Apple understands the value of carving out a path of least resistance for its customers, with an ecosystem of interconnected devices. The ease with which anyone can operate the Apple AirPods Pro with an iPhone draws countless people in. Few true wireless earbuds have been able to divert attention away from the AirPods, but the Sony WF-1000XM4 makes a strong case for your dollar. Sony’s active noise cancelling (ANC) is superior to Apple’s, but is that enough to draw us moths away from Apple’s flame?
Apple and Sony approach design differently
Apple’s white, glossy earbuds proudly sport angled stems, and their simplicity defines them as culturally iconic. Whether you love or hate the look of sticks descending from your ear canals, they benefit the clumsy, offering something to grip when removing and inserting the buds. There are downsides to this design though: the stems often get caught on a mask or towel, sending the earphones hurtling toward the floor. A small oblong imprint sits on each stem to indicate its touch- and pressure-sensitive control area. Apple provides three pairs of silicone ear tips, and you can pick up a pair of memory foam replacements for a better seal.
Related: What makes a good set of in-ears?
Sony keeps things simple with its black/copper or white/copper color variants and more traditional stemless earbud design. This gives the earbuds a more discreet footprint and gives you a larger surface area to operate the touch controls. The earbud housings curve with the contours of the human ear, making them a comfortable option for most ear shapes.
The Sony WF-1000XM4 includes three pairs of memory foam ear tips (small, medium, large), which makes them more comfortable and stable than the AirPods Pro. Both sets of true wireless noise cancelling earbuds have an IPX4 rating, so athletes can exercise no problem. You may need to replace the Sony ear tips before the AirPods Pro’s because memory foam wears down faster than silicone. Sony and Apple both integrated pressure relief vents into their earbuds, so you won’t experience that uncomfortable suction sensation when noise cancelling is enabled.
While you can whip out your phone to control playback and field calls, both headsets support remappable touch controls and automatic ear detection for auto-pause/play functionality. For the latter, the AirPods Pro requires an iPhone.
Apple AirPods Pro controls:
|Action (stems)||Either earbud|
|Three taps||Previous track|
|Hold||ANC, Transparency, or disable Noise Control|
|"Hey Siri"||Change volume, request directions, playback control, receive messages, and more|
Sony WF-1000XM4 controls:
|Left bud||Right bud|
|One tap||Mute/ANC/Ambient sound||Play/Pause|
|Two taps||N/A||Track forward/answer call|
|Three taps||N/A||Track backward|
|Long press||N/A||Smart assistant|
Anyone with an iOS or iPadOS device can reconfigure the AirPods Pro gesture and touch controls from the Settings app. Android devices can’t do this with the AirPods Pro, leaving you beholden to the default controls. This is a theme with Apple hardware: it doesn’t play kindly with non-Apple products.
Both cases stand horizontally and support wireless charging. The difference lies in the charging input: the AirPods Pro case requires a Lightning cable, while the Sony WF-1000XM4 case requires a USB-C cable for wired charging. The cases are pocketable and neither boasts any kind of durability accreditation.
Unlike Apple, Sony makes its software available on all platforms
The Sony Headphones Connect app is freely available on the Google Play Store and Apple App Store, so the experience is uniform no matter your OS. When you download Sony’s app you’re greeted with a host of customization options. You can use the multi-band equalizer to tailor the Sony WF-1000XM4’s sound to your liking, toggle between Ambient Sound and noise cancelling modes, view battery status for each earbud and the case, remap controls, select your preferred voice assistant, and more.
Most importantly, you can take the ear tip fit test to ensure you’ve installed the correct sized ear tips. This is imperative for noise cancelling earphones—it optimizes passive isolation, which is required for the best possible active noise cancellation. Amazon uses something similar with its Echo Buds (2nd Gen); Apple offers this too, but you can’t access it on Android.
Sony also supports Google Fast Pair, so you can immediately pair the WF-1000XM4 to your compatible Android devices, and locate it via a loud ring or check its last known location through your phone. It also supports Swift Pair for any Windows 10 device.
When you pair the Apple AirPods Pro to an iPhone, you get access to a host of features like Find My AirPods, hands-free Siri requests, battery optimization, Adaptive EQ, and Spatial Audio (Apple’s take on object-based surround sound), to rattle off the highlights. Anyone who owns multiple Apple source devices will revel in the immediate benefit of automatic device switching (requires a unified iCloud account). A simple feature Apple has yet to add to its repertoire is a custom EQ module, something that Sony and others are quick to provide.
Again, Apple makes its software features exclusive to its hardware. Even basic things like AirPods Pro software and firmware updates require an iPhone or iPad.
The Sony WF-1000XM4 supports Sony 360 Reality Audio, available on Tidal, Deezer, and Amazon Music HD. Apple Spatial Audio works on Apple Music and with Dolby Atmos content when streamed from a compatible Apple device.
Do the AirPods Pro or Sony WF-1000XM4 have better noise cancelling?
The Sony WF-1000XM4 has much better noise cancelling than the Apple AirPods Pro: it cuts sounds higher than 50Hz down to anywhere from one-fourth to one-sixteenth as loud as they’d sound with unoccluded ears. This is great for a pair of ANC true wireless earbuds, and handily outperforms the AirPods Pro, which has a gross attenuation of one-sixth the loudness.
A large part of Sony’s attenuation performance is due to the memory foam ear tips, which work hard to passively block out frequencies higher than 1kHz. Generally, active noise cancelling technology can’t do much to affect incidental noises (1kHz and above). Ear tips that seal to your ear canals are the best way to isolate you from unpredictable noise.
This isn’t to say that Apple’s noise cancellation is bad—it’s quite good—it just can’t keep up with the Sony WF-1000XM4. Still, both headsets may reduce your likelihood of falling prey to noise-induced hearing loss, as ANC makes it less likely for listeners to crank up the volume to dangerous levels to combat background noise.
Do the AirPods Pro or Sony WF-1000XM4 sound better?
Technically speaking, our objective measurements show that the Apple AirPods Pro sounds more accurate than the Sony WF-1000XM4—the former merits an overall sound quality score of 9.5 while the latter merits a 9.0. Most listeners will enjoy the sound coming from either set of earbuds, but only Sony lets you adjust the frequency response.
By default, the Sony WF-1000XM4 is bass-heavy, but not staggeringly so. Notes all the way up to middle-C sound a bit louder than the audio mixers intended. While this may be pleasing to fans of pop and rap, those who enjoy more vocal-oriented stylings may notice bass notes masking vocal harmonics and higher-pitched instruments. In other words, it might seem like detail is missing from your favorite songs. This isn’t the case: your brain just has a hard time perceiving certain frequencies at notably different volumes. You can quickly remedy this by lowering the bass and midrange response in the graphical EQ.
The AirPods Pro default and immutable frequency response is more accurate, and therefore more versatile across a range of eclectic music genres. This aligns with Apple’s design philosophy—you don’t need to tinker for it to work well. The sound profile more closely aligns with our house curve (pink), which is most noticeable with treble frequencies. Bass notes sound a little quieter than what most consumers like, but this volume reduction is hard to notice. The tempered bass response is to the benefit of midrange frequencies which come through clearly, and is where most important musical notes lie.
Which headset has the better microphone?
Both microphones are perfectly fine for professional and personal phone calls, but neither sounds as good as an external boom mic or dedicated desktop microphone. Still, they each have their own wind-reduction technology. You can also choose which earbud microphone the headset defaults to, or you can just leave it on auto.
Take a listen below and let us know what you think sounds best.
Apple AirPods Pro microphone demo:
Sony WF-1000XM4 microphone demo:
Do the AirPods Pro or Sony WF-1000XM4 support better Bluetooth codecs?
The Sony WF-1000XM4 supports more Bluetooth codecs than the AirPods Pro. With Sony, you can choose between SBC, AAC, and LDAC for high-quality streaming on Android and iOS devices. From the Headphones Connect app, you can choose to prioritize sound quality or connection stability. The AirPods Pro serves you the standard SBC or AAC binary.
Learn more: Understanding Bluetooth codecs
The Apple AirPods Pro uses Bluetooth 5.0 which is very good and useful when it comes to power efficiency, though the Sony WF-1000XM4 steals the show again with Bluetooth 5.2 support. If your smartphone supports this Bluetooth version, you’ll experience long battery life and, down the road, might be among the first with access to LE Audio.
The Sony WF-1000XM4 has better battery life
When connected to an iOS device, the AirPods Pro lasts 5 hours, 6 minutes on a single charge with ANC enabled. This is quite good considering how the case provides an extra 19 hours, 30 minutes of playtime before it needs a recharge via Lightning cable or wireless mat. The Sony WF-1000XM4 has a much longer playtime of 7 hours, 43 minutes, with the case providing an extra two charge cycles. In total, you get a similar amount of reserve battery from either pair of earphones.
Sony’s case fast charges the WF-1000XM4 at double the rate of the AirPods Pro case. It takes just 5 minutes in the case to yield 60 minutes of playtime with Sony’s earbuds, while it takes 10 minutes in the case to yield 60 minutes of playtime with the AirPods Pro.
To be clear, true wireless earbuds aren’t built to last for years on end. You’re lucky if you eke out more than two years of daily use. Since the battery cells are so small, they degrade much faster than the larger batteries found in Bluetooth headphones. Compound the physical size limitations with the constant charge-deplete cycles we subject them to, and you have a short-lived product.
Apple slows down the degradation process with its battery optimization software, which prevents the case from charging the earbuds beyond 80% until you’re ready to listen to music. Once again, this is exclusive to Apple devices and it takes some time for iOS to learn your usage habits. Die-hard environmentalists should really just stick to wired earbuds and headphones with replaceable parts.
Apple AirPods Pro vs Sony WF-1000XM4: Which should you get?
One factor we’ve yet to touch on is price. The Apple AirPods Pro costs $30 USD less than the Sony WF-1000XM4 and occasionally goes on promotion for less than $200 USD. As of June 11, 2021, the AirPods Pro retails for $197 USD, making it a much better value than the Sony WF-1000XM4. If money is no object, or you’re just a good saver, the Sony WF-1000XM4 is clearly the better set of noise cancelling earbuds.
Sony’s active noise cancellation runs circles around Apple’s and it has no loyalty to one mobile OS over another, making it a much more accessible product. If you don’t own an iPhone, the Sony WF-1000XM4 just makes more sense: you get more customization options, a better fit, and significantly better battery life. All of that is also true on iOS, but there are plenty of reasons iPhone owners will continue to purchase the AirPods Pro.
While Apple’s ecosystem is as loathed as it is loved, the fact that nearly anyone can just pick up the AirPods Pro and go is impressive and attractive. Yes, you have far fewer customization options, but those who often experience analysis paralysis may appreciate the limited choices. Plus, the AirPods Pro really sounds great and, at the very least, is a far better option than the standard AirPods.