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The long-awaited king of headphones have been updated…and the world said, “meh.”
Don’t get me wrong—I love these headphones, and I’ll lead with that. But I’ll also lead with, if you are familiar with Sony’s WH-1000XM3 noise-canceling headphones, virtually nothing here will be surprising. From the XM3s, easily my favorite noise-canceling over-ear headphones of the last year, there are minor performance updates in the release of the XM4…more than anything else, there is a feature bump. Still, these are simply one of the best overall headphones you can buy right now.
Keep in mind this is NOT going to be a point-by-point comparison between the XM3 and XM4…but the two devices are so similar, in some ways, it’s easier to point out those differences instead of rehash the whole thing. If you want a more in-depth view of the Sony WH-1000XM3, take a look at this review I did in 2018 before reading further.
First, the packaging: this is the premium experience you’d expect at a $350 price tag…simple, clean, and fast to get in and get your hands on the product. The product (by the way) is contained within a hardshell case which is nearly identical to the previous generation, and in that sense the suspense of getting into the box gets stretched on a bit further. Opening the case, you’re presented with the XM4 headphones folded neatly inside.
The materials between the XM3 and XM4 are also nearly identical—soft touch cushions on the ears and crowns and a largely plastic body; the difference (I think) is in the texturing of the plastic on the back of the ear cups, which appears to be slightly more textured than the XM3. It’s possible that the difference is actually between the black and silver options, as my XM3 headphones are the former. This texture reminds me in some ways of Sony’s less premium headphones, but the execution on the XM4s is great. I opted this time around for the silver finish, which looks clean, minimalist and elegant. The hinges for folding in the ear cups are smooth and not too loose, and the sliding mechanism for size adjustment is the same plastic/metal combo from the previous generation.
The ear cups fold inward and fit snugly into the hardshell case for transportation and protection, and there are a couple of additional cables provided that also have a place in the case. When the headphones are worn around the neck, the cups fold downward, which I prefer over the alternative. The cushions themselves don’t appear to be easily removable or replaceable.
These headphones can be used wired, wireless, or both—for instance, I could wire them through an external microphone as monitors while also powering them on and taking advantage of the noise-cancelling. When wired and not powered, they can be used without impact to the battery. The XM4s come with Bluetooth 5 and have an incredibly long range; through my testing I could cover all areas of my house (from basement to second floor) without signal degradation even though the device connected was in my second floor office.
The onboard microphones are great, just like they are on the XM3s. In fact, there may be some slight improvement in performance here, but only in their ability to reduce background noise—not necessarily to pick up spoken word more cleanly. This does have a positive impact, of course, but if you are in a relatively quiet environment, these will be a great addition to your collection; I’ve been using them regularly for phone calls and web conferences without many complaints from the folks on the other end.
The buttons on the XM4’s have also been slightly modified; the ‘NC/AMBIENT’ button on the XM3 is now referred to as the ‘CUSTOM’ button but still serves effectively the same function; this button can also be mapped to activate Alexa or the Google Assistant, although strangely not Siri which can be activated with a long press on the right ear cup instead. The gestures, similarly, mirror that of the XM3, although I found the touch sensors on the XM4 to be noticeably better than the XM3 at picking up intentional gestures and ignoring the less intentional ones. For instance, while wearing the XM3 headphones and stretching with my arms above my head, I sometimes accidentally pause my content or activate the hear-through feature as a result of proximity to the ear cups. But, I’ll cover gestures and features a bit more later in the review.
From a performance perspective, and specifically focusing on noise-canceling, I found no significant differences between the XM4 and the XM3. In fact—this might be the most boring part of these headphones: when it comes to sound performance, nothing really changes when compared to the prior generation. Perhaps this is because Sony used the same QN1 chip, or perhaps it’s because the previous generation already had really really good sound quality, so significant improvements are unlikely anyway. The default profile for the XM4s seems less bass-heavy than the XM3, which of course can be tuned, but the overall soundstage and performance at all frequencies is nothing short of great. I do think the XM4 headphones are a little bit louder, but otherwise, it’s a very familiar experience for me.
There are some additional features that Sony included this time around that are worth mentioning. While the gestures remain unchanged (swipe up/down on the right ear cup for volume, forward/back for track selection, double tap for play/pause/answer/hang up), a new sensor has been added to the left ear cups which detects whether you’re actually wearing the headphones, and will (if selected in the app) pause your content when the headphones are removed. This is a nice addition, considering truly wireless earbuds everywhere are practically making this a standard. And while the XM3s would go into low-power mode for a long time when not in use, the XM4s (by default) will power down after 15 minutes of not being used, which helps lengthen the battery life. Other features like DSEE Extreme for upscaling lower-quality audio sources and 360 Reality Audio are neat, but only for what I feel is a small niche of users overall (360 Reality Audio is only available with a few providers right now, including Tidal, but has yet to hit the more mainstream streaming services).
The biggest update in features is the ability to pair multiple devices…and it’s about darn time. One of my biggest frustrations with the XM3 headphones was the process for changing from one device to another, but the XM4s handle this with ease. I don’t necessarily like the voice prompts upon connection, but it is good to know when you are connected to more than one device. This information is also available in the app.
Another quick mention here is the new speak-to-chat function, which takes the ‘hand over the left ear cup to pass through environmental noise’ feature to the next level. The XM4 headphones can now detect when you’re talking and, if desired, will decrease the volume and activate pass through mode so you can hear what is around you. This is a tunable feature within the app, although I didn’t find any difference in the performance when the sensitivity was adjusted; you can also indicate how long the headphones continue pass through mode before starting your music again, or you can leave that as manual.
I was really excited about this feature when I started using it because it works really well…but after a couple of days it started to get on my nerves. It would be a great feature for office users who are frequently interrupted (and expect that interruption), but less great for general media consumption. When laughing, singing along, coughing, or even whistling at lower frequencies, I could easily activate the feature. I’ve been told before that I’m dead inside, but even I can’t be that emotionless when consuming media, so eventually I disabled this feature.
The battery is fantastic, boasting 30-38 hours of life on a full charge and 5 hours of playback on a 10-minute charge. I charge these headphones so infrequently, I couldn’t tell you how often it is…and that’s a great thing. As always, your mileage will vary. A single press on the power button indicates remaining battery life, just like the XM3s.
Little needs to be said about comfort that isn’t true about the XM3 headphones…these are among the most comfortable headphones I’ve ever owned or tried, and they are even a few grams lighter than the XM3s (so we’ll call them the same… I am hopeful that the 5 gram difference I identified when weighing the XM3 and XM4 headphones wasn’t a result of moisture or oil in the XM3 ear cups that have been absorbed since I’ve owned them).
The nature of comfort when it comes to over-ear headphones is such that you should expect some heat on the ears as a result of the seal created between the ear cups and your head; if you’re already warm or uncomfortable, this can certainly exacerbate things. And while I found these to be slightly tighter than my XM3s, it’s most likely due to their newness and not a result of a design change…said another way, I expect them to loosen up over time, but there is very little (if any) jaw discomfort as a result of the pinch.
The app, also, hasn’t changed—and remains one of the best “feature rich” audio companion apps out there. It is simple to use, offers full customization of settings as well as an equalizer, and is the only means of getting firmware updates to your headphones (which you should definitely do regularly). My only real complaint about the app can be summarized with the following:
C’mon Sony, what about the iPad??
I’ve been criticized by some for giving high ratings to Sony products in the past, but it’s difficult to demerit a pair of headphones that are the defacto standard when it comes to over ear noise-canceling performance, and clearly the bar to beat. They look the part, are super comfortable for hours of use, offer a well-balanced audio experience and industry-leading noise-canceling, and are honestly everything I look for in high-end consumer headphones. Sure, there are a few features here which are questionable or a bit gimmicky, but it’s really hard to be disappointed with these headphones. In some ways, I’m reminded of that stand-up bit from Daniel Tosh:
“Money doesn’t buy happiness.” Do you live in America? ‘Cause it buys a WaveRunner. Have you ever seen a sad person on a WaveRunner? Have you? Seriously, have you? Seriously, have you? Try to frown on a WaveRunner.”Daniel Tosh
But the price—that is a tough pill to swallow, and there are plenty of budget-friendly options that, while not being the “Wave Runner” of headphones, will probably make you very happy. And that’s the key thing—those other options, they’re not the best you can get, and to some degree, you get what you pay for. Lower-cost headphones don’t always check all the boxes. At $350, and especially if you already own the XM3s, this is a hard upgrade to justify because performance is so close between the two. So, unless those couple of new features are important to you, or you don’t currently own the XM3, I might suggest sitting this one out.
In fact, the closeness of performance between these two generations of product offer an interesting opportunity…the XM3s are still being sold (in fact, before writing this review I found them for $219 on Amazon, which is incredible). But, if you want the best, you’re going to have to pay up.
For me, though, this is a marginal performance upgrade at best. It’s good the feature set was updated, but there’s nothing game-changing here. Hence, “meh.” That said, they are arguably the best high-end consumer grade headphones you can buy, and for that reason, I imagine they are going to have a place on my head for some time.