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Sony WH-1000XM4 review: Bose-beating noise cancelling headphones

Samuel Gibbs Consumer technology editor
·8-min read

Sony’s top of the line noise-cancelling headphones have long had a winning formula and the latest edition has a much-requested addition – multiple device connectivity – to make them the best of class.

The WH-1000XM4 have an RRP of £350 and on initial inspection little has changed for the fourth edition of the 1000X line, with its understated design. The high-quality plastic body is well made and lightweight at 254g but doesn’t feel as premium as some metal or carbon fibre competitors that weigh more than 300g.

They are some of the lightest-feeling headphones you can buy, matching the longstanding comfort kings, the Bose QC35 II. The ear cups are well padded with a gentle, even pressure on the side of your head while a soft leatherette headband sits on your dome. It’s easy to forget you are wearing them apart from when the headband slips forward when you tilt your head to look down.

Specifications

  • Weight: 254g

  • Drivers: 40mm

  • Connectivity: Bluetooth 5.0 with multipoint, 3.5mm, USB-C charging, NFC

  • Bluetooth codecs: SBC, AAC, LDAC

  • Battery life: 30 hours ANC on

Controls and connectivity

The XM4 are a regular set of Bluetooth 5.0 headphones, making them compatible with most Bluetooth-sporting phones, tablets, computers and other devices. They support the universal SBC and AAC audio formats used by most devices. But they also support Sony’s high-resolution LDAC Bluetooth audio format that is compatible with many Android devices for some of the highest-quality wireless audio.

They are Sony’s first 1000X set to support the popular multipoint connection feature, which means you can have two devices connected at the same time, such as a phone for calls and a laptop for music. It works reliably with a variety of devices. The high-resolution LDAC audio cannot be used when multipoint is enabled, however, restricting connections to the more standard SBC and AAC.

There are four ways to pair the headphones – Google’s Fast Pair or via a single tap with an NFC tag for instant pairing with an Android phone, using the Sony Headphones Connect app for Android or the iPhone and iPad, and manual pairing the old-fashioned way by holding down a button.

The headphones come with a standard 3.5mm headphones cable that can be used when the headphones are turned on or off. The microphone cannot be used over the 3.5mm cable, however.

The left ear cup has a power button and a custom action button, which can be set to control either Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa or noise-cancelling. The right ear cup has a touch pad for the rest of the controls, which work well with bare fingers but not with gloves. Double tap for pause/play, swipe forward or back for track skip, and up and down for volume. Tap and hold for Siri or Google Assistant from your phone. Hold your palm over the touchpad to quickly switch to an ambient listening mode, which is extremely handy for announcements and quick conversations.

The Headphones Connect app for Android and iOS handles various settings and updates, including switching connected devices, noise-cancelling modes and sound options.

The XM4 have five mics for picking up your voice and are slightly improved compared with previous versions, with callers able to hear what I was saying in areas with a little background noise, but still do not compare with the class-leading Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700.

Active noise-cancelling

The XM4 have some of the best active noise-cancelling technology available, with a level of control that goes beyond most, effectively reducing most droning and low-frequency sound as well as some speech and other more sudden noise, matching the best from Bose.

Using the app you can personalise the noise-cancelling to take into account hair, glasses and other things that effect the seal of the ear cups, while a pressure optimiser that can determine whether you are on the ground or in the air helps when flying versus just the commute.

In addition, there are the ambient sound modes, which adjust the amount of background noise you can hear over 20 levels, plus a “focus on voice” for allowing speech through. It doesn’t rival Apple’s version in sounding as if you’re not wearing the headphones, but is good for awareness.

Adaptive sound control in the app can automatically adjust the level of noise-cancelling based on how loud it is in your current environment. The system learns your favourite locations and awareness levels, and switches automatically, such as maximum noise-cancelling at work but ambient sound level 10 at home.

Fantastic sound

These are some of the best-sounding Bluetooth headphones you can buy, producing the sort of audio that has you discovering new nuances in well-worn tracks, putting them in the same league as the B&W PX7 and Apple’s AirPods Max.

They are not neutral, with a default sound that is more mid-bass heavy than some competitors, but they produce well-controlled, deep and full bass, warm mids and sparkling high notes. Unlike many rivals, they have a full equaliser in the app to customise the sound to your liking, as well as music enhancement systems such as Sony’s DSEE Extreme upscale audio to revive tones lost because of compression at the expense of battery life.

They do an excellent job of bringing the best out of most music genres, from pounding bass lines in high-energy electronica and a raw energy in grunge to sumptuous tones for jazz and soul and a wide sound profile for grand orchestral scores. Preservation of detail even in super complex tracks is top notch, while they also sound great for movie soundtracks, with vocals preserved over the top of powerful bass.

Battery life

The headphones last for up to 30 hours between charges with noise cancelling turned on, which is 10 hours longer than many competitors. Turn it off and they last up to 38 hours or 22 hours with the ambient sound mode active. They last up to 24 hours of voice calling, too.

The headphones take three hours to fully charge via the USB-C port in the right ear cup using a 1.5A power adaptor, which isn’t included in the box. A 10-minute charge provides up to five hours of playback if you’re in a hurry.

Sustainability

Sony does not provide an estimate of the number of full-charge cycles the battery should last. Batteries in similar devices can typically last for 500 cycles while maintaining at least 80% of their original capacity. The battery can be replaced by an authorised service centre costing £39.46 plus £12 shipping out of warranty.

The headphones are generally repairable (iFixit teardown), and replacement parts, including the earpads, headband and mainboard are available. Sony did not comment on the use of recycled materials and does not publish environmental impact reports for headphones. It publishes annual sustainability reports and its roadmap to have zero environmental impact by 2050.

Observations

  • Google Assistant can read notifications on Android and iOS, while Alexa is also an option or you can use your phone’s voice assistant such as Siri on an iPhone.

  • Press the power button when the headphones are on to hear the battery percentage.

  • They support 360 Reality Audio for certain music services such as Tidal and Deezer.

  • The Speak-to-Chat function detects when you’re speaking loudly enough and automatically enables an ambient sound mode so you can carry out a conversation.

Price

The Sony WH-1000XM4 cost £350 in black or silver.

For comparison, the RRP of Bose’s Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 is £349.95, the Bose QuietComfort 35 II cost £299.95, the B&W PX7 cost £349.99, Apple AirPods Max cost £549, the Master and Dynamic MW65 cost £449 and the B&O Beoplay H95 cost £700.

Verdict

The Sony WF-1000XM4 are some of the best noise-cancelling wireless headphones money can buy.

They sound fantastic, have effective noise-cancelling and long battery life. They support multipoint Bluetooth 5 for connecting two devices at once, high-res music with the LDAC format and an instant ambient sound mode for listening for announcements, too.

They are also some of the lightest and most comfortable headphones you can buy, matching the long-term wearing comfort of the Bose QC35 II.

They don’t look and feel quite as solid or premium as some competitors but they fold up for travel and appear durable in lightweight plastic. The are also fairly easy to repair and the battery is replaceable for a reasonable sum.

Call quality is average. Note that unlike most rivals, the WF-1000XM4 are often available at a discount on their RRP, so it’s worth shopping around.

Pros: brilliant sound, excellent noise-cancelling, lightweight comfort, can connect to two devices at once, hi-res music support, long battery life, good controls, good ambient modes, 3.5mm headphone socket, fold up with good case, repairable, cross-platform companion app.

Cons: expensive, voice mic is hit and miss, don’t feel as premium as rivals.

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