Sony WF-1000XM4 evaluation: a sonic triumph

Patrick

Sony first launched its WF-1000XM3 earbuds almost two years in the past, and although they supplied a number of the greatest noise cancellation and sound high quality you possibly can discover at the moment, so much has modified since. Going through newer rivals like Apple’s AirPods Professional and Bose’s QuietComfort Earbuds on the excessive finish, and numerous plenty-good options under, Sony has returned with the brand new $278 WF-1000XM4 earbuds.

They supply much more highly effective noise canceling; so good that it now approaches over-ear headphones. The audio high quality has been additional refined, and Sony added key options it frustratingly omitted final time — like IPX4 water and sweat resistance. The 1000XM4s additionally increase the bar for wi-fi audio and battery life in noise-canceling earbuds. Does that imply they’re value nearly $300?

If you need the best possible energetic noise cancellation in really wi-fi earbuds, the reply is an emphatic sure. Sony has constructed a brand new chip it calls the V1 into the 1000XM4s that brings their noise cancellation capabilities to spectacular new heights. These earbuds do a greater job than the AirPods Professional and even barely outperform Bose’s QuietComfort Earbuds at hushing close by noise. It’s now reached some extent the place the NC on these feels almost as efficient as Sony’s premium headphones. Spectacular stuff.

They virtually make the ambient sounds in my native espresso store go poof, and whereas visiting household upstate over Memorial Day, I examined them in a crowded bar and located that I may hearken to my music at round 60 p.c quantity with out listening to any of the energetic chatter surrounding me. Becca took them on a airplane and so they handed with flying colours, and so they have been in a position to lower down the cacophony of subway automobiles higher than all earbud rivals. I credit score these outcomes partially to new reminiscence foam ideas that I’ll cowl later, but it surely’s very evident that the V1 is chopping out extra noise in any respect frequencies — identical to Sony claims.

Each the earbuds and case are smaller than Sony’s earlier WF-1000XM3s.

And on the subject of sound high quality, the 1000XM4s are much more of a slam dunk than their predecessors. Sony advised me that when it tunes earbuds, it carefully appears at present music developments. So for those who examine these on to the 1000XM3s, you may discover barely richer bass to deal with your Dua Lipa repair. There’s no higher of-the-moment album than Olivia Rodrigo’s Bitter, and Sony’s earbuds merely do higher at dealing with deep bass and low-mid frequencies than the AirPods Professional. However Sony’s audio prowess extends by way of all frequencies. Her voice, the acoustic guitars, and background vocals on “traitor” all come by way of with glorious distinctness.

It’s simple to shut your eyes and get fully misplaced within the groove of Billie Eilish’s “Misplaced Trigger,” the place even whispered vocals come by way of with whole readability within the combine. John Mayer’s new Toto-influenced single “Final Practice House” and its ethereal vibe are proper at residence on the 1000XM4s, as properly. Soar by way of genres and it’s onerous to seek out something that these earbuds can’t make shine. Electrical guitars have simply the fitting grit on ‘70s rock. Swap over to some soul and Sam Cooke’s voice has the heat you’d count on. That further bass lends added kick to hip-hop and dance tracks, although the low-end by no means will get bloated or overwhelming.

The earbuds now have an all-matte design with extra refined Sony branding.

The 1000XM4s look nothing like their predecessors. Sony has moved away from the tablet form to a extra refined, all-matte model. And the earbuds are noticeably smaller. Sony advised me it’s only a 10 p.c downsizing, but it surely seems like extra as a result of sleeker total design. There’s a giant spherical space for contact controls, and the flashiest factor about these earbuds is the small, accented round microphone inlet. Sony’s emblem is now on the facet of the buds, the place few would ever spot it while you’re carrying them.

Sony has shrunk down the carrying case much more; it’s 40 p.c smaller than the cumbersome case that got here with the 1000XM3s. Now it’s on par with instances from Jabra and different rivals. It’s shorter than the AirPods Professional case, however a tad wider and noticeably thicker. The case has a USB-C port and helps wi-fi charging, and the earbuds magnetically latch into the case strongly and may keep seated except you fumble the entire thing to the bottom. If I’m being fussy, the lid has slightly extra play than I’d like for $280 earbuds, but it surely stays shut advantageous.

However I’d argue the most effective factor about this redesign isn’t the precise earbud {hardware}: it’s the brand new ear ideas Sony is together with within the field. Final time round, Sony shipped six pairs of ideas with the 1000XM3 buds — three silicone sizes and three foam-like ideas. However with the 1000XM4s, Sony goes all-in on the reminiscence foam method with new “noise isolation ear ideas.” They’re fairly completely different from Sony’s previous foam ideas, now with a thicker design that’s much less rounded and with a tackier really feel that helps them keep planted in your ears. I’d describe it as nearly a hybrid between silicone and reminiscence foam.

The brand new noise isolation ear ideas are literally among the finest issues concerning the WF-1000XM4s.

You don’t get any plain silicone units in any respect, and Sony solely consists of the usual small, medium, and enormous sizes; XS and XL would’ve been good at this worth level, however the massive ideas have been an ideal match in my case. The seal is so sturdy that you just’ll generally discover them twist in with a squeaking sound. Not like the 1000XM3s, the 1000XM4s have a correct IPX4 ranking for water and sweat resistance, so you’ll be able to confidently use them for exercises or within the rain with out weighing their odds of survival.

When you energy them on, the 1000XM4 earbuds will outlast all of their primary noise-canceling rivals on a single cost. They’ll run for eight hours of steady playback with NC enabled, a formidable soar from the 5 hours that the AirPods Professional, Galaxy Buds Professional, QuietComfort Earbuds, and Jabra Elite 85t all hover round. Flip noise canceling off, and the brand new earbuds can maintain working for as much as 12 hours. The charging case can juice the buds two occasions, so that you’re a complete taking part in time of round 24 hours (NC on) or 36 hours if you are able to do with out it wherever you might be.

The case helps Qi wi-fi charging.

The earbuds have beamforming mics and bone conduction sensors for improved voice calls.

Sony can be beating Apple at bringing greater bit charge wi-fi audio to earbuds. The 1000XM4 buds absolutely help Sony’s personal proprietary LDAC codec, which might transmit music tracks at as much as 990kbps. That is presently the gold customary for Bluetooth audio, and although I’m certain it’ll immediate the same old “nobody can inform the distinction” debates, I’m glad to see LDAC present up in additional moveable kind. 2021 is changing into the 12 months of lossless music streaming, with Apple and Spotify each becoming a member of Amazon Music HD and Tidal.

However LDAC has its personal challenges. Playback can get slightly unreliable and uneven for those who set it to max high quality in an Android gadget’s developer settings, so typically I stick to the center “efficiency” possibility the place the highest bit charge falls to 660kbps. At that high quality, are you able to actually understand any enchancment in comparison with AAC? Possibly I’m shopping for into snake oil, however to me it does sound like sure tracks do have that ever-so-slight further little bit of depth and readability when streaming with LDAC. However remember it is a characteristic that solely applies to Android gadgets, and the 1000XM4s sound fairly stellar when paired with an iPhone, the place LDAC isn’t even a factor. It’s a reminder that all the things within the chain — from how music was mastered and encoded to the earbud {hardware} itself — issues simply as a lot as sheer bit charge.

LDAC has a detrimental affect on that in any other case distinctive battery life, too. When you’ve received noise cancellation energetic and are streaming LDAC, it drops to the everyday 5 hours of steady playback. That’s not dangerous when you think about how onerous the buds are working below these situations, but it surely’s a lower all the identical and removes one of many benefits the Sony buds have over the competitors.

Up to now, this evaluation has been largely reward, however the WF-1000XM4 earbuds do include one crushing disappointment: they don’t help two simultaneous Bluetooth connections, a characteristic referred to as multipoint. It’s change into a established order characteristic for a lot of high-end headphones (together with from Sony) and means that you can have your headphones linked to each your cellphone and your pc and seamlessly change between them. However for no matter motive, Jabra continues to be the one firm that’s providing the comfort of multipoint in earbuds. This case is getting irritating — particularly for merchandise on this worth bracket — and I hope the entire product class of true wi-fi earbuds could make progress on multipoint very quickly. After latest leaks, I noticed feedback from individuals who mentioned they wouldn’t buy these earbuds in the event that they lacked multipoint. And sadly, that’s the place we’re at.

Microphone efficiency is healthier than it was on the 1000XM3s, but it surely’s nonetheless inferior to Apple’s AirPods Professional or Samsung’s Galaxy Buds Professional. The brand new earbuds make the most of each beamforming mics and bone conduction sensors to know while you’re talking and while you’re not. This does a good job of chopping out background noise for folks on the opposite facet of your calls, but it surely has the detrimental facet impact of creating your voice sound clipped or overly gated. In a house atmosphere, they’re sufficient for chatting with others, however issues get slightly extra inconsistent outdoors or in loud environments. On a associated be aware, Sony has introduced over the speak-to-chat characteristic from the 1000XM4 headphones; with this setting on, the earbuds will mechanically pause music and allow ambient sound mode every time speech is detected. When you’ve stopped speaking for a couple of seconds, audio will mechanically resume.

Sony’s ambient mode sounds extra pure this time round, however for the reason that buds aren’t vented and you may really feel them in your ears, the impact is much less convincing than on the AirPods Professional. Nonetheless, I like that Sony’s app enables you to go deep on customizing the assorted sound modes; you’ll be able to manually choose how a lot outdoors sound to let by way of like different buds, however you may also alter the combo of noise cancellation and ambient sound based mostly on location — residence, work, the health club, and so on. — or have it change mechanically if the app detects completely different actions. Lastly, Sony preserves its trick of holding a finger on the left earbud to quickly activate transparency mode and decrease the quantity of your music till you elevate it again off.

Not that I anticipated them to, however the 1000XM4s can’t sustain with Apple’s ecosystem benefits that exist between the AirPods Professional and iPhone, iPad, or Mac. Whereas they help Sony’s 360 Actuality Audio and Dolby Atmos music tracks on Tidal, the setup course of is slightly ridiculous: you’ve received to take a photograph of every ear in Sony’s app, pictures the corporate says are deleted after 30 days, to “optimize” the sound. However what’s extra essential past that problem is that Sony’s resolution doesn’t but work for films or TV exhibits, the place Apple’s spatial audio does an amazing job immersing you in content material. Since Sony solely makes the earbuds and nearly actually not the pill or cellphone in your hand, it lacks the required tie-ins for head monitoring and different tips that assist Apple pull off spatial audio so properly. Sony doesn’t even actually promote the 360 audio chops of the 1000XM4 buds; they’re clearly meant extra for music and stereo listening. (Many Dolby Atmos music tracks have a synthetic wideness to their soundstage, so I don’t miss that half.) A whole lack of any particular interoperability with the PlayStation 5 or Sony’s TVs is a disgrace, although.

My first evaluation pair of 1000XM4s skilled what I’d contemplate extreme bugs: a number of occasions, they’d fully crash and produce a buzzing sound — the type of noise you hear when a online game freezes — after which energy on once more. I’d even have instances the place just one earbud would hook up with the paired gadget till I plopped them each into the case and tried once more. Sony offered me with a second set that didn’t endure the identical issues. Becca didn’t have any such points together with her set both, so I’m comparatively certain I received a foul unit the primary time round. However I nonetheless assume it’s value mentioning for transparency’s sake. Sony typically does a good job of patching up early quirks with firmware updates.

Placing the one lemon pair apart, the opposite drawbacks aren’t sufficient to derail the tip end result: the WF-1000XM4s are a triumph for Sony. They’re an bold flex of many years’ value of private audio experience, and so they’re a reminder of simply how properly the corporate can execute when it’s targeted on the fitting issues. These earbuds can’t match all of the bells and whistles of Apple’s AirPods Professional, and the dearth of multipoint continues to sting. However they’re in a category of their very own the place it counts most: noise cancellation and sound high quality. You’ll be paying fairly a premium to get the most effective of that standards, however for those who’re the type of one who will admire the top-notch efficiency, the 1000XM4s are a worthwhile funding.

Pictures by Chris Welch / The Verge

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