A purported photo of Sony's next-generation earbuds, with a completely new design, has leaked online.
When they were released back in July 2019, Sony's WF-1000XM3 were easily among the best-sounding true wireless earbuds -- they also featured the best active noise canceling in their class. They had some small flaws: they weren't stellar for making calls outdoors in noisier environments; they were pretty bulky looking; and they lacked a water-resistance rating. I was hoping Sony might release their successors last year, but instead we got the WF-SP800N sport buds and the entry-level WF-XB700. Rumors, however, that the much-anticipated WF-1000XM4 are coming soon are percolating, thanks to a leaked image from Chinese site MyDrivers (spotted by The Verge) that's purported to be the newest Sony model.
The blurry photo is said to be the WF-1000XM4, though we can't confirm it is and Sony had no comment when we inquired. That said, if you assume the XM4 is coming sooner or later, this feels like the sort of overhaul we'd see: The 'buds look to have been completely redesigned, which may explain why their development has taken a little longer than some hoped it would. They have a more streamlined design, although I suspect they'll still stick out of your ears a fair amount. Despite their large size, I found the WF-1000XM3 comfortable to wear (though I did have to swap in some of my own larger ear tips to get a tight seal).
Read more: Best noise canceling true wireless earbuds of 2021
One of the problems with making great sounding earbuds with great active noise canceling is that it's hard to make them really small because of the components involved, which include drivers, batteries and chipsets. The Bose Quiet Comfort Earbuds, which currently offer the best noise canceling for true wireless earbuds (they also sound quite good) are about the same size as the Sony WF-1000XM3. Sennheiser managed to slightly shrink down its Momentum True Wireless II buds, but they aren't exactly svelte and I imagine the WF-1000XM4 will be similar in size.
The Chinese site that originally posted the photos noted that the new earbuds will include foam tips for a better seal. It also noted the little copper ring on the exterior of the bud. It's unclear whether that's a button of some sort or a bass post, but it'd be nice if it was a functional button.
If the leaked images are legit, I would expect these to have slightly better sound and noise canceling, as well as better voice-calling performance, but moving to a new design does have its risks. Alas, both sound quality and noise-canceling performance tend to be seriously impacted by how the buds fit your ears and how tight a seal you can get. The WF-1000XM4 will certainly have upgraded components, including a new digital processor for both sound and noise canceling, but ultimately the design may determine just how good the buds are.
The list price for the WF-1000XM3 is $230, but the earbuds were substantially discounted throughout the 2020 holiday buying season, often selling for around $178. So far no pricing info or specs have leaked, but we'll be on the lookout for any more information on the WF-1000XM4. Sony's full-size WH-1000XM4 were basically fully revealed by the time they launched last summer. We'll see if that fate awaits the WF-1000XM4, but my best guess is we'll see them by July if not slightly earlier.