The wait is finally over: Sony has released the WF-1000XM4s, the update to its popular WF-1000XM3 earbuds. Featuring a modernized design and a brand new V1 processing chip to deliver “industry leading” noise canceling and sound quality, these new headphones retail for $279.99 and are some of the most anticipated of the year. I’ve spent the last two weeks putting them through their paces to see exactly how they stack up.
Sony WF-1000XM4 – Design and Features
Sony has officially caught up with the times. Even at the time of their release, the WF-1000XM3s were bulky and didn’t look particularly sleek. The XM4s leave the oblong, bluetooth earpiece look in the rearview mirror and instead utilize a much more modern, stylish design. The core of each earbud is now a normal circle but the shells are contoured to fit the inner folds of the ear. Bronze accents appear on the front edge of each earpiece, bringing it in line with the styling of the over-ear XM4s, and provide a nice contact point for adjustment without triggering the touch controls. The XM4s are still a bit bulky for my taste and protrude more than my Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro, but the trade-off in sound quality and noise canceling is well worth the added size.
The XM4s use Sony’s new V1 integrated processor for its noise canceling duties, which the company claims are the most effective in the true wireless market according to internal testing. The processor interprets ambient noise picked up from two microphones, one feed-forward and one feed-backward, and applies an improved algorithm to perform its cancellation. I haven’t been able to try every noise canceling bud on the market, of course, but against the flagship true wireless buds from Samsung, Sennheiser, Apple, Jabra, and 1More, the XM4s block more sound and deliver on their promise of industry-leading noise cancellation.
If ANC is one half of the equation, sound quality is the other. Sony has equipped these headphones to deliver exceptionally good sound with a pair of 6mm drivers tuned for mainstream appeal. They’re rich in bass and detail in the mids and highs and have a vocal-forward sound that’s great for music and movies alike. They also support Sony’s high-resolution Bluetooth codec, LDAC, which offers enhanced sound quality with far higher audio bandwidth than typical, compressed Bluetooth. That makes them an especially good fit for Android users but will leave Apple fans out in the cold. They lack supporting high-res codecs like AptX HD, however, so you’ll want to check to make sure your device supports LDAC to make the most out of them. Even without high-res audio, the XM4s sound remarkably good and have the kind of big, rich sound typically reserved for headphones.
The other benefit of the processor is its energy efficiency, which translates into better battery life. Sony quotes battery life of 8 hours with ANC enabled and I found that to be spot on. Turn ANC off and that jumps to 12 hours per charge. The case, which is 40% smaller and more pocketable than the XM3’s case, is good for two full recharges bringing total battery life to 24 hours with ANC on. Most ANC earbuds need a recharge after 4-5 hours, but with the XM4s I was able to go full workdays before throwing them back in the case. If you do run short, five minutes in the charging case returns an hour of listening. Apart from being smaller, the case now also supports wireless Qi charging if you’d rather avoid the USB Type-C connection.
Controlling the buds is easy thanks to intuitive touch controls. By default, the left earbud controls your current sound mode – Ambient Sound, Noise Canceling, Off – and holding it temporarily activates the microphones for quick conversations. The right bud controls media, calls, and summons your virtual assistant or can be swapped to control volume using the app. Unfortunately, it’s one or the other which is disappointing and frustrating if you want to control your tracks and adjust volume when out for a run. The touch controls are mostly reliable but I did find myself having to tap multiple times if I was a little off center on my first try.
Thankfully, if you do take them out for a run, you won’t have to worry about sweat or a little rain. The earbuds are now IPX4 rated, which means they’ll stand up to splashes and a little moisture. You won’t want to take them out in a downpour or completely submerge them, but they’re entirely more functional for active users than the XM3s.
Even though they’re on the larger side, I found the earbuds to fit securely and comfortably in my ears thanks to longer nozzles and Sony’s new Noise Isolation ear tips. The buds need to be twisted into place to achieve a secure fit, but once they’re in, they stayed locked into place for me. The tips are made of a polyurethane foam which conforms to your ear canal to block out more sound and achieve a tight seal. They work great but took a couple of days to soften and truly feel comfortable over extended listening sessions.
These new tips are concerning. They work well but if they’re like other foam ear tips, they will wear down over time and need to be replaced. Sony only includes a single pair of small, medium, and large tips and no silicone options at all, so it seems certain that these buds will require additional investment at some point down the line. Sony’s tips feel more resilient and are holding up well after two weeks of use but it’s too early to tell how long these will last with daily use (average foam tips are usually good for 2-3 months). Given the high cost of these earbuds, only including one pair of each size just feels stingy.
As with the XM3s, call quality is the Achilles heel of the WF-1000XM4s. Sony has outfitted each bud with beamforming microphones and bone conduction sensors to make sure your voice comes through clear, even in noisy environments. They do a good job of blocking out background noise and callers were always able to hear me, but the actual quality of the vocals is average at best. In test recordings, I found that I sounded compressed and a bit robotic rather than natural and true to life. Sony has made strides from the XM3s but still falls short of the competition in this area.
Another disappointing discovery is the lack of multipoint pairing. Multipoint, a feature found on the full size WH-1000XM4s, allows you to connect the headphones to two devices at once and to seamlessly take a call while watching a movie on your laptop for example. Hopefully, this is a feature that can be added in an update in the future.
Sony WF-1000XM4 – App Support
To make the most out of the Sony WF-1000XM4s, you’ll want to pick up the Sony Headphones app. This is where most of the customization happens and where you’ll access firmware updates (Sony has already released one which addresses some random drops I experienced early in testing). Here, you’ll be able to adjust the sensitivity of Ambient Mode, customize Adaptive Sound Control, apply different EQ profiles and more.
The app is easy to navigate. Upon connecting your headphones for the first time, you’ll be guided through setup and then let loose to explore the different features the XM4 offers. The app into Status, Sound, and System tabs to keep things organized, but there’s still quite a bit to wrap your head around.
Adaptive Sound Control allows the headphones to automatically swap between Ambient Sound and Noise Canceling modes based on your location and movement. It’s a nice feature, but unlike the over-ear version of the XM4s, the earbuds aren’t able to adjust the level of ANC, so it really only swaps between varying levels of Ambient Sound when ANC isn’t triggered. I also found it to be far too sensitive and would swap to walking mode just by taking a couple of steps away from my desk.
Sony WF-1000XM4 Software
The Sound tab is where you’ll spend the bulk of your time as it’s where you’ll enable or disable ANC, adjust the level of Ambient Sound, apply equalizer settings, and really dial in the level of quality you want from your earbuds. The app even lets you prioritize a stable connection versus sound quality, though I was able to level mine on “Priority on Sound Quality” without any issue.
This tab also allows you to scan your ear and set up Sony’s 360 Reality Audio spatial listening. Spatial listening adds a wonderful sense of space, but Sony has really missed the mark here. 360 Reality Audio is limited to a small selection of streaming apps, like Tidal and Amazon Music HD, which also require subscription services. As a Spotify listener, 360 Reality Audio wasn’t an option unless I wanted to completely change music services. Since Samsung and Apple each offer free spatial listening solutions, finding these limited to subscription services makes it feel like spatial audio has an additional cost here, even if the tech itself does not.
The app has a few other tricks up its sleeve, like a neat audio upscaling tech DSEE Extreme. It offers a slight but perceptible boost to audio quality, especially with tracks that may not have been high-resolution to begin with. Over on the system tab, you can customize your touch controls between volume, media, and Ambient Sound Control. There’s also a fitment test that will recommend different eartips if you’re not achieving an airtight seal.
Sony WF-1000XM4 – Performance
Sony makes big promises with the WF-1000XM4s and delivers in almost every way. Whether you’re listening to music, watching movies, or even playing some casual games, they offer a big, bold sound that’s rich in detail and full, powerful bass. Likewise, the noise canceling is best-in-class for a true wireless earphone. They’re not perfect, however, and they do struggle against the competition in at least one key area.
Going in, I expected the active noise cancellation to be the star of the show, and while it’s excellent, I was even more impressed at the XM4s sound quality. The earbuds have excellent presence and a sound that feels bigger than a true wireless earbud has any right to. Bass, mids, and treble are well separated and give each enough breathing room to be clearly heard, revealing more detail in songs and soundtracks. That sense of separation allows the buds to be especially open to the different EQ profiles built into the app or to dial in your own sound with a custom frequency curve.
The bass is especially impressive, filling out music with a textured richness and sense of body I haven’t heard even on the AirPods Pro or Galaxy Buds Pro. Even on the default EQ, they’re able to slam and deliver impact you can almost feel. Turning to a bass-enhanced profile, turning up the ClearBass slider (a standalone bass boost that’s separate from the normal EQ sliders), or even enabling Dolby Atmos, enhances the effect further, but it doesn’t sound bloated or crowd out the mids and highs like the Jabra Elite 85t. This is simply some of the best bass you’ll find in a true wireless earbud and definitely lends them some cinematic cred for movies and games.
The detail in the mids and highs is also excellent, though how much of it you’ll hear will depend on your current EQ setting. Sony offers a number of presets for Bass or Treble Boost, Speech, Vocals, and more and also lets you customize each to your liking with personalized EQ curves. The default tuning is quite good and makes vocals stand out with exceptional detail. This quality makes picking out difficult to hear dialog a breeze in movies – I’m looking at you Tenet. I also liked that Sony included a wear sensor with these buds, so movies and music would automatically pause when I took them out and resume after I put the earbud back in.
The noise canceling is best in class. It blocks out more ambient noise than competing earbuds, especially when it comes to droning sounds like air conditioners or engines. Against competing flagship headphones like the Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro or Apple AirPods Pro, the upgrade isn’t huge but is easily noticeable. Where it really stands out is against cheaper sets like the Jabra Elite 85ts and, surprisingly, the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2. If you’re coming from the over-ear WH-1000XM4 or last-generation’s WH-1000XM3s, don’t expect the noise canceling to be at the same level, however. The WF-1000XM4s don’t cancel out middle and high frequencies to the same level, so the over-ears are still better for office settings.
The XM4s aren’t without their quirks, though. Ambient Mode is excellent for being able to hear the world around you almost as if you weren’t wearing earbuds at all, but the headphones have a nasty tendency to disable the microphones when changing tracks on Spotify or YouTube. It only lasts a second but is jarring and feels a bit like you’re thrown into a vacuum for that second. I also found the Adaptive Sound Control to be completely hit or miss. Being able to detect motion and location to adjust noise cancellation settings is a welcome feature, but the XM4s changed mode so frequently that it became irritating, even with the notification chime disabled.
The lack of low latency codec also means doing any kind of dedicated gaming with them is out of the question. Watching movies wasn’t an issue because sites like YouTube offer latency correction to keep A/V in sync. Games don’t offer the same and there is noticeable lag when gaming. Slow-paced titles were fine, but Call of Duty was noticeably delayed.
That said, the issues here really don’t feel that great when compared to what the XM4s actually offer. The sound quality and noise cancellation are some of the best on the market today and are the core reason to choose these headphones over the competition. The biggest usability issue I encountered was vocal quality on calls which still puzzlingly lags behind the competition. Even with their shortcomings, however, these are excellent earbuds that make for an enjoyable listening experience.
The Sony WF-1000XM4 are some of the best sounding, best noise canceling earbuds you can buy. They’re not without their quirks, and call quality is still an area of improvement, but they remain one of the most impressive sounding earbuds available today.