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Hands on: Sony WH-1000XM4 Review

The WH-1000XM4 are shaping up to be yet another tremendous pair of noise-cancelling headphones

First Impressions

With excellent sound and noise-cancelling alongside an intriguing set of smart features, the 4th-gen WH-1000X are shaping to be the best headphones of 2020.

Key Specifications

  • Review Price: £350
  • Bluetooth 5.0
  • Weight: 254g
  • Speak to Chat
  • DSEE Extreme Engine
  • HD Noise Cancelling Processor QN1
  • Google Assistant & Amazon Alexa
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After months of speculation, leaks and fevered interest, Sony has officially announced the sequel to the popular XM3 noise-cancelling headphones in the WH-1000XM4.

From our short time with the headphones so far, it’s a case of evolution instead of revolution. Nothing on the outside has massively changed, but Sony has elected to make a number of changes to the tech that powers the XM4 in what looks like an attempt to plant these headphones as the de-facto noise-cancellers for years to come.

Related: Best noise-cancelling headphones

Price and release date

The Sony WH-1000XM4 are priced at £350 and will go on sale later in August in Black and Platinum Silver finishes.

Sony WH-1000XM4 design — So comfortable

Place the WH-1000XM4 alongside the WH-1000XM3 and you’d be hard-pressed to notice any changes. You’ll need eagle-eyes to spot that the NFC logo is now engraved, and that there’s a slight change to the material the model number is emblazoned on. Otherwise you could say they’re identical.

Except a few changes have been made and the only way you’ll notice is by putting the headphones on. Pre-release image leaks purported that the earpad cushions were bigger, but I wouldn’t say that they are – they look about the same size. What I would say is that they’re softer and more pliable for a cushier feel. The emphasis is even more on ensuring they offer this level comfort over long-haul flights and travel.

Sony WH-1000XM4

Sony has said the headband structure has been modified (apparently, it’s wider), to ease pressure across the head. Inside the left earcup is a small black square, which is the wear sensor detector and it’ll know when you are or aren’t wearing the headphones.

The button and connection layout remain the same, with the NC/Ambient button on the left earcup re-christened as the Custom button. The profile of headphones is slim and elegant, with an air of grown-up sophistication to it. The headphones come in a swish carry case with USB-C cable, airplane adapter and wired cable tucked inside. Oh, and it weighs 1 gram less at 254g.

There’s an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” feel to the WH-1000XM4, but the modifications in terms of comfort have, so far, been an improvement in our short time with it.

Sony WH-1000XM4 features — More intelligent than ever

The feature set is where the brunt of Sony’s focus has been with remit of enhancing the headphones’ ‘intelligence’.

But before we get on to that, it’s worth noting the 4th gen WH-1000X don’t support aptX or aptX-HD. Alongside SBC and AAC, Sony has put its faith in its own LDAC codec for hi-res wireless audio transmission, as it sees more potential in LDAC. Considering LDAC is baked into Android mobile OSes from 8.0 onwards, the lack of any form of aptX is arguably not a huge loss. Some may mourn not having the option though, considering the WH-1000XM3 supported aptX and aptX-HD.

But back to the smart features. First up is Speak to Chat, which learns your voice so it can detect when you’re talking and pause what you’re listening to without the wearer taking the headphone off. It’s an interesting innovation, and one you could see reducing the hassle and awkwardness of dropping what’s in your hands to take the headphones off and then talk to someone. Playback resumes thirty seconds after you stop talking, although this can be adjusted in the Sony Headphones Connect app.

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Sony WH-1000XM4

The wear sensor in the XM4’s earcup

Another ‘intelligent’ feature is Adaptive Smart Control. If you’re fine with loosening your privacy restrictions, Adaptive Smart Control uses the smartphone’s location data to learn your frequent haunts and tailor the sound to meet that location. Say, for example, you’re travelling on a train. The headphones could be on at maximum noise cancelling, but when you arrive at your favourite cafe it would dial it down, let some ambient sounds in, and still play your music without you adjusting a thing.

Again it’s smart, and although I haven’t had the chance to test it out, the ability of the headphone to adapt to where you are and what you’re doing adds a whole aspect of personalization and individuality. If it works as advertised, of course. Dip into the app and you can specify frequently visited locations and your preferred settings for them.

There’s support for multiple connections in the Multi-point feature, which allows the WH-1000XM4 to be connected to two devices at once. The headphones already support several OS and platforms, but an update is arriving next week to add more. Voice assistant support is there for Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant.

Sony says it’s made improvements to call quality with the Precise Voice Pickup feature. Considering this was something users felt was lacking in the 3rd-gen WH-1000X, the use of the five microphones built into the headset should, in theory, pick up your voice clearly and precisely.

Speaking of microphones, the HD Noise Cancelling Processor QN1 chip is back to suppress high and mid-frequency sounds via Sony’s Dual Noise Sensor tech (two microphones in each earcup). That works alongside a new algorithm that applies noise cancelling in real time. That suggests that the headphones’ noise-cancelling to be more sensitive and responsive to the levels of noise trying to penetrate through.

The Quick Attention Mode allows the wearer to hold their hand to the right earcup to let sounds through, a feature that’s been adopted (or straight up copied) by a few others. There’s also a new Bluetooth Audio SoC (System on Chip), which senses and adjusts music and noise at over 700 times per second, which we’ll take Sony’s word for.

Sony WH-1000XM4 performance — Similar character to its predecessor, but the XM4 have a more refined taste

While added comfort and improved smarts are all well and good, most will be interested in whether the noise cancelling performance and audio quality has moved on from the WH-1000XM3. Early impressions indicate yes.

Part of that is down to the upgraded DSEE Extreme engine, an upgrade over the DSEE HX seen in the WH-1000XM3 and WF-1000XM3. Developed with help from Sony Music Studios Tokyo, the new engine uses Edge-AI to upscale digital tracks in real time. It recognises the instrumentation, genre among other aspects of the track to restore high range sounds lost through compression.

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The results so far have been very intriguing. The character of the XM4 is similar in some ways to the XM3, but there’s an extra layer of refinement and clarity over their predecessors.

They’re not as boisterous as the XM3 – vocals are held slightly further back and the tone isn’t as warm – but the trade-off seems to be a better sense of control, separation, organisation and detail, without losing much, if any, dynamism. That is a change I can wholeheartedly get on board with. There’s a more civil tone to these headphones that makes them easier on the ears and, potentially, less fatiguing over longer periods.

Noise cancelling is, predictably, excellent. The improvements in the earpads allowed for a slightly better seal to be attained, and the first five minutes of the walk I went on resulted in barely any cars bothering my headspace. Single- and double-decker buses were reduced substantially, the loud clatter of the buses’ engine taken down several notches to halting stutter. And I genuinely can’t remember much noise as I wandered through the aisles of a nearby Tesco. The ANC is superbly isolating.

Early impressions

As I use the Sony WH-1000XM4 more and more, they begin to grow on me even more than the WH-1000XM3. The sound, so far, is excellent: more refined, clearer and removes quite a bit of noise from tracks. The fit has been excellent, with comfort levels high and the noise-cancelling has been thorough in its application.

Tune in soon for our full review of the Sony WH-1000XM4.

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A ’hands on review’ is our first impression of a product only - it is not a full test and verdict. Our writer must have spent some time with the product to describe an early sense of what it’s like to use. We call these ‘hands on reviews’ to make them visible in search. However these are always unscored and don’t give recommendations. Read more about our reviews policy.

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