Review: Sony’s flagship noise-canceling headphones just got even better

Sony and Bose have been slugging it out at the top of the Active Noise Canceling (ANC) headphone heap for a few years now. Sony cemented its position as a leader in the space with the release of the WH-1000XM3 ANC headphones in 2018, and now the new WH-1000XM4 model has landed … with a few more tricks up its sleeve.

If you’re on a good thing stick to it, as they say, and Sony has definitely built on the success of the XM3s rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. And there’s a good reason for that; we rated the XM3s highly, in particular for their stellar noise cancelation, as did plenty of others.

That similarity starts with the XM4’s refined, understated design. That’s not a bad thing, unless you’re looking to add headphones to your halloween costume, and having all that tech ensconced stealthily on your noggin makes for a certain satisfied, smug feeling that I’d imagine Tesla Model S drivers are familiar with.

Like the XM3s the new headphones come in black or silver, fold for stowage and come with an adapter for airplane travel, a USB-C charging cable, a headphone cable for wired listening and a slightly more rigid carry case, which is a solid enough to take most of the knocks travel is likely to throw at it.

Weight is essentially the same at 254 grams (9 oz) and there are a couple of subtle changes to the cups, with slightly more room on the inside and padding shaved back at the top. For my ears, they are definitely comfortable to wear for long periods of time and do a good job of balancing that comfort with pressure to put you in a nice cozy bubble, even without ANC activated.

The compact, semi-rigid case will deal with most bumps and scrapes
The compact, semi-rigid case will deal with most bumps and scrapes

Noel McKeegan/New Atlas

Active noise canceling is Sony’s strength, so it’s not really surprising that the XM4s are, like the previous model, top notch on this front. The hardware setup includes two microphones in each ear cup, some new circuitry and Sony’s QN1 HD Noise Canceling Processor, which gets a new algorithm, to help filter out ambient sound more effectively.

The ANC deals well with the sort of background noise you get on public transport, in crowded places or from leaf-blower-obsessed neighbors, and significantly reduced some mid-frequency sounds like the thud of feet on the floor above my home office. You still get a very faint “distant waves” sound that comes with ANC, but you don’t notice it after a while.

It’s about more than quality ANC though – it’s about how usable they are in the real world. As well as being able to hear ambient sounds by placing your palm over the right earcup (called “Quick Attention Mode”), the XM4s have a Speak-to-Chat feature that pauses playback and triggers the ambient sound setting when you speak. You can adjust the amount of time the pause lasts for in the app, or just get going again by double tapping the earcup. Both have their uses – I tend to use Quick Attention or just take the headphones off when out and about, but Speak-to-Chat is useful at home when you are with people who’ll excuse you for holding a conversation without bothering to remove them. You can disable Speak-to-Chat in the app, but not Quick Attention Mode.

There's definitely something to be said for having a decent set of wireless ANC headphones around in 2020
There’s definitely something to be said for having a decent set of wireless ANC headphones around in 2020

Noel McKeegan/New Atlas

The touch controls also get a tick. Intuitive and reliable, they let you quickly pause/play (two taps on the right earcup), adjust volume (swipe up and down), access voice assistance (long press), and skip tracks (swipe backwards or forwards). The skip function flicks through podcast episodes too, but for audio books – at least in the Audible app – it skips back 30 seconds, which is a much better option. There’s nothing too cute here, it just works – though as a big podcast/audiobook listener, I’d love to see both a skip 30 seconds and skip to next chapter/episode function squeezed into the touch controls somehow, instead of it being one or the other depending on the app.

A new proximity sensor and two acceleration sensors combine to automatically pause playback when you take the headphones off. Very handy.

There are just two physical buttons – power on/off, which gives you a battery level check with a quick press, and a custom button that by default is to switch between noise canceling and ambient sound, while a long press activates the noise canceling optimizer, which aims to tweak performance based on head size, whether you wear glasses, etc. The XM4s also optimize for atmospheric pressure, but the pandemic put a stop to us getting on a plane to test that function.

Ambient sound levels can be controlled by a slider in the app, and the headphones can also make adjustments based on your location or action – letting in more sound when you’re out walking the streets, for example – but in practice I tended to rely more on the buttons on the headphones to toggle between ambient sound and ANC.

Another practical feature is the ability to connect to two devices at the same time. The headphones do a clever job of sensing what you need and automatically switching between the two. If a call comes in they switch to your phone, but if you’re listening to music on your phone and something starts playing on the computer, they don’t just leap across automatically. Occasionally you need to reach for the app because things get muddled or one of the devices won’t connect straight away, but overall dual pairing improves the experience.

So how do they sound? In my opinion, great. The bass is full and warm, the higher end is bright and there’s good separation. If you’re looking for more of an audiophile take, Soundguys have produced some frequency response charts to dig into, but few would disagree that when it comes to Bluetooth ANC headphones, the XM4s deliver top-notch sound.

Sound performance is helped along by the amount of fiddling you can do in the app to tailor the sound to your ears, with eight EQ presets, two customizable settings and manual control. If you run an Android device you can use Sony’s high-def LDAC codec (iPhones make use of AAC), but you can’t connect two devices simultaneously when using LDAC.

Other tricks include Sony’s DSEE Extreme (Digital Sound Enhancement Engine), which upscales compressed digital music files, and “360-degree Reality Audio,” which works with a handful of compatible subscription services designed to mimic the live music experience. We sampled a couple of these offerings and, while it definitely adds an immersive feel, particularly for live performances where sounds convincingly seem to come at you from different directions, the apps had their glitches and the catalogs are limited (plus we struck a lot of “not available in your territory” issues), so I’m hard pressed to say we were compelled to shell out for a subscription. Dedicated live music fans might find something here in the Covid era where concerts are hard to come by, and it is relatively early days for this stuff, but I wouldn’t list 360-degree audio as a reason to buy these headphones.

The padding on the XM4s balances pressure with comfort nicely
The padding on the XM4s balances pressure with comfort nicely

Noel McKeegan/New Atlas

While on 360-degree Reality Audio, the setup includes taking a photo of your ears and analyzing their shape to optimize the sound. It’s hard say how much this helped, but it does feel a little superficial compared to what the likes of Nura are doing with sound personalization.

Nothing beats a dedicated headset where the microphone sits in front of your face, but on calls the XM4s are definitely serviceable. Voices come through clearly and, using five microphones in all, they do an adequate job of making sure you’re heard on the other end, though you still sound a bit shallow and chopped, like you’re speaking hands-free in a car.

The battery got us most of the way to the claimed 30 hours run time using noise canceling most of the time. The XM4s also turn themselves off after about 15 minutes when you leave them on the desk, which helps draw out the time between charges. When you do need a charge, we found that the USB gets you to 100 percent in well under the specified three hours, and there’s a 1.5A AC adapter available separately that’s claimed to give you five hours of charge in 10 minutes.

One niggle when using an iPhone 11 is that sometimes after the voice prompt says Bluetooth is connected, it doesn’t actually kick in for about five seconds. The automatic pause function can also be a little hit and miss when you drop the headphones to your shoulder, but I like the way Sony’s help guide points out these sorts of pitfalls – in this case you just need to make sure your chin’s not in between the cups. We’re stretched to find a lot to complain about here, though. Any minor gripes are far outweighed by the thoughtful application of tech, some of which I haven’t even got around to mentioning yet, like using Google’s Fast Pair technology to help find them when misplaced, the ability to prioritize either sound quality or a stable connection, quickly check battery level, or turn off voice prompts.

The Sony WH1000XM4s combine quality sound, excellent noise-canceling, and stylish comfort into one very usable package. At US$349.99/AU$499 you’re paying for a high-end product, but there’s no doubt you’re getting one. That price pips Bose’s flagship Noise Canceling Headphones 700, which are currently selling for US$379.95, and if you’re not fussed about the convenience offered by features like Speak-to-Chat or automatic pausing, the previous XM3 model is still worth considering if the price is right.

There’s definitely something to be said for having a decent set of wireless ANC headphones around in 2020. Working from home has become more productive for me in recent weeks, my partner (who’s never tried a proper pair of ANC headphones) thinks they’re “magical,” and my kids seem to enjoy sneaking up and scaring the bejesus out of me. Everybody wins.

Product page: Sony WH-1000XM4