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Sony WH-1000XM4 review: The best wireless headphones we’ve ever tested

From design to sound, we put the the leading brand’s sleek new audio device to the test

David RS Taylor
Tuesday 01 June 2021 10:40
<p>The XM4's predecessor, the XM3's, were class-leading – but have Sony now outdone itself?</p>

The XM4's predecessor, the XM3's, were class-leading – but have Sony now outdone itself?

Sony has, for a while, been a dominant force in personal listening. The company’s WH-1000X series is an example of truly class-leading tech, especially the almost-universally-praised 1000XM3s, widely seen as the best wireless headphones of their generation.

We’re particularly discerning and often aloof, so wouldn’t like to make that distinction ourselves, but the XM3s really did raise the bar for wireless listening.

Sony has decided to try and go one better with the WH-1000XM4 headphones. The company claims that alongside features such as elevated comfort and better call quality, the XM4s blow their predecessors out of the water in the active noise cancellation (ANC) stakes.

It’s complicated tech that takes years to master, and even longer to balance with quality audio output (the thing you’re primarily buying headphones for). So it’s a big claim from a brand that could’ve arguably rested on its laurels with the XM3s.

We were intrigued and a little excited to put the XM4s through their paces, and after hours trawling various barely-remembered playlists from the early 2010s, we’ve managed to get a pretty good handle on what these pricey class leaders are all about.

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Sony WH-1000XM4 wireless headphones

Type: Over-ear

Noise cancellation: Yes

Weight: 254g

Battery life: 30 hours NC on, 38 hours NC off

Connectivity: Bluetooth 5.0 with multipoint, NFC, 3.5mm jack

Voice control: Yes

Design

It can be quite hard to look good in headphones – it takes a very specific type of person to pull them off without looking a little goofy. However, it’s not hard to look good in the XM4s. We’re not of the lucky few that can style a pair of cans, but these are so sleek and aesthetically sophisticated that we didn’t recoil in horror when we caught our reflection in the window: a great sign that these would work perfectly for the commute.

There isn’t much of a difference here to Sony’s WH-1000XM3s, with the headphones’ silhouette largely remaining the same. However, the XM3s are a beautiful pair of headphones, and the brand seemingly decided that it would be unwise to change a winning thing.

The XM4s twist and fold for better portability, and remain sturdy while packed away in the included carry case. Sturdiness in general is good: although the headphones are quite light compared to their competitors, this doesn’t result in a flimsy pair of headphones, as the materials used – even the plastic body – lend the XM4s an element of luxury and solidity.

Read more: Bowers & Wilkins PI7 true wireless earbuds review

The XM4s are impressively comfortable, to the extent that after a while, you forget you have them on. The cups are snug but never too tight, providing even tension on both sides and a good level of physical, or passive, noise cancellation without resorting to an uncomfortable clamping. The battery life is an impressive 30 hours with ANC turned on, outstripping many competitors and giving you more than enough listening time for that flight to Australia you’ve had your eye on since April 2020.

The headphones disappointingly don’t have an IP rating, meaning they’re technically not waterproof or even water resistant. Despite their solid feel, this could be a deal breaker for some who might want the versatility of taking them around for the day without the worry of the Great British weather making an appearance.

Touch controls are easy to navigate and all found on the right cup, with a series of intuitive swipes and taps doing the work for you, and the XM4s happily still include a 3.5mm aux jack for wired listening. Also included for the first time is multipoint connection, whereby (unsurprisingly) you can connect your headphones to multiple devices – great for ease of use when you want to listen to Spotify on your computer, but switch to your phone for calls. All in all, Sony has thought of almost everything.

Sound

The XM4s offer an unbelievably full sound. Their supreme quality is potentially the best we’ve tested when it comes to richness of sound and audio eloquence. You can hear everything, from trills on the Skyfall score to heavy, rasping bass on Childish Gambino’s Redbone. Busy tracks that run the full frequency range, such as Thursday in the Danger Room by Run The Jewels are at their most impressive through these headphones: they really show off a top-end music producer’s skills.

There’s a great vocal clarity to the sound, down to picking up the distinct timbre of the voice. Watching the Tennyson recital scene in Skyfall (can you see why we listened to the score?) was the perfect example of this, the XM4s detecting every shake and moment of strength in Dame Judi Dench’s voice.

The five microphones inside the XM4s pick up your voice nicely, and we encountered no problems with the voice assistant. Calls also performed admirably, although the XM4s lost a little ground here on the hugely impressive pickup of the Bose NC 700s.

Read more: Best wireless earbuds for quality sound and noise cancellation

There is a particularly sophisticated ANC at play here. The Sony QNe1 processor enables the headphones to constantly analyse ambient noise and react in real time, but alongside that, the partner app treats you to a heap of options. A wide array of audio modes, including various levels of ANC and ambient listening, offers personalisation of the XM4s laudable transparency.

For a rapid-fire adaptation to your surroundings, optimisation is very impressive – simply hold the custom button for a few seconds, and the XM4s will provide the very best listening environment. Speaking of the custom button, it can also control noise cancellation or voice assistant. However, you have to decide between the modes via the app, which doesn’t take long, but could become a bind.

One down side with the gamut of options is that the XM4s can, at times, feel a little fiddly. It might have just been us having one of those days, but there’s so much to tweak that sometimes it can feel like you’re missing out on a good feature unless you spend valuable minutes exploring the app. However, once you find your EQ and noise cancellation preferences, the app will remember your choices, so this really is a minor grievance, something we’re struggling to find in an otherwise outstanding pair of headphones.

The verdict: Sony WH-1000XM4 wireless headphones

These are the best wireless headphones we’ve tested. While the ANC quality might just be pipped by the Bose NC 700s, it’s an incredibly fine margin, and when it comes to the full package, the XM4s can’t be beaten. The audio quality on offer is top of the tree, with barely a foot put wrong.

It’s rare to experience a pair of wireless headphones with this level of audio subtlety and technical prowess. The lack of an IP rating is an odd oversight, and means we’d be slightly worried about wearing these out and about on rainy days, but an umbrella is a small price to pay for the quality inside these cans.

There aren’t huge changes or improvements on the XM3s, which were already class-leading, but the tweaks Sony has made – things like better ANC, multi-device connectivity and auto play/pause – improve the overall experience of wearing the XM4s. They’re expensive, at an original price point slightly higher than some rivals, but are worth the expense, and Sony offers regular discounts. These are class-leading headphones whose sound will be hard to beat for a long time to come.

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Ditch the fussy wires with the best wireless and noise-cancelling headphones

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