I was excited when Sony Australia sent me one of their WH-1000XM4 ANC Headphones for review. Lately, the Sony WH-1000 series has been the king of Active Noise Cancelling headphones after dethroning long time champ, Bose QuietComfort. The WH-1000XM4’s are the fourth generation of the successful headphones and are possibly the most advanced consumer headphones ever.
Sony has packed so much tech into these headphones that they might as well be sentient. An AI chip and some fancy algorithms enable the WH-1000XM4’s to adapt to your environment and adjust the noise-cancelling on the fly. Not only that, but the headphones know when you are wearing them or even when you are talking to someone.
Of course at $500, you want your headphones to be packed to the gills. Suffice it to say, these are the best Bluetooth, noise-cancelling headphones money can buy. Sony has made a true believer out of me and here’s why.
Sony WH-1000XM4 Wireless Noise Cancelling Headphones Review
At this point, the design of the WH-1000 line is practically iconic. The WH-1000XM4’s don’t deviate from the establishment. Most people wouldn’t be able to tell them apart from last generations XM3. Sony went for a handsome, understated design that will appeal to everyone from the savvy business traveler to the Instagram influencer. Made from some premium plastics that are smooth and velvety to the touch and weightless on your head. The XM4’s come in two colors, Black and Silver — which I think is the far prettier option.
The large, over ear cups both swivel flat and fold for easy storage. The moving parts don’t make the WH-1000XM4 fragile — the construction is solid and reassuring. The headphones come in a small, hard shell case with a woolen fabric finish that brings old-money brands like Burberry to mind. Inside are the headphones, an absurdly short USB-C charging cable, a 3.5mm cable and adapter plug for wired listening on an airplane(who remembers what flying is?)
Thanks to the plush ear cups that are made from soft foamed urethane, the WH-1000XM4’s are supremely comfortable. I still prefer the sheepskin leather on the B&O H9 but the Sony’s are damn close. I can wear the WH-1000XM4’s all day with no fatigue or strain. And I wear glasses so that’s a huge deal.
The WH-1000XM4 have only two buttons that live on the left ear cup; one for power and the other for voice assistant. Inside the same cup is a noticeable proximity sensor that tells the WH-1000XM4’s when you’re wearing them. On the right ear cup is the single USB-C charging port. This keeps the XM4’s design clean and minimal; a stark difference to the button/ dial heavy gaming headsets I’m used to.
The rest of the controls are shared between touch controls on the right ear up and software controls from your connected device. The touch controls are surprisingly responsive, something I really struggled with on the B & O H9i. You’ll use a combination of directional swipes and taps to skip tracks, pause/play, adjust the volume and control phone calls.
The WH-1000XM4’s also have another trick up their sleeve; Speak-to-chat. Simply start talking and the headphones will pause your media and activate ambient mode so you can hear what’s going on around you. Once the headphones detect that you’ve stopped speaking, they’ll automatically resume playing audio. It’s an incredibly handy feature but it does mean you’re screwed if you like singing along to your music. You can of course change the sensitivity of this feature as well as turn it off completely.
Sony also allows you to place your palm on the right cup and it will do the same thing so no worries. Additionally, the proximity sensor and accelerometers allow the WH-1000XM4’s to know when you’ve taken them off. This also stop playing media and eventually shuts the headphones off to save battery. Putting them back on resumes music playback and it’s one of my favorite features. How many times have you taken off your headsets for what you thought was a few minutes but ended up being hours?
The only other control you might use often is the voice assistant. The WH-1000XM4 supports both Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa. Google Assistant can even read your notifications to you as well as all the other voice commands you set up.
I was not expecting the WH-1000XM4’s to sound great but God Lord! These are one of best sounding headphones I’ve ever heard and believe me, I’ve heard tons. The only two wireless headphones that have impressed me this much are the B&O Beoplay H9i and the EPOS GSP 370. The WH-1000XM4 has an impressive dynamic range that Sony has supercharged with AI trickery called Digital Sound Enhancement Engine or DSEE. More on that in a bit.
DSEE upscales your compressed Bluetooth digital audio in real time, dynamically recognizing genres, instruments and vocals. This greatly improves compressed audio from lossy streaming services like Spotify or YouTube. Everything I listened to came alive as if all along I had some hearing problems and now I’m healed. Praise the Lord.
Seriously, I can’t get over the clarity and don’t get me started on the gut-punching, head-shaking bass. Everthing from choral songs of Lord of the Rings to electropunk beats of CyberPunk 2077 sound so rich, and exciting with these headphones. The sound stage is equally impressive making everything sounding large and immersive.
The bass and sub-bass response is exceptional; rattling your brain when necessary without muddying the vocals and high tones. And even though these are Bluetooth headphones which aren’t great for gaming due to latency, I’d still use these any day. The accuracy and punch that makes games sound delicious. Every gunshot, blood spurt and footstep comes through with vibrance and gusto.
A perfect example happened while I was playing CyberPunk 2077 one night. I wanted to hang out in Lizzies Bar because of how thumping the music sounded – reminding me of my club hopping youth. And I could still hear different voices clearly depending on how close they were. Or the times in V’s apartment where I could almost feel my upstairs neighbors footsteps or the subdued voices in the hall outside. For damn sure that was better than any so-called virtual surround headphones.
And this is thanks again to another feature of the WH-1000XM4 — 360 Reality audio. This is effectively Sony’s take on headphone surround sound and boy is it impressive. It does a fantastic job of clearly separating the audio sources in 3D space — not just left-right, front-back. It’s hard to describe but Sony supplies a good demo for you to experience and I was very impressed.
Certain streaming services like Tidal support 360 Audio and trust me, it’s quite the experience hearing instruments and vocals so clearly separated. All the WH-1000XM4’s come with a one-month subscription to Tidal, Deezer or Nugs.net so you can give it a go.
Unlike most gaming headsets that I review, the WH-1000XM4 don’t come with a fugly external microphone. Instead, Sony has an array of five cleverly hidden microphones built into the ear cups. Using Precise Voice Pickup Technology, these microphones work with some advanced signal processing to deliver a clear and crisp voice. In theory, at least. In reality, they’re just ok; sometimes sounding really processed and unnatural.
I noticed that I had to speak louder than normal or else callers would complain that I’m faint. When you are out and about, this could be a problem as the mics do pickup the ambient noise easily. I was able to have lengthy conversations with my wife while I was in the grocery store and she didn’t complain too much. Here’s a recording sample below for you to judge for yourself.
Shut out the Noise
The WH-1000XM line are infamous for their Active Noise Cancelling and with this iteration, Sony continues to improve on the winning formula. I’ve tried a few other noise-cancelling headphones and earbuds and none of them come close to the WH-1000XM4. The HD Noise Cancelling Processor QN1 and Bluetooth Audio SoC work together to sense and adjust noise signals over 700 times per second.
The result is an almost perfect noise-cancelling experience that shifts with your environment for personalized noise-cancellation. Sony calls this Personal Noise Cancelling Optimiser. I’ve used the WH-1000XM4’s while working at home with my three daughters fighting over Netflix. I’ve done my vaccuming and laundry in blissful silence. Even walking along busy Brisbane CBD streets, the WH-1000XM4’s continually adjusted to drown out the noise. An audible tone lets you know that they are adjusting themselves.
Additionally, Atmospheric Pressure Optimizing adjusts for the changing ear pressure associated with air travel. So unlike other ANC headphones, the WH-1000XM4 isn’t just using a blanket type algorithm but is constantly adapting. It’s the kind of nerdiness that I absolutely love in my tech. Using the excellent Sony Headphone App, you can set the WH-1000XM4’s to learn different scenarios, such as your office, commuting or the grocery store. The headphones will then learn the common sounds in those scenarios and adapt the noise-cancelling appropriately. It’s a bit of black magic but it works.
These locations are then saved to the app and you can quickly activate them when needed.There’s also a few noise-cancelling presets in the app, one of which fixes a huge pet peeve of mine — wind noise. Most ANC headphones really suffer from wind noise when outdoors, like you’re listening to a recording of high speed wind. But with the tap of a button, the WH-1000XM4’s totally eliminates wind noise making for a far more quiet walk.
But as good as the noise-cancelling is, it’s not always practical or safe to have complete silence. That’s how you end up missing your flight call or getting run over by a bus. And that’s where Ambient Sound Control comes in. This allows the WH-1000XM4’s allow essential sounds to pass through so you don’t miss important announcements.
You can activate Ambient Sound mode in a number of ways with the simplest being to palm the right ear cup. The headphones will then turn off ANC, as if you aren’t even wearing them. This is great for having quick conversations like ordering a coffee without having to take off the headphones.
Connectivity and battery
The WH-1000XM4 are primarily a Bluetooth 5.0 headphone and in that respect, it’s pretty straight forward. Just pair it with your smartphone, laptop or tablet and you’re good to go. You’ll get the most benefit from devices that support Bluetooth 5.0 which offers audio quality and latency improvements. The connection proved to be rock solid with a good range, probably 30 – 40 feet before it drops. The XM4 can connect to two Bluetooth devices simultaneously which is a very handy thing to have.
You can pair it with your phone and another device such as your computer. And for those occasions when you don’t have access to Bluetooth, say on your Xbox or PlayStation, you can still use the WH-1000XM4’s with a standard 3.5mm cable. They will still sound phenomenal and the noise-cancelling remains available if you power on the headphones. However, you won’t be able to use the touch controls or benefit from the EQ presets.
Another reason for using the WH-1000XM4 wired is when the battery runs flat, which will happen after about 30 hours. You can get upto 38 hours by turning off the noise-cancelling but I’m more than happy with this longevity. The headsets last me an average of three, 12 hour work days. Most gaming headsets last 20 hours with the EPOS GSP 370 the only exception — lasting 100 hours on a charge.The XM4’s are more than sufficient for most people.
Remember, they were designed for air travelers and there aren’t that many flights that last over 30 hours. But thanks to the global pandemic, most of us are traveling from our bedrooms to our living rooms. Battery, really isn’t much of a concern. When they do run out, you can still use them while they charge but you’ll need a much longer USB-C cable than the one that comes in the bag. The WH-1000XM4’s also have quick charge, which gives you 5 hours of playback time with just 10 minutes of charging. Kinda hard to complain about that.
Phew, I’ve said a lot and there’s so much more I could say about the Sony WH-1000XM4. I knew going into this review that the active noise-cancelling would be impressive. But I wasn’t expecting the rest of the experience to be so…mind-blowing. Few Bluetooth or even wired headphones sound this good and when you add up all the innovative controls, audio performance and and noise-cancelling, you have a true winner.
And the best part? Even though they officially retail for $499 on Sony.com, you can get them for as low as $380 on internet web deals which makes them an absolute steal. Whether you travel much or never leave the house and you need an excellent and versatile pair of headphones, get these. Seriously, they are so damn good.
Sony Australia provided the WH-1000XM4 to PowerUp! for the purpose of this review