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Sony WH-1000XM4 review: A nearly flawless noise-canceling headphone

The much-anticipated new version of Sony's top noise-canceling headphone has finally arrived, and it makes small improvements to an already top-notch product.

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- 09:39
9.1

Sony WH-1000XM4

Like

  • Excellent sound and top-notch noise canceling
  • Slightly more comfortable
  • Improved voice calling
  • Pairs with two devices at the same time
  • New Speak-to-Chat mode
  • Upgraded Bluetooth system-on-chip
  • Good battery life

Don't Like

  • It's expensive
  • Looks virtually the same as the previous model

When Sony's WH-1000XM3 headphones arrived in 2018, they were the first noise-canceling headphones that really gave Bose's QuietComfort models a run for their money. Now, Sony's successor model has arrived. And like any good Hollywood sequel, the eagerly awaited WH-1000XM4 is equal parts familiar and satisfying, with a dash of slight disappointment thrown in. If you expected major changes and upgrades, you'll be a little underwhelmed. But if you thought the 1000XM3 was pretty great, which I did, and just needed to fix some of its small flaws, you may very well be happy that Sony has made some incremental improvements that address many (though not all) of the little gripes users had. The long and short of it is what may just have been the best noise-canceling headphone of the last two years has gotten a little better. By how much? That's what this review is all about.

On the outside anyway, little has changed. Like the WH-1000XM3, the WH-1000XM4 still comes in the same black and silver color options (the black case has a slight color variation) and carries a list price of $350 (£330, AU$499). It's available for preorder now and ships in mid-August. If you look closely, there are some subtle alterations that are designed to make the headphones fit more comfortably. The earpads are ever so slightly bigger -- the oval inside is a little wider, and the padding is also a touch softer. On top of that, some of the padding has been shaved off the top of the headband.

Also available in silver, the WH-1000XM4 ships in mid-August.

David Carnoy/CNET

All these little changes are supposed to reduce the pressure on both the top of your head and around your ears. I did find them slightly more comfortable to wear over longer listening sessions. Oh, and they do weigh a gram less than the XM3 (254 grams, or 8.96 ounces). We didn't get the bigger loss in weight that we got when we went from the XM2 to the XM3, but Sony did add a sensor -- more on that in a minute -- and still managed to shed a gram.

There's no change to the buttons, at least to their placement. The button that used to be labeled NC/Ambient is now labeled "custom." From the app (for iOS and Android), you can now program the button to do what it did before: toggle between noise canceling and a transparency mode that lets sound in from the outside world. Or you can program it to perform another function, such as activate Amazon's Alexa or Google Assistant. Also, if you hold it for a few seconds, the headphones go into a calibration mode to detect the shape of your head and whether you're wearing glasses. It optimizes the headphones based on those readings. (The XM3 also did that.)

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The WH-1000XM4 (left) has a slightly wider earcup than the XM3.

David Carnoy/CNET

The bigger changes are on the inside. One you can see. Inside the left earcup there's a sensor that detects when you have the headphones on and automatically pauses the audio when you take them off. It doesn't seem to affect battery life adversely; in fact, it's supposed to help save battery life. Like the XM3, it's still rated at 30 hours with wireless and noise canceling on -- quite good by noise-canceling wireless headphone standards. And you get five hours' worth of juice from only 10 minutes of charging via USB-C.

Now the hidden stuff. There's a new Bluetooth system on a chip that has more processing power. The headphone still uses Sony's QN1 chip that's found in the XM3, but Sony tweaked its algorithms for noise canceling and digital signal processing to slightly improve both the sound and noise canceling. Both were already excellent in the XM3 and now they're a touch better.

Sony had pulled even with Bose as far as noise canceling goes and then arguably went slightly ahead with the release of the XM3. (Bose made some small improvements with its excellent Noise-Cancelling 700 Headphones, which came out later.) The noise canceling of both companies' headphones is quite effective, but in my limited testing with the Sony WH-1000XM4 (I didn't fly on a plane with it), it does seem to be a tad better at muffling ambient noise than the XM3. This model appears to be tops for noise canceling, but I'll have to conduct more tests to say that for certain. (Note that some people are sensitive to active noise canceling, which can create the sensation of pressure on your ears and feel oppressive.)

Like their predecessor, you can manually select the amount of noise cancellation or engage adaptive noise canceling that adjusts on the fly according to your surroundings. I'm not in love with the adaptive noise canceling, because when it switches modes your music pauses for a second and you get a little dinging noise in the headphones letting you know that it's adapted. That can be a bit jarring.

The new model only has subtle exterior design changes, with bigger upgrades on the inside.

David Carnoy/CNET

Overall, the upgrades are subtle improvements rather than game-changers. The headphone does a little better job at upconverting streaming music from services like Spotify to pseudo high resolution, according to Sony. The XM4 is better at processing highs, adding back in a bit of missing detail that's lost when you're dealing with compressed streaming audio. Sony refers to this technology as DSEE, which stands for Digital Sound Enhancement Engine, and says it's engineered "to enhance the sound quality of compressed audio files by restoring high-range sound removed by the compression process."

The headphone supports SBC, AAC and LDAC streaming codecs, but not Qualcomm's AptX codec, which is available with certain Android devices but not iOS devices (although Macs do support it). The odd thing is that the XM3 supported AptX. It's not a huge omission, but some people swear that streaming using AptX sounds better (AAC is just fine, however).

Like the XM3, this headphone also supports Sony's new surround sound music format, 360 Reality Audio. A handful of streaming services -- Tidal, Deezer and Nugs.net -- have libraries of tracks recorded in the new format. 

The new sensor and the slightly wider earpads.

David Carnoy/CNET

With the enhanced processing power, the headphones do seem to sound slightly more refined and detailed, even though the hardware -- and by that I mean the drivers -- are the same as those found in the XM3. The bass is full yet punchy and well defined. They've got a nice openness to them with a relatively wide soundstage. Do they blow away what's out there from Bose, Sennheiser and others? No, but they sound really good. While they're dynamic sounding, they also have enough warmth that you don't experience listening fatigue over longer listening sessions. That's important.

Features-wise, there are a few legitimate upgrades. The first is multipoint Bluetooth pairing. That allows you to pair these headphones with two devices at the same time and hot-switch back and forth between them. It's an important feature for some people, particularly those of us who like to simultaneously pair with our phones and computers while working from home. Or maybe it's your phone and a tablet. I was using an early version of the software, so the feature wasn't completely reliable, but Sony says that it will be when the headphones officially ship and the software is updated. (Sony has frequently updated its headphone apps and firmware over the past couple of years, so it doesn't feel like an empty promise.)

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From the beginning, the 1000XM4's signature extra feature was a "quick attention" mode. If you hold your hand over the right earcup, it pauses whatever audio you're listening to and lets sound in so you can quickly have a conversation, then go right back to what you were listening to. That's still there, but there's a new mode called Speak-to-Chat that's essentially hands-free quick attention.

If someone comes up to you and wants to chat, you can simply start talking -- say, "Hey, what's up?" for example -- and your audio pauses and the headphones go into ambient mode. That's pretty cool. The audio then resumes after a set period of time -- you can set if from anywhere from 15 seconds to a minute. Or you can manually resume it by touching the earcup.

The headphones charge via USB-C and there's a cable for wired listening. 

David Carnoy/CNET

I did make the mistake of having it on while I was out walking my dog. Every time I'd say something to him, my music would pause, which was irritating. Since dogs don't talk back, I didn't need to hear what he was saying. Remember to turn it off if you frequently have conversations with animals.

I'll finish up by talking about the two biggest complaints people had about the previous XM3 model. The first was that voice calling wasn't that great. And the second was that the touch controls just wouldn't work in freezing cold weather.

On the first issue, Sony says it's improved the noise reduction while making calls and also says the upgraded microphones now pick up your voice better. Alas, Sony wouldn't tell me exactly what the microphone differences were between the XM3 and XM4, which seemed odd. The official company line is that the "WH-1000XM4 features new Precise Voice Pickup technology, which controls five microphones in the headphones optimally, and performs advanced audio signal processing to pick up voice clearly and precisely for hands-free calls and Speak-to-Chat." The long and short of it is that it's unclear how many microphones were being used in the XM3, but it was probably less than the XM4.

In my tests the voice calling does seem improved. People said they could hear me clearly and while the noise reduction wasn't stellar, it did noticeably muffle background noise. I don't think the XM4 is quite as good as the Bose Noise Cancelling 700 headphones for voice calling, but it's definitely better and not a weakness like it was on the XM3 when it first launched.

As for the touch controls' response in cold weather, Sony says it has made some improvements with that issue as well. I'd love to test it, but it's summer where I am and I don't have a walk-in freezer handy. But once the cold weather comes I'll update this review. I'm not convinced the touch controls will work flawlessly at really low temps, but then again, a lot of electronics can't handle sub-zero weather. I will say they're still pretty toasty on your ears in hot weather.

That's Sony's WH-1000XM4 in a nutshell. If you already own the WH-1000XM3, it's probably not worth upgrading -- it's just not that big a leap forward. But this is a great headphone that's now about 15-20% better, thanks to a few small but significant upgrades and it should improve a bit further with firmware updates.

It remains one the top noise-canceling headphones, if not the top one out there, having the best combination of comfort, sound, performance and extra features. We'll see what competitors like Apple, Bose and others have in store over the next six months, but if I was going to drop $350 on a noise-canceling headphone today, this would be at the top of my list.

Originally published earlier in August.