With most of us working from home and not really traveling a whole lot, it's hard to justify purchasing a set of high-end active noise-canceling headphones. Especially when Sony's WH-1000XM3 continuously go on sale and are still the best noise-canceling headphones on the market.
The new WH-1000XM4 are unquestionably a spec bump upgrade, but a few of those upgrades made may be enough for some to choose the XM4 over the outgoing XM3.
At A Glance
Bottom line: ANC travel headphones are a tough justification right now. However, the WH-1000XM4 are easily the best over-ear ANC headphones on the market with great new additions such as dual device pairing and "wear detection" that automatically pauses your music when you temporarily remove your headphones. The WH-1000XM4 retain the same great battery life and comfort from the previous generation and improves on their already-great ANC algorithms.
- Simultaneously pair two devices at once
- Wear detection for automatic play/pause
- Class-leading active noise canceling with good sound
- Long 30-hour battery life with USB-C fast charging
- Excellent comfort for extended use
- Can't charge and listen at the same time
- Drops support for aptX and aptX-HD
Dual-device pairing, ANC upgrades, and a new wear sensor
Sony WH-1000XM4: What I like
Let's kick things off with the most important update to the XM4: dual device pairing. Unlike the outgoing XM3, the XM4 allows you to pair to two devices at the same time. This means that you can finally pair to your phone and computer simultaneously and switch seamlessly between the two. The headphones will remember up to eight devices in total. You can manage those eight pairings within Sony's headphone companion app on your phone.
The XM4 also get a minor upgrade to their ANC algorithm. They're still amazing at blocking out consistent, low-end hums like engine noise, but the XM4 are now better at blocking out higher-end noise such as fan whir and inconsistent noises like nearby conversations. Sony says this equates to a 15% increase in ANC performance. With the improvement, Sony widens the gap with its noise-canceling lead over Bose.
The XM4's ear cups are also slightly larger than the XM3's. For most people, this isn't a huge deal. But if your ears didn't fit in the XM3's ear cups, the XM4 may change that.
The last major change Sony made to the XM4 is the addition of a wear sensor. The sensor can be found in the left ear cup and detects if you're wearing your headphones. This feature works surprisingly well and is super accurate. When you take the headphones off your head, the audio pauses almost immediately. And when you put them back on, they resume in the same amount of time. If you've ever used a set of headphones or earbuds with a similar feature and were frustrated by a lag between removing your headphones and the audio pausing, I can assure you this isn't a problem with the XM4.
The XM4 still features superb battery life with up to 30 hours on a charge. The headphones still charge over USB-C and include super-fast charging with up to 5 hours of listening time with a 10-minute charge. Comfort is still stupidly good to the point where you could wear thm for the full 30 hours, and you won't feel any sort of fatiguing or discomfort. If you're looking to push the battery life boundaries, you can turn off ANC for nearly 40 hours of audio playback before you run out of juice. In our testing, we got around 32-34 hours with ANC enabled.
Dual-device pairing, improved ANC functionality, and better battery life all add up to really useful additions.
In terms of audio fidelity, the XM4 sound pretty good, as expected. The bass is a bit tighter and more refined this time around versus the XM3 but is still boosted over reference cans. The midrange is balanced, and the treble is recessed and lacks quite a bit of detail. The dynamic range is decent, and with a narrow soundstage, but that's expected from a set of ANC headphones. Fortunately, you can EQ the XM4 with their companion app on your phone.
You still get a USB-C charging cable, 3.5mm cable, and an airplane adapter in the box, along with a carrying case. The headphones still fold neatly into themselves, giving you a relatively small overall footprint when stowed away in your bag.
Finally, the XM4 now does "360 reality audio". I tried it, and I can safely say it's a gimmick. It's as gimmicky as supporting Dolby Atmos for headphones, and you should probably leave this option off.
Loss of aptX support, bad speech recognition, no simultaneous charging
Sony WH-1000XM4: What I don't like
The biggest downgrade between the XM4 vs. the XM3 is that the 2020 version no longer supports the aptX and aptX-HD Bluetooth audio codecs. But not all is lost, as the XM4 still support LDAC, Sony's proprietary codec. The problem with LDAC is it's pretty much impossible to use in public as it's highly susceptible to interference. SBC and AAC are fine, and most won't notice the difference, but still disappointing for those who want the slightly better sound and lower latency.
Sony, why did you remove aptX and aptX-HD support?
The change is likely due to the built-in QN1 chip (same chip as the XM3) being unable to do all the post-processing and support higher bitrate Bluetooth streaming simultaneously. Extra functionality such as the equalizer and 360 reality sound require SBC or AAC anyways.
The XM4 add a feature called "Speak-to-Chat." In theory, this is a convenient addition, but in my testing, I found the feature relatively slow and mostly pointless. First and foremost, it takes four or so words before it kicks in. So, if you say something like, "Hey, I need help with this" Speak-to-Chat will kick in around "with this." It's not really great for conversation as it'll go back to playing your music 5-10 seconds after you stop talking.
Instead, you should just use the pass-through audio mode, either by covering the right ear cup or pressing the custom button on the left ear cup. Or you can simply remove your headphones temporarily to talk to someone.
One area Sony didn't improve on is adding the option to charge and listen simultaneously. As soon as you plug in the USB-C cable into the XM4, the headphones automatically power off. It doesn't matter if you were wired in via 3.5mm or using the headphones over Bluetooth; the headphones just stop working while you're charging.
Sony WH-1000XM4: The competition
If you want a similarly great audio experience for a bit less, we still really like the Sony WH-1000XM3s. They do have aptX and aptX HD support, and often go on sale, making them a cost-effective option.
The Bose NC 700 are another good option at this price point. These do allow for simultaneous charging and listening, and they also have replaceable ear pads. On the downside, the Bose can't be folded, and they have shorter battery life.
Sony WH-1000XM4: Should you buy
You should buy this if ...
You frequently travel
Whether by plane, train, or bus, these are perfect for noisy, distracting environments.
You're an office worker needing to block out noise
Transit isn't the only circumstance where noise is an issue. These can definitely help if you need to concentrate in an active workplace.
You absolutely need dual-device pairing
Many people probably only pair their headphones to a laptop, tablet, or phone, but if you're one of those who likes to quickly and seamlessly switch between devices, these are for you.
You have a phone without a headphone jack
Let's face it; this is most of us now. But even if you do have a headphone jack, these are an excellent Bluetooth option.
You should not buy this if ...
You are on a tight budget
These premium headphones are not cheap. If you need more affordable Bluetooth headphones, you have other options.
You already own the WH-1000XM3
The WH-1000XM4 are great headphones, but in our opinion, they aren't worth upgrading for if you have the last generation.
You don't want over-ear headphones
This seems kind of obvious, but if over-ear headphones aren't your thing, save your money and go for a great pair of true wireless earbuds instead.
I'll be honest. Most people don't need the Sony WH-1000XM4 right now. If you already own the 1000XM3, keep them and wait for a more substantial upgrade a few years down the line. The XM4s are absolutely not for you.
That said, if you want the best set of ANC over-ear headphones no matter the cost, the Sony WH-1000XM4 are easily the best out there. With dual device pairing in the mix, the XM4 check all the boxes: long battery life, USB-C charging, class-leading ANC, superb comfort, and great sound.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 is a set of premium ANC headphones that essentially offers everything you need. They offer everything the XM3 did plus improved ANC, dual device pairing, and automatic play/pause, giving you a seamless listening experience.
ANC travel headphones are a tough justification right now. However, the WH-1000XM4 are easily the best over-ear ANC headphones on the market with great new additions such as dual device pairing and "wear detection" that automatically pauses your music when you temporarily remove your headphones. The WH-1000XM4 retain the same great battery life and comfort from the previous generation and improves on their already-great ANC algorithms.
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