Anticipation is one thing, keen anticipation is quite another. And very few electronics products have been as keenly anticipated as the Sony WH-1000XM4 wireless active noise-cancelling over-ear headphones. One might even describe anticipation levels as wild.
The WH-1000XM4 replaces – hey! – the WH-1000XM3. The XM3 has been routinely held up as the best pound-for-pound product of its type ever since it launched almost two years ago, not least by this website. Have a look at our lists of the best wireless headphones, the best noise-cancelling headphones or, most tellingly of all, the best headphones for any budget – the Sony is a favourite. It’s well on the way to becoming a classic.
So at the same time as its arrival being, yes, keenly anticipated, the WH-1000XM4 has a very tough act to follow. As any elite athlete will tell you: getting to the top is one thing, staying there is quite another. In the manner of an elite athlete, Sony has sought to make incremental improvements to its proven and extraordinarily successful formula to maintain its preeminent position. And maintain it very much has.
Some of the changes are physical, although the design language of the XM4 is so close to that of the XM3 it replaces they aren’t immediately obvious. If you were hoping for a complete redesign, this isn’t it. But amendments to the hanger structure and the headband curve, plus a mild slimming of the headband cushion, improve comfort and save weight – the XM4s are a trim 254g. The earcups are thinner, too, and they’re fitted with earpads that are both softer and 10 per cent bigger than before. The gap, or shut-line, where the earcup meets the arm of the headband has also been minimised.
The feature-set, and wider functionality, of the XM4 is a more decisive step on from the XM3. Some of these upgrades are concerned purely with convenience: multi-point connection, for example, allows the headphones to be wirelessly paired to two Bluetooth sources at once. So if you’re listening to music streaming from a laptop, say, you can still be connected to your smartphone and take a call without any fuss. And call quality is improved, as the XM4 uses five on-board mics for additional clarity – Sony calls this arrangement ‘precise voice pickup’.
There are also accelerometers and a proximity sensor built into the WH-1000XM4, so music now pauses automatically when the headphones are removed. Sony’s making a remarkably big deal of this, given that most competing designs have included this feature for yonks. ‘Speak to chat’ is a more novel addition: once activated in Sony’s very thorough ‘Headphones Connect’ app, ‘speak to chat’ lets the headphones pause playback (for 30 seconds) and boost incoming ambient sound when they recognise the wearer’s voice. That’s more than enough time to order a coffee or something without having to take off the XM4, which is undeniably handy. Mind you, it proves possible to activate ‘speak to chat’ simply by clearing your throat – so switching it on and deciding on its sensitivity should be done only after due consideration.
‘Adaptive sound control’ probably falls into the ‘pretty useful’ category too. Give the XM4 the necessary permissions and the headphones will sense where you are and adapt their sound accordingly. Set up your most frequently visited locations in the app, and give each a tailored sound setting – the XM4 will automatically adjust their sound profile as you move about. Unless you’re paranoid about telling your headphones you’re at the gym (or the pub) again, it’s an effective and worthwhile feature.
Although the XM3 was a thoroughly accomplished product, the quality of its active noise-cancelling technology tended to be quite high up the list of things people really admired about it. Sony has tried to improve things even further by combining its renowned QN1 noise-cancelling processor with a new Bluetooth Audio system-on-chip to adjust and apply noise-cancelling in real time depending on prevailing conditions. It does this over 700 times a second, which by anyone’s measure seems plenty.
So despite delivering a product which looks, at a glance, identical to the product it replaces, Sony’s certainly put the effort in. But one of the effects of the runaway success of the WH-1000XM3 was to galvanise competing brands into upping their game – and there’s no doubt 2020 is a tougher market-place for the WH-1000XM4 than 2018 was for the XM3. In the end, it’s the headline disciplines – sound quality, noise-cancelling and battery life – that will determine if the XM4 can be judged a success. (Spoiler alert: the WH-1000XM4 is a resounding success.)
With the ‘Headphone Connect’ app downloaded and the various set-up hoops jumped through (the app wants pictures of your ears, for example), the WH-1000XM4 pair swiftly and stably to a digital audio source. Connection is achieved using Bluetooth 5.0, so nice big hi-res FLAC files or MQA-powered Tidal Masters streams can be enjoyed intact and in full. There’s no sign of the aptX HD codec the XM3 supported, though, which seems jarringly retrograde considering it’s held up by many brands as the current pinnacle of Bluetooth technology.
Sony would rather back its own LDAC codec and there’s support for SBC, AAC and LDAC codecs, as well as 360 Reality Audio compatibility (hence the need to know what your ears look like) and the latest version of Sony’s DSEE technology. DSEE seeks to restore lossy digital audio files to something approaching their pre-compression state, and the latest implementation is called DSEE Extreme. It sounds racy, no two ways about it, and it’s fearsomely complicated – but in reality it’s slightly more use than a handbrake on a surfboard. It’s possible to turn DSEE Extreme on or off in the control app, so you’re able to judge its effectiveness (or lack thereof) for yourself.
Feed in a Tidal Masters file of David Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes, though, and you’ll be in no doubt as to the overall effectiveness of the WH-1000XM4. They’re a deeply impressive listen on every level.
At the bottom of the frequency range, the Sony sound is deep, detailed and lavishly textured. There’s enough grip and control to ensure the slapped and popped bass guitar notes stop with absolutely no overhang, but sufficient momentum to keep the rhythm on the front foot and enough extension to give the song secure foundations. At the opposite end the XM4 sounds assertive, crisp and bright – but there’s only the slightest suggestion of hardness or a lack of substance to these treble sounds. And they’re loaded with just as much detail as the low end.
In between these extremes, the midrange is nicely judged and properly balanced. The same torrential levels of detailed information are in evidence as elsewhere in the frequency range, and as a consequence the song’s vocal is loaded with character. The particulars of delivery, of intonation and vocal technique, are laid out explicitly – but this level of analysis is not at the expense of engagement. The XM4 are a spirited and musical listen, miles from the relatively dispassionate scrutiny the likes of Bose’s NC700 (just as a for-instance) indulge in.
The 40mm full-range polymer drivers are carried over from the XM3, and they integrate all of the frequency information smoothly and with no little finesse. The soundstage you’re presented with is wide, well-defined and never sounds cramped even in a recording as relatively dense as this one.
Switch to something a little less busy, like Sampha’s (No One Knows Me) Like the Piano, and the XM4 are even more impressive. The recording offers no hiding place, no opportunity for bluster – and the headphones absolutely revel in the small-scale and intimate nature of the recording. Low-level dynamics are explained just as fully as the large-scale equivalents, harmonic information is laid out in straightforward fashion. You’re never in doubt you’re getting the complete picture – and always in the most natural, unforced manner.
So as far as sound quality goes, the WH-1000XM4 needs very few excuses made for it – that top-end response is absolutely as confident as it dares be, but in every other respect the sonic balance is judicious. And the app gives the opportunity to fiddle with EQ settings, so it’s possible to make the Sony a little less treble-happy without skewing the overall balance too badly.
The XM4 is simple enough to operate when outside the app, too. There’s compatibility with the Big Three voice assistants, plus your basic ‘play/pause’, ‘volume up/down’ ‘skip forwards/backwards’ and ‘answer/end/reject call’ touch controls on the right earcup. The right earcup also has a USB-C input – battery life here is a very good 30 hours (when operating wirelessly, with noise-cancelling on). Sony reckons you can get five hours of playback time from just a 10-minute burst of charging, which is nice to know. The left earcup is home to NFC pairing, a 3.5mm input for hard-wiring, a ‘power on/off/Bluetooth pairing’ button and a ‘custom’ button. You can define the ‘custom’ function in the app.
Noise-cancelling, too, is every bit as successful here as it was in the XM3. Some of the ‘new! improved!’ noise-cancelling features could be perceived as just a bit gimmicky, but on a fundamental level the Sony is a complete success. External noise is suppressed pretty much entirely, leaving you free to enjoy music without the drone of vehicles or people impacting on your fun. The ability to fine-tune the level of noise-cancelling and ambient sound intrusion to suit your environment is clever, and will doubtless be of value to some users – but most people will almost certainly end up finding a level you like and sticking with it.
All of which means the WH-1000XM4 covers off the true essentials of sound quality, battery life and noise-cancelling in unrivalled style. It still sounds not just great but downright glorious, exceptional even; it goes just a little longer and no competitor is more intelligent where noise-cancelling is concerned. Plus it manages to be fractionally lighter than the model it replaces, despite having added a few requested features, of which ‘speak to chat’ is particularly thoughtful and useful. There have been some concessions made to comfort, too. It’s properly made, impeccably finished and actually quite tactile.
With improvements across the board, the Sony XM4s are our new favourite headphones bar none and, most importantly of all, they’re still an absolute joy to listen to. It seems that all our headphone recommendations need updating, pronto.
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