Sony might be known for a range of different products – from TVs to PlayStations – but it’ll always be synonymous with personal audio too. In 2021, the creators of the Walkman are still at the cutting-edge when it comes to playing music on the go; for the last few years, its WF-1000XM3 earphones have been the industry standard.
Now they’ve been replaced by the WF-1000XM4s, and they’re drastically different to before. Truly wireless and carrying upgraded audio, noise-cancelling and Bluetooth technology, the WF-1000XM4s have the potential to be one of the best wireless headphone options on the market. But are they worth buying? Keep reading for our verdict on Sony’s latest flagship earphones.
Build and quality
At first glance, the XM4s have little in common with their predecessors. Small and light at 7.3g, they’re both more compact and more stylish than what came before. Even the case is different; despite increased battery life over the previous gen, it’s tiny.
Take a closer look at Sony’s new flagship, and you’ll notice a high level of fit and finish – which you’d expect for their £200+ price tag. Available in black and gold, or a PlayStation grey and gold, both colours look great – though we opted for the former.
They’re packed with features too; the side of the earphones act as programmable buttons, and at the top, you’ll find two small gold-rimmed ports for calls and noise-cancelling.
Sony has packed three sizes of spongey ear tips into the box, which itself is made of more sustainable packaging than before. A USB-C cable also comes in the box to charge them. The powers of the Sony WF-1000XM4 revolves around its brain - the Integrated Processor V1. This chip is where all of the good stuff happens, including support for high-resolution wireless audio.
Like most true wireless setups, Sony’s earbuds are easily removed from their magnetic case (which itself can be wirelessly charged). Putting them in is as simple as squeezing the foam tips, and then placing them in your ears as they expand to their original shape. Our Android phone benefited from the Fast Pair feature and it meant the Sony’s connected to our Pixel almost immediately. After that, they showed their remaining charge and other info – but it’s certainly worth installing Sony’s bespoke app too.
Available on Android and iOS phones, it unlocks features that you’ll almost certainly want to use. You can program what single and double taps do on each earphone, and the app also allows users to configure features such as noise-cancelling, wind reduction, quick attention and speak to chat.
We found the Sony’s touch-sensitive sides particularly useful, though they did take some getting used to - touching our ears to improve the fit often resulted in accidental pauses or plays. Speak to chat, and quick attention also worked as designed, though they did have a delay of around two seconds. It’s also easy to trigger either Siri or the Google Assistant.
Battery life is eight hours, with a further 24 supplied by the charging case.
The Sonys use tiny 6mm drivers and a new DAC (Digital to Audio Converter) and the results are extremely impressive – even when we leave noise-cancelling to one side. Sony says it tunes products for popular music at the time, and that means the XM4s are bass specialists.
Bass-heavy tracks bounce along, while lower-sub bass frequencies are also rendered confidently. And rather than being clunky and bottom-heavy, the Sonys can pull off great low-end while still maintaining poise in the higher frequencies.
Take a recent chart-topper from The Weeknd for example; the vocals in Take My Breath sound incredibly clear, but they’re complemented by sparkly retro synths and hard electronic bass. And throughout the track’s peaks and troughs, all three share the limelight.
However, that doesn’t mean the XM4s just specialise in pop. We tried the Sonys with a range of genres – from metal and rap to dance – and the XM4s were able to uncover detail in them all. Whether it was the sound of jewellery clanging in the recording booth, the noise of hands sliding down fretboards, or an extra texture over a synth, the Sonys uncovered them.
All the while, Sony’s noise-cancelling tech was able to cut out an impressive amount of background noise. Train noise, TV noise, walking noise and most wind was totally removed by the tech, and only louder music and dog barks seeped through Sony’s efforts. We found them particularly useful at the gym, where they eliminated background music as well as the clanking of weights.
Battery life was never a real factor in use. Thanks to a total absence of long-haul flights, we used the Sonys for up to four hours at a time, charging them whenever not in use. After about a week or so of use at home office, gym and on public transport, we’d charged the case twice.
As for the fit? They were secure and went unnoticed in the office and at the gym, and in faster walking and jogging – though some have reported the latter as troublesome.
Sony’s decision to go a different design direction with the MX4s seems risky - until you start using them. While there are headphones with slightly better sound or better noise-cancelling, there are few that can put everything together in such as a small, compelling package. At over £200, these aren’t cheap, but they’re good value – and arguably more versatile than their headphone counterparts; the WH-1000XM4s.
About the WF-1000XM4s
The powers of the Sony WF-1000XM4 revolves around its brain - the Integrated Processor V1. This chip is where all of the good stuff happens, including support for high-resolution wireless audio.
The chip inside the headphones has an LDAC that allows three times more data to transmit than standard Bluetooth. It then uses DSEE Extreme, a Digital Sound Enhancement Engine, which upscales compressed audio files in real-time. The result is clear and precise audio, akin to that achieved with a wired connection. Smartly, Sony has ensured that the wearer can hear this improved sound via upgraded 6mm drivers. An immersive 360 Reality Audio experience is available via compatible devices and services.
Sony states that the Integrated Processor V1 has improved noise reduction. The chip taps into the WF-1000XM4's dual noise sensor microphones, reading front and back ambient noise to offer adept noise cancellation and provide Automatic Wind Reduction. This improved processing couples with the WF-1000XM4’s news magnets, which have a broad frequency range allowing for low, rumbling ambience to silenced more efficiently. A new earbud design adds further support, creating a comfortable seal to insulate against outside distractions.
On top of improved audio and noise cancellation, the Sony WF-1000XM4 headphones carry some welcome quality of life features. Speak-to-Chat, which can be found on other Sony products, is here. This feature senses when the wearer is talking and then pauses playback and enters ambient mode, allowing a quick chat to take place without removing the headphones. When the conversation ends, the music starts up again. Similarly, Quick Attention mode will quieten music and enter ambient mode when the left headphone is touched - ideal for a train station and airport announcements. The parameters of these features can be adjusted via the Sony companion smartphone app.
The WF-1000XM4s carry beamformed microphones that focus on the wearer’s voice for improved hands-free phone calls and video chats. And the improved Bluetooth connection means reduced signal latency, which is ideal for watching TV and movies. There’s 24-hour battery life, with the WF-1000XM4 carry eight hours of charge and the case an additional 16 hours. Five minutes of charging convert to one hour of playback, and the charging of the case can be done via USB-C or wireless, as it is compatible with Qi technology.
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