First Look: Sony's WH-1000XM4s are the Apple Watch of noise cancelling headphones

Credit: Sony

Trying to top the WH-1000XM3 noise cancelling headphones isn't going to be easy but Sony are giving it their best shot with the new WH-1000XM4s.

Let’s start with the old before we look at the new. In our original review of the Sony WH-1000XM3 (found here), we came away impressed. 

"Although the WH-1000X M3 is definitely the better product, they’re not quite revolutionary enough that I’d recommend tossing out your existing M2 or M1 headset. They sound better - but they don't sound radically different.”

“Still, if you’re in the market for a solid set of over-ear headphones for your commute and are willing to part with the cold-hard cash, the Sony WH-1000X M3s are likely our pick for the best noise-cancelling headphones you can buy right now."

In some ways, that assessment applies just as neatly to Sony’s new WH-1000XM4. At least, that’s where I’m at after a day or two of messing around with them. 

You could almost just change the names on the above excerpt and call it a day. Are the M4s better than M3s? Yep. Are they better enough that you should toss out the old and throw cash at the new? Not quite.

Credit: Sony

Listening to stuff like Watsky’s intimate and intense “Love Letters”, jubilant anthems like Dorian Electra’s “Mind Body Problem”, grimey ballads like Murder By Death’s “Spring Break 1899” or or even just everyday meme-magnet internet trash like The Gregory Brothers’ “The Ramp” left me plenty impressed.

Sony has a reputation that’s well-earned when it comes to making solid noise cancelling headphones and these do little to run against the grain of that legacy. There’s a crispness and warmth to the sound I got here that makes even old favorites sound fresh again.

Building on the QN1 HD noise cancelling processor introduced with the previous model, the Sony WH-1000XM4s drops a new Bluetooth Audio SoC and improved algorithms into the mix. The end result? A noise-cancelled listening experience that adjusts to the conditions around it over 700 times each second.

The Sony WH-1000XM4s also supports 360 Reality Audio playback, 5 built-in microphones for voice calls plus 'wearing detection' that promise to automatically pause your music when you take them off and then resume when you want to pick things up again. 

The above more-immersive audio format remains neat when you can get it but to be clear - it’s not a new feature and it’s very much limited by your willingness to engage with the companies that offer that kind of content. I like what I hear when I listen to 360 Reality Audio but I don’t like it enough to ditch Spotify for Tidal, Deezer or Nugs.Net. 

In terms of battery life, Sony says the new headphones should be good for up to 30 hours of playback on a single charge. The WH-1000XM4s also support fast charging, Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa integration and ‘AirPods-style’ fast pairing on Android. Every premium perk you’d expect to find in a set of premium headphones is present and accounted for here. 

Credit: Sony

However, for all the new intelligent features like Ambient Sound Control and improved noise-cancellation tech, the end result doesn’t come across as radically different or better than what the Sony WH-1000XM3 delivered. 

With the Sony WH-1000XM4s, the core appeal of previous models is more distilled and the once-experimental margins of the software and hardware experience are folded inwards to form a more cohesive whole. Nevertheless, it feels more like Sony is finding new boxes to tick rather than anything else. 

For the fourth-generation of a very popular product that’s very easy to like, that’s probably not a cardinal sin. However, I’d hoped that two years between the M3 and M4s might have paved the way for a more meaningful form of iteration or evolution. 

Maybe it’s the lack of meaningful competition in the space but comparisons to the Apple Watch invite themselves. It feels like Sony are competing more and more with themselves than anyone else. A by-product of this ouroboric escalation, the Sony WH-1000XM4s deliver more delicious noise-cancelling goodness than ever before but, arguably, less value. 

Especially given the state of things, it’s hard to not see the price-point here as a little daunting. Buying a new set of Sony’s latest is gonna cost you around AU$549 while these days the previous model can be had for closer to AU$300. 

Have Sony managed to set a new personal best for themselves? Probably. But that feat feels more like a technicality than a triumph. They're might be the next best thing but they're not the new best thing.

In Australia, the Sony WH-1000XM4 noise cancelling wireless headphones will be available in August at an RRP of AU$549.

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Fergus Halliday
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