Sony wireless headphones: sum of all its parts puts it ahead of the competition

Sony WF-1000XM4 offer good battery life, with excellent ANC performance and call quality
Sony wireless headphones: sum of all its parts puts it ahead of the competition

Sony WF-1000XM4 wireless earphones with active noise cancellation. Pic: Noel Campion.

As the year starts closing to an end, I finally got the opportunity to test the highly popular Sony WF-1000XM4 wireless earphones. They were released during the summer and have been highly rated by many so I’ve been looking forward to putting them through their paces.

Design

Sony WF-1000XM4 with a 40% smaller case over the previous WF-1000XM3. Pic Noel Campion.
Sony WF-1000XM4 with a 40% smaller case over the previous WF-1000XM3. Pic Noel Campion.

The Sony WF-10000XM3 had a massive case but the XM4 has a case that is 40% smaller. This isn’t to say it’s small but far more pocketable while still offering the option to charge it wirelessly as well as via the USB-C port on the back.

The case has a matte finish that doesn't show up fingerprints easily. However, the case doesn’t have the same build quality as other top-range offerings from Apple, Sennheiser or Klipsch. The hinge mechanism was a little loose on my review unit and the overall fit and finish aren’t as good as I was expecting.

The earbuds themselves look great although they’re a little large, despite being 10% smaller than the XM3 and stick out from my ears more than I’d like. Despite this, they feel comfortable and light.

Features

Sony WF-1000XM4 provide up to 24-hours of playback including the case. Pic: Noel Campion.
Sony WF-1000XM4 provide up to 24-hours of playback including the case. Pic: Noel Campion.

WF-1000XM4 feature the latest Bluetooth 5.2 and audio codec support for SBC, AAC and LDAC codecs. The latter allows for higher streaming from your device and in theory, better sound quality. Of course, you will need a hi-res music source like Qobuz, Tidal or Apple Music to take advantage of it. You’ll also need a smartphone that supports LDAC and not all android phones do while iPhones only support SBC and AAC.

On-board the XM4 is Sony’s custom V1 chip to process the sound and other features including DSEE Extreme (Digital Sound Enhancement Engine) which upscales compressed digital music files in real-time. Delivering the sound is a set of 6mm full-range dynamic drivers with high power neodymium magnets.

Sony WF-1000XM4. Pic: Noel Campion.
Sony WF-1000XM4. Pic: Noel Campion.

Each earbud has three mics that provide excellent call quality. They’re also used to pick up your voice while evoking your voice assistant of choice as well as active noise-cancellation duties.

Sony has integrated feed-forward and feed-back microphones to capture your speech in a directed manner, with a bone-conduction sensor registering the sound as vibration as well.

You also get the ‘speak to chat’ feature which will pause your music when it detects you speaking. This is a feature that comes in handy when you’re out and need to interact with someone to ask a question or answer one. Clever stuff indeed but I found it a little annoying at times and couldn’t decide on whether to leave it on or off.

Sony WF-1000XM4. Pic: Noel Campion.
Sony WF-1000XM4. Pic: Noel Campion.

The WF-1000XM4 support Google’s Fast Pair feature that enables quick, effortless Bluetooth pairing with your Android devices. You can easily locate where you left your 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 (below 30%) so you know when to charge them.

While the WF-1000XM4 will work with iPhones, but you don’t get support for LDAC or Google Fast Pair technology.

Touch controls

Sony WF-1000XM4 with best in class touch controls. Pic: Sony.
Sony WF-1000XM4 with best in class touch controls. Pic: Sony.

You can control everything from your phone but the XM4 also employ class-leading touch controls. Even cheap earphones have touch controls but only the best can achieve a level of sophistication that makes them easy to use. They work well and work as they should 99% of the time. You can do everything from control the volume to play controls as well as summon Google/Siri. You can also toggle between the different sound modes including ANC on/off and adaptive sound.

Software

The Sony Headphone app continues to improve and mature with each new update. From within the app, you can update the firmware (impressively, nearly six months after launch there are still new firmware updates being released), customise the controls and pick from a selection of EQ presets or create your own custom set.

The WF-1000XM4 support 360 Reality Audio and the app can analyse your ears to sculpt the sound to your ear shape. During the analysis, it will ask you to take photos of your ears and to remove earrings and piercings to ensure an accurate result. Once it’s complete, it will recommend streaming services that support 360 audio including Tidal and Deezer, so you’re out of luck if you use Spotify or Qobuz. While 360 audio can sound good, the number of tracks is small.

ANC and sound quality

The over-ear Sony WH-1000XM4 offer exceptional ANC and is one of the best that I’ve tested. While the WF-1000XM4 can’t match the latter in part due to the form factor, they do provide impressive active noise cancellation. This is partly due to the wizardry of the V1 chip but also the new polyurethane foam material earbud tips that provide outstanding passive noise isolation. The tight seal also enhances the sound quality and especially the bass response. The ANC is excellent and easily one of the best that I’ve tested.

Sony WF-1000XM4. Pic: Noel Campion.
Sony WF-1000XM4. Pic: Noel Campion.

The WF-1000XM4 sound fabulous. After reviewing over 30 headphones this year alone, I can say these are one of the most enjoyable. This isn’t to say they’re the best for pure analytical sound quality but for the type of music I like to listen to, they’re excellent. Of course, to get the most from the LDAC codec you’ll need a hi-res streaming platform. I use Qobuz Studio and there’s a notable improvement over standard non-hi-res streams.

Sony WF-1000XM4. Pic: Sony.
Sony WF-1000XM4. Pic: Sony.

The sound signature is bright, balanced and smooth making for a pleasing sound for the majority of listeners. The imaging is detailed with good instrument separation.

I really like the bass which isn’t overpowering for the sake of it but rather true to the recording. It still manages to pack a punch while listening to bass-heavy tracks but is equally subtle on quieter tracks.

Battery

The buds are good for up to eight hours of playback with ANC on and up to 24-hours when you include the case. A five-minute quick charge gives you up to 60 minutes of playtime.

Verdict

While I think the sound quality from the likes of the Sennheiser Momentum 2s or Grado GT220s is slightly better, the WF-1000XM4 are more enjoyable. They offer good battery life, excellent ANC performance and call quality. Where the Sony ones win against the competition is the sum of all its parts. 

On balance, the excellent app support, continued firmware upgrades and while not cheap, they offer value for money making them a good choice for most people.

Sony WF-1000XM4 RRP €289 and is currently on offer for €239 for Black Friday weekend.

More in this section

The Business Hub
Newsletter

News and analysis on business, money and jobs from Munster and beyond by our expert team of business writers.

Sign up
Lunchtime
News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up
Revoiced
Newsletter

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from irishexaminer.com, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up