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Sony WF-1000XM4 Review

Verdict

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The Sony WF-1000XM4 improves over their predecessor in terms of design and comfort, the feature set is extensive, the noise cancellation once again is impressive, and there’s no finer-sounding true wireless on the market. They sound absolutely sublime.

Pros

  • Astonishingly good sound
  • Excellent noise cancellation
  • Improved design
  • IPX4 rating
  • Smaller case
  • Comprehensive feature set

Cons

  • Is the noise cancelling the best?
  • More expensive than before
  • Call quality suffers in noisy areas

Key Features

  • V1 processorNew processing chip for noise cancellation
  • LDAC supportOffers support for higher quality audio
  • New look designSmaller earbuds and smaller charging case
  • Battery life8 hours battery life per earbud

The true wireless earbud market sprung into life in 2016, and arguably no-brand has channelled its potential as much as Sony.

Sony’s first earbuds arrived in 2017 in the WF-1000X. They divorced themselves from the safety-first approach of first-gen efforts with a sound-first attitude. Despite some issues the WF-1000X were, by and large, successful.

The WF-1000XM3 appeared two years later, improving on the original. It was a second-gen effort that felt as if true wireless earbuds were fulfilling their potential.

Now the WF-1000XM4 have arrived as the market enters a more mature phase. There’s less of a sense of the unknown and less compromise, too. True wireless earbuds are pushing against their full-sized counterparts in terms of features, and the sound is reaching high levels of quality.

So let’s get it out of the way. The WF-1000XM4 are Sony’s best true wireless pair yet. The question – given the increase in competition and quality – is whether the WF-1000XM4 are the best true wireless earbuds available?

Availability

  • UKRRP: £250
  • EuropeRRP: €280
  • CanadaRRP: CA$399
  • AustraliaRRP: AU$499

The Sony WF-1000XM4 goes on sale June 2021 for a price of £250 / €280. For those regions that’s a £30 / €30 increase on the WF-1000XM3.

They do match other premium earbuds from Apple and Bose but are still below efforts from Bang & Olufsen (£399) or Bowers & Wilkins (£349).

  • Improved, comfortable fit
  • More compact than before
  • Smaller, more convenient case

Aesthetically the WF-1000XM4 marks a change in form. They’re shaped more like most earbuds, adopting the ‘ear trombone’ look that’s less ornate than the WF-1000XM3.

It’s a change that makes them more compact – 10% less volume – and while that seems small, the earbuds now sit within the ear rather than bulge out.

Sony WF-1000XM4  andWF-1000XM3 earbuds

They don’t produce the oily feeling the WF-1000XM3 could on occasion. The more ergonomic shape fits the contours of the ear better, and the XM4 feel even more stable than the already pretty solid XM3.

Once the right position has been found, they stay planted. Would I recommend them for workouts? I’ve not taken them for a run, but potentially yes, and unlike their predecessor these earbuds don’t require pushes after the fact to keep them seated.

There is, I find, a settling in period though. With my ear shape, they’ll slot in, and then comes a period where you notice their presence. Once that passes, they’re fine. If anything, the longer I wore them, the more comfortable they were.

eartip on the Sony WF-1000XM4

The fit is helped by new polyurethane noise isolation ear-tips. With small and large options alongside default medium, the ear-tips feature thousands of little bubbles that dissipate noise, and moreover, mould themselves to the contours of the ear for a tighter fit.

I could even hear the bubbles ‘fizz’ in my left ear as I pushed the earbud in (which I imagine could freak some out). You could source other ear-tips, but the noise isolation would be hampered. You can also swap sizes for each ear (they’re colour coded) for a better fit.

The matte black (or platinum silver) finish is not as alluring as previous models, though those gold accents, especially on the external microphone, make them distinctive. I do like what Sony has done with the ‘feel’ of the touch control area. The rubbery aspect provides a tactile sense of interaction, and like the PI7, the effect is subtle but enhances the connection between you and earbuds.

Sony WF-1000XM4 earbuds pictured outside

The controls are responsive, with a range of options that includes activating noise cancelling/ambient sound/Quick Attention, playback (a combination of taps for play/pause, skipping and a long press for voice assistance), and volume control.

Which function is assigned to which earbud can be configured in the Headphones app. You will have to choose between the three options (one for each side), which means you will have to fish your smartphone out to complete one of those actions. A slight inconvenience.

The charging case has been reduced in size and is all the better for it. Where the WF-1000X and WF-1000XM3 cases were chunky, the WF-1000XM4’s case is one of the pocketable, and petite around. It makes them much more convenient for transport.

Sony WF-1000XM4 eco-friendly packaging

The packaging for the earbuds has also been tweaked, reduced in size and made from sustainable sources. It’s not quite what you’d expect from a premium pair of earbuds, but it is a more responsible approach.

  • New, more efficient V1 processor
  • Improved battery life
  • Comprehensive roster of features

The reason Sony skipped the WF-1000XM2 was to indicate the full-sized and true wireless XM3 models were of the same lineage. If the XM3 were close, then the XM4 models are intertwined. Feature-wise, everything on the full-sized XM4 is available here.

The XM4 family no longer shares a processor like the XM3s did, though. The WF-1000XM4 bids farewell to the HD Noise Cancelling Processor QN1e chip, and hello to the V1 processor. The V1 integrates the noise cancelling processing and Bluetooth SoC (System on Chip) where previously they were separate, and that has produced efficiencies across the feature set.

One such efficiency is battery life. With noise cancelling on, the number quoted is the same – 24. But the charging case is smaller (40% less volume), so Sony has extracted the same amount of stamina as a result of the V1’s power efficiency.

Sony WF-1000XM4 and WF-1000XM3 charging cases

Otherwise, the Sony WF-1000XM4 quotes 8 hours per earbud, an increase of two from WF-1000XM3. While I’ve not done any sort of battery drain, that seems around the ballpark with general use. If you use them continuously, it does feel like the battery life is a little less.

With noise cancelling off, battery life is quoted at 12 hours. The case supplies three charges (instead of four), but the maximum the WF-1000XM4 can hit is 36 hours, four better than WF-1000XM3. Those are solid gains, however you look at it.

Sony says the XM4 suppresses better than the XM3, and I’d agree. The WF-1000XM4 stifles sounds with more precision. Sony also claims the XM4’s noise cancellation is industry leading – I’m not sure I’d agree with that.

That’s not to say the XM4’s noise cancelling is not one of the most emphatic. However, to my ears, the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds suppress sounds with more impact. We could be talking fractions of decibels (if that’s a thing).

Give them both a delivery bike, the sight of which has become very common, and the Sony removes noise to leave the bike’s engine spluttering. The Bose do much the same, but they render the bike’s engine as if it’s developed a sickly splutter and is edging closer to the scrapyard.

Sony WF-1000XM4 with the case open

So while the XM4 are undeniably impressive, more so than (almost) any earbud I’ve come across, I don’t think they are quite as pious in their noise cancelling worship as the Bose. I’ll concede that there’s not much in it, and more testing may change matters.

The Sony dissipates large vehicles like trucks and buses with ease, nullifies fire engines to the point where the siren takes on a dull tone. Range Rovers are transformed into Prius cars, nearby conversations in shopping isles become whispers, and the sound of tyres on wet roads simply evaporates.

Wind noise is smoothed out (better than the Bose), though I’ve yet to experience it in blustery conditions. The fryer in a fish and chip shop is neutralised completely, and in general, the world dies down to the point where taking the earbuds out, everything becomes so loud. The WF-1000XM4’s noise cancelling is hugely impressive, no doubt.

Just as impressive is the earbuds’ Ambient Mode, which lets audio filter through as if you’re not wearing them at all. It’s very clear, and offers a great situational awareness.

The only slight issue with both noise cancelling and ambient mode, is that they seem a little sensitive to some objects passing by. It gives this sense of the noise cancelling or passthrough expanding or decreasing ever so slightly.

Details of settings on the Sony Headphones Connect app

Sony is bringing out an updated version of its Headphone app after the WF-1000XM4 announcement. There’s no change in appearance, but there are some notable new features.

There’s a test that determines whether the ear-tips are securely in place, with the companion app playing a sound that measures how air-tight the seal is. My left ear always seemed to be a problem, but then that’s the point – it’s good to know where you can optimise.

It’s presence, however, is another reason why I’d give Bose the edge. With the XM4 you do need to adjust and measure to get that perfect fit. The Bose works right out of the charging case.

Details of the ear-tip sizing test for Sony Headphones Connect app

The Ambient Sound Control can be tweaked, so you can toggle between noise cancelling, ambient mode or Off. You can fiddle with the EQ settings, enable the Adaptive Sound Control so the headphones recognise frequent haunts and automatically adapts the noise cancelling profile among many more customisations. It’s very comprehensive.

Other features include Speak to Chat, which a) quickly detects when you’re talking and pauses music and b) works as intended. Quick Attention Mode achieves a similar effect, but nudges the volume down and keeps music going. Wear detection stops and restarts music when the earbuds are taken out.

Voice assistants (Google and Alexa) can be activated by a wake word, and you can assign the earbuds to dial up whatever general voice assistant features on the device.

Fast-pairing and customisation for Sony WF-1000XM4

Fast-pairing with Android devices makes first-time pairing quick and simple. You can view battery notifications for the earbuds and charging case on screen, and the Sony WF-1000XM4 also supports the ‘Find My’ feature. In case they go missing, you can ring them or check for their last known location.

Sony’s premium earbuds finally (finally!) have an IPX4 resistance. I’ve yet to take them for a run, but adding this makes XM4 an option for workouts and runs.

Where wireless connectivity is concerned, simultaneous transmission is the order of the day (audio is sent to both left and right earbuds at the same time). The efficiency of the V1 processor also claims to impart a more stable connection and fewer audio skips. I’ve only encountered a few minor blips in the week and a bit of testing, with no sustained dropouts or sketchy connections so far.

USB-C connection on Sony WF-1000XM4 charging case

Another area Sony says they’ve improved is call quality. The XM4’s microphones and sensors – including that gold ‘chimney’ on the outside – are designed to pick up voices through beamforming and bone conduction.

Does it work? On a busy main road the person on the other end said it was hard to discern my voice from the background noise, as if I “was fighting against it”. A move to a quieter road and my voice came through “perfectly” with crystal clear clarity. That suggests that the WF-1000XM4’s are still sensitive to background noise, particularly in very noisy areas.

Are you as exhausted as I am? Well, there are a few more things. Bluetooth is the 5.2 version, and codec support runs from SBC, AAC and LDAC. LDAC opens up the connection pipe, allowing higher quality music to be funnelled through.

I was under the impression that Sony headphones selected the codec depending on the quality of music. What actually happens (for those unaware) is the WF-1000XM4 chooses the highest quality codec available and keeps it.

So irrespective of whether it’s a bitrate starved Spotify stream, Tidal Master or high-res Qobuz track, if your smartphone supports LDAC, the Sony WF-1000XM4 establishes an LDAC connection for all those streams. And with the DSEE Extreme toggled on, Sony alleges the XM4 upscales lower quality streams to near high-res quality.

If you haven’t got the message yet, Sony WF-1000XM4 can do a whole lot. While I’m not sure if the noise cancellation is truly the industry gold standard, I have no qualms as to how effective it is. I can’t think of any other true wireless that offers a meal as full as the XM4. I’m feeling rather stuffed.

  • Musical, natural, balanced presentation
  • Versatile performance

So the WF-1000XM4’s design is an improvement, the feature set is as jam-packed as ever and the noise cancellation excels. But what of the sound?

Sensational. The WF-1000XM4 are the finest-sounding earbuds I’ve heard. They are as good, if not better, as a large swathe of full-sized headphones.

Like the WF-1000XM3, they’re versatile, relaying any musical genre you like. From Nancy Sinatra’s You Only Live Twice, to Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain or Rage Against the Machine’s Bulls on Parade, they are wonderfully eloquent.

Sony WF-1000XM4 earbuds outside of case

It’s rather tricky to describe their sound other than I couldn’t imagine how tracks could sound any different. Instruments have a natural quality to them – a great sense of fidelity – to the point where it sounds like you’re among the orchestra itself.

Forget spatial sound with Dolby Atmos or even Sony’s 360 Reality Audio (supported here too), the WF-1000XM4 immerse purely on the strength of their presentation.

They’re energetic when needed, weighty in other regards and subtle when called for. The mid-range is excellent, while high frequency notes are sharply rendered and bracingly clear in a track like Gogo Penguin’s Raven.

Bass is whatever you like: big, taut, punchy, the Sonys seemingly adept with all forms. Tonal balance is impressively naturalistic. It seems rather pointless applying descriptors like warmth, neutrality or brightness – everything sounds as it should in the company of the WF-1000XM4.

Sony WF-1000XM4 earbuds from birds eye view

I have no idea what Rob Zombie is saying in Dragula, and frankly I don’t think any headphone will rectify that. But the energy and bombast of the track is so finely played that I find myself in the pull of the XM4’s orbit from the off. Even Maroon 5’s This Love had me bopping my head before I remembered where I was (in a Sainsbury’s superstore).

Compare them to the B&W PI7, a wireless earbud that’s all about high fidelity – and there’s a more marked sense of dynamism, flow and width to the WF-1000XM4’s approach.

Voices are described with emotion. Listening to Regina Spektor’s cover of As My Guitar Gently Weeps, and the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds’ clear but rather flat take contrasts with the Sony’s more measured sense of dynamism. Voices are pulled forward and fill out the soundstage.

Close up of touch panels of on Sony WF-1000XM4

Their character and tone is not dissimilar to the WF-1000XM3, which still stand up. But the XM4 eke out more dynamism where the XM3 sound a tad heavy-handed. There’s a surer sense of bass handling, more focus and better organisation. I could sum up the difference as crashing cymbals have ‘tsk’ sound on the XM4 rather than the XM3’s ‘tch’. It’s a finer, subtler and all round more brilliant performance.

The WF-1000XM4 doesn’t end up making the XM3 sound crude as the over-ear XM4 did to its predecessor, but the improvements elevate Sony’s true wireless series to a higher level.

Much I commented in the WF-1000XM3 review, the Sony WF-1000XM4’s presentation is similarly measured, balanced and highly musical but even more so. They’re understated, and resist laying a heavy hand on music, offering a tremendous amount of nuance.

Music from Spotify and Tidal streaming apps

Listening to Joe Hisashi’s Water Traveller from his Dream Songs: The Essential Joe Hisaishi album is absolutely wonderful. The way the movements of the orchestra are described, the shifts in tone and the detail, dynamism and fluidity afforded to it is sublime.

So while I have a few quibbles about whether the Sony WF-1000XM4 offers ‘industry leading’ noise cancellation, the XM4 are – in my mind – the finest-sounding wireless earbuds yet. Nothing else – and there have been some terrific efforts – come as close to the WF-1000XM4’s sense of refinement, musicality and drama. 

This is what the true wireless market has been building up to since 2016. What a pleasure it is to listen to music through these earbuds.

Should you buy it?

Because you want the best-sounding earbuds yet: I imagine whoever attempts to best these earbuds in the audio department is going to have a hard time with it. These earbuds present music as it is, uncoloured and wonderful to hear

Because there might be better noise cancellation: Sony say the XM4’s noise cancellation is industry-leading. I’m not quite sure whether they’re better than Bose, but it’s certainly an improvement on before and of excellent quality, too.

Verdict

Sony’s WF-1000XM4 improves over their predecessor in terms of design and comfort, the feature set is extensive, the noise cancellation once again is impressive, and there’s no finer-sounding true wireless on the market than the Sony. They sound absolutely sublime.

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FAQs

Do the Sony WF-1000XM4 have wing-tips

No, the WF-1000XM4’s design does not include the ability to connect wing-tips.

Do the Sony WF-1000XM4 support the LDAC codec?

Indeed they do. Support for LDAC allows the headphones to receive bitrates up 990kbps for higher fidelity audio.

How long is the Sony WF-1000XM4 battery life?

In terms of the earbuds, the battery life is 8 hours with noise cancelling on/12 with it off. Including the case, there’s 24 hour of battery with ANC switched on or 36 without it.

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