Sony released its amazing WH-1000XM3 noise canceling headphones in 2018, and it is still often top lists for the best noise canceling headphones you can buy. But competitors haven’t been idle: Bose’s Noise Canceling Headphones 700 are neck-and-neck with Sony for noise cancellation and have better microphones for voice calls. Microsoft’s Surface Headphones 2 have more intuitive controls, and smaller companies like Jabra bring out impressive noise-canceling headphones at lower prices. It is even rumored that Apple is working with its own premium headphones.
But to ward off its rivals, Sony has returned with the new $ 349.99 1000XM4 headphones, available for pre-order today and shipping later this month. They address the two main drawbacks of the previous product: you can now pair to two devices at the same time and updated microphones should make for clearer calls. Everything else is very similar or hasn’t changed from the last time: the design is almost identical, the battery life is still up to 30 hours, and the buttons and controls all work the same way. And apart from a few minor tweaks Sony has made to the way music is scaled up, the 1000XM4s sound just like their predecessors – a good thing, believe me.
Let’s go to the new things. The first is an easy convenience for anyone with an Android phone; Sony now supports Android’s Fast Pair for quick installation. It also lets you find your lost headphones by playing a sound through them, and notifies you that the battery is low when that 30-hour battery life is low.
A bigger improvement that both iPhone and Android people will appreciate is the improved microphone performance. Sony has added what it calls “Precise Voice Pickup Technology” to the 1000XM4s, which optimizes the audio processing of the five built-in microphones for clearer voice recording – and the difference is clear. I’ve made a few voice memo recordings and had a few phone calls with the 1000XM4s, and while the microphones don’t give you pristine audio, your voice is displayed clearly and understandably. It sounds more digitized than I would like, but this is still an improvement over the 1000XM3’s.
Related to the microphones is a new feature that Sony calls Speak to Chat. If you enable this, the headphones will automatically pause when you start speaking. The detection works very well; music even stops when I say a short word. If you do nothing, the music will return 30 seconds after the speech stops. (You can just double-tap the right earcup to resume playback faster.)
I think some people will find this helpful; The 1000XM4s still have the nifty trick where you can cover the right earcup with your hand to lower the audio volume and hear ambient noise, but this method is voice activated. But if you are someone who talks to yourself on a regular basis, forget it. Your music is constantly interrupted. There was also a situation during my testing where the headphones stopped when an announcement was played overhead at the train station even though the function should be listening your voice. You can adjust the sensitivity of Speak to Chat in the Sony Headphones Connect app to avoid false activations.
The other big new addition to the 1000XM4’s is multipoint: And last but not least, you can pair with two devices at the same time. You don’t have to worry about missing a call when you get caught up in a movie or show on Netflix on your laptop. There is one problem, however: Sony’s multipoint implementation is currently somewhat flawed. The first time I used it, it took a long time for the headphones to return to my phone after I stopped playing audio on my computer. Since then, it usually worked as expected, but I’ve still had issues here and there. Sony says that by the time the 1000XM4s ships to customers later in August, it will release a firmware update that will fix these current multipoint issues.
I watch the headphones perform out of the box and will circle back as soon as the update is available. You can manage simultaneous connections and switch between devices directly from the Sony app without having to use the Bluetooth settings on any secondary device you want to use next to your phone, which is handy. The Sony Headphones Connect app also has the usual EQ options and adaptive sound control, which can automatically adjust the levels of noise reduction and ambient noise based on your activity or location. I don’t like the headphones taking control or changing the audio unexpectedly so I tend to leave those features turned off.
It is impossible to distinguish the 1000XM3’s and 1000XM4’s. The new headphones have the same look, right down to the brass accents – including those around the microphone input that almost make it look like a USB-C port. Sony has created some subtle design adjustments; they’re just the kind you can’t see. The pillow at the top is slimmed down; the ear pads now have a 10 percent larger surface area for more contact with your head; and the curvature of the headband is “fine-tuned”. I’m not some masochist who likes to wear over-ear headphones outside in the sweltering summer heat, but I’ve noticed that the 1000XM4s are soft and comfortable when worn around my apartment for a few hours. Thanks to a new sensor in the left earcup, the headphones can now detect when you take it out of your ears and pause the sound until you put it back on.
There’s still no water protection, and that’s an area I really wish Sony had addressed with the 1000XM4s. It’s pretty easy for rain to make its way to those upward-facing microphone grills. The headphones can still be folded to wear them in the same way as before. Also, the USB-C port is still only for charging; you can’t use it as a wired audio jack, but you can still connect it with the included headphone cable if you want.
The 1000XM4s use the same Q1N processor for noise cancellation as the previous headphones, but Sony says there is a new Bluetooth audio system on a chip that analyzes music and ambient noise 700 times per second, and this data is used for the noise cancellation algorithm. The 1000XM3s were already great at silencing planes, buses, trains, and other constant noise, but Sony says the 1000XM4s have gotten modestly better at reducing mid-frequency sounds – like voices and everyday ambient noise. I didn’t have the previous pair on hand to compare with, but my grocery store visits were free of noisy distractions or banter that cut through. Sony also says it has improved the optional feature that upscales compressed music using AI, which can now analyze music in real time and recognize instruments, music genres and individual elements of songs. Honestly, it all sounds a bit artificial to me, and I still leave this turned off. I also barely explored the 1000XM4s’ 360-degree audio function as so few music services support the format.
The sense of “equality” around the 1000XM4s extends to sound quality. Sony makes no statements about improvements in sound quality; if you loved how the 1000XM3s sounded, you’ll be just as happy with this. If you found them too bass heavy or the mood too colored, you have the same criticism with the M4s. But count on the group that appreciates the warm, expressive sound from this series. I still ride high on my energetic summer listening like Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher and that of Taylor Swift Folklore, and the Sony headphones show both albums beautifully. Each acoustic guitar on Swift’s “Betty” has its own space in the soundstage, as does the harmonica contained in the song. Paul McCartney’s new remaster Flaming Pie is a good demonstration of how detailed and nuanced the 1000XM4s can be; even home recordings and raw mix performances are fun with these cans.
My time with the 1000XM4s made me strongly believe in Sony’s LDAC codec (available on most Android phones), which wirelessly streams audio at significantly higher quality than the AAC you’re limited to when using an iPhone. I spent several hours testing the 1000XM4s with Amazon Music HD, and if you are the type of person who sits and listens carefully to your music, you will notice the improved fidelity. But here’s a bummer: if you enable the “connect two devices at once” option in the settings, you won’t be able to use LDAC at all, even if you’re only connected to your phone. Multipoint must be completely disabled if you want to stream at those higher bitrates between 600kbps and 900kbps. Fortunately, the 1000XM4s sound very good, even if you listen without nice codecs.
It’s fair to say that the 1000XM4s are an iterative update, not a radical step up from the M3s. They look the same, sound the same and feel more or less the same on your head. But the software improvements from Sony – multipoint, Speak to Chat and fun throw-ins like Fast Pair – are not insignificant. And the terrible voice quality has finally been resolved. Without any exterior design changes, I’m a little perplexed as to why Sony took so long to release it, especially considering the 1000X, 1000XM2, and 1000XM3 headphones launched so quickly in a row. Either way, the 1000XM4’s live up to Sony’s strong reputation and offer more powerful noise cancellation options than ever before. If the company makes up for its multipoint solution, you’re probably looking at the new top pick for noise-canceling headphones.
Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge