The Sony WH-1000XM4 is finally here. Its predecessor, the Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones, stole the crown from Bose back when it was released in 2018—and we’ve been waiting for a successor since. Now Sony has released the new and improved headset that adds multipoint connectivity at the expense of aptX. But is it enough to compete in a crowded field of active noise cancelling (ANC) headphones?
What’s it like to use the Sony WH-1000XM4
While the WH-1000XM4 headphones are almost identical in looks to its predecessor, there are some new features tucked away inside. Bluetooth multipoint makes it slightly more convenient in everyday use, because you can connect to two devices at once (more on that later). It makes it easy transitioning from listening to music while working at your desk to watching a YouTube video on your phone, and back again, all without opening your Bluetooth settings. Caveat alert: if you’re going to use multipoint, both connected devices need to use the AAC Bluetooth codec.
Aside from the ability to stay connected to two devices at once, there’s also a few new features you can only access if you download the Sony Headphones Connect app, such as the speak to chat functionality. When turned on this will pause your music whenever the headphones detect that you’re speaking. While it definitely works, the feature treads a fine line between useful and annoying, especially considering how sensitive the detection is.
For example, while listening to a podcast, the WH-1000XM4 pauses the media when I chuckle at a joke. You’re never really aware of how many weird sounds you make until you’re wearing a pair of headphones that pause your music each and every time you make one. It could be useful to some people, but many will probably just turn it off.
Along the same lines is the auto-pause feature, which stops playback when you remove the headphones. On the inside of the left earcup is a small sensor that detects when you’re wearing the headphones or not, and pauses music when you take the headphones off. Is it a must-have feature? Absolutely not, but it’s the kind of subtle touch that you’d expect from a $350 USD pair of headphones and Sony nails it here.
The ear cups are also slightly thicker than the previous pair, which results in better isolation even when noise cancelling is turned off. On the other hand, the headband itself is thinner with a little less padding, and I feel it. While the padding is definitely comfortable, there was an ever-present pressure at the crown of my head that only became more pronounced with longer listening sessions.
How do you control music on the Sony WH-1000XM4
The WH-1000XM4 controls haven’t changed much from the previous version. Both ear cups are still touch sensitive, and you control playback with a series of taps and swipes. Unfortunately, the double-tap to pause function only actually works some of the time. Swiping to control volume and skip between songs works seamlessly, but for some reason, the headphones struggle to register taps. Sometimes it’s easier and quicker to simply take off the headphones and let music auto-pause.
Cupping your hand over the left earcup activates ambient mode, which is one of my favorite features. It dramatically lowers the music and uses the microphones built into the headphones to play what’s going on around you. Not a huge deal for anyone still spending most of their time at home, but useful if you need to quickly catch an announcement from the pilot or train conductor while commuting.
Should you get the Sony Headphones Connect app
To get the most out of the WH-1000XM4 headphones, you will have to download the accompanying Sony Headphones Connect app that I mentioned earlier. While you’re able to rip the headphones out of the box and use them as is, you won’t be able to customize anything about them or use some of the cooler new features unless you use the app. For example, the second button on the headphones can be customized to either activate the assistant on your phone or toggle noise cancelling.
Unfortunately, you can’t have both—and downloading the app is the only way to choose whichever one you want. These are compatible with both the Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa so whichever one you prefer you can use them seamlessly. Sony headphones can no longer support Google Assistant on iOS, though.
There are two other features unique to the app: noise cancelling optimization and 360-degree sound. While the noise cancelling is already excellent out of the box you can optimize it for whatever situation or level of air pressure you’re currently in via the app. You can also adjust the mix of ambient sound that’s fed through the headphones to your ear, so you can hear what’s going on around you. Of course, you can always cup your hand over the right earcup to allow a full passthrough so you can order a cardboard-tasting lunch from the friendly flight staff in economy class.
In the app, there’s also a way to EQ the WH-1000XM4 to sound how you want it to. This isn’t exactly a new feature, but downloading the app is the only way to access it. Bluetooth multipoint gets activated by using the app as well. For that feature alone it’s worth downloading.
What Bluetooth codecs does the Sony WH-1000XM4 support
The Sony WH-1000XM4 uses Bluetooth 5.0, has Bluetooth multipoint, and supports SBC, AAC, and Sony’s own LDAC, which has the highest streaming quality possible if you’re willing to deal with a somewhat less-stable connection. If you’re using something that isn’t compatible with any of these codecs then it will default down to SBC, which is the most basic codec shared by all Bluetooth audio devices. Devices that don’t have Bluetooth at all can always connect via the included 3.5mm audio cable too.
However, the multipoint capability is only available if you’re using AAC, and not LDAC or SBC. Depending on what you’re looking to do it might be worth it, but it’s not for me, as I spend most of my time using at least two devices.
I live in a fairly average-sized two-bedroom apartment and haven’t had any issues with range. While the Sony WH-1000XM4 is connected to my laptop, I can walk around my entire apartment with no skips. The same holds true with my Pixel 3 smartphone which remains connected regardless of which pocket the phone is in.
How is the battery on the Sony WH-1000XM4
When it comes to battery life, Sony claims these will get you about 30 hours of constant playback which is the same as the previous WH-1000XM3. In our testing, we turn the headset’s ANC on in Bluetooth and play music with a peak output of 75dB(SPL). Under these conditions, the WH-1000XM4 lasted exactly 19 hours, 59 minutes (sorry Sony, we test down to the minute).
This is obviously still great and more than good enough for most people, but I find it odd this doesn’t last as long as its predecessor, which clocks in at about 24 hours. It’s entirely possible that as the unit we tested is a pre-production unit, there are some software gremlins yet to be solved, so we’ll re-test and update this review once the production unit comes in.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 charge via USB-C, and the quick charge feature will get you 5 hours of playtime after only 10 minutes of charging, which is fantastic if you’re already late to catch the bus or train.
How well does the Sony WH-1000XM4 cancel noise
If you were hoping for an improvement in noise cancelling with the WH-1000XM4, these are going to make you very happy. Somehow, the team at Sony made the ANC even better than before.
Plots like the one above give a rough idea of how much noise is cancelled across the audible spectrum of 20Hz-20kHZ (the limits of human hearing). Taller peaks in the chart above correspond to more noise being removed. The WH-1000XM3 isn’t a slouch where ANC is concerned, but the Sony WH-1000XM4 is better in its ability to attenuate lower-frequency sounds like the low hum of an air conditioner, or the constant rumble of a jet engine than most other headsets.