Sony’s headphones need no introduction. Their over-the-ear headphones rank among our favorites, and they are perennial contenders as our top pick in noise-cancelling headphones.
Translating regular headphone success into a true wireless earbud is no simple task. Yet that’s what Sony is trying to do with its flagship, the $279 WF-1000XM4. Do these true wireless headphones live up to Sony’s legacy? You bet. They are a winner by any measure.
Sony’s WF-1000XM4 come in your choice of silver or black. My review set came in the latter. The earbuds and companion charging case have a matte finish, which I found to be a nice change to the slippery, gloss finish on so many earbuds. The finish on the earbuds and case gave me confidence holding them. These earbuds a re on the large side and sport an overall oval shape, but clever design makes them seem smaller.
Under the hood, the WF-1000XM4 feature a newly designed 6mm dynamic driver. Sony says this new driver delivers a 20-percent increase in magnet volume for improved low-frequency performance. The design also improves noise cancellation in the lower frequencies.
This review is part of TechHive’s coverage of the best noise-cancelling headphones, where you’ll find reviews of the competition’s offerings, plus a buyer’s guide to the features you should consider when shopping for this type of product.
Unboxing and setup
Sony’s packaging might seem to be pedestrian on the surface. You have the earbuds, a charging case, three sets of tips, and a USB-C charging cable. Upon closer inspection, however, you’ll notice that there are no silicone tips included. Instead, all the tips are memory foam. The memory foam tips are a key part of the headphone’s design, as I’ll expand upon a bit further on.
To make the most of your WF-1000XM4 you’ll want to download Sony’s companion Headphones Connect app for iOS or Android. Pairing the WF-1000XM4 true wireless headphones with the app was a solid, hassle-free process.
Sony ensures you get the perfect fit
Among the most important items in any earbud setup is selecting the proper ear-tip size and then getting the right seal in your ear. The two aren’t the same. Sony’s unique setup process ensures you get both for optimal sound and bass by prompting you to run some tests with each earbud. The tests determine if you have the best fitting earbud size, and they ensure the earbud has a tight seal. The process gives novice users insight into how the right seal feels. I found the process to be efficient and accurate.
The end result? The WF-1000XM4 are among the best-fitting true wireless earbuds I’ve used.
The memory foam tips I mentioned earlier create a solid, confident seal in your ear and grip better than their silicone counterparts. This type of tip, however, tends to apply more pressure inside your ears than silicone tops. In my experience, memory foam tips wear out more quickly silicone ones. I suggest you have an extra set on hand, either through Sony directly or via the third-party manufacturer Comply.
The shape of the earbuds themselves is also key to achieving a tight seal. Using the increasingly common twist-and-lock technique, the Sony WF-1000XM4 fit me perfectly—including in the context of an active lifestyle. Whether the earbuds will fit your ears as comfortably as they did mine depends on several factors. I would advise those with smaller ears to pay special attention to the size and fit. Your experience might be different than mine.
Sony offers good codec support: SBC, AAC, and LDAC. AAC caters to Apple’s ecosystem and LDAC is Sony’s own high-res codec. LDAC has a maximum transfer rate of 990Kbps for streaming high-res audio. Noticeably absent, however, is any support for the competing aptX family of codecs.
You’ll need an LDAC-compatible high-res music player to take advantage of that codec’s advantages. Sony’s high-res music players typically support LDAC, as do players from brands such as Astell&Kern and Fiio. Check you’re player’s compatibility with LDAC if high-res streaming is important to you.
The WF-1000XM4 supports Bluetooth 5.2, and as you might expect, their wireless range was strong. I easily got 90 feet of strong connectivity in line-of-sight situations. That distance was less there were dense walls or obstructions between me and the source. Nevertheless, I could go up or down a floor confidently without missing a beat with music or calls. The WF-1000XM4 support multipoint connections, meaning you can pair them with two audio sources—a smartphone and a high-res digital audio player, for instance—and switch between them without needing to go through the Bluetooth reconnection process again.
There isn’t enough space to write about all the features packed into Sony’s companion Headphones Connect mobile app. It goes well beyond the basic battery-life status, activating ANC, or powering down the headphones when there’s no signal. Headphones Connect is a central command center for a rich array of features.
The app is one of the few that provides you detailed statistics about usage. You can see total time used and drill down into locations you’ve frequented, and which modes (stay, walk, run, ride) have been activated the most. You can enable/disable this tracking at any time.
Through Headphones Connect you get fine-tune control automation options for noise cancellation and transparency. You can set different settings for sitting, walking, running, and transportation (train, car, and so on) with Sony’s adaptive sound control. Furthermore, you have granular control over how strong you want transparency to be.
And, if you enable location services, you can even set specific noise-cancelling or transparency settings for geographic locations you frequent. Do you want full noise cancelling engaged when you visit your favorite coffee shop? You can do that. Want transparency engaged when you’re home or at the library? You can do that, too. The app makes an already strong product smarter. We should all be reticent about sharing our personal data with companies; thankfully, you have the option to enable/disable these location services at any time.
If you want to take advantage of spatial audio and Sony’s 360 Reality Audio, the app will help you get those apps set up and take a photo of your ears to further optimize the experience. Given all these customization options, it’s important that Sony provides the option to back everything up, so you never need to repeat the process should something happen to your headphones and you need to replace them.
I could go on and on. Hands down, Headphones connect is the best companion mobile app I’ve reviewed to date.
Broad voice assistant support
The WF-1000XM4 support the big three voice assistants, and I didn’t have a single hiccup using the WF-1000XM4 with Siri on my iPhone 12 Pro.
Through the Headphones Connect app, you specify if you want to use the voice assistant on the mobile device or force the use of Google or Alexa. This is a neat feature for those who have a preference to one ecosystem over the other. With Google and Alexa, you’ll gain hands-free control of features such as noise cancelling.
I should also note that the Sony The WF-1000XM4 support Google’s Fast Pair feature, which simplifies Bluetooth pairing with Android devices with a single tap. You can also locate where you left the WF-1000XM4 headphones by ringing them or checking their last known location on your smartphone. You’ll even receive a notification when your headphones battery is running low, so you know when to charge them.
A major strength and an inexcusable flaw with phone calls
I found the WF-1000XM4 to rank with the best earbuds I’ve tested with phone clarity. Sony says the WF-1000XM4 sport a bone-conduction sensor that picks up vibrations from your voice while rejecting ambient sounds, for clearer speech when making calls. Whatever the tech may be, all I know is that it worked very well.
During one testing period, I made a series of phone calls outdoors in extremely windy conditions. Not once did any of the individuals on the other end of the call ask me to repeat myself or indicate that they had trouble hearing me. In fact, at one point I asked if they could hear the wind blowing and they said no, they didn’t notice.
As good an experience as I had with phone calls, it wasn’t perfect. There was one maddening exception: If you have adaptive noise cancelling enabled and the headphones switch from transparency to noise cancelling while you’re on a phone call, you’ll lose a brief part of the conversation as the headphone dings to let you know that it’s changing modes and then fades the audio in and out during that transition. Your best bet is to turn off Adaptive Sound Control and force the headphones to stay in one specific mode—active noise cancelling or transparency mode, for example.
Sony needs to add phone calls as an additional option for its Adaptive Sound Control, so you can set specific settings for phone calls. I strongly recommend that Sony issue a firmware update that changes the default behavior on the earbuds for phone calls.
Battery life and water resistance
The WF-1000XM4 are a road warrior’s best friend, with the earbuds delivering 8 hours from the earbuds and the case providing 16 hours more. That’s a promised 24 hours of battery life with ANC enabled. The rating increases to 12 hours with noise cancelling turned off, and it drops slightly to 5.5 hours with continuous phone use with noise cancelling on. Quick charging ensures that a 5-minute charge will give you 60 minutes of use.
I found battery life on the Sony WF-1000XM4 to be reliable. In real-world use, I never ran into a situation where I was worried about running out of juice. In fact, I took the headphones with me on a cross-country flight and after almost 6 hours of use with ANC on, the Sony earbuds still had almost 30 percent of battery life left.
If you plan to use the earbuds in active lifestyle environments, you’ll be happy to know that they are IPX4 rated, which means they won’t have a problem with sweat, drizzle, or splashing water.
Tops in noise cancelling
Sony’s onboard noise cancelling technology is the best I’ve experienced in a true wireless earbud. It’s superb. In-flight, I found that the Sony offered the best noise cancelling among the four brands of headphones I brought with me. Including memory foam ear tips is a key part of that experience, as they block out a good amount of sound by default. Nevertheless, Sony touts the inclusion of its integrated V1 processor as a key component of the WF-1000XM4’s noise-cancelling performance.
As I’ve noted in my prior reviews of Sony’s over-the-ear ANC headphones, my favorite part is Sony’s adaptive noise cancelling implementation. It’s intelligent and effective enough to kick from noise cancelling to transparency mode whenever I started talking. But here’s the most impressive thing: Transparency mode kicked in if I would utter something as simply as “aha” or “hmm,” but would not engage if I cleared my throat or coughed. Through the companion app, I could fine-tune the sensitivity. I got so easily accustomed to the cadence that if I wanted to engage transparency to listen to an external announcement, I needed only to utter a simple sound and voila! I could accomplish the same feat by pressing the left earbud, but why lift a finger when you can perform the same task with a simple vocal inflection?
Sony’s adaptive noise cancelling isn’t prescient, but the only time I noticed an annoying problem was on a train or subway. At times, ANC would engage if I tilted or turned my head without speaking. Save that one minor foible, the feature is the best of any true wireless earbud I’ve ever used.
I performed my WF-1000XM4 listening tests with my iPhone 12 Pro and a Fiio M9 high-res digital music player. I used Sony’s LDAC codec with the M9 and AAC with the iPhone. I used the subscription music-streaming services Apple Music and Tidal, plus Roon (connecting to my Nucleus server).
Sony’s sonic signature is as strong as its prowess in other areas. The WF-1000XM4 will satisfy both audiophiles and casual listeners. They deliver a strong, dimensional soundstage and, if you play immersive audio tracks, you’ll get a minor sensation of some additional dimensionality.
Clean bass is a strength of the WF-1000XM4. Bass lines on Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy,” Imagine Dragons’ “Believer” and “Thunder”, Lorde’s “Royals,” and Adele’s “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” were tight and pistonic. Bass lines pulsated with authority and stopped on a dime with no hint of bloat or difficulty. The Sony WF-1000XM4 rendered bass lines with texture and dimensionality. It didn’t matter the genre or song: the Sony earbuds passed whatever test I threw at them.
Midrange reproduction was equally excellent, warm and intimate. Male and female vocalists came through clearly with good timbral accuracy. I reveled in all the songs of my go-to female vocalists, including Adele, Alicia Keys, Holly Cole, Natalie Merchant, Sarah McLachlan, and P!nk, to name just a few.
What about movies or streaming shows? Have no fear, the WF-1000XM4 commands them all. If I played movies or streamed other media content, dialogue was consistently intelligible and clear.
Allow me to pay Sony one of the best possible compliments. I was reviewing several true wireless headphones during this time, and I have even more in my collection for comparison. I found myself consistently gravitating towards the WF-1000XM4 as my go-to for casual, critical, or just about any listening. Their solid technology delivered a confident, enjoyable, experience and their sound was continually alluring and preferred.
Wrapping up our Sony WF-1000XM4 review
Sony’s WF-1000XM4 are superb in-ear headphones. Their active and adaptive noise-cancelling technology leads the category; their onboard tech is well thought out, practical, and unparalleled; their fit is secure; battery life is strong; they sound great; and they are stellar at phone calls.
If I had to pick just one pair of true wireless earbuds for music, noise cancelling, advanced features, and phone calls, Sony’s WF-1000XM4 would be it.
These are the best overall true wireless earbuds I’ve ever tested. And while the WF-1000XM4 won’t be ideal for everyone, they certainly rank among the most complete and mature true wireless headphones on the market today.
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