Sony WH-1000XM4 review: the best noise-canceling headphones get better

Patrick

Sony released its superb WH-1000XM3 noise-canceling headphones in 2018, and they still frequently top lists for the best noise-canceling headphones you can buy. But competitors haven’t been sitting idle: Bose’s Noise Canceling Headphones 700 are neck and neck with Sony for noise cancellation and have better microphones for voice calls. Microsoft’s Surface Headphones 2 have more intuitive controls, and smaller companies like Jabra are releasing impressive noise-canceling headphones at lower prices. Even Apple is rumored to be at work on its own premium set of headphones.

But to fend off its rivals, Sony has returned with the new $349.99 1000XM4 headphones, available for preorder today and shipping later this month. They address the two main downsides of the previous product: you can now pair to two devices simultaneously, and updated mics should make for clearer calls. Everything else is very similar or unchanged from last time around: the design is nearly identical, battery life still tops out at 30 hours, and the buttons and controls all work the same way. And aside from a few tweaks Sony made to how it upscales music, the 1000XM4s sound just like their predecessors — a very good thing, trust me.

Let’s get to the new stuff. The first is a simple convenience for anyone with an Android phone; Sony now supports Android’s Fast Pair for quick setup. This also lets you find your misplaced headphones by playing a sound through them, and you’ll get low-battery notifications when that 30-hour runtime is nearly exhausted.

A bigger improvement that both iPhone and Android people will appreciate is the upgraded mic performance. Sony has added what it calls “Precise Voice Pickup technology” to the 1000XM4s, which optimizes audio processing from the five built-in microphones for clearer voice capture — and the difference is apparent. I’ve made a few voice memo recordings and had some calls with the 1000XM4s, and while the mics won’t give you pristine audio, your voice is reproduced clearly and intelligibly. It sounds more digitized than I’d like, but this is still an improvement over the 1000XM3s.

Look familiar? Not much has changed about the appearance of the 1000XM4s.

Related to the mics is a new feature that Sony calls Speak to Chat. If you enable this, the headphones will automatically pause anytime you start speaking. The detection works really well; music stops even if I say one short word. If you don’t do anything, the music will return 30 seconds after speech stops. (You can just double tap on the right ear cup to resume playback quicker.)

The 1000XM4s have the same copper accents as the 1000XM3s.

The badge and indented NFC logo are the only clues that you’re looking at the newer Sony headphones.

I think some people will find this useful; the 1000XM4s still have the useful trick where you can cover the right ear cup with your hand to lower audio volume and pipe in ambient sound, but this method is voice-activated. But if you’re someone who talks to yourself with any regularity, forget about it. Your music will be pausing constantly. There was also a situation during my testing where the headphones stopped when an overhead announcement was playing at the train station, even though the feature is supposed to be listening for your voice. You can adjust the sensitivity of Speak to Chat in Sony’s Headphones Connect app to avoid false activations.

Sony has made small tweaks like slimming down the head cushion at top and increasing the surface area of the ear pads.

The other big new addition to the 1000XM4s is multipoint: finally, you can pair to two devices simultaneously. You don’t need to worry about missing a call if you’re absorbed in a movie or show on Netflix on your laptop. However, there’s a problem: right now, Sony’s implementation of multipoint is somewhat buggy. The first time I used it, it took a long while for the headphones to switch back to my phone after I’d stopped playing audio on my computer. Since then, it’s mostly worked as expected, but I’ve still had glitches here and there. Sony says that by the time the 1000XM4s ship to customers later in August, it will release a firmware update that will fix these current multipoint issues.

You can manage simultaneous Bluetooth connections in Sony’s Headphones Connect app.

I’m reviewing the headphones as they’re performing out of the box and will circle back once the update is made available. You can manage simultaneous connections and switch between devices right from Sony’s app without having to futz with the Bluetooth settings on whatever secondary device you want to use besides your phone, which is useful. Sony’s Headphones Connect app also has the usual EQ options and adaptive sound control, which can automatically adjust the levels of noise cancellation and ambient sound based on your activity or location. I don’t like the headphones taking control or changing the audio on me unexpectedly, so I tend to leave those features switched off.

You’d have an impossible time telling the 1000XM3s and 1000XM4s apart. The new headphones have the same outward appearance, down to the copper accents — including the one around the microphone inlet that almost makes it look like a USB-C port. Sony has made some subtle design tweaks; they’re just the kind you can’t see. The head cushion at the top has been slimmed down; the ear pads now have 10 percent greater surface area for more contact with your head; and the curve of the headband has been “fine tuned.” I’m not some masochist who likes wearing over-ear headphones outside in the sweltering summer heat, but I’ve found the 1000XM4s to be plush and comfortable when worn for several hours around my apartment. Thanks to a new sensor inside the left ear cup, the headphones can now detect when you remove them from your ears and will pause audio until you put them back on.

The buttons and swipe gesture controls remain unchanged from the 1000XM3.

A new sensor inside the left ear cup detects when you remove the headphones, so your music is automatically paused.

There’s still no water protection to speak of, which is one area I really wish Sony had addressed with the 1000XM4s. It’s pretty easy for rain to find its way into those upward-facing microphone grills. The headphones still fold up for carrying the same way as before. Also, the USB-C port is still exclusively for charging; you can’t use it as a wired audio connection, but you can still plug in with the included headphone cable if you want.

The 1000XM4s use the same Q1N processor for noise canceling as the prior headphones, but Sony says there’s a new Bluetooth audio system on a chip that analyzes music and surrounding noise 700 times per second, and this data is used for the noise cancellation algorithm. The 1000XM3s were already great at hushing airplanes, buses, trains, and other constant sound, but according to Sony, the 1000XM4s have gotten modestly better at reducing mid-high frequency sounds — like voices and everyday ambient sound. I haven’t had the previous pair on hand to compare against, but my visits to the grocery store have been free of noisy distractions or chatter cutting through. Sony also says it has improved the optional feature that upscales compressed music with the help of AI, which can now analyze music in real time and recognize instruments, music genres, and individual elements of songs. Honestly, it all sounds a little artificial to me, and I still leave this disabled. I’ve also barely explored the 360-degree audio feature of the 1000XM4s since so few music services support the format.

Sony’s app shows when you’re streaming with LDAC.

The sense of “sameness” around the 1000XM4s extends to sound quality. Sony isn’t making any claims about core sound quality improvements; if you loved how the 1000XM3s sounded, you’ll be just as pleased with these. If you found them too bass-heavy or the tuning too colored, you’ll have those same critiques with the M4s. But count me in the group that appreciates the warm, expressive sound from this series. I’m still riding high on my high-energy summer listens like Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher and Taylor Swift’s Folklore, and the Sony headphones showcase both albums superbly. Every acoustic guitar on Swift’s “Betty” has its own space in the soundstage, as does the harmonica present through the song. The new remaster of Paul McCartney’s Flaming Pie is a good demonstration of how detailed and nuanced the 1000XM4s can get; even home recordings and rough-mix outtakes are enjoyable through these cans.

My time with the 1000XM4s has made me a firm believer in Sony’s LDAC codec (available on most Android phones), which streams audio wirelessly at a significantly higher quality than the AAC you’re limited to if using an iPhone. I’ve put in several hours testing the 1000XM4s with Amazon Music HD, and if you’re the type of person who sits and attentively listens to your music, you’ll notice the improved fidelity. But here’s a bummer: if you enable the “connect to two devices simultaneously” option in settings, you can’t use LDAC at all — even when you’re connected to just your phone. Multipoint has to be fully switched off if you want to stream at those higher bitrates of between 600kbps and 900kbps. Thankfully, the 1000XM4s sound very good even when you’re listening without any fancy codecs.

Even if a lot is the same, the 1000XM4s are fantastic headphones.

It’s fair to say the 1000XM4s are an iterative update, not a radical step up from the M3s. They look the same, sound the same, and feel more or less the same on your head. But Sony’s software improvements — multipoint, Speak to Chat, and nice throw-ins like Fast Pair — aren’t insignificant. And the terrible voice quality has finally been rectified. With no outward design changes, I’m a little perplexed about what took Sony so long to release these — especially considering the 1000X, 1000XM2, and 1000XM3 headphones launched in such rapid succession. Regardless, the 1000XM4s live up to the strong reputation that Sony has built and offer more powerful noise-canceling capabilities than ever before. If the company makes good on its multipoint fix, you’re probably looking at the new top pick for noise-canceling headphones.

Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge



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