Sony WH-1000XM4 review: Our favorite noise-cancelling headphones get minimal but welcome upgrades

Sony makes small refinements to its already amazing ANC headphones.

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Audio quality and AI upscaling

Sony touts three other features that it says enable the WH-1000XM4 to deliver a high-end audio performance: The aforementioned new algorithm running on Sony’s QN1 processor, support for Bluetooth 5.0 and Sony’s own LDAC codec, and Sony’s DSEE Extreme audio technology, which uses artificial intelligence—Sony’s Edge-AI—to restore in real time information that’s been lost when you’re listening to tracks that were compressed using lossy codecs such as MP3.

Like its older sibling, the WH-1000XM4 supports the SBC and AAC Bluetooth codecs in addition to LDAC, but there is no support for any of Qualcomm’s aptX codecs. I found LDAC to be superior to the other two, so I used that primarily for this review. The device you use for playback will also need to support your codec of choice, of course, so I relied mostly on a OnePlus 8 Pro smartphone for the task, as it’s one of few that do. LDAC support is more commonly found on high-res digital audio players (you’ll find TechHive’s top picks in DAPs here).

Sony WH-1000XM4 Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

I streamed tracks mostly from YouTube Music, conducting multiple critical listening sessions in a variety of playback situations with a long list of songs that I’m very familiar with to compare the WH-1000XM4 to the WH-1000XM3 I reviewed in late 2018.

Both sets of noise cancelling headphones sound great for the price. If you’re looking for studio-grade equipment with minimal signal coloration, you shouldn’t be looking at ANC headphones anyway. But that doesn’t mean listening to music with ANC is a diminished experience. From a sonic standpoint, I discovered very few differences between the two new and older cans; in other words, there’s not much of a reason to upgrade if you already own the XM3. That said, I do enjoy really pushing my listening abilities, so here are some examples of differences I found.

I’ve already mentioned Sony’s DSEE Extreme audio technology, which is an upgrade over the DSEE HX tech present in the older WH-1000XM3. Sony hypes this hard, so I was surprised to discover that for me, enabling it had the opposite of the promised effect: Subtle details in the music—particularly at higher frequencies played at lower volume—were lost. In Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” the processing muted details in the fantastic acoustic guitar track—characteristics such as fingers sliding on the guitar neck, and the reverb that hangs overhead were diminished in the mix, lessening the beautiful depth of the soundscape.

In classic jazz tracks like “So What,” from Miles Davis, I noticed small details around the finger work on the upright bass were less present, and the high transients from the horns and drummer’s hi-hat brushes were slightly compressed. On the flip side, vocal tracks were far more present in the mix, not so much as to enable a depth separation from the instrumentation, but more like a mix of EQ boosting and stronger compression. Disabling DSEE Extreme brought back most of the fine details in instrumentation, as well some of the dynamic range, but it sat the vocals back down into the mix. Compared to DSEE HX on the XM3, DSEE Extreme on the XM4 felt like the signal was being normalized for more even instrumentation, while simultaneously emphasizing the vocal tracks.

This heavy-handed processing was revealed even more with heavily compressed tracks from albums like Metallica’s infamous Death Magnetic. In these scenarios, the vocals again took center stage, while the mid- to low-end was pulled back along with clean high signals. The full mix was more compressed and normalized than with DSEE Extreme disabled, and it didn’t do any favors to aggressive music like metal.

Sony WH-1000XM4 Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

Sony’s documentation states that DSEE Extreme “upscales compressed digital music files” and “dynamically recognizes instrumentation, musical genres” with the goal of trying to “resort the high-range sound lost in compression.” So, my next thought was to listen to tracks that were poorly recorded and mixed to see if that’s where the processing truly shines. I loaded up some older punk recordings, such as “In My Eyes,” by Minor Threat, and set YouTube Music to its lowest bandwidth consumption/lowest audio quality setting.

I immediately detected most of the same compression tendencies. While I did notice a bit of smoothing of the lower bit depth with DSEE Extreme enabled in these instances, which provided a cleaner mix with less noise, it wasn’t enough for me to overlook the rest of the processing taking place.

After all my critical listening tests, my assumption is that DSEE Extreme acts as a more subtle and accurate normalize function than what’s present in many music players, allowing listening to be more seamless between tracks and with an even experience between genres. I should emphasize that the effect is slight and might not even be noticeable to the average user—indeed, it didn’t greatly diminish my normal listening experiences—but I wanted to put my finger on just what this processing was trying to achieve and highlight it here. People like me who prefer to err on the side of accuracy are advised to leave DSEE Extreme turned off, but that’s just my opinion.

Sony WH-1000XM4 Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

Without DSEE Extreme processing, I found the WH-1000XM4 exhibited a more accurate signal compared to the WH-1000XM3. The older headphones are fully burned in now, and they continue to provide a great listening experience, but the coloration—particularly in the low-end thumps and sharp highs—is noticeable when listening to the pair back to back. The newer model sounds a bit more muted in the mids and is slightly lacking in dynamic range—which indicates they are more accurate—but this is exposed only in extreme A/B testing. Without that direct comparison, these headphones provide a fantastic listening experience in many different genres. Sony has set a high bar for other ANC headphone manufacturers to clear.

The rest of the experience

There are just a few more details to cover when it comes to my day-to-day experience with the WH-1000XM4. Sony’s companion app, Headphones Connect has been consistently updated throughout the years, and it remains a rock-solid experience for me. There are plenty of settings to tweak to your liking, and changes made to things like noise cancellation take effect immediately. Firmware updates for the headphones are handled automatically with little disruption, and I haven’t encountered any bugs, performance glitches, or unwanted battery drain on my mobile devices. I’ve been burned far too many times by great hardware saddled with a horrible app, so it’s refreshing that it’s not the case here.

Sony WH-1000XM4 Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

Sony’s Headphones Connect app makes it very easy to program the WH-1000XM4’s Custom button.

The Sony WH-1000XM4 includes a much-requested feature: Bluetooth multipoint pairing, which allows you to pair the headphones with multiple devices at once. This is handy because it allows you to use a laptop or a digital audio player for music playback, and still get audible audio alerts and phone calls from your smartphone. Multipoint was easy to set up and easy to use, and I didn’t have any problems switching back and forth between devices. Sony’s implementation does, however, suffer from one very unfortunate drawback: Bluetooth multipoint pairing is only available if you’re using the AAC codec. So, you’ll need to decide which is more important: High-resolution audio for music listening via LDAC, or the convenience of Bluetooth multipoint. I opted for LDAC; iPhone users, meanwhile, don’t have a choice—they can only use AAC with the WH-1000XM4.

The WH-1000XM4’s microphone is the last aspect I’d like to discuss. While it never happened to me, many WH-1000XM3 users reported encountering technical problems with that headphone’s mic. That said, neither of these cans is a headset, so don’t expect great phone-call experiences from them. They’re adequate for a short call to a friend or loved one, but don’t rely on either for an important business meeting. The WH-1000XM4’s mic quality specifically is faint and cannot capture the vocal clarity needed for serious use. I can live with that trade-off.

Sony WH-1000XM4 Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

Microphone quality in calls is subpar, but to be expected.

Bottom line

If you have $350 to spend on active noise-cancelling headphones, the Sony WH-1000XM4 get my highest recommendation. They deliver top-shelf noise cancellation, they’re comfortable to wear, they’re packed with features, and—most importantly—they sound fantastic.

There’s not a lot here to warrant an upgrade recommendation if you already own the WH-1000XM3—and if your budget is tighter and you find a great deal on those cans—you should definitely pick them up while they’re still around. But if you want the absolute best of the best, look no further than the Sony WH-1000XM4.

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At a Glance
  • The Sony WH-1000XM4 is the successor to what are widely considered to be the best active noise cancelling headphones on the market. While the feature upgrades are minimal, they are nonetheless welcome.

    Pros

    • Fantastic noise cancelling
    • Very accurate sound for ANC headphones
    • Proximity based auto play/pause
    • LDAC codec support
    • Terrific app experience

    Cons

    • Edge-AI upscaling doesn't add much
    • Touch controls still have a learning curve
    • You can't use LDAC with multipoint Bluetooth
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