Sony WF-1000XM4 Headphones review: Incredible sound but for a price
Quick verdict: The Sony WF-1000XM4 headphones offer incredible sound quality and noise cancellation for earbuds – and the battery life is excellent. But for the price, I want them to be smaller and more comfortable for long listening sessions.
- Incredible sound
- Best in class noise cancelling
- Great battery life
- Water resistance
- Not the most secure in ear
- Comfort for long listening sessions needs work
Over the last few years, Sony has become synonymous with near-perfect noise-cancelling headphones. Yet the company still managed to surprise us when it upped the ante with its true wireless noise-cancelling earbuds back in 2019.
Somehow, it managed to squeeze the best parts of its over-ear WH-1000XM3s into an earbuds form factor.
And 2 years later, the second generation of these buds have hit the market. This led me to wonder whether there have been enough changes to make upgrading worth it. Spoiler: The answer is yes.
The previous generation of these headphones had 1 distinct design flaw – size.
The case is a bulky rectangular number that can’t be easily slid into a back pocket. This is a stark contrast to the much slimmer AirPods Pro case.
The new WF-1000XM4 case is thankfully smaller, though still nowhere near as slim as its Apple counterpart.
Similarly, the 2019 buds were also large and rectangular to the point of looking comical on the ear. This time around they still stick out, but offer a smaller, more rounded design. This has led them to be far more comfortable to wear for long periods of time. However, I still found my ears aching after a few hours – a problem I have never had with stemmed earbuds like AirPods. If long-term wear is particularly important to you, you might want to check out our reviews of the Jabra Elite 3 , JBL Live Pro+ TWS and Nuratrue earbuds.
This design is also not particularly secure in the case of vigorous exercise. To be fair, this is not what they were designed for, but at a $449.95 price point I’d like these to feel a bit more snug in the ear.
On the plus side, the box does contain 3 different tip sizes for all your ear canal needs. And perhaps best of all, this year’s earbuds actually have an IPX4 water resistance rating. This means they are splash, dust and sweat-resistant, which is an improvement on the previous generation. However, you still don’t want to accidentally take them for a swim in your pocket – they’re not waterproof.
The non-audio aspect of the WF-1000XM4 performance is a bit hit and miss.
The touch sensors are excellent, allowing you to perform different functions with just a few taps. This is thanks to the in-built sensors in the buds.
Tapping twice can receive or hang up a call, whereas a single tap controls ambient sound control. I found all of the different tap controls to work the first time and was pleased with the convenient functionality.
What is less than impressive are the connectivity issues. The initial set-up was not as fluid as it should be, with the buds themselves taking around 10 minutes to pair. While I have been using a pre-release set, this issue also occurred in the previous generation.
This will be a particularly stark contrast for anyone who is used to the immediate pairing offered by Apple between the AirPods and iPhones.
However, once it was paired, it was smooth sailing. The Sony Music Centre app, in particular, is worth playing with if you’re someone who likes to customise their audio. If you’re considering a premium pair of earbuds like these, you probably are.
Sony headphones are renowned for their sound quality, but there was still surprise at just how good the WF-1000XM3s actually were when they hit the market 2 years ago.
Despite being earbuds, the audio and noise cancellation were alarmingly excellent. Fortunately, they continue to be with the XM4s.
The buds do an excellent job at balancing low and high frequencies that are particularly beneficial for vocals as well as instrumental tracks.
Hans Zimmer’s "Now We Are Free" worked beautifully with the WF-1000XM4 headphones, delivering haunting vocals across both individual buds alongside the middling orchestral instruments.
"So Hot You're Hurting My Feelings" by Caroline Polachek had a similar performance, but with an electronic beat dominating the mids and a stunning grit vocal effect that felt like crackles of electricity against the eardrum. Gorgeous.
While the bass wasn’t as hectic as its over-ear counterpart, the WF-1000XM4 earbuds still do a good job. Rage Against the Machine’s "Killing in the Name" still managed to deliver a brutal bass as well as impressive guitar distortion through these little guys. And impressively, Zack de la Rocha’s vocals are quite clear, which is hard to accomplish with metal.
There is also the option to play with your audio more in the Music Centre app. You can mess with the EQ and bass as much as your heart's and eardrums' desire.
In terms of noise cancellation, the WF-1000XM4 buds prove once again that there’s some kind of black magic going on at Sony. Like the previous generation, it’s incredible just how much these little buds manage to block out. It’s hard to believe you’re not wearing over-ears headphones. In fact, we have even seen this in Sony's far less expensive WF-C500 earbuds which don't even advertiser noise cancellation.
The XM4s have improved on the noise cancellation offered in the XM3s thanks to a new V1 processor and dual sensor microphones. These allow improved noise cancellation at lower frequencies and with less power drain (which we’ll get to).
And this definitely checks out. I was surprised at how much noise was blocked out even at a low volume.
I also found that unlike some other earbuds, there was none of that weird pressure in the inner ear (which can feel a bit weird and disorientating) when Active Noise Cancelling (ANC) was activated.
There are also a few options for switching to ambient mode quickly. This can be useful if you want to be more aware of your surroundings while walking around outdoors, or if a colleague appears for a chat at work.
Firstly, you can simply place a finger over the left earbuds to activate Quick Attention mode, which will lower the volume.
Alternatively, you can rely on the Speak-To-Chat function. This wasn’t available in the previous generation, having been initially introduced in the over-ear WH-1000XM4 headphones. This mode can detect if you suddenly start having a conversation, and will pause your audio and allow ambient sound in. I have found both functions to work great; they’re neat quality-of-life additions to the XM4s.
These headphones boast 8 hours of playback with ANC switched on – a 2-hour improvement on the previous generation. Over the past 2 months of testing, I have found this to be quite accurate. While you can squeeze a bit of extra time by turning ANC off, this isn’t something that I’ve had much reason to do in lockdown. If I was walking around at night, it would be a different story.
When you do need to charge them, the case offers an additional 18 hours of playback. And if you’re like me and regularly forget to juice them up, a quick 5-minute quick charge will give you 60 minutes of listening time. This is roughly on par with Apple’s AirPods Pro and a touch quicker than the Jabra Elite 85t.
This is a slight improvement on the Sony WF-1000XM3s which offered 90 minutes of audio from 10 minutes of charging.
My one disappointment with the battery is the lack of wireless charging. While I appreciate a good USB-C charge as much as the next tech head, this feels like an oversight.
Again, these are some of the most expensive true wireless headphones on the market and yet they are missing this premium feature. Meanwhile, both the AirPods Pro and Jabra Elite 85t have Qi wireless charging and they are cheaper products.
Should you buy the Sony WF-1000XM4 headphones?
- Buy it if you want future-proofed sound quality and noise cancellation available in true wireless earbuds.
- Don't buy it if you want a more budget-friendly option, or something small and ultra-comfortable.
For high-quality audio and noise cancellation, you’ll struggle to find better in the wireless headphones market.
But at $449.95, you need to be prepared to pay a premium for that pleasure. However, Sony headphones tend to be future-proofed for years in terms of build quality and inclusions, making the investment worth it.
While you could opt for a pair of WF-1000XM3 headphones instead, I wouldn’t recommend it. The extra comfort, smaller size and better battery life are quality-of-life improvements that are worth spending a bit extra on.
What is worth considering are a pair of Beats Studio Buds, which we have also reviewed. They have excellent audio quality, noise-cancellation and comfort in a similar form factor, but for much cheaper.
Alternatively, the Sony WF-C500 are also an incredible buy if you want to save hundreds of dollars but still get great Sony quality.
Pricing and availability
The WF-1000XM4 headphones have an RRP of $449.95, but you can find cheaper deals.
And if you're looking for excellent true wireless earbuds at a fraction of the price, we have reviewed the Jabra Elite 3 and were very impressed.
How we tested
The Sony WF-1000XM4 true wireless headphones were initially tested over an intensive 2-week period for a minimum of 3 hours per day. They were further tested as a daily listening device over 2 months.
They were used to listen to music and podcasts, as well as conduct phone calls and Zoom meetings.