The two-year update interval on its headphones seems to be working for Sony. The WF-1000XM4 are the best wireless earbuds we’ve tested to date.
If you’re familiar with Sony’s previous earbuds, you’ll find that the XM4 features an updated design. The elongated oval shape of the WF-1000XM3 has disappeared and has been replaced by a kind of round bud with a hump on the side where the tip of the ear sticks out. We tested the black variant. There is also a model in silver. Both variants have a golden decoration. They are 10 percent smaller than the previous generation and weigh 7.3 grams each.
We prefer the new shape that conforms to the ear mold. But there are also smaller and lighter earbuds out there, so they might be a bit bulky for people with small ears. Included in the pack are three sizes of ear tips, which are made from a memory foam material to ensure a comfortable and airtight fit. In testing, the XM4 never fell out of my ear, even when the author was chasing his dog through the garden.
When you intentionally remove the earbuds, sensors ensure the music automatically pauses and resumes when you put them back in. There are touch sensitive buttons on the outside of the buds that work really well. The IPX4 rating should be sufficient for most people. The earbuds can handle splashes and sweat.
Like the earphones, the charging station has also shrunk – albeit by around 40 percent. The small body comes with an LED on the front, USB-C on the back and wireless charging. Putting the earbuds in and out is effortless. The environmentally friendly packaging, which consists of 99 percent recycled and sustainable materials – without any plastic, is also nice.
Sony has proven that size isn’t everything by sticking with 6mm drivers, although you can get earbuds with drivers twice the size or even larger. However, it really depends on what you do with it. The WF-1000XM4 simply sound stunning. A lot of technology is hidden under the inconspicuous housing that makes this possible, including the integrated processor V1 from Sony, which reduces distortion, among other things.
The XM4 support the LDAC codec, which can transmit three times more data than traditional Bluetooth and Hi-Res Audio wireless allows. However, you must connect to a device that also supports LDAC. However, that’s not too difficult since it’s available on phones running Android 8.0 or higher. For iPhone users, the XM4 support AAC. DSEE Extreme (Digital Sound Enhancement Engine) technology means the earbuds can upscale compressed audio in real time.
We tested the XM4 earbuds with a range of devices and audio sources. The result: they sound fantastic – no matter what you’re trying to play. The audio quality is rich, crystal clear and balanced. They also support 360 Reality Audio, Sony’s spatial audio technology for a surround sound experience. Just note that you need to use a streaming service like Deezer or Tidal with the right subscription that supports this technique.
The app can help you find the right size earbuds by testing the fit. And there’s an equalizer if you want to customize the sound.
Noise cancellation and smart features
Sound quality is one thing, but many people will buy the XM4 for its active noise cancellation (ANC) and other smart features. And we can tell you that Sony hasn’t held back here. As we’ve come to expect from Sony headphones, the noise-cancellation is insanely good and arguably the best you can get. The only wireless earbuds that come close are the
from 200 euros.
However, the WF-1000XM4 have so many additional smart features that they really stand out from the crowd. Of course there are things like an ambient mode that lets you hear your surroundings at an adjustable level (20 levels to choose from) and wind reduction in the main mode. But there’s plenty more with the same features found in the WH-1000XM4 over-ear headphones, packaged in earbuds.
The main feature is called Ambient Sound Control and can automatically adjust the profile based on where you are or what you’re doing. For example, ambient sound activates when you’re running and noise cancellation when you’re standing still. These functions are defined as actions, with a default setting for running, for example.
Sony has also added the ability to register specific locations, such as your office, a coffee shop you frequent, or the gym. In the Headphone Connect app, you can register locations from learned locations or simply set your own via a map. And like many other things in the app, if you don’t like it, you can turn off either the actions or the locations. Plus, pretty much everything can be tweaked with tweaks.
It almost goes without saying that the headphones support Alexa and Google digital assistants, but there are more smart features to talk about – talk being an apt word. Speak-to-Chat does what it says on the box: the headphones detect when you’re speaking to pause your music and switch to ambient mode if it’s not already on.
Battery life and charging
One area that hasn’t improved compared to the last model is battery life. It gives Sony a total of 24 hours. That’s eight hours with the earbuds and another 16 hours with the charging case. While there are earbuds that last longer, those numbers are still very respectable and better than the competition from Apple and Bose. And those numbers are with ANC enabled, allowing the XM4 to get an impressive 36 hours of runtime without ANC.
In our tests, the battery held up very well, often even with ANC switched on. As a rough guideline: about one hour per 10 percent battery capacity. As mentioned, the case now features Qi wireless charging, making charging easier. Fast charging means you can get an hour of playtime on a quick five-minute charge.
As you might expect, Sony’s flagship headphones also come at a price. With a list price of 349 euros, they are more expensive than their predecessors, but they can keep up with competitors like the Bose QC Earbuds and the AirPods Pro. They are available directly from Sony or from a number of retailers.
You’ve got to have the spare change, but if you have that, then for wireless earbuds, there’s nothing better than the Sony WF-1000XM4. The only exception: iPhone users use AirPods Pro. Still, the XM4s are worth considering no matter which smartphone operating system you’re loyal to. In addition to the premium sound quality and standard noise cancellation, the XM4 are packed with additional technical and intelligent features. Ambient Sound Control can automatically switch between different modes as you move or arrive at a certain location.
The V1 processor handles DSEE Extreme upscaling, wind reduction and much more. There is also LDAC support for Hi-Res Audio Wireless and 360 Reality Audio Spatial Audio. The list of features goes on with speak-to-chat, ear detection, and more. Almost everything is customizable in the app too, so you can set everything the way you like it – or just turn off whatever you don’t like.