Sony WF-1000XM4 review: a sonic triumph

Sony WF-1000XM4 review: a sonic triumph


Sony first released its WF-1000XM3 earbuds nearly two years ago, and though they offered some of the best noise cancellation and sound quality you could find at that time, a lot has changed since. Facing newer competitors like Apple’s AirPods Pro and Bose’s QuietComfort Earbuds at the high end, and countless plenty-good alternatives below, Sony has returned with the new $278 WF-1000XM4 earbuds.

They provide even more powerful noise canceling; so good that it now approaches over-ear headphones. The audio quality has been further refined, and Sony added key features it frustratingly omitted last time — like IPX4 water and sweat resistance. The 1000XM4s also raise the bar for wireless audio and battery life in noise-canceling earbuds. Does that mean they’re worth almost $300?

If you want the absolute best active noise cancellation in truly wireless earbuds, the answer is an emphatic yes. Sony has built a new chip it calls the V1 into the 1000XM4s that brings their noise cancellation capabilities to impressive new heights. These earbuds do a better job than the AirPods Pro and even slightly outperform Bose’s QuietComfort Earbuds at hushing nearby noise. It’s now reached a point where the NC on these feels nearly as effective as Sony’s premium headphones. Impressive stuff.

They practically make the ambient sounds in my local coffee shop go poof, and while visiting family upstate over Memorial Day, I tested them in a crowded bar and found that I could listen to my music at around 60 percent volume without hearing any of the lively chatter surrounding me. Becca took them on a plane and they passed with flying colors, and they were able to cut down the cacophony of subway cars better than all earbud competitors. I credit these results partially to new memory foam tips that I’ll cover later, but it’s very evident that the V1 is cutting out more noise at all frequencies — just like Sony claims.

Both the earbuds and case are smaller than Sony’s previous WF-1000XM3s.

And when it comes to sound quality, the 1000XM4s are even more of a slam dunk than their predecessors. Sony told me that when it tunes earbuds, it closely looks at current music trends. So if you compare these directly to the 1000XM3s, you might notice slightly richer bass to handle your Dua Lipa fix. There’s no better of-the-moment album than Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour, and Sony’s earbuds simply do better at handling deep bass and low-mid frequencies than the AirPods Pro. But Sony’s audio prowess extends through all frequencies. Her voice, the acoustic guitars, and background vocals on “traitor” all come through with excellent distinctness.

It’s easy to close your eyes and get completely lost in the groove of Billie Eilish’s “Lost Cause,” where even whispered vocals come through with total clarity in the mix. John Mayer’s new Toto-influenced single “Last Train Home” and its airy vibe are right at home on the 1000XM4s, as well. Jump through genres and it’s hard to find anything that these earbuds can’t make shine. Electric guitars have just the right grit on ‘70s rock. Switch over to some soul and Sam Cooke’s voice has the warmth you’d expect. That extra bass lends added kick to hip-hop and dance tracks, though the low-end never gets bloated or overwhelming.

The earbuds now have an all-matte design with more subtle Sony branding.

The 1000XM4s look nothing like their predecessors. Sony has moved away from the pill shape to a more subtle, all-matte style. And the earbuds are noticeably smaller. Sony told me it’s just a 10 percent downsizing, but it feels like more due to the sleeker overall design. There’s a big round area for touch controls, and the flashiest thing about these earbuds is the small, accented circular microphone inlet. Sony’s logo is now on the side of the buds, where few would ever spot it when you’re wearing them.

Sony has shrunk down the carrying case even more; it’s 40 percent smaller than the bulky case that came with the 1000XM3s. Now it’s on par with cases from Jabra and other competitors. It’s shorter than the AirPods Pro case, but a tad wider and noticeably thicker. The case has a USB-C port and supports wireless charging, and the earbuds magnetically latch into the case strongly and should stay seated unless you fumble the whole thing to the ground. If I’m being fussy, the lid has a little more play than I’d like for $280 earbuds, but it stays shut fine.

But I’d argue the best thing about this redesign isn’t the actual earbud hardware: it’s the new ear tips Sony is including in the box. Last time around, Sony shipped six pairs of tips with the 1000XM3 buds — three silicone sizes and three foam-like tips. But with the 1000XM4s, Sony is going all-in on the memory foam approach with new “noise isolation ear tips.” They’re quite different from Sony’s past foam tips, now with a thicker design that’s less rounded and with a tackier feel that helps them stay planted in your ears. I’d describe it as almost a hybrid between silicone and memory foam.

The new noise isolation ear tips are actually one of the best things about the WF-1000XM4s.

You don’t get any plain silicone sets at all, and Sony only includes the standard small, medium, and large sizes; XS and XL would’ve been nice at this price point, but the large tips were a perfect match in my case. The seal is so strong that you’ll sometimes notice them twist in with a squeaking sound. Unlike the 1000XM3s, the 1000XM4s have a proper IPX4 rating for water and sweat resistance, so you can confidently use them for workouts or in the rain without weighing their odds of survival.

Once you power them on, the 1000XM4 earbuds will outlast all of their main noise-canceling competitors on a single charge. They’ll run for eight hours of continuous playback with NC enabled, an impressive jump from the five hours that the AirPods Pro, Galaxy Buds Pro, QuietComfort Earbuds, and Jabra Elite 85t all hover around. Turn noise canceling off, and the new earbuds can keep running for up to 12 hours. The charging case can juice the buds two times, so you’re looking at a total playing time of around 24 hours (NC on) or 36 hours if you can do without it wherever you are.

The case supports Qi wireless charging.

The earbuds have beamforming mics and bone conduction sensors for improved voice calls.

Sony is also beating Apple at bringing higher bit rate wireless audio to earbuds. The 1000XM4 buds fully support Sony’s own proprietary LDAC codec, which can transmit music tracks at up to 990kbps. This is currently the gold standard for Bluetooth audio, and though I’m sure it’ll prompt the usual “no one can tell the difference” debates, I’m glad to see LDAC show up in more portable form. 2021 is becoming the year of lossless music streaming, with Apple and Spotify both joining Amazon Music HD and Tidal.

But LDAC has its own challenges. Playback can get a little unreliable and choppy if you set it to max quality in an Android device’s developer settings, so generally I stick with the middle “performance” option where the top bit rate falls to 660kbps. At that quality, can you really perceive any improvement compared to AAC? Maybe I’m buying into snake oil, but to me it does sound like certain tracks do have that ever-so-slight extra bit of depth and clarity when streaming with LDAC. But keep in mind this is a feature that only applies to Android devices, and the 1000XM4s sound quite stellar when paired with an iPhone, where LDAC isn’t even a thing. It’s a reminder that everything in the chain — from how music was mastered and encoded to the earbud hardware itself — matters just as much as sheer bit rate.

LDAC has a detrimental impact on that otherwise exceptional battery life, too. If you’ve got noise cancellation active and are streaming LDAC, it drops to the typical five hours of continuous playback. That’s not bad when you consider how hard the buds are working under those conditions, but it’s a decrease all the same and removes one of the advantages the Sony buds have over the competition.

So far, this review has been largely praise, but the WF-1000XM4 earbuds do come with one crushing disappointment: they don’t support two simultaneous Bluetooth connections, a feature known as multipoint. It’s become a status quo feature for many high-end headphones (including from Sony) and allows you to have your headphones connected to both your phone and your computer and seamlessly switch between them. But for whatever reason, Jabra continues to be the only company that’s offering the convenience of multipoint in earbuds. This situation is getting frustrating — especially for products in this price bracket — and I hope the whole product category of true wireless earbuds can make progress on multipoint very soon. After recent leaks, I saw comments from people who said they wouldn’t purchase these earbuds if they lacked multipoint. And unfortunately, that’s where we’re at.

Microphone performance is better than it was on the 1000XM3s, but it’s still not as good as Apple’s AirPods Pro or Samsung’s Galaxy Buds Pro. The new earbuds utilize both beamforming mics and bone conduction sensors to know when you’re speaking and when you’re not. This does a respectable job of cutting out background noise for people on the other side of your calls, but it has the negative side effect of making your voice sound clipped or overly gated. In a home environment, they’re adequate for chatting with others, but things get a little more inconsistent outside or in loud environments. On a related note, Sony has brought over the speak-to-chat feature from the 1000XM4 headphones; with this setting on, the earbuds will automatically pause music and enable ambient sound mode whenever speech is detected. Once you’ve stopped talking for a few seconds, audio will automatically resume.

Sony’s ambient mode sounds more natural this time around, but since the buds aren’t vented and you can feel them in your ears, the effect is less convincing than on the AirPods Pro. Still, I like that Sony’s app lets you go deep on customizing the various sound modes; you can manually select how much outside sound to let through like other buds, but you can also adjust the mix of noise cancellation and ambient sound based on location — home, work, the gym, etc. — or have it change automatically if the app detects different activities. Lastly, Sony preserves its trick of holding a finger on the left earbud to temporarily activate transparency mode and lower the volume of your music until you lift it back off.

Not that I expected them to, but the 1000XM4s can’t keep up with Apple’s ecosystem advantages that exist between the AirPods Pro and iPhone, iPad, or Mac. While they support Sony’s 360 Reality Audio and Dolby Atmos music tracks on Tidal, the setup process is a little ridiculous: you’ve got to take a photo of each ear in Sony’s app, images the company says are deleted after 30 days, to “optimize” the sound. But what’s more important beyond that hassle is that Sony’s solution doesn’t yet work for movies or TV shows, where Apple’s spatial audio does a tremendous job immersing you in content. Since Sony only makes the earbuds and almost certainly not the tablet or phone in your hand, it lacks the necessary tie-ins for head tracking and other tricks that help Apple pull off spatial audio so well. Sony doesn’t even really advertise the 360 audio chops of the 1000XM4 buds; they’re clearly intended more for music and stereo listening. (Many Dolby Atmos music tracks have an artificial wideness to their soundstage, so I don’t miss that part.) A complete lack of any special interoperability with the PlayStation 5 or Sony’s TVs is a shame, though.

My first review pair of 1000XM4s experienced what I’d consider severe bugs: several times, they would completely crash and produce a buzzing sound — the sort of noise you hear when a video game freezes — and then power on again. I’d also have cases where only one earbud would connect to the paired device until I plopped them both into the case and tried again. Sony provided me with a second set that didn’t suffer the same problems. Becca didn’t have any such issues with her set either, so I’m relatively sure I got a bad unit the first time around. But I still think it’s worth mentioning for transparency’s sake. Sony generally does a respectable job of patching up early quirks with firmware updates.

Putting the one lemon pair aside, the other drawbacks aren’t enough to derail the end result: the WF-1000XM4s are a triumph for Sony. They’re an ambitious flex of decades’ worth of personal audio expertise, and they’re a reminder of just how well the company can execute when it’s focused on the right things. These earbuds can’t match all the bells and whistles of Apple’s AirPods Pro, and the lack of multipoint continues to sting. But they’re in a class of their own where it counts most: noise cancellation and sound quality. You’ll be paying quite a premium to get the best of that criteria, but if you’re the sort of person who will appreciate the top-notch performance, the 1000XM4s are a worthwhile investment.

Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge



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