The world of noise-canceling headphones is getting increasingly competitive. While the likes of Apple have started releasing their own models, companies like Sony and Bose continue to refine and develop their headphones. The Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones were long considered the best noise-canceling headphones money could buy. Recently, Sony upped the ante with the new Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones.
The WH-1000XM4 headphones take that much-loved XM3 design and comfort, and add in a tweaked sound profile and a number of smart new features. They’re an iterative update over the previous generation, to be sure, but still an incredible option for those who want a pair of great noise-canceling headphones.
Sony WH-1000XM4 design
If you’re familiar with the Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones, then you’ll recognize the Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones. They’re nearly identical in design to the last-generation model — though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The headphones are sleek, stylish, and extremely lightweight.
The right earcup is where you’ll get the USB-C port for charging. The left earcup, however, is where most of the action happens. That’s where you’ll find a power button, a programmable custom button that controls noise cancellation by default, and an aux port.
Of course, there’s more to controlling these headphones than just the buttons. The headphones also offer touch-sensitive surfaces on the earcups, which you’ll use to control playback and volume. Swipe up or down to change the volume. Swipe to the side for the next or previous track, and double-tap to play or pause. The double-tap feature makes sense, but it doesn’t always work. You may find yourself having to do it more than once.
The headphones are much smaller and lighter than some of the competition — especially the AirPods Max. That helps make them a little more comfortable for long listening sessions, though both headphones are still very comfortable. The XM4s offer plush padding in both the earpads and under the headband, too.
Unlike the AirPods Max, the Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones come with a great case. The case itself is strong, while still remaining relatively slim. It also has space to store an aux cable and USB-C cable for charging. I wish the AirPods Max came with a case like this.
Generally speaking, the Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones offer a premium design and a lightweight build. They’re mostly built from plastic, but that plastic doesn’t really look or feel cheap. And it ensures the headphones remain light.
Sony WH-1000XM4 features and battery
The design may be almost completely unchanged compared to the XM3 headphones — but the Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones offer a few extra features that help make them even smarter than before.
When you first get the headphones, you’ll want to download the Sony Connect app, which is where you can tweak the headphones’ features. There are plenty of features on offer in the app. For starters, you can change the noise cancelation level, enable and disable the touch sensor, and enable and disable the Ambient Sound Control.
The headphones offer some other great features that weren’t on offer by the previous-generation model. For example, the headphones can (finally) connect to two devices at a time — so you can connect them to your laptop and your phone at the same time, if you want to.
The headphones also make it easier to talk to people while you’re wearing them. That’s through the new speak-to-chat feature, which detects when you talk, then pausing music and turning on ambient mode. It works well — but if you’re someone who likes to sing along to the music you’re listening to, you’ll probably want to disable it.
The custom button on the headphones controls noise cancelation by default, but it can also be changed to enable Google Assistant or Alexa, if you so choose.
Generally, these are very smart headphones, and they’re not smart just for the sake of it — the features on offer are actually quite helpful, and you can enable and disable them as you see fit.
Sony WH-1000XM4 comfort
The fact that these headphones are so lightweight directly correlates to how comfortable they are. While headphones like the AirPods Max have to employ special technologies to evenly distribute weight, the Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones take a more old-fashioned route — they’re light and have plenty of padding.
The result is that you can easily wear the headphones for hours on end without any issues. I was unable to test wearing the headphones on long-haul flights due to the pandemic, however I did wear them for an entire work day without them getting uncomfortable. As with any headphones you may want to take a break every few hours, but frankly, you’ll easily be able to keep these headphones on your head for extended periods of time without any issues.
Sony WH-1000XM4 sound quality
Of course, as with any pair of headphones, the most important thing to keep in mind is how the headphones sound. Thankfully, they sound awesome. The soundstage isn’t quite as wide as the AirPods Max, nor is there as much detail in the high end, but they still offer an excellent sound quality.
The bass response, for starters, is deep and powerful. Kick drums easily hit through a mix, while bass guitars sound smooth and deep. The bass does seem a little boosted, but you can tweak the EQ in the app, so that’s not really an issue for those who don’t like a bass boost.
The mids are well-tuned, offering enough high mids to give vocals and guitars a nice tone, and without sounding like an old radio.
The highs are particularly great. There’s plenty of detail to go around, making for an exciting listening experience as a whole. I ended up tweaking the frequency response to offer a little more in the high-end. Again, though, that’s not a huge issue for most.
The headphones, of course, also offer noise cancelation, and it’s excellent. The AirPods Max win the title for the best noise cancelation out there right now, but these get very close, and they easily cut out most ambient noise. Seriously, the noise cancelation on offer here is world-class.
Sony has built a few other features into the headphones too. For example, they support Sony’s 360 Reality Audio, which is cool at times, but not quite as immersive as some other attempts. And, they have Sony’s DSEE Extreme audio upscaling tech for lossy audio codecs like MP3. This tech works fine for the most part, though many won’t notice much of a difference.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones are the best noise-canceling headphones in their price range. Sure, for Apple users, the AirPods Max are better, but they’re also a whole lot more expensive. If you don’t want to spend $550 on a pair of headphones, the WH-1000XM4 headphones are the way to go.
We’ve talked a fair amount about the AirPods Max, which are Apple’s take on the high-end noise-canceling headphone. They’re $200 more expensive, and you’ll get better integration with Apple devices, along with slightly better sound quality, and a more premium build.
The other main competitor comes from Bose, in the form of the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700. These headphones come at a similar price, and feature a slightly more natural frequency response overall. You won’t get as long of a battery life as the Sony Headphones. Nor will you get quite as many features. Ultimately, I find the Sony Headphones to be a little more compelling.
Should I buy the Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones?
Yes. Until the AirPods Max were released, these were the best noise-canceling headphones out there. Now, they’re still the best for non-Apple users, or those who don’t want to spend more than $350.