly harmony, albeit angels with an ability to drop heavy beats or mosh when required. That said, they don’t sound appreciably different to their predecessor.
They use the same 40mm Liquid Crystal Polymer drivers found in the WH-1000XM3, notable for their crisp highs and tangible bass. Low frequencies are forceful, but not exaggerated, while the mid-range is velvety smooth. These cans aren’t just good for music, they sound excellent with podcasts too.
Naturally, they’re hi-res 24-bit 96 kHz capable; they can also be used for 360 Reality Audio (as offered by Deezer and Tidal HD).
It’s worth noting that Multi-Point shared Bluetooth disables LDAC, so there’s a drop in quality when you use it.
Battery life clocks in at a substantial 30 hours, more than enough for a couple of days general playtime. And that's with noise cancelling switched on; the headphones can last 38 without ANC.
If you run out of juice, a quick charging function gives up to 5 hours of wireless playback from a 10-minute top-up via the USB-C port. A full charge will take around three hours, according to Sony.
The WH-1000XM4 sells for £350/US$349, which reflects their premium status. They come with a neat carry case, travel adapter, headphone cable and USB-C cable.
If you don’t need the smarter functionality, then look for deals on WH-1000XM3, as they sound much the same, ANC notwithstanding. At the time of writing it's possible to find them for around £229 from the likes of Amazon and John Lewis.
Also check out our best headphones chart to see if the likes of Bose, Cambridge Audio and Nura might tempt you.
Rather than rest on its laurels, Sony has pushed the WH-1000XM4 into surprising new areas.
The new Edge-AI driven feature set is nothing if not inventive, and it’s somehow managed to make this already impressive noise cancelling design even more formidable.
All of which would mean naught if these cans didn’t sound great. But they do. Clean, smooth and musical, the WH-1000XM4 are nothing short of sublime.
Still, if these new features don't get you excited then the previous-gen XM3 will do you proud.
Sony WH-1000XM4: Specs
- Design: Over-ear closed
- Drivers: 40mm dome
- Frequency response: 4-40,000Hz
- Connectivity: Bluetooth 5.0, NFC, detachable cable, USB-C
- Wireless range: 10m
- Active Noise cancellation (ANC): Yes
- Battery life: 38 hours (no ANC), 30 hours (ANC on)
- Audio codecs: SBC, AAC, LDAC
- Voice control support: Yes
- Touch controls: Yes
- Weight: 254g
- Colours: Black, Silver
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