Sony has been winning at active noise cancellations headphones… at least in the over-ear market. Their last pair of in-ear headphones WF-1000XM3 left users wanting more. Their newest pair of in-ear true wireless headphones finally has Sony winning at the premium category of in-ear ANC headphones. The Sony WF-1000XM4 headphones are slimmer and sleeker, they sound phenomenal, and have upgrades across the board.
Let’s start with the charging case — you can’t have true wireless headphones without lugging around the case. Despite being a little plasticky, the new charging case is fantastic. It’s smaller than most, easy to use, charges with USB-C, and has a wireless charger. It’s small enough to forget about in your pocket. It looks sleek and premium with an LED strip, matte finish, and no buttons. It’s ultra-light, but has us a bit concerned about long-term longevity.
The actual buds have also been completely redesigned. Sony’s M3’s were so large that they’d almost fill the inside of your ear. The new M4s are much less noticeable. While only 10% smaller they look 40% smaller. They’re no longer oval, but rounder and designed to sit naturally and comfortably in the canal or your ear. As someone with tricky ears, I absolutely love this fit. There’s no ear hook or stabilizer required and it can stay in my ear even while jogging. The fit requires the press-and-turn technique to “lock” into your ears. Of course, it may need the occasional press to re-set them in your ears. It comes with 3 sizes of memory foam “noise isolation” ear tips. These really help with the fit but some of you may want silicon tips too. I find their memory foam tips to be very comfortable and really help the fit, but they are a tad more involved to insert into your ears.
There’s always a bit of usability sacrifice with true wireless bud when it comes to controls. Like most, Sony relies on touch buttons. Each bud’s shell is a touch button, and most features can be accessed through taps and holds. We’re not fond of touch buttons, but thankfully these are customizable and aren’t overly sensitive. Each bud can be customized to control ambient sound, playback, or volume control. Then each bud has a tap, double-tap, triple tap, and hold function. You can only choose a set of controls per bud, you can’t customize what each type of tap does. So, for instance, if the right bud is set to control playback then a single tap is pause, double is next track, triple is for the previous track, and hold is voice activation. I imagine this will be more customizable with firmware and app updates in the future.
While touch buttons aren’t everyone’s favorites, there are some really nice auto features you may love. They’re all adjustable and you can shut them off. When you take a bud out of your ear, music will pause and even shut down noise cancellation. Put the bud back in and music starts right back up. This is a must-have feature for all headphones.
The headphones can also power off automatically after being out for a bit. The next feature is love-it or hate-it: speak-to-chat will pause your music and turn on ambient sound when you speak so that you don’t have to take the buds out to talk to someone. This feature is configurable and may pause your music when you sneeze, cough, grunt, or talk to yourself. We’ll hand it to Sony for being innovative but we’d rather just take a bud out of our ear.
The last nifty auto feature is adaptive sound control which uses your movements and location to adjust your headphone settings like noise cancellation and ambient noise. This feature can automatically turn on noise cancellation while you’re in transit, turn on ambient noise while you’re walking outside, and turn both off while you’re at home, for instance. Neat, but we’d rather just control this ourselves with a tap of the earbud.
When it comes to battery, the buds alone can play music for an unprecedented 8 hours with active noise cancellation and 12 hours without ANC. The charging case will add an extra 16 hours to give you a whopping 24 hours of total listening time. Your phone will even notify you when the charging case drops below 30%. With quick charge, 5 minutes of charging gets you an hour of playback. The battery is amazing, and the charging options with USB-C and wireless are also fantastic.
Like with Sony’s over-ear headphones, we love how these sound. They’re a bit flat out-of-the-box but you can choose an audio profile or set your own with the custom equalizer to make them sound amazing and perfect. They sound very lively with ultra-clear mids and a boomy bass. Again, it’s all adjustable. With a little adjustment, our tuning of preference has so much life and oomph with voices that are front-and-center and bass that is warm and natural.
The ear tips really help with passive noise isolation and a complete seal. A lot of the time you don’t need active noise canceling turned on, but it’s so clean that it may be preferred to help you better hear your music at a comfortable volume. We think Sony sets the bar when it comes to noise cancellation, as this is pretty much the best out there — especially without creating an anti-noise hiss. The M3s also had great ANC and while the difference is negligible, the better fit of the M4s probably helps. These are able to silence the sound of a treadmill, most train noise, and my white noise machine. Voices will still come through, though much fainter.
It’s worth noting that Sony offers a “360 reality” immersive sound profile too, but it only works on a few apps like Tidal, Deezer, and Nugs.net.
The microphone has always been a pain point for us with Sony. Sony seems to think people want to hear ambient noise while they’re on the phone, but we find it distracting and annoying… especially in a noisy environment. Ambient aware is always the default when you make or take a phone call, but you can at least turn on noise-canceling once you’re connected. The actual microphone is pretty good. Beamforming microphones are supposed to focus on your voice, and they do just that. Our voice comes in clean and clear, but we think Apple headphones still have a better microphone.
Sony WF-1000XM4 review verdict
For premium active noise-canceling earbuds, we think that the Sony WF-1000XM4 truly wireless earbud headphones are the best on the market right now. We’re really quite fond of them. The form factor, audio quality, ANC, comfort, and personalization features are hard to beat. Then there’s the unprecedented battery life, wireless charging, usability features, beamforming microphones, Alexa & Google Assistant support, and future updates. Compared to the WF-1000XM3, the specs on paper may be better but we found the meaningful changes to be the much sleeker size and (probably for most) the better fit. Pricing in at $278, they’re expensive but you’re getting a quality product that should justify the price. They are available in a choice of black or white.
Updated 11/29/23: The Sony WF-1000XM4 headphones have been replaced with the Sony WF-1000XM5 earbuds.