The Sony WH-1000XM4 is finally here. Its predecessor, the Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones, stole the crown from Bose back when they were first released back in 2018—and we’ve been waiting for a successor since then. Now Sony has released the new and improved headset that adds multipoint connectivity at the expense of aptX. But is it enough to compete in a crowded field of noise cancelling headphones?
Editor’s note: this review was updated on August 16, 2021, to include updated information on the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 after their latest firmware update, and to inform how to equalize the Sony WH-1000XM4.
Who should get the Sony WH-1000XM4?
- Everyone. I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t enjoy owning these. If you have the cash to splurge on a top-tier pair of headphones these are a no-brainer.
- People who want the best active noise cancelling. The WH-1000XM3 was already a great pair of active noise cancelling (ANC) headphones, and now the WH-1000XM4 is even better.
- Commuters and jet-setters will appreciate the battery life, noise canceling, sound quality, and not needing to choose between them.
What’s it like to use the Sony WH-1000XM4?
While the WH-1000XM4 headphones are almost identical in looks to their predecessor, there are some new features tucked away inside. Bluetooth multipoint makes them just slightly more convenient in everyday use by letting you connect to two devices at once (more on that later). It makes it easy transitioning from listening to music while working at your desk to watching a YouTube video on your phone, and back again, all without opening your Bluetooth settings. This was one of the biggest complaints with the WH-1000XM3, and having it here in the Sony WH-1000XM4 is definitely going to make plenty of people happy, with one big caveat. If you’re going to use multipoint, both connected devices need to use the AAC Bluetooth codec.
Aside from the ability to stay connected to two devices at once, there’s also a few new features you can only access if you download the Sony Headphones Connect app, such as the speak to chat functionality. When turned on this will pause your music whenever the headphones detect that you’re speaking. While it definitely works, the feature treads a fine line between useful and annoying, especially considering how sensitive the detection is.
I found this more of an annoyance than a useful feature.
For example, while listening to a podcast, the headphones paused the media when I chuckled at a joke. You’re never really aware of how many weird sounds you make until you’re wearing a pair of headphones that pause your music each and every time you make one. It could be useful to some people, but many will probably just turn it off.
Along the same lines is the auto-pause feature, which stops playback when you remove the headphones. On the inside of the left earcup is a small sensor that detects when you’re wearing the headphones or not, and pauses music when you take the headphones off. Is it a must-have feature? Absolutely not, but it’s the kind of subtle touch that you’d expect from a $350 pair of headphones and Sony nailed it here.
The actual earcups are also slightly thicker than the previous pair, which results in better isolation even when noise cancelling is turned off. On the other hand, the headband itself is thinner with a little less padding, and I have to say I felt the difference here. While these are definitely comfortable, there was an ever-present pressure at the crown of my head that only became more pronounced with longer listening sessions.
When you cup your hand over the left ear cup, ambient mode immediately activates.
The headphones’ controls haven’t changed much. Both earcups are still touch-sensitive and you control playback with a series of taps and swipes. Unfortunately, the double-tap to pause function only actually works some of the time. Swiping to control volume and skip between songs works seamlessly, but for some reason, the headphones struggle to register taps. Sometimes it’s easier and quicker to simply take off the headphones and let them auto-pause—the pause functionality worked roughly 25 percent of the time for me.
Cupping your hand over the left earcup activates ambient mode, which is still one of my favorite features. It dramatically lowers the music and uses the microphones built into the headphones to play what’s going on around you. Not a huge deal for anyone still spending most of their time at home like I am, but useful if you need to quickly catch an announcement from the pilot or train conductor while commuting.
How well do the Sony WH-1000XM4 cancel noise?
If you were hoping for an improvement in noise cancelling with the WH-1000XM4, these are going to make you very happy. Somehow, the team at Sony made the ANC even better than before.
Plots like the one above give a rough idea of how much noise is cancelled across the audible spectrum of 20Hz – 20kHZ (the limits of human hearing). Taller peaks in the chart above correspond to more noise being removed. The WH-1000XM3 wasn’t a slouch where the noise canceling was concerned, but the Sony WH-1000XM4 is better in its ability to attenuate lower-frequency sounds like the low hum of an air conditioner, or the constant rumble of a jet engine than most other headsets.
How do you pair to the Sony WH-1000XM4?
Pairing to the Sony WH-1000XM4 is as simple as tapping your phone to the back of the NFC logo on the left earcup and following the prompt that appears on your smartphone. If your smartphone doesn’t have NFC, you’ll need to pair the old-fashioned way by going into Bluetooth settings.
- Power on the headphones by holding down the power button.
- If you’re doing this for the first time, the headphones will automatically enter pairing mode.
- Next, you have to navigate to the Bluetooth settings on your device. Search for WH-1000XM4 in the list.
- Tap them to connect.
To pair a second device, it’s a similar process—except the headphones won’t automatically enter pairing mode when you turn them on since they’re already paired to another device.
To pair to a second device:
- Power off your headphones.
- Just like before, hold down the power button to power on the headphones, but this time don’t let you go until you hear the pairing chime (or you see the small LED light start rapidly flashing blue.)
- Navigate to Bluetooth settings on your second device.
- Click on the WH-1000XM4 to connect.
How’s the connection strength?
The Sony WH-1000XM4 are rocking Bluetooth 5.0, have Bluetooth multipoint, and support SBC, AAC, and Sony’s own LDAC, which has the highest streaming quality possible if you’re willing to deal with a somewhat less-stable connection. If you’re using something that isn’t compatible with any of these codecs then it will default down to SBC, which is the most basic codec shared by all Bluetooth audio devices. Devices that don’t have Bluetooth at all can always connect via the included 3.5mm audio cable too.
However, multipoint capability is only available if you’re using AAC, and not LDAC or SBC. Depending on what you’re looking to do it might be worth it, but it’s not for me, as I spend most of my time using at least two devices.
I live in a fairly average-sized two-bedroom apartment, and in my testing I didn’t have any issues with range. While the headphones connected to my laptop I was able to walk around my entire apartment with no skips. The same held true with my Pixel 3 smartphone which managed to remain connected regardless of which pocket the phone was in.
Should you get the Sony Headphones Connect app?
To get the most out of the WH-1000XM4 headphones, you will have to download the accompanying Sony Headphones Connect app that I mentioned earlier. While you’re able to rip the headphones out of the box and use them as is, you won’t be able to customize anything about them or use some of the cooler new features unless you use the app. For example, the second button on the headphones can be customized to either activate the assistant on your phone or toggle noise cancelling.
Unfortunately, you can’t have both—and downloading the app is the only way to choose whichever one you want. These are compatible with both the Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa so whichever one you prefer you can use these seamlessly.
The headphones can be customized to either activate the assistant on your phone or toggle noise cancelling on/off, but not both.
There are two other features unique to the app: noise cancelling optimization and 360-degree sound. While the noise cancelling is already excellent out of the box you can optimize it for whatever situation or level of air pressure you’re currently in via the app. You can also adjust the mix of ambient sound that’s fed through the headphones to your ear, so you can hear what’s going on around you. Of course, you can always cup your hand over the right earcup to allow a full passthrough so you can order a cardboard-tasting lunch from the friendly flight staff in economy class.
In the app there’s also a way to EQ the headphones to sound how you want them to. This isn’t exactly a new feature, but downloading the app is the only way to access it.
A slightly cooler feature that’s only available via the app, is access to Sony’s 360 Reality Audio. This is a new way of mastering music Sony has really been pushing and admittedly: it’s pretty awesome. You can only stream it on high-quality music services like Deezer, Amazon Music HD, or Tidal—if you’re already a subscriber, these are just that much more attractive, but if you’re on Spotify you’ll be missing out.
How is the battery on the Sony WH-1000XM4?
When it comes to battery life, Sony claims these will get you about 30 hours of constant playback which is the same as the previous WH-1000XM3. In our testing, we play music on a constant output of 75dB with active noise cancelling turned on and we found that these lasted exactly 19 hours and 59 minutes (sorry Sony, we test down to the minute).
This is obviously still great and more than good enough for most people, but I found it odd these don’t last as long as their predecessors, which clock in at about 24 hours. It’s entirely possible that as the unit we tested is a pre-production unit, there’s some software gremlins yet to be solved, so we’ll re-test and update this review once the production unit comes in.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 charge via USB-C, and the quick charge feature will get you five hours of playtime after only 10 minutes of charging, which is fantastic if you’re already late to catch the bus or train.
How do the Sony WH-1000XM4 sound?
Sound quality for the Sony WH-1000XM4 is one of those subtle things Sony also improved over the last model. That’s not to say that the XM3 headphones sounded bad—they sound great—but the older model definitely has more of a consumer-friendly bump in the low end.
The flatter frequency response in the lows translates to a sound that doesn’t get a huge bass boost like you’ll find on some other headphones. While it isn’t for everyone, most people (besides bassheads) won’t have a problem here. If you do want more low-end emphasis, you can always just change the EQ preset in the app.
As is, the bass is perfect for subtle performances like Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2 in D Minor by Hilary Hahn, where the low notes hit at just the right volume. The rumbles at the beginning of Pixel Empire by Madeon also sound great, and you can hear the variations in the rumbles throughout the intro. That same attention to detail carries over to the mids.
The lyrics in Constellations by Darwin Deez are clearly audible throughout the entire song regardless of what’s going on. Cymbals, shakers, and claps throughout the song also benefit from the slight increase in volume. In short, these sound great.
How to equalize these headphones
If you want to make these headphones sound better than they already do, you can either use the equalizer in the Sony Headphones Connect app, or you can use a PC-based solution like Equalizer APO, Roon, or Voicemeeter. Follow the below chart as a loose guide for your adjustments to get the headphoens sounding more like they would if they fit our house curve. From there, boost and cut targeted bands as you wish to get the desired result.
We should mention that you should avoid getting too crazy with equalizers in general, as there is a point of diminishing returns. You may also not be able to get the granularity you’d need for an adjustment like this in apps with limited bands. Just take it slow and use a light hand, you’ll be fine.
How is the microphone quality on the Sony WH-1000XM4?
The microphone on the Sony WH-1000XM3 was good, and it isn’t much different here. There is a slight drop-off in the frequency response under around 150-200Hz which isn’t unusual for Bluetooth headphones, but it’s more pronounced than on the previous version. It’s likely an attempt to keep the proximity effect—the pesky phenomenon that makes some podcasts and other recordings overly bassy—at bay. It should still be good enough to get you through your phone calls and Zoom meetings.
Sony WH-1000XM4 mic demo:
As of March 24, 2021, 4,286 readers rated the above mic sample as somewhere between “okay” and “good.” This is a pretty typical result for wireless headset microphones, and at the upper end of what you should expect to get out of any products of this type.
Should you get the Sony WH-1000XM4?
If you’re in the market for the best pair of Bluetooth headphones you can get, then yes, the Sony WH-1000XM4 should be on your shortlist. The previous WH-1000XM3 is still one of our most recommended headphones, and Sony made it even better. Bluetooth multipoint makes it way more convenient, and subtle improvements to the noise cancelling and sound quality make this a compelling buy.
If you have the Sony WH-1000XM3 already, there really isn’t a huge need to upgrade unless you absolutely need multipoint connectivity. However, if you’re looking to invest in your first big pair of noise cancelling headphones, almost everyone will love these.
Listeners who don’t have much room in their bags may want to turn their attention to the Sony WF-1000XM4, true wireless noise cancelling earphones that compare favorably against the Apple AirPods Pro and previous Sony WF-1000XM3.
What about the new Apple AirPods Max?
Apple’s AirPods Max is the first pair of headphones from the company. They promise about 20 hours of constant playback with noise cancelling turned on, the same H1 chip that you’ll find in the AirPods Pro, and a transparency mode as well. Unlike the WH-1000XM4, our favorite AirPods Max alternative, the AirPods Max don’t have touch-sensitive controls. Instead, all of the controls are in the digital crown at the top of the ear cup.
Unfortunately, the AirPods Max run you about $549 USD which is far from cheap. However, while the Sony WH-1000XM4 is much more affordable than Apple’s latest headphones, the AirPods Max do offer better ANC performance. The difference is noticeable, but both headsets do an exceptional job here—and if you were to ask us the increase in price isn’t worth the performance difference for most people, even if it is very good.
What are some other options besides the WH-1000XM4?
While the WH-1000XM4 are clearly great, there are other options worth considering. All of the following picks are more or less in the same price range, so if you’re looking to save a lot of money, check out our list for the best noise cancelling headphones under $100—you won’t get all the bells and whistles, but there are still lots of great options.
They’re older, but the Sony WH-1000XM3 are hardly yesterday’s trash. These headphones sport top-notch noise cancelling, A+ battery, and mainly only trade the multipoint Bluetooth for the addition of aptX and aptX HD support. If lack of multipoint doesn’t matter to you, you might as well save yourself some cash and pick them up when they inevitably go on sale.
Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700
If you just want a gorgeous pair of over-ears that will get the job done, the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 are still some of sleekest headphones I’ve reviewed. They’re more expensive and have fewer codecs, but their minimalist design looks really nice, though performance still lies with Sony.
Out of the box, Bose’s headphones don’t really work as well as they should when it comes to ANC performance. However, upgrading them to the latest firmware helps them put their best foot forward. Unfortunately, it’s still slightly behind Sony’s performance. Bose’s headphones are slick and offer a lot of good features—but if you want ANC performance, stick with Sony or Apple.
Share AONIC 50
The Shure AONIC 50 headphones definitely don’t have as much hype as products from Bose and Sony, but they’re awesome. They rock all the latest specs and Bluetooth codecs just like the WH-1000XM4, can use a USB-C cable as a wired connection, and they also look pretty damn great too. The premium build quality, great sound, and impressive noise cancelling earned these an editor’s choice award. However, they are more expensive at about $399USD, so this is definitely the upgrade pick.
Microsoft Surface Headphones 2
Microsoft came out swinging with the new Surface Headphones 2. They don’t sound as great as the Sony WH-1000XM4 and the noise cancelling isn’t up to par. But they have superb multipoint connectivity, intuitive controls, and a sleek design. They also cost about $100 USD less than the Sony WH-1000XM4.
Sennheiser PXC 550-II
The Sennheiser PXC 550-II lack a few of the top-tier features you’d expect of headphones in 2020 (like USB-C charging), but for $199 USD they’re an almost-unbeatable pick. You’ll get a sleek design, superb noise cancelling, Bluetooth multipoint, and great sound quality to boot. Definitely give these some consideration if you’re not sure how much money you want to spend.
Frequently Asked Questions
Yes, you can use the Sony WH-1000XM4 for noise cancelling only. The ANC remains active even without any audio signal being played back as long as you keep them switched on.