Fantastic noise canceling
Next-gen battery life
No viable solution for volume control
Missing some key features
About the Sony WF-1000XM4
- Price: $280
- Battery life: 8 hours with noise-canceling, up to 12 hours without, two full case recharges
- Rapid charging: 5 minutes for up to an hour of playback
- Wireless charging: yes, Qi compatible case
- Colors: Black, White
- Connectivity: Bluetooth 5.2
- Sensors: In-ear detection/auto-pause
- Audio codecs: SBC, AAC, LDAC
- Dust/water resistance: IPX4
- Fit: 3 foam ear tip sizes
- Weight: 7.4 grams per earbud, approx. 40-gram charging case
Sony claims the XM4 were redesigned from top to bottom, including a new look, new 6mm drivers, and a new integrated processor called the V1 which assists in both sound performance and active noise canceling. The company has also loaded the buds with its new DSEE Extreme “sound engine” designed to expand the soundstage for clarity and spacing.
As we’ve begun to see with other brands, the packaging is also incredibly minimalist, using recyclable materials and packing the slimmed-down case into a tiny box. Inside the box you’ll get an adorable packet loaded with multi-lingual instructions, two spare pairs of foam ear tips, and an ultra-small USB-C-to-USB-A charging cable.
What we like
A slimmer, more ergonomic design
Outside of Sony’s PR hype, the new design is enough for anyone used to the XM3 to see this is a new ballgame. The XM4 trade the flip-tab design for a more traditional buds look, along with those odd little C-3PO extensions in copper that are, presumably, microphone inputs. Surprisingly, the buds’ 7.4-gram weight per side is only a gram less than Bose’s beefy QuietComfort Earbuds, matching with Jabra’s top noise cancelers, the Elite 85t. It’s a couple grams more than Apple’s AirPods Pro, but it wears well.
The buds stick out a bit from your ears, but not exceedingly so, and overall they’re quite comfortable, only grading on my ears after several hours (which is the case with pretty much any autonomous buds). Part of the secret is the new foam ear tips, which make a weird squeaking noise when I put them in, but adjust like earplugs for a sealed fit. It’s a different take than Jabra or Apple’s top buds, which are designed for a semi-open fit, but I don’t mind the closed-up feeling, especially since it’s so effective at sealing music in and noises out. With only three sizes, those with smaller ears may have trouble with fit, but the small size worked quite well for me.
The case’s redesign is just as notable as the new buds. It’s slimmer, and much easier to put in your pocket (a near must in 2021). Though it’s made of light plastic, its matte exterior feels luxuriant. The lid sits on a double hinge that offers a tight snap, and the buds slip onto the powerful magnets with expediency that lets you know they’re charging properly. An LED bar on the front relays charging status in traffic-light colors.
Sony may not have outright said so, but it’s clear the XM4 are designed to knock Bose’s Quietcomfort off their spot as the best noise-canceling buds. They have the same hefty $280 price tag, both are elegantly finished (though Sony’s are much nimbler) and both sport unique ear tips aimed to provide stout passive noise isolation to go with their noise-canceling tech. So the question is, how does Sony’s new ANC stack up against the best?
The short answer is very well. The XM4’s noise canceling, mixed with said passive isolation, is voraciously powerful. On my first outing it was immediately obvious they’re among the very best I've tested, beating other top picks with good cancellation like the Jabra Elite 85t, Apple’s AirPods Pro, and lesser-known favorites like Panasonic’s affordable RZ-S500W. In other words, when it comes to top ANC earbuds, this is a two-horse race.
Crowning one requires digging deeper because, to at least some degree, which you’ll prefer depends on the frequencies you’re most interested in cutting. For example, in the “airplane test,” where I play an engine-drone YouTube video with earbud audio silenced, the Bose handily beat Sony’s pair. The XM4 still do well, besting the above pairs, but the QC buds almost totally quell the low drone, while the Sony only dull it to a low roar.
It’s not just the engines you’re trying to silence, of course, and I found Sony’s pair outmatching the Bose, if only subtly, in some higher frequencies. For instance, the box fan outside my office that brings in air from my home’s single air conditioner is better silenced by Sony’s pair. The same goes for keystrokes—with music on, they’re fully eliminated by either pair, but in silence, the Bose let a bit more of the “click” seep through, while the Sony allow almost none. Bose’s pair seemed to suffocate car sounds better on the busy street outside my home, but the Sony still turned passing vehicles of all kinds to a smooth whir with music muted.
In fact, my wife went so far as to call the XM4 “dangerous,” as she was unable to raise my attention when my dog was apparently dry heaving in the bathroom. As such, the one missing feature here is adjustable cancellation—the XM4 has one speed, while Bose’s pair offer a 10-point scale. For some, this could be the deciding factor, and I hope Sony will add this feature down the road. For sheer cancellation, though, either pair is at the top of the class, and while I'll continue testing, the differences so far are subtle enough to barely matter.
Absolutely gorgeous sound
A much easier call, at least for my ears, is audio performance. While the Bose are clear and detailed, I find their upper register to be a bit shouty at times, and less natural-sounding than I’d like. Conversely, Sony’s XM4 are absolutely superb across all frequencies. When matching their silky smooth, well-balanced sound with the stark white canvas provided by their killer noise cancellation, listening is a pure and simple joy.
Running the gamut of my thorough testing playlist, the XM4 handled everything with poise and precision, offering a smooth and accessible entrance, rich and lustrous sustain, impressive instrumental timbres and, perhaps thanks to that DSEE digital conditioning, a clean and expansive soundstage. While some may find the bass response a bit weak, there are multiple ways to adjust, including 12 presets, a bass boost, and a 5-band EQ. There’s only one pair I’d consider above the XM4 for pure sound quality, Sennheiser’s lovely Momentum True Wireless 2.
Sony’s LDAC Bluetooth codec for high-quality streaming sweetens the deal for Android users running Android 8.0 or higher (Sennheiser offers aptX), though I was somehow unable to get it to engage on my Samsung Galaxy S20. Whether it was a phone issue I can’t say, but I still thoroughly enjoyed the ride with AAC alone.
In addition, call quality was impressively clear with no audible distortion, something I encountered with Bose’s buds (though other reviewers seemed to have no trouble there). I wasn’t able to test out much wind shear in my week with the XM4, but the microphones are designed to adjust for it. I did note that the buds catch the wind a bit since they stick out, but no more than Bose's bulky pair.
Next-gen battery life
The WF-1000XM4 lasted all of their 8-hours of battery runtime with ANC engaged (including a 20-minute phone call) and that’s by far the best I’ve tested in a noise-canceller of this caliber. There are some that rise above that, such as Master and Dynamic’s MW08, but anything with comparable noise canceling right now is stuck around the 6-hour mark or less. Without ANC, Sony claims 12 hours, which is pretty striking.
I will say that, at around the 8-hour/20% mark, I started getting warnings to charge, but that also means you can potentially eke out more than the claimed amount. The only slight bummer is that there are only two extra charges in the case, but that still guarantees 24 hours of total listening with ANC and the buds charge quite quickly.
An impressive app, and plenty of features
Sony’s Headphones Connect app is thorough—some might say too thorough. It’s loaded to the brim with options that can overwhelm new users, and not all features are intuitive. For instance, you might not know there’s an easy way to switch between Off, ANC, and Ambient Sound mode, which allows you to bring in sound from your environment. That’s because you’ve got to turn on “Ambient Sound Control” first. Otherwise, tapping on the left bud only toggles between Ambient Sound and ANC.
That said, skilled users have a lot of options for adjusting audio here, from the aforementioned multi-function EQ to the 360 Reality Audio feature, which works within Sony’s studio ecosystem for specially mixed tracks on services like Tidal and Deezer. There’s even Sony’s Adaptive Sound Control, designed to learn your location patterns and adjust the Ambient Sound options accordingly, though I find it easier (and less creepy) to adjust manually.
Outside the app there are plenty of features you’d expect from top-tier buds, including single bud use (with either bud), a wireless charging case, sensors that turn audio on and off (which itself can be toggled off) and, of course, IPX4 water resistance to take on sweat and other wet situations. For traveling, the earbuds also offer their push-to-talk feature, which allows you to hold the left earbud to temporarily silence music and engage Ambient Sound.
What we don’t like
They don’t have all the features
Despite all their options, the XM4 are notably missing a few big ones. One is multipoint pairing, which we’re seeing on newer, high-quality earbuds like Jabra’s cheaper Elite 85t. It’s especially notable here since the XM4 seem tailor-made for office use, though Bose’s QC Earbuds also skip the option.
As mentioned above, it’s also surprising that there’s no way to adjust the ANC—with noise canceling this good, you may find times when you want to tone it down. On the other hand, the passive noise isolation alone may suffice in such situations.
Another big omission is any type of earbuds finder, which is all the more troubling considering the cost of replacing these bad boys. Meanwhile, Sony’s Speak to Chat is kind of a bust. It’s designed to pause music and turn on Ambient Sound for up to 15 seconds when you speak. But, as I found with Samsung’s Galaxy Buds Pro, it tends to engage any time you so much as clear your throat. In fact, the cheaper Gbuds Pro seemed to do the job better.
No independent volume control
The biggest miss, though, might be the lack of any viable way to add volume controls. They’re certainly available, and you can add them easily enough from the app. However, unlike Sennheiser’s Momentum True Wireless 2, which let you mix and match buttons, Sony’s controls are a package deal.
That means you can’t pull a command from each side to swap for volume. Want to add it on the right side? You’ve got to give up crucial commands in play/pause and song skip. Adding it on the left means giving up the toggle between ANC and Ambient Sound which, as my wife believes, is downright dangerous in some situations.
I don’t want to give up these functions, and shouldn’t have to. There are few buds at this level that force this issue in 2021, one being Apple’s aging AirPods Pro, and even they make it simpler with voice-activated Siri. Here’s hoping Sony fixes this soon.
Should you buy them?
Yes, if you want the best sound and ANC in one slick package
While one might quibble whether Sony’s new earbuds are the best noise cancelers in the business, they’re either CEO or COO. In other words, they’re large and in charge. They also offer reams of battery life, a comfy fit, a relatively slim design, and some of the best sound in the wireless genre. Even at $280, that’s a helluva package.
If you want something with better drone-sound cancellation, and/or you must have independent volume control, Bose’s QuietComfort Earbuds are also worth consideration as top-level noise cancelers. If you want to save some dough, we’d also point you to the lesser—but still effective—noise cancelers, the loaded Jabra Elite 85t. If you’re all iPhone, there’s Apple’s indomitable AirPods Pro. And, of course, Sony’s own XM3 should still be available for some time for a much-reduced price.
While there are still some firmware updates I’d like to see to improve usability, Sony’s new WF-1000XM4 bring the heat. If you want top-level noise canceling with sound quality to match, they’re a great pick.
Meet the tester
Managing Editor - Electronics@ryanwaniata
Hailing originally from Montana, Ryan parlayed his time working as a musician and audio engineer into a career in digital media in 2013. Since then he's had extensive experience as a writer and editor, including everything from op-eds and features to reviews on TVs, audio gear, smart home devices, and more.
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