For those that work from home or just love to block out the world with a great playlist, consider Sony’s fourth generation, award-winning and industry leading noise cancelling headphones: the WH-1000XM4 (XM4). On the outside, the XM4’s look like its predecessor (WH-1000XM3), but keeps its crown as king of noise cancelling and brings updates with it.
The Sony WH-1000XM4’s have a clean and minimal profile with bulky ear-cups. Mine have a matte black finish that makes the plastic build look like a smooth clay molding. The headphone band is wrapped in a small strip of firm pleather. The ear pads have the same pleather with a more plush feel. On the outside, these headphones look underwhelming and simple. However, there’s powerful technology tucked away within the swiveling ear-cups.
Two microphones on the top of each ear-cup capture background noise and an integrated noise cancelling processor (QN1) applies noise cancellation in real time. The processor works with a Bluetooth Audio SOC to adjust music and noise signals over 700 times per second. According to Sony, this processor has approximately four times greater signal processing performance than before.
The left ear-cup is home to a power button, customizable button, and 3.5mm headphone jack. The right ear cup is the only ear-cup with a touch sensitive panel (which can be turned off) and has a USB-C charging port on the bottom. The panel could use a few small changes. To start, Sony could reduce the number of swipes it takes to adjust the volume. So many swipes are required that I often accidentally switch tracks when trying to lower the volume. Once in a while, the sensors won’t register any touches. For headphones this expensive, I wouldn’t expect to experience these issues.
The XM4’s feel pretty light on your head, despite all the bulk. Sony also includes a simple, but sturdy carrying case to protect the XM4s on the go.
Noise Canceling Features
The XM4s features take advantage of a built-in proximity sensor and two acceleration sensors to tailor its noise canceling power to your needs in real-time. For example, when you take off the XM4s while listening to something they automatically pause what you’re listening to. Here are four more features that show off the XM4s power. FYI, they require the Sony Headphones app to enable or customize.
Placing your hand over the right ear-cup activates ambient sound to adjust the level of noise cancellation. On the highest setting, you can hear voices closer to what you’d hear without the headphones. On the lowest setting, voices sound muffled and suppressed.
To be clear, this isn’t a volume adjustment. Background noise will either sound clear or muffled, which is a great introduction to the power of the noise cancellation on these headphones.
Noise Canceling & Atmospheric Pressure Optimizing
The personal noise cancelling optimizer tailors the noise cancellation to your ears and face profile. Using the Sony headphone’s app, it analyzes your face shape, hair and glasses (if you wear them) to optimize performance. While a neat feature, if you change your hair style a lot you’ll need to rerun the optimizer every time, which can get irritating.
If you fly a lot, the atmospheric pressure optimizer is a treat. Using the built-in sensors, it adapts how noise cancelling is applied at high altitudes to help block out the sound of a plane’s engines. Unfortunately, I am not flying at this time, so I can’t test this feature.
Speak-to-chat is one way to automatically pause the headphones when you want to talk to someone. There’s a 1-2 second delay between when you speak and the music pauses. You can set this feature to continuing playing your music after 15, 30 and 60 seconds or disable automatic playback. Impressively, speak-to-chat won’t turn on unless it hears your voice. However, check the timeout settings to ensure it doesn’t resume playing music in the middle of a long-winded sentence by someone else.
360 Reality Audio
360 reality audio isn’t a noise cancelling feature. It’s closer to a sound profile the headphones offer through Tidal‘s HiFi plan at $19.99 a month. The goal is to make you feel like you’re listening to music in a professional studio. There’s better clarity in the mids and highs and the artist’s voice sounds layered rather than flat. Unfortunately, this isn’t how all 360 reality audio songs. Some songs, like Giveon’s Last Time featuring Snoh Aalegra, sounds the same whether you’re listening to it in 360 reality audio or master quality.
Two smaller, but useful features of note are support for connecting two devices via Bluetooth and support for a range of Bluetooth codecs, including LDAC, for high quality audio.
As soon as you put the XM4s over your ears the world disappears. And that’s before you turn them on. Noise cancellation is powerful on the XM4s, almost to a fault. It’s a little scary wearing these in public or even alone in your house. For your safety, I don’t recommend using these headphones much in public or in the rain; noise cancellation is that good, but these headphones aren’t water resistant.
Background noises like movement, the wind, or busy streets are muted at just 50% volume. You can still hear voices, but it’s hard to make out what anyone is saying over your music. At full volume you won’t hear God. One time, my brother had to bang on my front door to get my attention while listening to music at 70% volume. The hype around how well the XM4’s cancels noise is well earned!
Audio quality is impressive, though audiophiles will find some flaws. The lows are heavy and full, but it’s also easy for highs and mids to get lost, muting background adlibs. I often found myself wishing for more clarity in the highs.
Bluetooth connectivity is impressive on the XM4s. At my local grocery store, my brother walked 50-60ft away with the XM4’s and they didn’t skip a beat. We were so impressed, we tried it again at a local coffee store. I went inside with my phone, while my brother stayed in the truck with the XM4s. Again, it kept a flawless connection.
I’ve only had two issues with Bluetooth. Sometimes my music will play on my phone despite reconnecting to the XM4s. Second, they will cut off if you try using them too close to the timeout period.
Sony claims the XM4’s can last for 31 hours. If this sounds suspect, I can assure you it’s true. The XM4s really can last this long without disabling the features that make them so great. It often takes 3-4 hours of playback before I notice the battery drop even 1%. After 5 hours, the battery power is around 80%. Using the app equalizer and DSEE Extreme features quickly drains the battery. I experienced a 10% drop within an hour of use and the Sony app warns you that these features consume a lot of battery power.
It took me a full week to kill the battery, averaging 5 hours of use a day. That’s longer than any headphones — or any technology — I’ve ever used!
Quality Noise Canceling
There’s no denying the Sony XM4’s powerful noise cancellation. Aside from the glitches in the gesture panel, the features of the XM4 makes it easy to adjust the power of the headphones to your environment at any time. They also sound great and fit comfortably on your head for hours. The most important question is: are they worth $350? No, but they are worth a pretty penny. Waiting for a sale to grab them for less than $300 is a much better deal.