For the last few years, the Sony WH-1000XM3s have been widely regarded as the best over-ear, noise-cancelling headphones you can buy. Although not the very best sounding or the very best at blocking out unwanted noise, the XM3s come close in every department – and at a price more affordable than the competition.
Now music lovers, freelancers and business trippers have a new product to sample; the all-new XM4s. Sony claims that they offer a solid upgrade in every area, but are they worth buying over their still impressive, and more discounted predecessors? Read What's The Best's review by tech-head Curtis Moldrich to find out.
• But light on the head
• Not as premium as some, but that’s fine
The Sony XM4s are the over-ear versions of the previously tested XM4 in-ears, only these arrived in 2020 – just before their smaller, more compact counterparts. However, unlike the XM4s which took a huge leap in design compared to their predecessors, these look very similar to what came before.
In practice, that means Sony’s new flagship is a mixture of clean surfaces, gold highlights and solid feeling hinges. Sure, they’re not as ‘premium-feeling' as some others on the market, but Sony’s USP is the best overall package for the money, not being the best feeling or looking.
That said, the XM4s feel sturdy as soon as you take them out of their equally robust carry case. They’re light enough to carry around and wear – but don’t feel cheap by any means.
• Easy to install
• Just as quick to mount
• Not too heavy
Connecting the XM4s to your phone, tablet or computer is as simple as holding down a pairing button and selecting the Sonys from a list.
Like most true wireless setups, earbuds are easy to unfold and then pair via Bluetooth – and unlike their earbud cousins, they can be connected to more than one device at a time. For example; it’s possible to listen to music on a laptop, and then have it automatically pause while you take a call from a smartphone.
Charging is done via a USB-C port – so you can use your new, growing pile of cables – and there’s also a 3.5mm jack if you feel like going for a wired connection, too. There’s also a custom button that flicks between the different modes of Sony’s impressive noise-cancelling – but we’ll get to that later.
Other features smooth out your experience, too; these can let in a certain amount of ambient noise, and they’ll also lower or pause music if they can sense you’re talking. Better still, they also pause if you take them off, and resume when you put them on again.
These functions are mainly set up via the app, but they can get pretty clever: thanks to GPS, the WH-1000MX4s will learn what ambient noise settings you use where, and eventually switch to them automatically.
In practice, Speak-to-Chat and Quick Attention all worked as designed, though they did have a delay of around two seconds. It’s also easy to accidentally trigger either Siri or the Google Assistant.
Battery life is 30 hours, and weight is 254g.
• No AptX but that’s fine
• Not too heavy
Most high-end Bluetooth devices use AptX or AptX HD, but the Sonys go their own way with the Sony 360 Reality Audio – but it doesn’t make a huge difference. You’ll be hard-pressed to find any tracks in the format – but these sound so good with normal files, it doesn’t really matter.
Like the earbuds, these over-ears now use a DSEE Extreme processor which essentially upscales music to high-res – adding detail where files may be lacking. The result is a soundscape that’s full of definition, with great bass and clear highs – and it’s even better than the earbuds. Where Sony’s more compact offering feels a little ‘closed’ at times, these headphones benefit from an even more ‘open’ sound you associate with larger headphones.
Listen to The Weeknd’s Dawn FM album on these, and you’ll likely be able to hear far more detail and work than before. Synth heavy tracks like – well, the entire album – benefit from a new sense of separation, with each flourish of Abel’s voice, each drum and each sizzling synth line rendered with extreme clarity.
Noise-cancelling on the WFs is another highlight. After a solid seal with an old-fashioned cushion, tech takes over and the result is one of the most isolated experiences on the market – and by far the best at this price. Even better than some earbuds, the Sonys block out most background noise – and will be essential for international travel. They’re useful at the gym too, but we’d stick to earbuds for ease.
One other thing, we didn’t try them with glasses, but Sony’s ear analysis software can account for bespectacled users. Battery life wasn’t an issue for us either.
At around £250, the Sony WH-1000XM4s aren’t cheap – and they’re around £50 more than the arguably more versatile WF earbuds which feature similar performance. Still, look at the competition and the WHs are once again in a sweet spot of price and performance.
Sony’s WH-1000XM3s were class-leading, and it’s no surprise to see the XM4s better them slightly in every area. They offer a good mixture of performance and price compared to the competition, so if you’re in the market for a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, these need to be towards the top of your list. However, Sony’s similarly impressive WF-1000XM4 earbuds offer a similar experience for less money and more versatility.
If you’re sure you want the best possible noise-cancelling and you’re most interested in sedentary use cases such as flying, working, and lounging; get these. For everything else, consider Sony’s WF-1000XM4 earbuds.