This Sony WH-1000XM4 review in a sentence: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss… But with a few further, welcome refinements that justify a price 'reset'. Result: Sony WH-1000XM4 are the best noise cancelling headphones you can buy, and even though some big-name contenders have come for their crown, they won Best Noise Cancelling Headphones at the T3 Awards 2021.
As good as the recent Shure Aonic 50, not to mention relative veterans such as Bose NC 700 and – for as long as it stays on sale – Sony WH-1000XM3, there's nothing to beat Sony's latest noise cancelling headphones. Adding a stack of new features to an existing favourite while still delivering where it really counts – sound quality and noise-cancelling – Sony is clearly not sick of winning yet. The only one this isn't going to win is best running headphones.
Sony WH-1000XM4: price and availability
Sony WH-1000XM4 are shipping now, priced £349 in the UK and more like €379 in the Eurozone. In the United States you’re looking at $349, while Australians can expect to pay AU$499.
Their actual availability may be a bit variable as Sony has not started selling them via its own website or Amazon or any other retailer, as yet.
Sony WH-1000XM4: build quality, design and battery life
As with most twins, it’s possible to tell the WH-1000XM4s apart from the WH-1000XM3s they replace – but only if you get them side-by-side in the same room and then stare really hard. That's rude with actual twins, but acceptable in this context
The WH-1000XM4 headband cushion is slightly slimmer. The earcups are slightly slimmer too, but the earbuds have grown by around 10%. Sony reckons this design is more comfortable than before, and the redesign has allowed it to shave a whole 1g off the outgoing XM3s’ already svelte 255g.
WH-1000XM4 is available in either black or ‘platinum silver’ or– let’s not beat around the bush here – grey. As might confidently be predicted, they’re constructed beautifully - the gap between the earcup and the yoke it articulates on is now vanishingly slender - and the soft-touch matte finish is very agreeable too. There’s nothing shouty about the way the Sonys look - by the standards of over-ear headphones they actually seem quite sophisticated.
Plenty of the XM3 features have been carried over - the touch controls on the right earcup, for example, are as logical and responsive as ever. But at the same time, Sony’s piled quite a few new features onto the WH-1000XM4.
The most obvious (and obviously useful) of these are ‘speak to chat’ and ‘adaptive sound control’. First the headphones learn to recognise your voice, which doesn’t take long. Then, all you need do is speak for music to be paused, and external sound mildly boosted, for 30 seconds – enough to buy a ticket or a coffee or whatever. Its sensitivity can be adjusted in the ‘Headphone Connect’ control app, so if, like some of us, you spend a lot of time muttering to yourself, you won’t be constantly pausing your music.
The app will also learn about your regularly visited locations – it's okay, you can turn this off – and then use Sony's 'adaptive sound control’ to adapt the sound and noise-cancellation intensity of the headphones to match.
Tailoring the audio profile of the XM4 to specified locations and then having the headphones adjust themselves as you go about your day is strangely satisfying.
Less cutting-edge, but arguably more useful, Sony’s fitted the WH-1000XM4 with a proximity sensor and accelerometers so music pauses when you take them off your head. It’s such a basic feature that it seems ludicrous the XM3 went without it
One feature not currently included but which I am assured will be in an imminent software update, is the ability to wirelessly pair with two devices at once.
Despite the quality of the XM3s’ noise-cancelling being widely acknowledged, Sony has attempted to finesse it even further with the WH-1000XM4. It's done that by bolstering its QN1 noise-cancellation processor with a Bluetooth Audio system-on-chip… thing. This new arrangement apparently analyses ambient conditions over 700 per second and makes noise-cancellation adjustments accordingly. I can only say that the noise cancelling is still, narrowly, the best there is.
It’s with Bluetooth, though, that the WH-1000XM4 specification strikes its only bum note. Wireless connectivity is via Bluetooth 5.0, which is sufficient to get nice big hi-res audio files on board - but it only supports SBC, AAC and Sony’s proprietary LDAC codecs. There’s no sign of aptX, let alone the aptX HD the XM3 supported.
AAC is appearing on more Android phones these days but most still use aptX, as do most Windows laptops. Hopefully Sony is able and willing to add aptX support in a future software update. It seems perverse not to.
Elsewhere, there’s support for voice assistants: Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri and Google Assistant.
WH1000XM4 is also compatible with 360 Reality Audio. Believe it or not, the app for this demands a picture of each of your ears.
There's also the latest version of Sony’s ‘digital sound enhancement engine’. It’s now called DSEE Extreme, and as with its less extreme versions it wants to put back the information stripped from your digital audio file during compression. The option to toggle it ‘on’ or ‘off’ is included in the app, so its effectiveness (or otherwise) when you’re playing back some bog-standard 128kbps Spotify file can easily be judged.
Over on the left earcup there’s NFC pairing, a ‘power on/off/pairing’ button and a 3.5mm analogue input for use with the bundled cable. And there’s a ‘custom’ button, the purpose of which can be, logically enough, 'customised' in the control app.
Sony WH-1000XM4: sound quality
The WH-1000XM4 packing makes a big splash of the headphones’ Hi-Res Audio Wireless credentials, and I can tell you that high-resolution (24bit/192kHz) music absolutely SLAYS.
Broadly speaking, everything that was admirable about how the WH-1000XM3 sounded is ported to the XM4 intact. They use the same 40mm free-edge full-range drivers, so perhaps it’s not all that surprising. The lowest frequencies are deep, minutely detailed and controlled really well – so despite hitting hard, the Sonys do so with completely straight edges.
That means they’re comfortable with tempos of all kinds, and that bass doesn’t swamp voices in the midrange.
That midrange is equally detailed, and equally revealing. The XM4 is capable of summoning real intimacy from a singer, as well as stacks of character.
At the top of the frequency range, WH-1000XM4 is very reminiscent of the XM3. They’re quite bright and attacking, but while they threaten to tip over into top-end hardness they never quite do so.
The spaciousness of the WH1000XM4 soundstage is a slight improvement over that of the XM3, which is all to the good. There’s real elbow room and breathing space, even when the individual elements of a recording are numerous. Even complex recordings are easy to understand and simple to follow. These Sonys are really quite revealing.
More importantly for many users, they’re not sniffy in the slightest about the quality of the digital file you serve them.
Naturally, they do their best work with the biggest and most esoteric file types, but if you subscribe to Spotify’s free tier the XM4 will make it sound as good as it possibly can. Sony's noise cancelling flagship remains an engaged and engaging listen.
Any slight drop-off in dynamism, or attack, or out-and-out punch, is more than compensated for by the confidence and clarity of the WH-1000XM4's delivery, as well as an uncanny ability with tone and timbre.
The control app has a number of EQ presets, plus the opportunity to save a couple of your own designs, so it’s possible to tame the treble a bit if you find it too wayward.
The EQ section is also home to a feature called ‘Clear Bass’. To be truthful, it is not all that 'Clear' but if what you want is 'Loadsa Bass’, this is the button to press.
Sony WH-1000XM4: verdict (and pictures of it from every imaginable angle)
Sony's WH-1000XM4 are now the best noise cancelling headphones you can get. A range of talents this comprehensive, both in sonic and technological terms, is a rarity in headphones at any price.
The previous Sony flagship WH-1000XM3 started out at the same price as the WH-1000XM4 but has been routinely discounted during the last 12 months. Almost the highest compliment you can pay to the WH-1000XM4 is that it keeps all the same virtues as its predecessor, but does enough on top of them to justify a 'reset' of the price to the top end of the noise cancelling headphones market.