Much More Than A New Number
Alan Bradley: "What sort of improvements have been made to ENCOM OS-12?"
Richard Mackey: "This year we put a '12' on the box."Quote from the film Tron: Legacy
You might be quick to judge the latest iteration of Sony's WH-1000 series headphones. They look exactly like the last pair. That's not a judgement statement. It's a fact. Did Sony just slap a '4' on the box this year?
Surprisingly, Sony packed a few more tricks up the WH-1000XM4's sleeve.
Materials, Quality, & Comfort
If it ain’t broke, right? The Sony XM4’s are made extremely well. Despite the pair of headphones being light in weight, the materials feel premium. Cushioning is great overall, especially on the underside of the headband, and the clamping is secure without adding much pressure on your head/ears. My favorite tactile feature of the handband adjustment (from the XM3) is retained here: the ear cups effortlessly glide and click to the desired length or adjustment. It’s a very satisfying and smooth process.
Due to the materials used for the construction of the headphone, the Sony XM4 is quite lightweight and extremely comfortable for long listening sessions. I had no issue wearing the the over-ear headphones at my desk for hours with little fatigue. The only downside to these lighter materials is durability. I think most adults would be careful of how they handle and use their gear, but I would be worried about these in the hands of children or someone who might be reckless with their equipment.
The padding on the ear cups at first glance seemed a little more robust than the previous generation, but I thought they appeared so because they were new. They are in fact 10% larger, though the difference is negligible. After wearing them for many hours, they feel pretty consistent with the XM3’s. Overall the ear pads and comfort are great. Personally, I felt as though the new cups created a tighter seal than the last generation, which in turn improved the overall experience.
One great feature that Sony has developed through their proprietary control app “Headphones” is the atmospheric pressure optimization. Through the Noise-Cancellation Optimization feature, the application will automatically run a series of diagnostics and determine the appropriate pressure setting for the noise-canceling function depending on your environmental setting. It subtly aids the overall comfort in your listening sessions, as the disparity in pressure from inside to outside of the ear cups can be a point of discomfort for some. The app helps solve this issue.
As discussed in my previous review of the Sony WH-1000XM3 noise-canceling headphones, Sony has implemented a very nice minimalist control design. There are only two buttons on the left ear cup: the power button and the “custom” (previously called noise-canceling/ambient) button. Both are rather thin and small, but I didn’t have any issues accessing or finding them while wearing the headphones. Some might find them on the small side or difficult to press depending on the size of your fingers. The left ear cup also has the 3.5mm jack for the headphone cable.
On the right ear cup is the USB-C charging port. Whereas other manufacturers implement a button-control system for forward/back/play/pause commands, Sony uses a touch and gesture-based control scheme. This is one of the biggest updates from the previous generation, as Sony has put in place more dynamic multipoint control over your music while wearing the headphones. Slide your finger up and down to adjust volume, front to back for song skip forward or back (respectively), double tap for pause/play, and triple tap for voice assistant is all the same as the previous XM3s. The gestures felt intuitive and the responsiveness was great.
The newer WH-1000XM4 adds automatic voice recognition, which lowers the music volume and opens ambient noise, so that you can have a quick conversation without having to remove the headphones. This can also be achieved by placing your hand over the right ear cup. Once you take your hand away the headphone resumes normal music volume and noise-canceling if enabled.
You can also enable hands-free calling easily and effortlessly by double-tapping the right ear cup to answer or hang up a call. With Sony’s Precise Voice Pickup Technology, the headphones combine five built-in microphones across the device for clear voice transmission. Combined with Bluetooth 5.0 for more stable connections, call quality is also enhanced and much better than the previous model.
The technology has come a long way since its inception in the 1950’s. It was designed specifically for the field of aviation, where noise-canceling systems were created to reduce the noise for the pilots in the cockpit area, help make their communications easier, and to protect their hearing. Today, they are designed with the consumer in mind, the frequent fliers or someone who just wants to block the world out from time to time.
Nowadays noise-cancellation (or noise reduction and noise isolation) is an advanced technology integrating microphones and special circuitry into the headphones. The way it works is that the microphones are placed inside the ear cups to pick up ambient or background noise and external sounds that cannot be blocked passively. The circuitry inside the ear cups then takes the signal from the microphone, track the frequency and amplitude of the incoming wave, and create a 180-degree out-of-phase wave associated with the noise. This out-of-phase signal is then amplified into the headphones along with the music, thus effectively “canceling out” the ambient noise by destructive interference. This allows the normal audio to continue to be amplified, unimpeded.
There are two separate types of noise-canceling technologies: active and passive. Active noise-canceling essentially means that it needs a power source to work. In the case of the Sony WH-1000XM4, it’s a rechargeable lithium-ion battery. Passive noise canceling means that the device itself can block out noise on its own, without an additional power source.
Bose has typically been the king of ANC (Active Noise-Canceling) until Sony caught up with them last generation with the XM3. The WH-1000XM3 is a great headphone. We had a three-way tie in our previous noise-canceling headphone comparison, but I would say the quality of the XM4 ANC is easily top of the pack. The ANC (Active Noise Canceling) technology today between Bose and Sony is greatly comparable but combined with the number of new features and customization options for your sound make the Sony WH-1000XM4 the superior headphone.
Noise-canceling is quite effective on the new XM4 headphones. It cuts out low and high frequencies well; the XM3’s only did the latter effectively. I appreciate the measures Sony has taken to give the listener easy and quick methods for ambient sound inclusion when needed since the headphones themselves are quite effective at blocking the outside world from “contaminating” your music. You can either adjust the ambient noise level via the button on the ear cup, placing your hand over the right ear cup momentarily, or speak, signaling the music to turn down and activate the ambient setting. All of these simple updates make the headphones seem quite refined and intelligent, giving you the ease to adjust your audio feed with little to no contact with the headphones.
All of these simple updates make the headphones seem quite refined and intelligent, giving you the ease to adjust your audio feed with little to no contact with the headphones.
One downside of the previous model, the WH-1000XM3 was the reduction in overall sound quality when being used passively or wired. There was just not enough juice to power the drivers appropriately for quality sound. It works, but don’t expect your high-fidelity music to keep thumping the way it does with noise-canceling activated. This could be alleviated by connecting the headphones to an AMP/DAC like the Chord Mojo, but I was not impressed when plugging them directly into my phone or computer for music listening (which has subpar DACs and headroom just FYI).
Pairing the WH-1000XM4 with a device that adequately powers the drivers passively makes all the difference. Since testing the new XM4 I have a new laptop with a SABRE DAC, and they sound phenomenal. Setting the volume to 10 out of 100 gives me a moderate level of music perfect for listening while I work. I stress passive use probably more than the average consumer because I like getting the most usage out of my devices, especially when an active headphone runs out of power. If you can’t use them passively, once the battery dies then you’re out of luck.
Turning the active power on the headphone is like night and day, however. The additional power (ANC and non-ANC enabled) helps give the headphone the depth and fidelity that brings your music to life. Sound is more emotive, and the soundstage and imagery is certainly improved from the XM3. Due to the "fun" sound signature, the Sony WH-1000XM4 is going to sound great with almost any genre of music. I tested them with my typical arsenal of classical, alternative, power rock, and more. The lower frequencies have weight, without sounding bloated. Typical consumer-grade headphones try to overcompensate on the low end, since they usually do so poorly with the overall definition. The Sony's do very well in this regard - giving your music the low end it deserves. I felt as though the WH-1000XM3 had hardly any soundstage, putting you squarely in the middle of all the action with almost no personal space. This is great for energetic genres, but I had to rely on the electronic gimmicks of the app to make a genre like classical shine. This is where I feel like the new Sony WH-1000XM4 excels. It gives more room than the previous WH-1000XM3, allowing the music to breathe a little more and offer much needed spacing for particular genres.
Passive use obviously requires the need for a cable. I’ve been using a Bronze Dragon Portable Headphone Cable with the XM4, which adds more warmth and musicality to the sound signature. I would also recommend a Silver Dragon Portable Headphone Cable for those detail lovers. I use Silver Dragons when listening to Classical music – it adds clarity to the higher frequencies and tightens up the low end nicely. Both Dragon Cables balance out the overall sound signature of the WH-1000XM4 and removes the veil of processed sound behind Sony’s ANC algorithms.
Sound quality is great for making phone calls as well. The NFC is very effective in eliminating background noise for not only your audio, but for your microphone as well. It is able to minimize the amount of noise that is also picked up from the microphone apart from your voice. I also didn't have any issues using various voice assistants with the headphone. The Sony WH-1000XM4 is compatible with iOS/Siri, Android/Google assistant and Amazon Alexa, and their integration just makes for an easier and more convenient hands-free experience. I didn't notice any difference in the Apple iPhone or Android experiences, as either retained similar functionality of touch controls and more. The XM4 is a functional headset for everyday activities.
Bluetooth has also come a long way, even since the last XM3 headphones. The inclusion of Bluetooth 5.0 on the XM4 means longer distances and more stable connections. I had no issues whatsoever connecting the headphones to my phone or computer via Bluetooth, and the transmission of music via LDAC codec combined with the new DSEE technology was quite impressive to say the least.
According to Sony, using Edge-AI (Artificial Intelligence) co-developed with Sony Music Studios Tokyo, DSEE Extreme (Digital Sound Enhancement Engine) upscales compressed digital music files in real-time. Dynamically recognizing the instrumentation, music genres, and individual elements of each song, such as vocals or interludes, it restores the high-range sound lost in compression for a richer, more complete listening experience. It wasn’t a new feature that I found terribly impressive from the outset. Listening to low-resolution files and compressed audio via Youtube sounded slightly more dynamic, but I perceived it as a filter being placed over the audio more so than an actual process of upscaling audio. Like all upscaling, you’re not magically creating the data that is missing, but rather trying to create a better and cleaner listening experience through algorithms. Upscaling is only as good as the technology or algorithm itself; Sony does a good job, but nowhere near the upscaling performance as a standalone unit like the Chord M Scaler. I’d leave the DSEE setting on, but it’s not going to be the feature to make this headphone a must-buy.
Bose might be the king of comfort, but Sony is the reigning king of wireless sound. The presentation and soundstage are perceptibly larger on the new XM4 than the previous generation. Listening to various genres via Bluetooth, I’m pleased at the levels of fidelity achieved for a consumer-grade headphone. The Sony’s have a fun sound signature, or otherwise known as bass and treble boosted frequencies (or V-shaped). It’s dynamic, good overall response and very little bloat in the low end. Combined with the manual tweaking of the EQ and other sound controls in the application, this is a versatile wireless headphone for any genre. Add a Bronze or Silver Dragon Cable and you have a portable pairing that’s hard to beat.
This year Sony did away with some codecs. The WH-1000XM3 implemented AAC, SBC, aptX, aptXHD, and LDAC Bluetooth codecs. The XM4 did away with aptX altogether. Perhaps they wanted to put all their high-resolution eggs in the LDAC basket, regardless, it is capable of transmitting much higher resolutions than aptXHD.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 also provides better sound quality playback for extremely low-res and compressed audio than competitors. The poor quality and compression of streaming and online music can often sound thin and lack definition. Sony did a great job in compensating for the compression and making streaming music sound more dynamic than it actually was, removing the squelchy high frequencies especially. Enabling DSEE Extreme also helped.
The Sony App (Headphone by Sony)
The Sony Headphones Connect app is quite robust and gives you lots of control over your music and the many features of the headphone. Starting up the app you’ll see controls for adaptive sound control, which detects your actions and can adjust the ambient sound control based on your environment. For instance, if you are running, the app will adjust the ambient sound so that you’ll be able to hear environmental cues around you.
You also have features to optimize the amount of noise-cancellation, atmospheric pressure, and sound position control – so if you want to phase out a specific noise directionally, you are able to do so. The app can also apply virtual surround profiles along with an adaptive or manual EQ. The ability to edit the function of the CUSTOM button is available as well.
I would consider the Sony application best-in-class for the amount of control it gives you over your music and parameters of the headphone features.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones play around 30 hours of playtime on a full charge with noise-canceling on. You’ll get an additional 8 or so hours with the ANC off, and they take about 3 hours to fully charge. With the USB-C connector, you can get 5 hours of battery life on a 10-minute charge with its quick-charging ability. These specs are consistent with the previous XM3, so nothing is new here. The quick charge function is a great addition for those continually on the move and away from longer charging opportunities. Sony reigns king over its competitors in the battery life category.
*Keep in mind that battery life will vary based on the volume of music while listening, if noise-canceling is enabled, etc. The more volume, the more power is needed for the driver, so the battery life will be affected accordingly. In most cases, as long as you are not listening above 80%+ volume you should get close to the listed playtime for battery life.
Sony added a sensor inside the ear cup to recognize when the headphone is removed and automatically pauses the music. Note that this only works when the headphones are being used in active mode - meaning that the XM4 is powered on. It's a nice addition as other competitors implemented this function in previous generations, but it feels like Sony has compiled all these great features into one headphone. It can also save on the battery life, if however minimally.
Sony’s main competitors with the XM4 are the Bose 700 and the Sennheiser Momentum 3. Both headphones are great when considering their ANC ability and overall fidelity for a high-end consumer headphone.
Concerning sound quality, the Sennheiser Momentum has a very good presentation and accurate imaging. Like other high end Sennheiser headphones, the sound signature is going to be more on the analytical side, really shining light on the details of your music. When it comes to sound quality, Sennheiser is going to be the choice for the seasoned audiophile. The Momentum 3 headphones has clarity and a natural soundstage that Sony and Bose just don’t have.
To read a more in-depth comparison, check out our Best Noise-Canceling Headphones Review HERE.
The Best Noise Canceling Headphones
Sony WH-1000XM3 vs. Bose QC35 II vs. Sennheiser Momentum
If you’re looking for the top noise-canceling headphone, then look no further. The Sony XM4 is an amazingly good value considering the quality of sound and number of features provided at this price point of $349.99.
The build quality is pretty standard for this class of headphones. It won’t take a beating but if you take care of it, it will take care of you. Sony has been around the block for some time now, and they understand not only what the consumer wants, but how to beat out their competition. The XM4 is likely the best you can buy right now for noise canceling. It’s not the cheapest but it’s also not the most expensive. Wireless audio is not perfect, but the Sony XM4 makes you think it’s achievable, if not almost there.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 incorporates the best ideas from the competition as well, so you can be assured you're getting everything you possibly can for this price point. An amazing 30 hour battery with ANC, combined with LDAC compatibility, and a Dragon Cable, and you have a headphone that can literally do it all; the Swiss-army knife of headphones if you will. The XM4 makes enough quality-of-life updates from the previous generation to make it a worthwhile upgrade. It’s a headphone that learns to integrate into your day-to-day, and it's smart enough not to get in the way.
What's in the Box
Sliding open the box on the XM4’s is reminiscent of the previous packaging. The insert slides out of the external sleeve revealing the hard case with the goodies inside. The case is also identical to the XM3’s: the same contents and divider.
The hard carrying case is quality and you can be assured that it will protect your headphones no matter how you pack them. In our original Best Noise-Canceling Headphones comparison, I give the Sony’s the top award for their case design. The divider does double duty, not solely as a means of organizing the contents, but also serves as a structural support for the top of the case – preventing it from being crushed and damaging or scratching the headphones inside.
The remainder of the contents include the USB-C charging cable, the 3.5mm headphone cable, and the dual-3.5mm airline adapter.
The cable quality is decent enough; nothing fancy, just the same ol’ factory stock cables with a rubber jacket. Having a right-angled jack on one end of the headphone cable is nice, which you don’t see very often. I’m a bit perplexed why companies still include flight adapters with their electronic products nowadays. I don’t remember the last time I was on a flight (international or domestic) that required the 2-pin adapter, and in most cases, airlines provide adapters to their customers if needed.
However, lest I complain about Sony giving away more in their packaging than necessary, it’s nice to have the adapter included, nonetheless. The inclusion of USB-C as the charging connector and cable are some of the best things about the package, including the ability for quick charging. USB-C is becoming the new standard for charging and data/audio transmission for devices and I’m glad to see it being implemented. Sony has done it for a few generations now, and it’s hard to fathom that one of their biggest competitors just started implementing it on their latest generation. *Cough* Bose 700 *Cough* The paperwork: manual, start guide, and warranty are also included in the main box.
- Headphone Type: Closed, dynamic
- Driver Unit: 1.57 ", dome type (CCAW Voice coil)
- Magnet: Neodymium
- Diaphragm: Aluminum coated LCP
- Frequency Response: 4 Hz-40,000 Hz
- Frequency Response (Bluetooth® Communication): 20 Hz-20,000 Hz (44.1 kHz Sampling)/20 Hz-40,000 Hz (LDAC 96 kHz Sampling, 990 kbps)
- Sensitivities (dB/mW): 104.5 dB / mW (1 kHz) (when connecting via the headphone cable with the unit turned on), 101 dB / mW (1 kHz) (when connecting via the headphone cable with the unit turned off)
- Cord Type: Single-sided (detachable)
- Cord Length: Headphone cable (approx. 3.94 ft, OFC strands, gold-plated stereo mini plug)
- Plug: Gold-plated L-shaped stereo mini plug
- Wearing Style: Circumaural
- NFC: Yes
- DSEE HX: Yes
- Passive Operation: Yes
- Battery Charge Time: Approx. 3 Hours (Full Charge)
- Battery Charge Method: USB
- Battery Life (Continuous Music Playback Time): Max. 30 Hours (NC ON), Max. 38 Hours (NC OFF)
- Battery Life (Waiting Time): Max. 30 Hours (NC ON), Max. 200 Hours (NC OFF)
- Fast Charging: Yes; Up to 5 Hours of Battery life on a 10 Minute Charge
- Bluetooth Version: Version 5.0
- Effective Range: Line of sight approx. 30 ft (10 m)
- Frequency Range: 2.4 GHz band (2.4000 - 2.4835 GHz)
- Profile: A2DP, AVRCP, HFP, HSP
- Supported Audio Formats: SBC, AAC, LDAC
- Supported Content Protection: SCMS-T