Sony WH-1000XM4

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Two years ago, when I re­viewed Sony’s WH-1000XM3 ac­tive noise-can­celling headphones, I said that Sony had fi­nally eclipsed Bose in this cat­e­gory. And I wasn’t the only one to say it. Now, the com­pany is back with the all­new WH-1000XM4. While these new cans don’t ad­vance the ball by a lot, they none­the­less are my

new top rec­om­men­da­tion for mu­sic lovers look­ing for great-sound­ing headphones that also de­liver ter­rific noise can­cel­la­tion.

Key im­prove­ments in­clude a prox­im­ity sen­sor that au­to­mat­i­cally tog­gles play/pause when you put the headphones on and take them off, sup­port for Sony’s LDAC high-res au­dio codec (a com­mon fea­ture on

high-end dig­i­tal au­dio play­ers), and mul­ti­point con­nec­tion via Blue­tooth 5.0 (so you can con­nect to two sources at once). Sony made other very small im­prove­ments to the hard­ware and soft­ware, too; but for the most part, those are just tweaks to a win­ning foun­da­tion.

Let’s dive into the specifics that make Sony’s WH-1000XM4 so great, and why the older WH-1000XM3 – which are still avail­able and can be found for about £90 less if you shop around – re­main a great value.

THE 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 of the con­trols are still han­dled by taps and swipes on the right ear cup. I’ve grown ac­cus­tomed to this but it’s never been my favourite means of nav­i­ga­tion. 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 classy de­sign that still holds up years later, but the touch con­trols still present a learn­ing curve.

The slim head­band in­tro­duced in the pre­vi­ous model is very com­fort­able along the top of the head. Sony claims the newer model fea­tures slightly up­graded ear pads, which should help dur­ing long lis­ten­ing ses­sions, but I could barely tell a dif­fer­ence. The new set is more com­fort­able com­pared to the old model, but that could also be at­trib­uted to the wear I’ve placed on the older pair. I’ve

worn the WH-1000XM3 on plenty of long flights and en­coun­tered some pres­sure fa­tigue af­ter many hours, so any up­grade in that area is wel­come. Over­all, it’s a com­fort­able de­sign that sits snug on my head and melts away while I’m work­ing. The swiv­el­ling cups and fold­ing de­sign are also re­tained, so the new model is easy to stuff in a back­pack. I’m happy they didn’t mess with a win­ning for­mula.

For more pro­tec­tion in tran­sit, the in­cluded car­ry­ing case got a slight up­grade, too, with im­proved stitch­ing and a stiffer shell that should last even longer. Other tiny up­grades to the case in­clude cloth pock­ets for the zip­per to re­cede into, and ex­tra flap length on the di­vider. Apart from the stiffer case, none of these changes make a huge dif­fer­ence, but I ap­pre­ci­ate the at­ten­tion to de­tail Sony paid to things as mi­nor as the car­ry­ing case. As be­fore, pro­vided ac­ces­sories in­clude a 3.5mm ca­ble, a very short USB-C charg­ing ca­ble, and an air­line adapter.

Sony claims the same 30 hours of bat­tery life with noise can­celling en­abled, and with my heavy mixed us­age over the course of my re­view, I

found the bat­tery to last al­most as long as the pre­vi­ous pair. Here again, Sony prom­ises its op­tional power adapter will de­liver the same quick-charge fea­ture that pro­vides five hours of lis­ten­ing time af­ter just 10 min­utes of charg­ing, but Sony didn’t send that com­po­nent, so I wasn’t able to test that claim. The stock USB-C ca­ble charged the cans within a cou­ple hours.

My favourite new fea­ture on the WH-1000XM4 is a prox­im­ity sen­sor that de­tects when you take the cans off, so as to au­to­mat­i­cally pause play­back. The mu­sic re­sumes in­stantly when you put them back over your ears. This worked like a charm. I tried to trick the sen­sor by plac­ing the headphones on my thigh, tightly around my neck, and even wore them like a crown and I never trig­gered a false pos­i­tive. When I re­turned the headphones to my ears, the mu­sic quickly re­sumed with no prob­lem. This fea­ture alone would make me con­sider up­grad­ing from the pre­vi­ous ver­sion, and not just be­cause it should ex­tend bat­tery life.

TOP-NOTCH NOISE CAN­CEL­LA­TION

As I’ve al­ready men­tioned, Sony holds the ac­tive noise-can­cel­la­tion crown with its WH-1000XM3. The WH-1000XM4 fea­ture the same HD Noise Can­celling 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 ear cup at a rate of 700 times each sec­ond. Be that as it may, my ears could barely dis­cern any dif­fer­ence be­tween the noise-can­cel­la­tion per­for­mance of the WH-1000XM4 com­pared to its pre­de­ces­sor.

Any noise­can­cel­la­tion strat­egy starts pas­sively, with large ear cups that form a tight but com­fort­able seal around your ears to blunt the sharp edges of loud sounds and quiet the high­pitch hum of ap­pli­ances. This is an un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated as­pect of the ex­pe­ri­ence, and it’s where cheaper headphones typ­i­cally fal­ter.

Ac­tive noise can­cel­la­tion fil­ters out low and mid-range fre­quency noise to a great de­gree, but fil­ter­ing low-fre­quency noise is where ac­tive noise-can­celling headphones re­ally shine – even if it can be dis­ori­ent­ing for peo­ple ex­pe­ri­enc­ing it for the first time. Tran­sient (high-am­pli­tude, short-du­ra­tion) sounds can still pen­e­trate this sys­tem, and these headphones do their best to clamp down on the sig­nal, but it can be jar­ring if the tran­sient is very loud.

I am at least as pleased with the WH-1000XM4’s ac­tive noise can­cel­la­tion as I was with the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion. My daily life has been very dif­fer­ent than what it was at the be­gin­ning of the year. I work out of my home in­stead of go­ing to the of­fice, and I travel in­fre­quently, but I still ap­pre­ci­ate how these headphones al­low me to fo­cus when I need to get work done.

My test­ing in­cluded things like spin­ning up the fans on my gam­ing PC, hang­ing out­side in a park, and us­ing a fan­tas­tic white noise ma­chine to name a few. The pre­vi­ous model served me well dur­ing many hours of air travel and on pub­lic tran­sit, and I have no rea­son to be­lieve that the new model won’t de­liver the same re­sults.

I ap­pre­ci­ate the Am­bi­ent Sound Con­trol fea­ture in Sony’s com­pan­ion app that lets you tai­lor noise can­cel­la­tion to your sit­u­a­tion. These headphones sense where you’re wear­ing them and what you’re do­ing, and they tai­lor their noise can­cel­la­tion ac­cord­ingly. If you’re at home and rel­a­tively sta­tion­ary, you’ll get full can­cel­la­tion so you can con­cen­trate on your mu­sic. If you’re walk­ing, the headphones will pipe in some am­bi­ent sound to im­prove your sit­u­a­tional aware­ness (so you don’t get 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 con­tent; none­the­less, I quickly dis­cov­ered that I pre­ferred man­u­ally trig­ger­ing my ANC set­tings us­ing the Cus­tom but­ton.

Sony also pro­vides ways to quickly over­ride noise can­cel­la­tion, pause or lower the vol­ume of your mu­sic, and pipe in am­bi­ent sound if you need to stop and speak to some­one with­out re­mov­ing the headphones. This is also use­ful when you’re at an air­port and need to lis­ten for a board­ing call. This Quick At­ten­tion mode was present in the pre­vi­ous model and is ac­ti­vated when you place your hand over the right ear cup. I didn’t use this fea­ture much, pre­fer­ring in­stead to take the headphones off. Un­for­tu­nately,

Quick At­ten­tion mode can­not be de­feated, and there were a few times when I ac­ci­den­tally trig­gered it while ad­just­ing the fit.

A new au­to­matic over­ride fea­ture – Speak-to-Chat – can be en­abled/ dis­abled in the app. When en­abled, it rec­og­nizes when you be­gin to speak and pauses the mu­sic while pump­ing in am­bi­ent sound, so you can hold a con­ver­sa­tion with­out any other in­ter­ven­tion. In the­ory, it pro­vides a bet­ter way to chat with some­one than hold­ing your hand over the earcup, but I found that it was prone to be­ing trig­gered by a cough or some­one else speak­ing while close to me. It will stay in this mode for 30 sec­onds by de­fault, but you can tweak its sen­si­tiv­ity and du­ra­tion in the app. I just never found my­self in a sit­u­a­tion where I pre­ferred Speak-to-Chat to just tak­ing the damn headphones off.

AU­DIO QUAL­ITY AND AI UPSCALING

Sony touts three other fea­tures that it says en­able the WH-1000XM4 to de­liver a high-end au­dio per­for­mance: the afore­men­tioned new al­go­rithm run­ning on Sony’s QN1 pro­ces­sor, sup­port for Blue­tooth 5.0 and Sony’s own LDAC codec and Sony’s DSEE Ex­treme au­dio tech­nol­ogy, which uses

ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence – Sony’s Edge

AI – to re­store in real time in­for­ma­tion that’s been lost when you’re lis­ten­ing to tracks that were com­pressed us­ing lossy codecs such as MP3.

Like its older sib­ling, the WH-1000XM4 sup­ports the SBC and AAC Blue­tooth codecs in ad­di­tion to LDAC, but there is no sup­port for any of Qual­comm’s aptX codecs. I found LDAC to be su­pe­rior to the other two, so I used that pri­mar­ily for this re­view. The de­vice you use for play­back will also need to sup­port your codec of choice, of course, so I re­lied mostly on a OnePlus 8 Pro smart­phone for the task, as it’s one of few that do. LDAC sup­port is more com­monly found on high-res dig­i­tal au­dio play­ers.

I streamed tracks mostly from YouTube Mu­sic, con­duct­ing mul­ti­ple crit­i­cal lis­ten­ing ses­sions in a va­ri­ety of play­back sit­u­a­tions with a long list of songs that I’m very fa­mil­iar with to com­pare the WH-1000XM4 to the WH-1000XM3 I re­viewed in late 2018.

Both sets of noise can­celling headphones sound great for the price. If you’re look­ing for stu­dio­grade equip­ment with min­i­mal sig­nal coloura­tion, you shouldn’t be look­ing at ANC headphones any­way. But that doesn’t mean lis­ten­ing to mu­sic with ANC is a di­min­ished ex­pe­ri­ence. From a sonic stand­point, I dis­cov­ered very few dif­fer­ences be­tween the two new and older cans; in other words, there’s not much of a rea­son to up­grade if you al­ready own the XM3. That said, I do en­joy re­ally push­ing my lis­ten­ing abil­i­ties, so here are some ex­am­ples of dif­fer­ences I found.

I’ve al­ready men­tioned Sony’s DSEE Ex­treme au­dio tech­nol­ogy, which is an up­grade over the DSEE HX tech present in the older WH-1000XM3. Sony hy­pes this hard, so I was sur­prised to dis­cover that for me, en­abling it had the op­po­site of the promised ef­fect: sub­tle de­tails in the mu­sic – par­tic­u­larly at higher fre­quen­cies played at lower vol­ume – were lost. In Led Zep­pelin’s Stair­way toHeaven, the pro­cess­ing muted de­tails in the fan­tas­tic acous­tic gui­tar track – char­ac­ter­is­tics such as fin­gers slid­ing on the gui­tar neck, and the re­verb that hangs over­head were di­min­ished in the mix, less­en­ing the beau­ti­ful depth of the sound­scape. In classic jazz tracks like SoWhat, from Miles Davis, I no­ticed small de­tails around the fin­ger work on the up­right bass were less present, and the high tran­sients from the horns and drum­mer’s hi-hat brushes were slightly com­pressed. On the flip side, vo­cal tracks were far more

present in the mix, not so much as to en­able a depth sep­a­ra­tion from the in­stru­men­ta­tion, but more like a mix of EQ boost­ing and stronger com­pres­sion. Dis­abling DSEE Ex­treme brought back most of the fine de­tails in in­stru­men­ta­tion, as well some of the dy­namic range, but it sat the vo­cals back down into the mix. Com­pared to DSEE HX on the XM3, DSEE Ex­treme on the XM4 felt like the sig­nal was be­ing nor­mal­ized for more even in­stru­men­ta­tion, while si­mul­ta­ne­ously em­pha­siz­ing the vo­cal tracks.

This heavy-handed pro­cess­ing was re­vealed even more with heav­ily com­pressed tracks from albums like

Me­tal­lica’s in­fa­mous Death Mag­netic. In these sce­nar­ios, the vo­cals again took cen­tre stage, while the mid- to lowend was pulled back along with clean high sig­nals. The full mix was more com­pressed and nor­mal­ized than with DSEE Ex­treme dis­abled, and it didn’t do any favours to ag­gres­sive mu­sic like metal.

Sony’s doc­u­men­ta­tion states that DSEE Ex­treme “up­scales com­pressed dig­i­tal mu­sic files” and “dy­nam­i­cally rec­og­nizes in­stru­men­ta­tion, mu­si­cal gen­res” with the goal of try­ing to “re­sort the high-range sound lost in com­pres­sion”. So, my next thought was to lis­ten to tracks that were poorly recorded and mixed to see if that’s where the pro­cess­ing truly shines. I loaded up some older punk record­ings, such as InMyEyes, by Mi­nor Threat, and set YouTube Mu­sic to its low­est band­width con­sump­tion/low­est au­dio qual­ity set­ting.

I im­me­di­ately de­tected most of the same com­pres­sion ten­den­cies. While I did no­tice a bit of smooth­ing of the lower bit depth with DSEE Ex­treme en­abled in these in­stances, which pro­vided a cleaner mix with less noise, it wasn’t enough for me to over­look the rest of the pro­cess­ing tak­ing place.

Af­ter all my crit­i­cal lis­ten­ing tests, my as­sump­tion is that DSEE Ex­treme acts as a more sub­tle and ac­cu­rate nor­mal­ize func­tion than what’s present in many mu­sic play­ers, al­low­ing lis­ten­ing to be more seam­less be­tween tracks and with an even ex­pe­ri­ence be­tween gen­res. I should em­pha­size that the ef­fect is slight and might not even be no­tice­able to the av­er­age user – in­deed, it didn’t greatly di­min­ish my nor­mal lis­ten­ing ex­pe­ri­ences – but I wanted to put my fin­ger on just what this pro­cess­ing was try­ing to achieve and high­light it here. Peo­ple like me who pre­fer to err on the side of ac­cu­racy are ad­vised to leave DSEE Ex­treme turned off, but that’s just my opin­ion.

With­out DSEE Ex­treme pro­cess­ing, I found the WH-1000XM4 ex­hib­ited a more ac­cu­rate sig­nal com­pared to the WH-1000XM3. The older headphones are fully burned in now, and they con­tinue to pro­vide a great lis­ten­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, but the coloura­tion – par­tic­u­larly in the low-end thumps and sharp highs – is no­tice­able when lis­ten­ing to the pair back to back. The newer model sounds a bit more muted in the mids and is slightly lack­ing in dy­namic range – which in­di­cates they are more ac­cu­rate – but this is ex­posed only in ex­treme A/B test­ing. With­out that di­rect com­par­i­son, these headphones pro­vide a fan­tas­tic lis­ten­ing ex­pe­ri­ence in many dif­fer­ent gen­res. Sony has set a high bar for other ANC head­phone man­u­fac­tur­ers to clear.

THE REST OF THE EX­PE­RI­ENCE

There are just a few more de­tails to cover when it comes to my day-to-day ex­pe­ri­ence with the WH-1000XM4. Sony’s com­pan­ion app, Headphones Con­nect has been con­sis­tently up­dated through­out the years, and it re­mains a rock-solid ex­pe­ri­ence for me. There are plenty of set­tings to tweak to your lik­ing, and changes made to things like noise can­cel­la­tion take ef­fect im­me­di­ately. Firmware up­dates for the headphones are han­dled au­to­mat­i­cally with lit­tle dis­rup­tion, and I haven’t en­coun­tered any bugs, per­for­mance glitches or un­wanted bat­tery drain on my mo­bile de­vices. I’ve been burned far too many times by great hard­ware sad­dled with a

hor­ri­ble app, so it’s re­fresh­ing that it’s not the case here.

The Sony WH-1000XM4 in­cludes a much-re­quested fea­ture: Blue­tooth mul­ti­point pair­ing, which al­lows you to pair the headphones with mul­ti­ple de­vices at once. This is handy be­cause it al­lows you to use a lap­top or a dig­i­tal au­dio player for mu­sic play­back, and still get au­di­ble au­dio alerts and phone calls from your smart­phone. Mul­ti­point was easy to set up and easy to use, and I didn’t have any prob­lems switch­ing back and forth be­tween de­vices. Sony’s im­ple­men­ta­tion does, how­ever, suf­fer from one very un­for­tu­nate draw­back: Blue­tooth mul­ti­point pair­ing is only avail­able if you’re us­ing the AAC codec. So, you’ll need to de­cide which is more im­por­tant: high­res­o­lu­tion au­dio for mu­sic lis­ten­ing via LDAC, or the con­ve­nience of Blue­tooth mul­ti­point. I opted for LDAC; iPhone users, mean­while, don’t have a choice – they can only use AAC with the WH-1000XM4.

The WH-1000XM4’s mi­cro­phone is the last as­pect I’d like to dis­cuss. While it never hap­pened to me, many WH-1000XM3 users re­ported en­coun­ter­ing tech­ni­cal prob­lems with that head­phone’s mic. That said, nei­ther of these cans is a head­set, so don’t ex­pect great phone-call ex­pe­ri­ences from them. They’re ad­e­quate for a short call to a friend or loved one, but don’t rely on ei­ther for an im­por­tant busi­ness meet­ing. The WH-1000XM4’s mic qual­ity specif­i­cally is faint and can­not cap­ture the vo­cal clar­ity needed for se­ri­ous use. I can live with that trade-off.

VERDICT

If you have £350 to spend on ac­tive noise-can­celling headphones, the Sony WH-1000XM4 get my high­est rec­om­men­da­tion. They de­liver top-shelf noise can­cel­la­tion, they’re com­fort­able to wear, they’re packed with fea­tures, and – most im­por­tantly – they sound fan­tas­tic.

There’s not a lot here to war­rant an up­grade rec­om­men­da­tion if you al­ready own the WH-1000XM3 – and if your bud­get is tighter and you find a great deal on those cans – you should def­i­nitely pick them up while they’re still around. But if you want the ab­so­lute best of the best, look no fur­ther than the Sony WH-1000XM4. Adam Pa­trick Murray

There are some tiny changes, but at this dis­tance you’d be hard pressed to tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween the new and old ver­sion.

The side of the headphones has a nice tex­ture when us­ing the touch con­trols.

The car­ry­ing case is tough and has some nice touches.

I couldn’t feel the prox­im­ity sen­sor while I was wear­ing the headphones.

The ear pads are soft and com­fort­able.

With­out DSEE Ex­treme pro­cess­ing, I found the WH-1000XM4 ex­hib­ited a more ac­cu­rate sig­nal com­pared to the WH-1000XM3.

Mi­cro­phone qual­ity in calls is sub­par, but to be ex­pected.

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