Sony WH-1000XM4 review: A Sound Investment
Sony released its snappily named MDR-1000X over-ear headphones back in 2016 to great acclaim. The WH-1000XM4 reviewed here are the fourth version of that line, and I’m happy to report that Sony has improved yet again on its already winning audio formula.
If you’re after over-ear headphones with active noise cancellation, solid battery life, multi-device pairing, and decent EQ controls, then these are the gold standard – unless you want to start paying thousands for professional studio-level equipment.
- Earphone type: Over-ear, wireless
- Weight: 254g
- Drivers: 40mm, Neodymium
- Connectivity: Bluetooth 5.0, NFC
- Built-in Microphone: Yes
- Noise cancelling: Yes
- Pack Ins: Carrying case, plug adapter for In-flight use, connection cable, USB-C cable
- Battery Life: 30 hours playback/38 hours NC
- Colors: Black, silver
- Price: $549.95
The XM4s are visually indistinguishable from 2018’s XM3s (reviewed here), which mirror how little is new here from a design perspective. Available in black or silver, they are a lovely matte finish. Sony has improved the headband cushioning, so they are comfortable to wear for longer periods.
The outside of the right earcup is touch sensitive and lets you control with play/pause, skip track and volume while the left ear cup has an on/off button and a customisable button that is preset to call up the built-in Alexa voice assistant.
If you’re looking for a flashy pair of headphones though, these aren’t it. The black model is very plain, and it doesn’t necessarily look like you just forked out $550 for it.
Audio and performance
Just like the previous versions, the XM4s deliver outstanding audio quality across the board. They deal well with all variety of musical genres with sound that shows punchy bass but still registers good detail in the mids and trebles.
Importantly, trebles don’t become too shrill or sibilant at high volume. If you want a wider soundstage than what these excellent cans offer, then you’ll be straying into spending thousands on professional equipment. The XM4s sit at the high-end of the consumer price bracket but they more than earn their stripes.
Listening to songs such as Jigsaw Falling Into Place by Radiohead and There She Goes by The La’s show off the XM4’s decent handling of bright guitar sounds, but they also more than cope separating sounds in busier tracks like Get Innocuou’ by LCD Soundsystem. I found them equally proficient at showing off the subtle production on Excursion by A Tribe Called Quest or Shake Your Rump by Beastie Boys.
Higher Love by Kygo and Whitney Houston practically leaps directly into your head such is the clarity of the sound stage and how the XM4s highlight details in the swell of the pre-chorus that you simply can’t hear or feel on lesser headphones.
Part of the magic here is Sony adding DSEE Extreme to the XM4s. This is its own AI audio upscaling that works automatically in real time and gives detail to compressed files. It helps to bring a little extra shine to MP3 files and lower-quality streamed audio and is aided by Sony’s LDAC codec that can cope with bitrates up to 990 kbps.
Oddly, the XM4s do not support aptX or aptX HD where the XM3s (and many other headphones) did. These are two codecs common in modern devices that improve audio quality, so you might want to check that you have a device that supports the LDAC codec if you want to be sure you’re getting the best quality audio possible.
One instance where LDAC will necessarily turn off and revert to AAC is if you use the new multi-device pairing feature. This is worth it though, as it means you can have your phone and computer connected to the headphones and they can tell which audio source to play from as you do different things. The companion app can remember up to eight devices, but users can only be paired to two at once, using the app to switch the combinations.
That app is also excellent for EQ settings. Sony bundles many presets but you can set your own custom ones, including being able to adjust Sony’s Clear Bass slider that truly beefs up the low end.
Noise cancellation and other features
The XM4s retain the range’s status as having excellent noise cancellation, making them ideal for air travel (remember air travel?) or simply blocking out sound in the office (remember offices?). Apart from blocking out unwanted noise, it’s also a delight to tune into music or a podcast without random audible distraction, letting you zone in on your audio. Many over-ear headphones do this, but none quite as well as the XM4s.
A neat touch called Speak-to-Chat uses the five microphones to detect if you’re talking. This pauses your audio for at least thirty seconds and then pipes in your conversation through those mics, meaning you don’t have to take your headphones off. Call me old fashioned but it looks rude to talk to somebody with huge headphones on – but the tech is clever. You can also hold your right hand over the right earcup to let in outside noise, but this doesn’t pause the audio and just turns it down.
It’s little touches like these and the addition of auto pausing when you take them off that makes the XM4s feel so complete a product. Not only is the audio a special kind of excellent for the price range but the tech smarts are also there to make you feel as though it has been money well spent. After I return my review sample, I will consider purchasing the XM4s for myself.
A key metric for wireless headphones and particularly ones with active noise cancellation is the battery life. While in a pandemic I was not able to test the XM4s over long haul travel, I did find that the quoted 30 hours of battery life with ANC on, held true. These are the kind of headphones you might only need to charge once every week, even if you use them daily. Annoyingly, you can’t use them and charge at the same time.
Battery life goes up to 38 hours with the ANC off, and Sony promises five hours of use with just 10 minutes plugged in. The headphones charge via USB-C with a cable and an aeroplane jack adapter for when things get back to normal.
One thing I did not personally use was the built-in Alexa voice assistant (you can also use Google Assistant with an Android phone). I don’t like having music interrupted by Alexa reading out my texts or the weather, but the option is there if you want it.
What I did like was the excellent call quality thanks to the aforementioned five mic array on the headphones. Callers said I sounded clear too, and the XM4s proved a great working from home accessory.
I thoroughly recommend the Sony WH-1000XM4, terrible product name and all. They are expensive headphones but offer the most fully rounded over-ear consumer experience with amazing ANC, top drawer audio quality, and thoughtful features such as multi-device pairing.
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