(Pocket-lint) – There’s no beating around the bush, the Sony WF-1000XM4 true wireless in-ears are exceptional for their price. And, while there are one or two competitors that offer slightly better sound quality, they are usually more expensive and cannot match these for adaptive noise-cancelling (ANC) tech.
Sony has taken an already excellent pair of ANC headphones – the WF-1000XM3 ‘buds, in this case – and improved almost every aspect, resulting in a class-leading product. Sure, some will likely bemoan Sony’s lack of support for Qualcomm’s aptX, but the XF-1000XM4 are still among the best all-round in-ears we’ve had through the test labs. Here’s why.
Design and comfort
- Bluetooth 5.2 to each ear
- Four NC microphones
- Bone conduction sensor
- Custom Polyurethane eartips
The first thing that’ll strikes you when unboxing the headphones from Sony’s new totally biodegradable packaging is just how much smaller the charging case is from the previous generation. It is, according to Sony, 40 per cent smaller – and it notices.
To be fair, the last model has one of the biggest charging cases in the business – especially when compared to its near competitors – so the latest brings the XM4s into line. However, its lightness and pocket-sized girth are both very welcome.
As is the Qi charging and the matte plastic finish. The latter makes it nice to hold in the hand and will disguise minor scratches, we expect. The former wireless charging feature will make it much easier to just plonk the case onto a mat, ready to pick it up again when you are about to leave the house.
The ‘buds themselves are smaller than before – 10 per cent, it is claimed – with a familiar bulbous design, matte finish, some neat design touches such as small gold elements (rose gold on the black version we tested).
There are two noise-cancelling mics on each ‘bud, one behind the (almost) Mod symbol on the front, another behind a little slot facing rearwards. Both are accented by gold.
Three different sized eartips are included in the box, which are made from soft polyurethane rather than the usual silicone. This allows for a more comfortable, secure fit that also aids noise isolation greatly.
You do have to fiddle around with each ‘bud a bit more than with most brands in order to get it into the right position in your ear, but the audio quality merits it. The Sony Headphones Connect app even helps each ‘bud analyse the shape of your ears for even better audio personalisation.
We were pleased to note that after a decent period of use these ‘buds were just as comfortable as they were at the start. That’s not something we could comparatively say about their predecessors.
They also stay in better during exercise. We haven’t worn them on a full run yet, but have aggressively used an exercise bike and jogged on the spot a few times to make sure they don’t wobble much. They are also IPX4 certified, so are sweat- and water-resistant.
Setup, controls and features
- Adaptive noise cancelling (ANC) & ambient sound mode
- Customisable touch controls on each ear
- Alexa and Google Assistant control
- DSEE Extreme upscaling
- Fast pairing
Setting up the WF-1000XM4 earphones is a doddle. They support both Android and Windows’ easy pairing modes, while our iPhone found them instantly in the Bluetooth list. The Sony Headphones Connect app also found them straight away.
It is here that you get to customise just about every nuance, including the ANC modes, touch controls, and sound equaliser (EQ). Sony provides many more options than a lot of rivals we’ve tried, so you can spend a while tweaking all the options to suit you best. However, the defaults are generally decent too, if you don’t want to get bogged down in minutiae.
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The ‘buds themselves have touch options on each ear: noise cancelling/ambient sound controls on the left; play/pause on the right. Touch both at the same time for seven seconds and you can set them back into pairing mode.
These touch options can be changed in the app though, such as adding voice assistant activation or volume. Both Alexa and Google Assistant can be enabled by voice instead – with wake-word support – so you are probably best sticking to the original setup.
You will need to turn on Speak-to-Chat though, if you want to use it. This stops any playback as soon as you talk – handy for speaking to cabin crew on an aircraft, for example. And, you might want to adjust the Bluetooth connection too – if the priority on sound quality is causing too many dropouts.
DSSE Extreme is also available in the app on a slider. This is said to enhance standard audio – MP3/AAC – to a higher bitrate through artificial intelligence.
Sony’s tried and trusted ANCtech is on board too, of course, which is one of the last customisable options. Again, default will be perfect for most as it will assess the best sound mode based on your current location and circumstance – whether you are sitting, travelling, and so forth.
We did find that we had to go into the app to force ANC on when we wanted to use it in the garden, for example, as it thought the ambience was tranquil enough – and we didn’t.
This generation of in-ears come with a new integrated V1 processor, which better handles ANC duties, you just have to make sure certain options are tuned to your own preferences first.
Sound performance and battery
- Up to 24 hour battery life (8hr in buds, 16hrs in case)
- Qi wireless charging
- New integrated V1 processor
- LDAN and Hi-Res Audio Wireless support
There are a number of reasons why the Sony WF-1000XM4 earbuds outperform their predecessors. A new 6mm driver with increased magnet volume, plus enhanced amplifier is one. A high compliance diaphragm is another. The latter is more flexible, so can reduce latency and therefore more accurately reproduce certain frequencies.
In short, these ‘buds sound great. We tested them mainly on an iPhone 12 Pro Max, which means we couldn’t feed them with lossless audio that way. However, we also ran a few lossless tracks over LDAC (which is Sony’s own high-res streaming codec – but nobody has any idea what the acronym means) on a supporting Android handset, so feel we got a good grip on their capabilities.
The ‘buds are Hi-Res Audio Wireless capable and support LDAC themselves, although they do not come with support for Qualcomm aptX or any of its guises. As we’ve said above, that might irk some, but many handsets are LDAC-enabled these days and we’d imagine these will be used with lower bitrate tracks for the vast majority of the time anyway.
To that end, DSEE Extreme is provided. This is a newer version of Sony’s own AI-driven software. It essentially upscales lower quality audio to around CD quality – filling in the gaps as it imagines. It’s a bit like watching a Blu-ray on a decent 4K TV – it will look better, but don’t expect miracles.
Still, unless you are an audio purist, you will likely love the richness and grunt of these ‘buds. Even basic AAC versions of The Beatles’ She’s Leaving Home and Liam’s Gallagher’s Once exhibited great detail and staging, especially with DSEE Extreme activated. While the thumping bass hits in Elbow’s Dexter & Sinister grab you by the nethers.
That’s in either noise cancelling and ambient sound modes. Speaking of the former, the improvements made to the tech are quite impressive. ANC on in-ears has been somewhat hit-and-miss in the past, but the new implementation here is jaw-dropping at times.
Considering how the world is right now, flying anywhere to test its prowess, even taking a train have been difficult, but we wore the ‘buds with ANC on while mowing the lawn as part of our tests. We didn’t hear the mower. At all. Some might think that dangerous, but it’s certainly staggering.
What’s more, the Bluetooth connection held up well. We’d like to find out how it would act when thousands of wireless technologies are all bouncing around and competing – on a packed London Tube concourse, say – but that’s not really feasible right now.
Battery life might be tested a little more then too. As it stands, Sony quotes eight hours for the ‘buds, a further 16 in the case, and that seems reasonable based on our experiences – if a little stingy compared to some competitors. We do love that addition of Qi wireless charging though – it makes life so much simpler.
Sony has sure hit its stride now, first with the superb WH-1000XM4 over-ears, now followed-up by these exemplary WF-1000XM4 in-ears. There are so many new features in these true wireless earbuds that they’re even worth considering as an upgrade over the last generation – something that we rarely recommend.
Above all it’s the excellent audio performance and, in particular, active noise-cancelling (ANC) talents. Yes, we couldn’t really try them out in as many real-world settings we would usually wear ANC ‘buds in, but in homelife equivalent tests they hold up superbly.
So sony has done it again: it’s truly taken every tiny quibble anybody had with the XM3s, tweaking and improving along the way to make a class-leading pair of in-ears that will take some beating. The WF-1000XM4 are fairly pricey, of course, but we think worth every penny.
Bose QuietComfort Earbuds
A very strong competitor in the active noise-cancelling game, offering similar sound isolation, comfort, and longevity for a very similar price. Talk about battle of the best!
Writing by Rik Henderson.