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Sony WF-1000XM4 review: Excellent earbuds, awkward fit

Image Credit: Billy Steele/Engadget

As Sony typically does with new headphone models, it made upgrades to the noise-cancelling abilities of the WF-1000XM4. More specifically, the company says its V1 Integrated Processor blocks more noise across all frequencies — from plane and vehicle rumble to human voices. In fact, Sony claims that the V1 is not more effective than the QN1e chip in the WF-1000XM3 and the WF-SP800N, but it uses less power. Combined with two noise sensor microphones on each earbud specifically designed to pick up more ambient sound and 6mm drivers built to block out more distractions, the M4s offer great noise cancelation.

It’s noticeably better than the WF-1000XM3 and would probably get higher marks if the new ear tips gave me a secure fit. In theory those should help further silence environmental noise through passive isolation. Still, these earbuds did a great job blocking constant roars like the dishwasher and a white noise machine. They also did well to quiet down loud talkers nearby. The M4 also has an Automatic Wind Noise Reduction feature to help cut down on the unwanted crackle a decent breeze can cause as it whips across the mics.

Sound quality

One thing I like about Sony’s headphones is how consistent the company is with its tuning. There’s no heavy handed bass or overly painful treble, and that continues on the WF-1000XM4. The audio profile is balanced across lows, mids and highs, offering bassy thump when a song like CHVRCHES synth-heavy “He Said She Said” demands it. When you switch to more mellow acoustic tunes like the bluegrass version of Sturgill Simpson’s “Long White Line,” that low-end blends appropriately with everything else, providing rhythm rather than distraction.

The WF-1000XM4 also has great clarity. Throughout Simpson’s Cutting Grass albums, the earbuds consistently reproduce subtle details like picking and string noise on acoustic instruments. There’s some great depth here as well, as the M4 does a solid job fooling you into thinking you’re in the room with Sturgill and his band of pickers.

Billy Steele/Engadget

Another big change from the M3 is the addition of LDAC support on the M4. LDAC is essentially Sony’s attempt at something akin to lossless audio for Bluetooth headphones. Since wireless devices don’t support lossless due to the compression required for signal transmission, Sony created a standard that improves sound quality by transmitting more data with a maximum bitrate of 990kbps. The inclusion of LDAC allows you to make the most of high-res streaming services. The WF-1000XM4 also supports DSEE Extreme upscaling where the M3 worked with DSEE HX. Sony says the former is “more accurate” due to its ability to upscale compressed music in real time. That new V1 processor helps with the computing power here, and DSEE Extreme makes a subtle, but noticeable difference.

In 2021, Sony isn’t going to introduce new flagship earbuds that don’t support 360 Reality Audio. Indeed, the company’s immersive audio format is available on the WF-1000XM4 along with a guided setup to tailor the settings to your ears. Of course, you’ll have to pay extra for a high-res streaming plan from the likes of Tidal or Amazon to unlock the proper content, but these earbuds do an admirable job with the limited 360RA library. As is typically the case, songs are slightly louder and have more presence than with “regular” streaming. It’s not quite as immersive as you might expect, but the 360RA tracks are obviously different. Whether or not they’re better is a matter of opinion, but I happen to enjoy them — when available.

Call quality

The WF-1000XM4 is equipped with what Sony calls Precise Voice Pickup technology that’s supposed to do a better job of detecting your speech. This is part of the reason why Speak-to-Chat is more responsive than on the company’s over-ear headphones. Precise Voice Pickup leverages a combo of beamforming microphones and bone-conduction sensors to improve call quality. What’s more, the M4 can switch from ANC to ambient sound during calls, so you’re not shouting at the person on the other end because you can’t hear yourself.

That all sounds good on paper, and Sony delivers. The person on the other end (who I typically test earbuds with) said I sounded clearer than usual and noticeably better than speakerphone. They also noticed that the M4 blocked background noise when I wasn’t speaking to the point they thought the call had dropped. When I was talking, the sound of the TV behind me was noticeable, but not distracting. Earbud makers typically make big promises for call performance, but for once, Sony makes good on most of its assurances.

Battery life

Sony totally overhauled its true wireless earbuds with a new design, more powerful noise cancellation, improved battery life and more. However, the choice to change to foam tips leads to an awkward fit that could be an issue for some people. The M4 is also more expensive than its predecessor, which wouldn’t be a big deal if fit wasn’t a concern.

Billy Steele/Engadget

The upgrades continue with battery life. Sony says you can expect up to eight hours on the earbuds themselves with two additional charges in the case. That’s with the ANC active. If you can survive without noise cancelling, the company says you can extend listening time by four hours on the WF-1000XM4 (12 hours just on the buds). Both figures are more than the WF-1000XM3 which clocked in at six and eight hours for ANC on and noise cancelling off respectively. During my tests where I switched between ANC and ambient sound, used voice detection to automatically pause often and let the buds sit idle at times, I managed just under the stated figure with seven and a half hours of use. I also had DSEE Extreme active, which I assume impacts battery life as well.

The WF-1000XM4 supports wireless charging with Qi-certified accessories or with an Xperia phone that offers a battery share function. There’s also a quick-charge feature that gives you an hour of use in five minutes.

The competition

As is the case with over-ear noise-cancelling headphones, Bose has made a run at Sony’s earbuds crown too. The company debuted its QuietComfort Earbuds last fall, offering powerful ANC, good audio clarity and a comfy fit. However, the buds are big and awkward, and limited touch controls and customization hinder them. Still, in terms of pure noise cancellation, I have to give a slight edge to Bose. If we’re talking about the complete package though, Sony is still on top.

If sound quality is your primary concern, Sennheiser’s Momentum True Wireless 2 is the best choice. The audio is stellar, and the company offers a solid mix of other features alongside decent ANC. There’s no wireless charging and battery life is just okay, so these are really only worth considering if you’re in pursuit of sonic perfection. Sure, there are cheaper options, but at $280, Sony has positioned the WF-1000XM4 firmly in premium territory. The best competition is similarly pricey if you’re looking for comparable performance.

Wrap-up

Sony totally overhauled its true wireless earbuds with a new design, more powerful noise cancellation, improved battery life and more. However, the choice to change to foam tips leads to an awkward fit that could be an issue for some people. The M4 is also more expensive than its predecessor, which wouldn’t be a big deal if fit wasn’t a concern.

Billy Steele/Engadget

Sony nearly did it again. The company has dominated both over-ear and true wireless product categories for the last few years. It has a knack for creating a compelling combination of sound quality, noise cancelling performance, customization and features. None of the competition comes close to what the WF-1000XM4 offers in terms of what the earbuds can do for you automatically with features like Adaptive Sound Control and Speak-to-Chat. These are almost the complete package, if only the new ear tips offered a better fit. Even the best of the three pairs included in the box never felt truly comfortable. I only found relief when I grabbed the silicone tips from the M3 instead, and most people won’t have access to those. It seems so simple, but if you mess it up, a basic thing like ear tips can nearly ruin otherwise stellar earbuds.

The WF-1000XM4 is available now in black and silver color options for $280.

All products recommended by Engadget are selected by our editorial team, independent of our parent company. Some of our stories include affiliate links. If you buy something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.


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