If you're looking for some top-quality noise-cancelling earbuds, you might well find yourself wondering about the Sony WF-1000XM4 vs Sony WF-1000XM3 – these are two of the best-known options and rightly so. The XM4 is the is the newer version of the two, but the XM3 is still on-sale, so there's definitely a choice to be made here.
The array of true wireless earbuds – as opposed to those pesky false ones with the wires between the ears – available in 2021 is intimidating. As you can see in our constantly updated list of the best wireless earbuds, the biggest brands in audio are now endlessly focussed on one upping each other with longer battery life in more svelte cases and, of course, better audio. This is constantly evolving tech, catching up on decades of wired headphone audio wizardry in only a few years. Therefore deciding which to invest in feels even more intimidating as they’re not exactly cheap.
So maybe you've settled on our Platinum Award-winning top choice, the active noise-cancelling Sony WF-1000XM4. But, given that we gave the previous model, the equally active noise-cancelling Sony WF-1000XM3, five stars and the same award back in 2019, and the price has now halved at many retailers from the original cost, it might be wise to compare the two to figure out if spending the extra money is really worth it – or whether you can go budget without regretting it.
Sony WF-1000XM4 vs Sony WF-1000XM3: Price & release date
Let’s start with the easy bit. Released in June 2021, the Sony WF-1000XM4s will set you back £250 in the UK, $280 in the USA, and $449 in Australia. This puts Sony firmly in the upper tiers of the pack when it comes to true wireless earbuds overall, but is very typical for high-end noise-cancelling options. The exceptional Bowers & Wilkins P17 sit at a lofty £349/$399/AU$599 while the impressive Cambridge Audio Melomania 1 Plus are at a budget price of £119.95 in the UK and $139.95 in the US. The Sony WF-1000XM4 are also exactly on par with the official price of Apple’s AirPod Pros (though you will pay less for AirPods Pro if you buy anywhere other than Apple).
But how does Sony’s previous generation stack up? Upon release, the WF-1000XM3 was £220/$230/AU$399, but the introduction of the new buds means that price has now been significantly reduced. It depends on your country but some UK retailers are now retailing them for £130 and in the US you can expect to now shell out $179.99. This is a significant saving from release, since the actual product hasn't changed one bit. The biggest competitor for this price right now is really Beats Studio Buds, which cost £129.99 / $149.99 / AU$199.95.
Sony WF-1000XM4 vs Sony WF-1000XM3: Design & battery life
The first big difference between the two, as we say in our Sony WF-1000XM4 review, is form factor. “The WF-1000XM4 is an entirely new design that addresses the few shortcomings of the model it replaces – specifically the rather bulky size of them. These earbuds are lighter (at 7.3g) and 10% smaller than those they replace, while the new charging case is a full 40% smaller than the coffin-style outgoer.”
The design of the WF-1000XM3 might've been one of the larger issues for those buds for some people, because they were pretty damn large compared to the svelte true wireless earbuds people often want. The previous generation weighs in at 8.5g per bud and, while the case is chunkier than the more rounded upgrade, there’s nothing offensive about its more solid looks overall. It just doesn't slip into the pocket as nicely.
Both also offer reliable Sony build quality and a satisfying magnetic connection when you’re taking your buds in and out. Both sets of buds are also snug fitting for superior noise cancelling, with the WF-1000XM4s boasting new polyurethane eartips for improved passive noise-reduction.
And neither battery is anything to be sniffy about either. As we said in our Sony WF-1000XM3 review, the earbuds will give you six hours of playback with noise cancelling and there’s another 18 hours worth of juice in the case. Turn off noise cancelling and there’s 8 hours of playtime in the earbuds and 32 lurking in the case.
As you’d expect, the WF-1000XM4s have improved on that even more, with noise cancelling listening for 8 hours in the buds and a full 24 hours extra in the smaller case. You’re going to have to take a very long plane journey indeed to run either of these right down.
Sony WF-1000XM4 vs Sony WF-1000XM3: Features & sound quality
Features wise, both sets of earbuds are packed. Thanks to an update, the WF-1000XM3 now boast the same Alexa support as the WF-1000XM4 and both work with Google Assistant. When it comes to controls, the WF-1000XM4 do have the edge though. As we said in our review:
“As well as voice control, there are touch-sensitive pads on each earbud. You can attribute specific controls to them using Sony’s outstanding Headphones app. “Volume up/down’, ‘play/pause’, ‘skip forwards/backwards/summon voice assistant’ and ‘noise-cancelling on/off/adaptive’ can all be assigned, and the app also has some very worthwhile EQ adjustment incorporated too.” There’s even the option to photograph your ears with the app to customise the audio processing to take the shape into account.
The WF-1000XM3 also offer adaptive sound control that lets you turn noise cancelling off when you are out and about, and you can always just pop one of the earbuds out to turn the audio off entirely as they smartly know when they’re in your ears.
Then there’s the sound and, truthfully, two five-star reviews from us should let you know we’re fans of both. The noise cancelling in both is exceptional and surprising for the size of the buds and the sound performance is huge. As we said in our review of the previous generation “the WF-1000XM3 don’t disappoint. They’re spatially precise, with a great mid-range for speech and vocals, and an ability to drop low when required, without sounding boomy. The WF-1000XM3 can also handle trickier sounds such as horns with unapologetic bravado and a minimum of honkiness, while vocals soar gloriously high.”
And the upgraded versions are even better. “Leave the EQ adjustments well alone and the WF-1000XM4 are a poised, balanced and entirely believable listen. With some hi-res audio content playing, they give appropriate prominence to each area of the frequency range. Bass is substantial, but textured, detailed and straight-edged too. The midrange is equally information-rich, with hawkish attention paid to transients and a whole stack of definition contributing to an articulate presentation.” So yes, a bit good then.
Sony WF-1000XM4 vs Sony WF-1000XM3: Verdict
The good news is that a purchase of either of these wireless earbuds is a solid investment. Two years of upgraded tech does mean a sleeker design, more control
and better dynamic performance with the Sony WF-1000XM4, but the previous generation still has a brilliant battery life, excellent noise cancelling and seriously impressive audio quality.
If you can’t possibly be seen with an older model, you know what to do – but those on a budget should know that you'll get an exceptional set of true wireless earbuds at a very good price if you go for the WF-1000XM3 instead.