Sony on Tuesday announced its latest pair of noise-canceling wireless earbuds, the WF-1000XM4.
This is the follow-up to the also-awkwardly-named WF-1000XM3 earbuds that Sony launched in 2019. Like that pair, the XM4 is aimed squarely at the premium end of the burgeoning true wireless market, with a loaded feature set packed into their diminutive frame.
Given that market, the XM4 is expensive: the earbuds are available to order today for $279.99. That puts them in line with competitors like the $279 Bose QuietComfort Earbuds but above other premium noise-canceling pairs like the $249 Apple AirPods Pro or $230 Jabra Elite 85t. For reference, the XM3 launched for $230.
A new design
That said, I’ve been able to test the XM4 for a couple days ahead of Tuesday’s announcement, and the earbuds do come with several notable upgrades over their predecessor. For one, they’re physically more compact, ditching the XM3’s elongated earpieces and glossy touch control panels for a more traditionally rounded design with touch control fields seamlessly baked in.
While these aren’t the smallest pair of true wireless earbuds I’ve used, my immediate impression is that they provide a more comfortable fit than the previous model. Sony pegs the XM4 as 10 percent smaller than the XM3, and the better weight distribution has kept the earpieces more stable as I’ve moved around. This stability is aided by the foam ear tips that come included with the XM4 by default; they are soft but sit snugly in the ear canal and create an impressively tight seal. There is no option for silicone tips as with the XM3, however.
Also more convenient is the XM4’s charging case, which Sony says is 40 percent smaller than that of the XM3. It’s still a bit fatter than the AirPods Pro’s case but only slightly larger lengthwise. It shouldn’t have much trouble fitting into most pockets, purses, or handbags. The case itself still charges over USB-C but now supports Qi wireless charging as well. Sony says it will provide 16 hours of battery at full charge and that a five-minute charge can return about an hour of playback time.
In general, Sony rates the XM4’s battery life at eight hours per charge with active noise cancellation and 12 hours per charge without. That’s up from the six- and eight-hour ratings, respectively, of the XM3. If true, this would be an impressive figure for a noise-canceling pair with this form factor, though I haven’t been able to test the earbuds long enough to confirm Sony’s estimates. As usual, exact battery life will depend on how hard you push the volume.
Promising noise cancellation
Sony’s primary selling point for these earbuds is still active noise cancellation (ANC). The company has fitted the XM4 with a new chip dubbed the “Integrated Processor V1,” which, combined with hardware improvements and a pair of “noise sensing” microphones on each earpiece, is said to improve noise-canceling performance across frequencies.
Again, this isn’t a full review, but after preliminary testing, my first impressions of the XM4’s noise-canceling performance are positive. The earbuds were able to substantially smother the low-end hum of a nearby air conditioner, effectively matching the performance of Apple’s AirPods Pro, the ANC of which we’ve commended in the past. Sony’s earbuds outperformed Apple’s pair when tasked with higher-pitched tones like voices; in one example, they made it virtually impossible to hear my partner despite us conversing from a couple of feet away. There’s virtually no background hissing while the ANC is active, which is impressive, nor is there any major adverse effect on sound quality.
A big part of this noise cancellation comes down to the seal I achieved; those who cannot find as snug a fit will hear more sound seeping through. I did most of my listening with music playing at low-to-moderate volumes as well; with the music off, the outside world will sound muffled but still audible, as with any other ANC headphone. You’ll still hear particularly loud sounds like a rumbling bus or moving subway cart if you’re standing right next to them. Nevertheless, Sony’s over-ear WH-1000XM4 provides some of the strongest noise canceling I’ve heard among full-size headphones, and there’s at least reason to think the WF-1000XM4 could fulfill a similar role for the in-ear side of the market.
You can’t customize the exact strength of the XM4’s ANC effect à la Bose’s Noise Cancelling Headphones 700—when it’s activated, it’s always at full blast. But Sony still offers a transparency mode, here called “Ambient Sound Control,” that blends outside noise with whatever you’re playing, just in case you want to be more aware of your surroundings. This feature works on a 20-step scale, letting in less external sound the lower you go. It’s also effective, finding a good balance between keeping your audio front and center without making the ambient noise that it lets through sound overly modulated. Alternatively, you can listen with both ANC and Ambient Sound Control turned off entirely.
More features of note
Beyond that, the in-ear XM4 includes a number of features we’ve seen in other recent Sony headphones. One highlight is “Speak to Chat,” which automatically pauses your music when the earphones detect you’ve started talking to somebody. This feature is turned off in Sony’s companion app by default, and you can customize how long the pause lasts before resuming playback. Another system, called “Quick Attention,” works similarly, letting you hold down one earbud’s touch panel to momentarily lower the volume and facilitate a quick conversation.
A proximity sensor built into the earbuds lets them automatically pause playback when removed from your ears and then automatically resume when put back in. The “Adaptive Sound Control” feature of the over-ear XM4, which allows you to program different audio settings that will activate based on your current location and activity level (sitting, walking, running, or commuting), is here. So is native support for Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa. An “Automatic Wind Noise Reduction” mode automatically compensates for unpleasant feedback generated by gusty conditions.
There are no physical controls on the XM4. The touch panels on each earpiece have given me few issues when it comes to controlling playback, adjusting volume, and swapping between ANC and ambient sound modes. The main downside is that you can only apply one set of controls to each earpiece—if you set the right earbud to handle volume control and the left to handle playback control, for example, you’ll have to open up the Sony’s companion app any time you want to swap between the XM4’s noise canceling and ambient sound modes. Apart from that, Sony’s decision to map volume controls to tapping or holding down a touch panel is less intuitive than simply having you swipe up or down.
On the hardware side, the earbuds are now IPX4 rated, making them a feasible option for workouts. They connect over Bluetooth 5.2 and support both Google Fast Pair and Microsoft Swift Pair for quicker pairing with Android and Windows 10 devices. I’ve had no significant problems with connection quality thus far with an iPhone 12 Mini, and while there are no AirPods-style fast pairing tricks for iOS, my phone has immediately recognized the XM4 every time after the initial pairing process. You cannot connect to multiple devices simultaneously, however. Sony says it has improved microphone clarity during calls with the XM4, too, though I have not been able to give this significant testing just yet.
Audio quality impressions
Sony is also promising improved sound quality over the XM3. Part of this is technical: the XM4 now supports Sony’s high-end LDAC Bluetooth codec alongside the more common SBC and AAC. (Like other recent Sony headphones, the XM4 does not support Qualcomm’s aptX or aptX HD.) LDAC’s high maximum bitrate of 990 kbps can allow for more richly detailed audio than other codecs, but it requires an optimal connection to work as intended, and the only major OS to support it is Android. As with the over-ear XM4, Sony says the new earbuds use Sony’s “DSEE Extreme” audio upscaling software, as well as its “360 Reality Audio” spatial audio tech with a limited number of streaming services.
When it comes to sound quality, though, a headphone’s design and tuning are more important than features like those. In this case, the XM4 has a punchy sound with impactful bass and a boost to the lower midrange. Compared head-to-head, the AirPods Pro have a more neutral and balanced profile with a greater sense of space; this is particularly the case in the treble range, which the XM4 tends to underemphasize by default. That doesn’t mean the XM4 sounds bad, though. Its low-end doesn’t sound muddy or overblown; it’s just in-your-face, which many may enjoy with hip-hop, pop, and certain rock tracks that welcome that oomph.
If you don’t like the default sound, however, Sony’s companion app has an EQ tool that lets you adjust the XM4’s profile to your liking. You can choose from several presets (“bright,” “excited,” “speech,” etc.) or customize the EQ yourself, a feature we greatly appreciated from the over-ear XM4 and one that can have a significant effect here.
All told, the XM4’s high price will make it a tough sell for most mainstream shoppers, but the earbuds could be worth a look for those prioritizing high-end noise cancellation in a true wireless form factor. It could hold particular appeal to Android users, since the established leader in this category, Apple’s AirPods Pro, is more tailored to iOS than Google’s platform.
Notably, Sony says it will not discontinue the older XM3 with the XM4’s launch; instead, the last-gen model, which can often be found on sale for less than $200 these days, will stay on the market, at least for the time being.
Listing image by Jeff Dunn