Sony WH-1000XM4 review: Superior over-ear headphones with ANC
The predecessor model WH-1000XM3 (our review) already turned into a real reference headphone with active noise cancellation (ANC). Meanwhile, the Sony WH-1000XM4 is the updated successor, which is supposed to filter out background noise even more effectively and offers some exciting innovations. Our test clarifies whether it can thus once again secure the top spot.
|Headphone type||Over-ear (closed)|
|Bluetooth codecs||SBC, AAC, LDAC|
|Maximum operating range||10m (without obstacle)|
|Battery life||Up to 38 hours (without ANC); up to 30 hours (with ANC); up to 200 hours (stand-by without ANC)|
|Weight||252g (without cable)|
|Driver||40 mm, dome, with neodymium magnet|
|Frequency range||4-40,000 Hz; 20-20,000 Hz (44.1 kHz sampling); 20-40,000 Hz (LDAC 96 kHz sampling, 990 Kbit/s)|
|Connectors||USB Type-C; 3.5mm jack|
|Scope of delivery||Sony WH-1000XM4, USB-C charging cable, 3.5mm jack cable, airplane adapter, instructions, 360 Reality Audio trial version|
|Color options||Black; White (Silent White); Silver; Blue (Midnight Blue)|
|Price||€ 264.97 *|
Scope of delivery
The Sony WH-1000XM4 over-ear headphones have many parallels to its direct predecessor XM3, including the scope of delivery. The premium headphones come in an elegant white box, which welcomes us with useful instructions for the initial setup when we open it. Underneath, the headphones are folded and placed in the fabric-covered hard-shell transport case, which comes in the same color as the headphones (i.e. Midnight Blue, black or white).
Also inside are a 20 cm USB Type-C charging cable, a 3.5 mm jack audio cable (around 1.2 meters), and an airplane adapter. The obligatory instructions and warranty notes, as well as a free trial version of Sony’s 360 Reality Audio music service skillfully round off the excellent scope of delivery.
Design and workmanship
In terms of design, Sony stays true to the design line of its over-ear headphones. Optical differences of the WH-1000XM4 compared to the predecessor, you have to look with a magnifying glass. The body, ear cups and pads are like two peas in a pod. However, connoisseurs will notice that the NFC logo on the left ear cup is no longer in white.
However, there is a change on the inside of the left ear cup. There is a proximity sensor in the upper left corner that ensures that music playback is automatically continued or paused when the headphones are put on or taken off. This actually works excellently in practice and much more precisely than we were used to from other headphones.
Connoisseurs of the predecessor will also notice that the “NC/Ambient” button on the bottom of the left ear cup is now labeled “Custom”. This makes perfect sense, as its functionality can be customized in combination with the companion app – but more on that later.
The foldable over-ear headphones have an unagitated and at the same time extremely high-quality design that makes it unmistakably clear that we are dealing with premium headphones here. Especially the dark blue color variant tested by us looks very noble with the golden details.
The feel and build quality are on an equally high level. The WH-1000XM4 feels very comfortable in the hand and has a very high-quality feel. The metal brackets for adjustment also leave a really good impression and score with a precise, firm click. Surprisingly, the weight of 252 grams (without cable) turns out to be minimally lower than it was still the case with the XM3 – even if only by two grams.
The low weight has a positive effect on the wearing comfort. At the same time, Sony has covered the ear cups and headband of the XM4 with a softer leather
This, in combination with the slightly softer leather of the ear cups as well as the headband, results in an even higher wearing comfort. This combination ensures that the headphones will sit comfortably over the ears for extended periods of time. Smaller and medium-sized ears are completely enclosed by the pads. Only for large ears, the ear pads with an inner diameter of 6 x 4.5 cm (length x width) could press a little – here, the pads of the Bose QuietComfort 35 I & II turn out a bit more voluminous and comfortable.
Features and battery life
The Sony WH-1000XM4 establishes the connection with audio sources in wireless mode via Bluetooth 5.0, version 4.2 was still used here in the previous model. This ensures a more stable connection and increased range of around 10 meters in practice, which even remains through thick walls.
Pairing is triggered by pressing the on/off switch on the left and is done very quickly in less than 2 seconds. Very practical: When we first switched on the headphones, they were immediately recognized by our Android smartphone, which informed us about the new, nearby headset with a pop-up window.
The new proximity sensor, which allows music playback to be automatically paused and resumed when the earpiece is set down, also proves to be enormously practical. In addition, the XM4 is able to automatically turn itself off after 15 minutes to save battery power. We already know this from the competition in a similar form, but it is a novelty for Sony.
The useful Quick Attention mode should also not go unmentioned: If you put your hand on the right ear cup (where the touch control is also located), ANC and music playback are immediately turned down, which allows voices and noises in the surroundings to pass through. Thus, you are able to follow conversations even when you have the headphones on. At the same time, the voices are additionally amplified, just like in the transparency mode, and thus come into focus pleasantly even in loud ambient noise. The headphones signal the activation with a short noise.
Sony also integrates the so-called Speak-to-Chat function, which automatically pauses the music and lets ambient noise pass through when the headphones perceive your voice. Five integrated microphones and advanced audio signal processing always reliably detect the voice and automatically resume music playback after a short delay when you stop speaking.
In terms of battery life, the WH-1000XM4 are also very well placed, although not much has changed here compared to their predecessors. A maximum of 30 hours with ANC and 38 hours without noise cancellation are possible – a good, but not outstanding value.
Charging is only possible via USB-C cable, but a corresponding power adapter is unfortunately not included. However, there is a quick-charge function that supplies the headphones with energy for a whole five hours of music playback in just 10 minutes.
Operation and practice
The Sony WH-1000XM4, similar to the XM3, are controlled primarily via the touch-sensitive outer side of the right ear cup. With the on/off switch, as well as the CUSTOM button, there are only two physical buttons on the headphones, which are sensibly positioned and easy to reach. The latter can be customized using Sony’s Headphones Connect app to either control the voice assistant (Google Assistant/Siri) or Amazon Alexa, or to control the ANC function. A single press switches between transparency mode (“Ambient Sound”) and noise suppression, while a long press and hold starts the noise suppression optimizer.
This determines the volume of the ambient noise during a short test and measures the air pressure to optimally adjust the ANC to the situation and personal taste. If you suffer from the well-known “diving bell effect” after putting on the headset, it is worth using the optimizer to get rid of the unpleasant pressure.
The touch control of the headphones works both intuitively and reliably and is one of the best systems on the market – only the Bose NC 700 are slightly ahead in our eyes because they react even a bit faster and more precisely.
Music playback (start/pause) and call management are controlled by a double tap, while a horizontal swipe motion moves to the previous or next song. Furthermore, a movement from bottom to top or in the opposite direction, respectively, can increase or decrease the volume – and even do so smoothly by swiping and holding. A logical concept that can be quickly mastered without studying the manual. Thanks to multipoint connectivity, the headphones can even be connected to two audio sources at the same time, allowing you to quickly switch between PC and smartphone, for example.
Audio quality and ANC
Let’s get to the first and only real downer of the Sony WH-1000XM4, as compared to the XM3, connoisseurs can expect a cutback in codecs: The high-resolution aptX and aptX HD were incomprehensibly dropped without replacement! Some older Android smartphones will therefore have to fall back on the SBC codec, otherwise a premium encoding is still available with the Sony-developed LDAC (but not on Mac or iPhone), which manages a maximum of 990 kilobits per second with a sampling depth of 16 bits at 48 kilohertz.
Apart from this saving, the Sony over-ear headphones nevertheless convince with a thoroughly balanced and voluminous sound image, which is primarily designed for high-quality music enjoyment and is not aimed at audiophile users.
Specifically, this means that bass and low frequencies are given significantly more space compared to a neutral sound image. Thanks to the dynamic 40 mm drivers with copper voice coil and the huge audio transmission range of 4 – 40,000 Hz, the result is an extremely coherent, very detailed sound image. The headphones are full-bodied and warm in the bass range and can also handle low basses excellently.
The mids are also excellently tuned and reproduce voices as well as instruments across genres powerfully and dynamically. The open, well resolved trebles are also completely convincing and come along without any ugly peaks. Ultimately, the sound of the Sony WH-1000XM4 cuts a very good figure, especially when you use the extensive equalizer settings in the app and turn down the somewhat over-present bass.
In addition, the DSEE Extreme function can be used to slightly improve the audio quality of compressed files, which results in slightly clearer acoustics. The ear shape analysis via the app also proves to be useful.
Here, images of both ears are taken and several sound tests are run through to ideally adjust the sound (and ANC) to the user. You can actually hear the difference. To once again draw a comparison to the predecessor model WH-1000XM3: The XM4 sound more voluminous, richer, a touch finer and simply better.
ANC: Even better, even smarter
The Sony WH-1000 series is considered the non-plus-ultra in terms of active noise cancellation in the over-ear headphone segment. Fortunately, the Noice Cancelling could once again be significantly improved and that, although once again the QN1 chip is used. The combination of passive shielding and a whole five microphones provides an incredible tightness, thanks to which no more external noise gets inside the ear cups.
In particular, the XM4 shields low sounds such as aircraft noise even more effectively. All noises are suppressed excellently when music is playing. This shows once again why Sony is considered the market leader in ANC headphones. No other headphone currently presents a similarly quiet picture.
Sony is also much more versatile than the competition in terms of the system’s configurability. The ANC can be adjusted in no less than 20 levels via the app. Even partially letting voices pass in the mid-range is possible in all levels if desired.
Thanks to NC Optimizer, the noise cancellation function can also be optimized with the help of a short sound and pressure test – this is especially useful when the external conditions have changed. For example, on a plane or train.
The Connect app can also be used to make detailed settings for adaptive noise detection. For example, the headphones detect whether you are sitting, walking, or exercising, and adjust the ANC function accordingly. The change works in a fraction of a second: If you’re out and about in the city and have to stop at a traffic light, the XM4 activates the wait option to block out distracting noises like cars or the streetcar thanks to ANC. Places that you visit frequently can also be taught and saved in the app, so that the headphones automatically adjust the noise suppression. If desired, the adaptive ANC can also be completely deactivated.
In summary, the Sony WH-1000XM4 once again underscores its top spot as the best ANC over-ear headphones, sealing more effectively (as well as smarter) than all of its competitors. Outstanding!
For fine-tuning the headphones, Sony once again relies on its companion app, Headphones Connect, which outshines all competitors in terms of feature set. Besides the possibility to update the firmware, view various manuals and operating instructions, you have countless setting options at your disposal.
These range from various listening tests for optimizing the noise suppression and analyzing the shape of the ear, to extensive adjustments of the sound image, learning frequently visited locations, and activating and deactivating the touch control.
You can also use the equalizer to further improve the already round sound of the headphones. Here you can choose from various presets that focus on bass, treble or mids, for example. Alternatively, you can even create two user-defined presets to fine-tune the sound. Thanks to the Clear Bass optimizer, the bass can be increased or decreased in a total of ten steps.
Sony has managed the feat of further improving an already outstanding pair of headphones with the WH-1000XM4. With the XM3, we already had to look for points of criticism with a magnifying glass, and it is precisely these existing flaws that the current model consistently improves. Only the incomprehensible omission of the aptX codec hurts and is the only real point of criticism.
On the plus side, the Sony WH-1000XM4 has an excellent, powerful and detailed sound, an outstanding wearing comfort and the best as well as most versatile active noise-cancelling on the market. If you have around 300 Euros at your disposal and are looking for versatile, elegant and robust over-ear headphones with ANC, you won’t find a better model at the moment.
However, if you already own the predecessor Sony WH-1000XM3, the change is only worthwhile to a certain extent due to the similar design and fewer innovations (better sound, improved ANC, slightly higher wearing comfort).
Value for money
Outstanding ANC headphones with rich sound, excellent workmanship and high wearing comfort, which does not make any notable slip-ups. Reference in the over-ear segment.
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