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Sony WH-1000XM4 review: Still the best noise canceling headphones

Two years ago, when I reviewed Sony’s WH-1000XM3 active noise canceling headphones, I said that Sony had finally darkened Bose in this category. And I was not the only one who said that. Now the company is back with the brand new WH-1000XM4. Although these new boxes do not lift the ball very much, they are still my new best recommendation for music lovers who are looking for great sound phones that also provide fantastic noise reduction.

Key enhancements include a proximity sensor that automatically switches playback / pause when you turn the headphones on and off, support for the Sony LDAC high-res audio codec (a common feature on high-end digital audio players) and multi-point connection via Bluetooth 5.0 (so you can connect to two sources simultaneously). Sony made other very small improvements to the hardware and software as well; but for the most part, it̵

7;s just adjustments to a winning foundation.

This review is part of TechHive’s coverage of the best headphones, where you will find reviews of competing products, plus a buyer’s guide to the features you should consider when shopping for this type of product.

Let’s dive into the details that make the Sony WH-1000XM4 so good, and why the older WH-1000XM3 – which is still available and can be found for around $ 100 less if you shop around – remains a great value.

Sony WH-1000XM4 Adam Patrick Murray / IDG

There are some small changes, but at this distance you will be hard pressed to see the difference between the new and the old version.

Same great hardware, refined

The Sony WH-1000XM4 maintains the signature look this line is known for, with subtle gold accents and minimal buttons. Most controls are still handled with taps and swipes on the right ear cup. I’ve gotten used to this, but it’s never been my favorite way of navigating. The easy-to-find power button sits on the bottom of the left ear cup, along with a custom button that can be programmed to either select ambient sound control options or activate voice assistants. It’s a minimal and stylish design that still holds up years later, but the touch controls still present a learning curve.

Sony WH-1000XM4 Adam Patrick Murray / IDG

The side of the headphones has a nice structure when you use the touch controls.

The slim headband that was introduced in the previous model is very comfortable along the top of the head. Sony claims that the newer model has slightly upgraded ear pads, which should help during long listening sessions, but I could hardly tell a difference. The new set is more comfortable compared to the old model, but it can also be attributed to the wear and tear I have put on the older pair. I have used the WH-1000XM3 on many long flights and experienced some fatigue after many hours, so any upgrade in this area is welcome. Overall, it is a comfortable design that sits close to my head and melts away while I work. The swivel cups and the collapsible design are also retained, so that the new model is easy to put in a backpack. I’m glad they did not mess with a winning formula.

For more protection during transport, the included carrying case also received a small upgrade with improved seams and a stiffer shell that would last even longer. Other small upgrades to the case include fabric pockets for the zipper to retract into, and extra flap length on the dividing line. Aside from the stiffer case, none of these changes make a big difference, but I appreciate the attention to detail Sony has paid for things that are smaller like the carrying case. As before, accessories included come with a 3.5mm cable, a very short USB-C charging cable and an aircraft adapter.

Sony WH-1000XM4 Adam Patrick Murray / IDG

The carrying case is very tough and has some nice details.

Sony claims the same 30 hour battery life with noise reduction enabled, and with my heavy mixed use during my review, I found that the battery lasts almost as long as the previous pair. Here, too, Sony promises that the optional power adapter will deliver the same fast charging feature that provides five hours of listening time after just 10 minutes of charging, but Sony did not ship that component, so I was unable to test that claim. The USB-C cable in stock charged the boxes within a few hours.

My favorite new feature on the WH-1000XM4 is a proximity sensor that detects when you remove the boxes to stop playback automatically. The music resumes immediately when you put it back over your ears. This served as a charm. I tried to fool the sensor by placing the headphones on my thigh, close around my neck, and even had them as a crown, and I never triggered a false positive. When I returned the headphones to my ears, the music resumed quickly without any problems. This feature alone would make me consider upgrading from the previous version, and not just because it would extend battery life.

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