This article titled “Sony WF-1000XM4 review: the best-sounding noise-cancelling earbuds” was written by Samuel Gibbs Consumer technology editor, for theguardian.com on Thursday 15th July 2021 06.00 UTC
Sony’s latest top-of-the-range noise-cancelling earbuds are a cut above the previous generation and the competition.
They are the successors to the WF-1000XM3, which were great but huge. Sony has significantly shrunk the case and earbuds for the mark four model without sacrificing performance.
The earbuds are fairly heavy, weighing 7.3g each, compared with the 5.4g AirPods Pro, but they don’t feel so in the ear, and they are comfortable for hours of listening without a break.
They don’t have stalks but protrude further than some slimmer rivals. The earbuds are sweat-resistant but don’t have any additional attachments to keep them in place apart from the earbud tip, so I would not recommend them for running.
Case and battery
The earbuds last longer than most competitors: just shy of eight hours of music with noise cancelling, up to 12 hours without it, or about 5.5 hours of talk time. The case fully charges the earbuds twice for a total of at least 24 hours of listening.
The case is charged by USB-C or Qi wireless charging in about 90 minutes, while a five-minute charge of the earbuds when empty is enough for 60 minutes of music.
- Water resistance: IPX4 (sweat)
- Connectivity: Bluetooth 5.2, SBC, AAC, LDAC
- Battery life: 8 hours with ANC/5.5 hours talk, up to 24 hours with case
- Earbud weight: 7.3g
- Driver size: 6mm
- Charging case weight: 40g
- Case charging: USB-C, Qi wireless charging
Connectivity and controls
The earbuds have Fast Pair with Android, Swift Pair with Windows PCs or standard pairing with Apple and other devices. They support the universal SBC and AAC Bluetooth audio formats used by most devices. But like Sony’s high-end over-ear headphones, the XM4 support the high-resolution LDAC audio format that is compatible with many Android devices for some of the highest-quality Bluetooth audio available, making them some of the first earbuds to do so.
They only connect to one device at a time, but can seamlessly switch between them without having to manually disconnect from each one first. The connection to a Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, iPhone 12 Pro and Surface Pro 7 was rock-solid in the home and on the street. Testing in congested areas was not possible, however, because of the Covid-19 situation in the UK.
The excellent Headphones Connect app on Android and iOS handles sound modes, the equaliser, settings and updates, and shows the battery level of the earbuds and case.
The music pauses/plays when removing one earbud. Each side can control either noise cancelling, volume or playback via the touch panel. The tap gestures work great, but you’re limited to only two sets of controls at a time. By choosing to adjust the volume on the left earbud and playback on the right, I couldn’t turn noise cancelling on and off without using the app.
The earbuds have built-in support for Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa, including access via their wake words (“Hey Google” or “Alexa”) or a long-press of the earbud, or basic access to Siri on an iPhone.
The XM4 are some of the very best-sounding true wireless earbuds you can get. Similar to their predecessors, they produce the sort of sparkling, detailed and rich audio that allows you to hear new things in longtime favourite tracks.
They are well balanced, producing full but not overly bass-heavy sound that suits most music genres, although if you crank up the “clear bass” setting, you can certainly feel it. Highs are detailed and precise, mids are strong and warm, and vocals are super-clear. They have excellent separation of instruments and deal with complex overlapping tones very well.
You can tweak the sound to your personal preferences with a full equaliser available in the Headphones Connect app. Sony’s DSEE Extreme system, which improves the sound of compressed audio using AI, works really well, too, for music streamed via SBC or AAC Bluetooth audio format, but reduces battery life by about an hour.
Effective active noise cancelling
The XM4 have the most effective noise cancelling of any earbuds I have tested, coming very close to the performance of the very best large, over-ear noise-cancelling headphones from Bose and Sony. The new V1 chip beats their predecessors, effectively removing or reducing noise across the board, whether the sound of fans, engine rumble or speech, making it easy to listen to music at lower volumes.
They were particularly effective at blocking car noise on the street, so I would recommend using their excellent ambient sound mode. You can set how much noise is let in on a sliding scale, or switch them to focus on voice so you can hear people but block other noise. An adaptive sound mode can make these changes automatically based on noise and your location using the Headphones Connect app.
Sony does not provide an expected lifespan for the batteries in the earbuds or case. Batteries in similar products typically last for at least 500 full-charge cycles while maintaining at least 80% of their original capacity. Like the majority of true wireless earbuds, the WF-1000XM4 are not repairable and the battery cannot be replaced, ultimately making them disposable.
Sony did not comment on the use of recycled materials and does not publish environmental impact reports for headphones. It publishes annual sustainability reports and its roadmap to have zero environmental impact by 2050.
- They support Sony’s 360 Reality Audio system for surround-sound-like music, but only with certain apps such as Amazon Music HD and Tidal, and not Spotify.
- Call quality was good, with minimal background noise, but my voice became fairly muffled in louder environments.
- A speak-to-chat function can detect when you are speaking to automatically turn on the ambient sound mode or tap and hold the touchpad to quickly turn it on to listen for announcements.
The Sony WF-1000XM4 are some of the very best sounding, most effective noise-cancelling Bluetooth earbuds money can buy.
They still have a terrible name, but are smaller, easier to fit and more comfortable, last longer and are much more pocketable than their best-in-class predecessors. They support the hi-res LDAC Bluetooth format with Android, which is rare for earbuds, and sound just as good with iPhones and other devices.
The controls work great, but it would be nice to be able to adjust noise cancelling at the same time as volume and playback. At £250 they aren’t cheap, but match many top competitors. The worst thing is that they are unrepairable and the battery cannot be replaced when it wears out, ultimately making them disposable and losing them a star.
Pros: Brilliant sound, very effective noise cancelling, good ambient sound modes, long battery life, long-term comfort, solid connectivity, full EQ, Google Assistant, Alexa, pocketable case, cross-platform app support.
Cons: Big for earbuds, expensive, can’t control everything at the same time from the gesture panel, mic can sound muffled in loud places, no extra wings to hold them in for running.
- Jabra Elite 85t review: AirPods Pro-beating noise-cancelling Bluetooth earbuds
- Bose QuietComfort Earbuds review: just shy of noise-cancelling greatness
- Galaxy Buds Pro review: Samsung’s AirPods Pro-beating earbuds
- AirPods Pro review: a touch of Apple magic
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010