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Sony WF-1000XM4 review: Software updates help keep these excellent earbuds on top

The excellent Sony WF-1000XM4 have subtly improved with firmware upgrades and have also seen some discounts. That earns them a belated CNET Editors' Choice Award.

When I first reviewed Sony's WF-1000XM4 noise-canceling earbuds back in June 2021, I noted they were pricey at $280 (£250, AU$500) but still serious AirPods Pro competitors and worth considering if you were willing to pay the premium. We've since seen the release of some impressive competing and less expensive products such as the Beats Fit Pro, Sennheiser CX Plus and seen price drops on the AirPods Pro, my high opinion for the WF-1000XM4 earbuds hasn't changed, particularly after Sony has released a handful of software updates in the last several months that continue to improve the product, with some slight upgrades in the voice-calling department and to the adaptive noise canceling. 

To be clear, they're not perfect: The WF-1000XM4 still don't quite measure up to the AirPods Pro for voice calling, and their size and fit that may not work for everybody. But their top-notch sound, excellent noise-canceling features and overall solid feature set make them hard to beat, even at their premium price. They remain expensive but have recently seen some discounts to around $250. With all that in mind, we've awarded them at CNET Editors' Choice Award, acknowledging them as one of the best products in their category for 2021. 

Much of my original review follows, although I have thrown in some comparisons to the Beats Fit Pro, in case you're considering that model.    

Like

  • Excellent sound with top-notch noise canceling and improved headset performance for calls
  • Buds are totally redesigned and more discreet looking
  • Good battery life with smaller wireless charging case
  • IPX4 sweat-resistant (splashproof)
  • Transparency mode is more natural sounding

Don't Like

  • For their high price, would ideally have multipoint Bluetooth pairing
  • May be a little big for some smaller ears

Sony basically made a list of all the little gripes people had about the WF-1000XM3 and went down that list and crossed them off. Or at least most of them anyway. Overall, the WF-1000XM4 buds are only about 10% smaller than the XM3's, but they have a more compact look and don't stick out of your ears as much as the XM3 buds do. The XM4 case is 40% smaller -- it weighs 41.1 grams, down from 76.5 grams -- with a flat bottom so you can stand it up. These guys are splashproof with IPX4 water-resistance (the XM3 had no water-resistance rating). Also, headset performance for making voice calls, a weakness with the XM3, has clearly improved. So, too, have the noise canceling and sound quality. 

Read moreBest-sounding true-wireless earbuds

New look

They've got a totally different design than the XM3 buds and that goes for the packaging as well. Like a lot of other companies, Sony has moved to simple, eco-friendly packaging and I appreciated that.

These have a more traditional earbud design and while they're not much lighter than the XM3 -- 7.4 versus 8.2 grams -- they're more discreet. They fit my ears snugly and securely and I had no trouble running with them. All that said, I could see some people with smaller ears who might have a little trouble with them. As with most high performance buds, these are on the beefier side and don't sit more flush to your ears like the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live or Google Pixel Buds A-Series. Size-wise, these are more akin to the Sennheiser True Wireless Momentum 2.

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The buds now come with foam ear tips to help you get a tighter seal.

David Carnoy/CNET

The one thing I have some mixed feelings about is the little copper colored ring that's their signature design trait. There's something a little funky about it and it's slightly jarring. I would have probably preferred if the buds were all one color, but that's a minor gripe on my part and your aesthetic sensibilities may be completely the opposite of mine. As I said, it does make them stand out from other buds -- for better or worse. 

What is that copper ring? Well, it's a microphone and there are two microphones on each bud, one of which is beamforming to pick up your voice better. On top of that these have bone conduction sensors that detect when you're talking during calls and the buds have the same Speak-To-Chat feature found on Sony's over-ear WH-1000XM4 headphones.

If you're listening to music and someone comes up to you, if you say anything, your music automatically pauses and the earbuds go into an ambient sound mode that allows you to hear the outside world (along with the person you're having a conversation with). Your music then resumes a few seconds after you stop talking and the noise canceling kicks back in if you had it on. It's a useful feature that allows you to interact with people without taking the earbuds out of ears. However, if you're in the habit of singing along to your music or talking to your pets, you'll probably want to turn it off because it can get pretty irritating to have your music pausing all the time.   

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They're splashproof with an IPX4 water-resistance rating.

David Carnoy/CNET

The good news is like with the previous model, you can also tap and hold on the left bud to manually pause your music and go into a Quick Attention ambient mode. The touch controls are responsive and work well and I should also note that Sony's transparency mode seems more natural sounding and is now much closer to the excellent transparency mode of the Apple AirPods Pro. The best transparency modes make it seem like you're not wearing earbuds -- the world sounds the same if you have the buds in or out. 

Before I get to how good the noise canceling and sound quality are, I'll say that Sony has really improved the headset performance for making calls. The noise reduction during calls is significantly better and people said they could hear me well even in the noisy streets of New York. I test call quality by standing in the street with cars going by and these measure up pretty well to the AirPods Pro, which are very good for making calls. Maybe not quite their equal, but close. And they do have a sidetone feature that allows you to hear your voice in the buds as you're talking, which keeps you from talking too loudly on calls.

Excellent noise canceling

The noise canceling is impressive, right at the top of the class. It's definitely improved from the XM3 and it's right there with that of the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds, which cost the same as these and were previously best in class for true-wireless noise canceling. Sony says the WF-1000XM4 has a new custom chipset called the V1 that processes both sound and noise canceling and it appears to have made a significant difference, particularly for noise canceling.

I didn't travel on a plane but I have a noisy HVAC unit in my apartment and I compared the noise canceling of these to the Bose and they were very close. Both are quite impressive. I thought these also did a good job muffling noise outside in the streets and even did well tamping down the sound when I was watching an NBA game in my home theater with the volume fairly high, so the noise canceling seems to work across a wider range of frequencies than it did with the XM3.

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The case is 40% smaller than the WF-1000XM3's case (left).

David Carnoy/CNET

As with all these types of noise-isolating buds, to get optimal noise-canceling performance and the best possible sound, you do need to get a tight seal. To that end, Sony has redesigned its ear tips and includes three sizes of polyurethane-coated foam ear tips instead of silicone tips. The large tips fit my ears well -- I was able to get a good seal according to the seal test in the app. But I still decided to use a set of silicone tips I had on hand that ended up fitting my ears perfectly. But most of you should be able to get a good seal from the included tips. 

Battery life is rated at eight hours with noise canceling on at moderate volume levels and up to 12 hours with it off. The charging case holds an additional 16 hours of juice. That eight hours of battery life is better than what you get with a lot of noise-canceling earbuds, including the AirPods Pro.  

I'm not going to dig into all the features in the app. There are some adaptive sound modes, plenty of equalizer settings and you can customize the touch controls to your liking and add volume controls to the mix if you want. You can also choose whether to use Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, or your phone's native voice assistant. And as you might expect, these can play tracks recorded in Sony's 360 Reality Audio format, which is supported by some streaming music services like Deezer and Tidal.

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It's a tough call whether the buds look better in black or the lighter sand color. 

David Carnoy/CNET

The WF-1000XM4 are equipped with Bluetooth 5.2 and also have support for Sony's high-resolution LDAC wireless streaming audio codec. Some Sony devices and Amazon Music HD, Qobuz, Tidal and Nugs.net music services support LDAC wireless streaming.

If you're looking to pair these with your AptX-enabled Android devices, brace yourself: AptX isn't supported. The majority of people will simply use the default AAC audio codec for wireless Bluetooth streaming to their iOS or Android smartphone or tablet. And that'll be fine for most people.  

I used a Google Pixel 4 XL to stream LDAC with Qobuz and I did notice a very slight difference in sound quality for the better. You just get a touch more clarity and texture to your music, particularly with well-recorded tracks. Apple devices don't support LDAC, only the AAC audio codec, but I found that even streaming with Qobuz on an iPhone using AAC sounded better than streaming with Spotify.

I spent some time listening to K.D. Lang's remix album Makeover on both Spotify and Quoboz on both an iPhone 12 Pro and Pixel 4 XL and there are subtle differences in sound quality across both devices and music services. But the good news is these earbuds are good enough to hear those differences.

If all that audio codec stuff sounds boring, it is -- to most people. But with Apple revving up new proprietary features like spatial audio and lossless audio for Apple Music, these details are beginning to matter to a wider audience. 

More importantly, I should point out that unlike the Sony's WH-1000XM4 over-ear headphones, these don't have multipoint Bluetooth pairing so you can pair them with two devices simultaneously -- like a PC and smartphone -- and automatically switch the audio when a call comes in. That's really the only missing feature that stood out to me. (You can still pair them with multiple devices, just not two at the same time.)

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David Carnoy/CNET

Top-notch sound      

As far as the sound goes, not surprisingly, it's really good: Nice detail, warm but well defined bass that goes deep, natural sounding mids (where vocals live) and just big open sound -- for true wireless buds anyway. Along with that new V1 chip for the digital processing, Sony has redesigned the 6mm drivers and these do sound richer than the WF-1000XM3, which already sounded excellent.

For me anyway the traits of an excellent sounding wireless headphone involve such adjectives accurate, articulate, well-balanced, dynamic and smooth. These exhibit those traits, though I don't want to oversell them too much because they are true-wireless earbuds after all and not wired cans. But for true-wireless their sound is up there with the best-sounding models, including Bowers & Wilkins' new $400 PI7, Sennheiser's $250 Momentum True Wireless 2 and Master & Dynamic's $299 MW08.

I A/B tested these with the Bowers & Wilkins PI7, which arguably have the slight edge -- the PI7 may just be the best-sounding true-wireless earbuds out there right now. But the Sony WF-1000XM4's noise canceling and headset performance is superior and they cost $120 less, so you may see the PI7 comes down in price to compete with the Sony because it's hard to justify spending the extra dough on the PI7, even if its charging case doubles as a Bluetooth transceiver and it does support AptX Adaptive

The Beats Fit Pro have a wide soundstage but they don't offer quite as expansive or refined sound as the Sony WF-1000XM4 buds. While I'm not talking about a big difference in sound quality, the Sony just sounds slightly more natural and has a touch more detail that can better bring out the nuances in music tracks. On the flip side, the Beats Fit Pro have Apple's spatial audio virtual surround feature and hands-free Siri for iOS users.

If you're looking for a more affordable alternative, the Sennheiser CX Plus have been selling for $20-$30 off their list price of $180 and offer excellent sound, good noise-canceling and decent voice-calling performance. They're also a little bulbous but they're lighter than the WF-1000XM4 buds.

WF-1000XM4: Final thoughts

Needless to say, the XM4 easily outclasses the aging Apple's AirPods Pro in the sound department. That said, the AirPods Pro are lighter and overall more comfortable to wear, with solid noise canceling (it's not quite as good as the Sony's, but it's still very good) and a natural sounding transparency mode (Sony's has improved and is now close to Apple's). Despite being out for awhile, the AirPods Pro remain an appealing choice at around $200 and sometimes less.  

I do like the Bose QuietComfort's Earbuds' sound, but the WF-1000XM4 offers more refined, richer sound. Some people, including me, like how the Bose's StayHear tips fit their ears, but in most other regards these Sony buds have the edge with a smaller design for both the buds and case, better headset performance and slightly better sound. As I said, they're very close as far as noise canceling goes.

Newer competing models like the Beats Fit Pro may offer you a better fit and have extras like spatial audio and always-on Siri. But the XM4's have the sound edge and remain hard to beat if you're looking for great-sounding earbuds with great noise canceling, solid voice-calling capabilities and good battery life. As we head into 2022, I expect Sennheiser will release new True Wireless Momentum 3 buds and we should get new AirPods Pro Second Generation with improved sound. Those are a couple of the new arrivals I'm waiting for and we'll see how Sony responds. 

This review was originally published in June 2021 and has been updated to reflect an Editors' Choice Award, and to note comparisons to the Beats Fit Pro.