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
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.
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.
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 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.
First-class noise reduction
As I have already mentioned, Sony has the active noise canceling crown with its WH-1000XM3. WH-1000XM4 has the same HD Noise Canceling Processor QN1 as the previous generation, but with a new algorithm. This chip processes ambient noise samples captured by a pair of sensors on each earcup at a rate of 700 times every second. In any case, my ears could barely distinguish any difference between the noise-canceling performance of the WH-1000XM4 compared to its predecessor.
Any noise reduction strategy starts passively, with large ear cups forming a tight but comfortable seal around the ears to blunt the sharp edges of loud noises and set the high sum of devices. This is a little appreciated aspect of the experience, and this is where cheaper headphones usually falter.
Active noise reduction filters out low and medium frequency noise to a small extent, but low frequency filtering is where active noise canceling headphones really shine – although it can be disorienting for people experiencing it for the first time. Transient (high amplitude, short-lived) sounds can still penetrate this system, and these headphones do their best to pinch the signal, but it can tremble if the transient is very high.
I’m at least as happy with the WH-1000XM4’s active noise cancellation as I was with the previous generation. My everyday life has been very different from what it was at the beginning of the year. I work from home instead of going to the office, and I rarely travel, but I still appreciate how these headphones allow me to focus when I need to do the work.
My testing included things like spinning the fans on my gaming PC, hanging out in a park and using a fantastic white noise machine to name a few. The previous model served me well for many hours of flight and public transport, and I have no reason to believe that the new model will not give the same results.
I appreciate the Ambient Sound Control feature in Sony’s follow-up app that allows you to tailor noise cancellations to your situation. These headphones sense where you are wearing them and what you are doing, and they tailor noise cancellation accordingly. If you are at home and relatively stagnant, you get a full cancellation so you can concentrate on your music. If you walk, the headphones will add some ambient sound to enhance your situational awareness (so that you are not run over by a bus, for example). It’s a great system, and the app lets you fine-tune these settings to your heart’s; nevertheless, I quickly discovered that I preferred to trigger my ANC settings manually using the Custom button.
Sony also provides ways to quickly override noise, pause or turn down the volume of your music, and beep in ambient sound if you need to stop and talk to someone without removing the headphones. This is also useful when you are at an airport and need to listen for a boarding. This Quick Attention mode was present in the previous model and is activated when you place your hand over the right earcup. I did not use this feature much, and instead preferred to take off my headphones. Unfortunately, fast attention mode cannot be defeated, and that was sometimes when I accidentally triggered it while adjusting the fit.
A new automatic override feature – talk-to-chat –can be enabled / disabled in the app. When activated, it recognizes when you start talking and pauses music while pumping in ambient sound so you can have a conversation without any other intervention. In theory, it provides a better way to chat with someone than to hold your hand over the ear cup, but I found that it was prone to being triggered by a cough or someone else talking near me. It will remain in this mode for 30 seconds by default, but you can adjust the sensitivity and duration of the app. I never found myself in a situation where I preferred to talk-to-chat rather than just take off my damn headphones.
Click here to read about the rest of Adam’s experience.