Think for a moment about companies known for making great headphones. Sennheiser and Focal almost certainly come to mind nearly instantly, as do Audeze and HiFiMan. PSB and NAD probably made your list, along with companies like Grato and Beyerdynamic. But if Sony didn’t occur to you within the first ten seconds of pondering, you’re missing out on one of the worst-kept secrets in personal audio.
The company’s legendary MDR-7506 has, of course, been a staple of recording studios and broadcast facilities for years, thanks to its neutral sonic profile and insane affordability. I don’t know a single serious audio reviewer or enthusiast who doesn’t own a pair for reference. But for the past three years, Sony has shifted its focus to the wireless, noise-cancelling headphone market, first with the WH-1000XM2 (the follow-up to the somewhat under-the-radar MDR-1000X), then the upgraded WH-1000XM3, and now the company’s most advanced Bluetooth headphone yet, the WH-1000XM4 ($348 at Amazon, Audio Advice, and Crutchfield).
The XM4 isn’t as drastically different from the XM3 as the XM3 was from the XM2 in terms of aesthetics. But under the hood, this new model has been given a pretty significant overhaul, with a new Bluetooth SoC (System on Chip), new algorithms for its HD Noise Cancelling Processor QN1, and an upgrade to Sony’s new AI-driven DSEE Extreme audio processing. Passive noise isolation has also been improved and padding is substantially better. But despite that, the XM4’s weight has been reduced ever-so-slightly to 8.95 ounces (down from 8.99 ounces for the XM3).
New quality-of-life features this year include Bluetooth multipoint pairing, which lets you wireless connect the WH-1000XM4 to two different devices simultaneously. You might, for example, pair the headphones with both your laptop and mobile phone, so you can enjoy gaming audio, movies, or music from your desktop, then seamlessly switch over to an incoming call on your iPhone or Galaxy phone without having to fumble around with pairing settings.
The XM4 also features wear-detection thanks to a proximity sensor built into the left earcup and two internal acceleration sensors. What’s more, there’s a new Speak-to-Chat that kicks in anytime you speak, automatically stopping your music or podcast and engaging ambient sound passthrough. If you’d rather leave that feature turned off (you might wanna, for example, if you’re a headphone rock star like me who simply can’t resist singing along with the music, especially on long walks out in the ‘burbs), you can instead make use of the XM4’s Quick Attention mode. Simply put your hand over the right earcup and the headphones quickly cut the volume of your audio entertainment and turn on ambient sound passthrough.
One other change from XM3 to XM4 is the loss of support for aptX and aptX HD. The only codecs the WH-1000XM4 supports via Bluetooth 5.0 are SBC, AAC, and LDAC.
Otherwise, specs and features remain largely unchanged from the wildly popular WH-1000XM3. The WH-1000XM4 still boasts up to 30 hours of music playback with active noise-cancellation on, and up to 38 hours with ANC off. A full recharge takes approximately three hours, although if you just need a quick burst of juice, ten minutes of charging will get you approximately five hours of battery life (depending, of course, on playback volume). Charging is handled via USB-C, and the XM4 also features a 3.5mm analog audio input, which you can connect to those rare portable audio devices that still have an analog output. The included hard-shell carrying case (a nice touch) also comes with a handy airplane audio adapter tucked into a little pocket alongside the 3.5mm analog cable.
The only other thing in the case is a little nubbin of a USB-A to USB-C cable that measures just shy of nine inches long. If you’re thinking of buying the XM4, go ahead and add the cost of a good USB-C cable of reasonable length to the total purchase price.
With so many features and so much customizability, the Sony WH-1000XM4 could easily have been a nightmare to set up and configure, but thankfully the Headphones Connect app makes the process intuitive and painless, although you should expect it to take a few minutes. Pairing with my iPhone was handled quickly (via NFC), and from there the app walked me through everything I needed to tailor the headphones to my preferences.
That includes personal and atmospheric pressure optimization for the active noise-cancellation, as well as 360 Reality Audio Setup, which analyzes the shape of your ear (by way of a process that involves looking at the phone, then turning your head to the left and right for photo analysis). The 360 Reality Audio Setup is really only useful if you have a subscription to one of the three services that supports the spatial audio format — Deezer, nugs.net, and Tidal — or if you want to try the 30-day free trial of any of them.
You’ll also want to spend some time setting up the WH-1000XM4’s Adaptive Sound Control feature, which controls the amount of ambient noise-passthrough based either on automatic detection of your activities or customizable location-based settings. I decided to tinker around with the Automatic Switching Based on Actions setting, and by my second day with the headphones, the software had figured out that right around 3:30pm, I’m likely to put on my shoes and take Bruno (my American Staffordshire Terrier) for walkies. As such, it automatically switched into a mode labeled “Walking,” with a moderate level of environmental audio passthrough. Other options include “Running” (which allows maximum ambient sound passthrough) and “Transport” (which completely shuts out ambient sounds and engages full noise-cancelling).
For each of these activities, you can customize the amount of ambient sound passthrough, and also select a checkbox labeled “Focus on Voice” if that’s the sort of gobble-gobble-gobble noise you want leaking into your personal audio experience.
The location-based Adaptive Sound Control setting can either learn locations based on your activities, or you can register locations from a list of places you’ve visited or from a map. Or, of course, you can disable all of this and adjust the ambient sound passthrough manually, with 20 levels of refinement and the same option of focusing on the jibber-jabbering of other humans, if you’re that kind of masochist.
The Speak-to-Chat feature can also be turned on or off. With it on, you have options for detection sensitivity, as well as the time until the mode deactivates after hearing your last bit of chattiness and resumes the music you’d rather be listening to. Your options here are 15 seconds, 30 seconds, or 60 seconds.
The app also lets you disable the WH-1000XM4’s touch-sensor control panel, if you want to do so for some reason. But I found the touch controls super intuitive and a huge part of my enjoyment of the headphones. Swiping upward on the earcup increases volume, downward lowers it, swiping forward advances the track, and double-tapping either answers or ends a phone call or pauses/resumes your music. You can also disable the wear sensor, set up your choice of digital voice assistant (Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa) and tweak the setting of the XM4’s custom button, which is located just behind the power button on the bottom of the left earcup.
You’ll also likely notice a setting labeled Sound Quality Mode, which allows you to select between “Priority on Sound Quality” or “Priority on Stable Connection.” Choose the former, and the XM4 will use either the AAC or LDAC codec, whichever is supported by your portable audio device. Choose the latter, and it will default to SBC.
On my iPhone, AAC was my only advanced codec option, of course, and with the XM4 set to “Priority on Sound Quality,” I estimated latency with videos and video games to be in the neighborhood of 60ms. Not bad at all, although certainly not best-in-class.
Last, but certainly not least, as you’re digging around in the menus, you’ll find the Equalizer — perhaps one of the XM4’s most important features for reasons I’ll detail in the next section. The app gives you access to eight EQ presets (Bright, Excited, Mellow, Relaxed, Vocal, Treble Boost, Bass Boost, and Speech), as well as a Manual setting and two Custom settings to which you can save your own EQ profiles.
Straight out of the box, I must admit that I wasn’t thrilled with the XM4’s sound. I found it lacking in the upper-midrange to mid-treble, and although a few of the EQ presets helped with this, I didn’t find any of them truly satisfying. So I spent a few hours tinkering around with the EQ while listening to two tracks that have served me well for years as reference material for tonal balance: Allman Brothers Band’s “Blue Sky” and Paul Simon’s “Under African Skies.”
With some attenuation at 400Hz, a bit of a boost at 2.5kHz, a more significant boost at 6.2kHz, and a decent amount of attenuation at 16kHz, these headphones transformed from, “Not my bag, but I certainly understand what all the fuss is about,” to, “Expletive deleted, these are amongst the finest-sounding wireless headphones I’ve ever strapped to my head.” If you find yourself in the same boat with the XM4 and want to experiment with my custom EQ settings, click the picture at right to blow it up.
Out of curiosity, I sent that same picture to my friends Lauren Dragan and Brent Butterworth, the two people whose opinions on headphones I trust most. Within a few minutes, Lauren sent back a snapshot of the custom EQ settings she and Brent developed together (which, not coincidentally, Brent says makes the XM4 measure very close to the Harman curve). Theirs had slightly more of a boost at 2.5kHz and no attenuation at 16kHz, but was otherwise spot-on with my own custom EQ, so I decided to recreate theirs and save it to my Custom 2 EQ slot. At any rate, I did virtually all of my testing with my Custom 1 EQ setting, and all of my listening impressions below reflect that.
Getting back to my reference tracks mentioned above, “Blue Sky” (via Qobuz) through the Sony XM4 sounds as close as I think I’ve ever heard a wireless headphone get to the sound of the song through speakers in an open room. The mix for this southern-jam-rock classic is especially dense, with a thick roux of acoustic and electric guitars, bass, and, of course, the mélange of percussion from Jaimoe and Butch Trucks. It’s a lot for most wireless headphones to handle, and I’ve heard many of them try and fail. But the WH-1000XM4 delivers every ounce of it flawlessly, even capturing little details like the hum of the amps and the distinct differences between the distortion of Duane and Dickey’s cabinets.
There’s also just this wonderfully wide sense of space in the recording, something I don’t get from a lot of closed-back headphones. Even without the benefit of Sony’s proprietary 360 Reality Audio encoding (which isn’t available on my preferred streaming apps, Spotify and Qobuz), the XM4 really pulls the music out of your head and makes it sound wonderfully wide when the mix calls for such.
With Paul Simon’s “Under African Skies” (from Graceland, via Qobuz), the overall tonal balance was just spot on. There’s really no other way of putting it. Bakithi Kumalo’s forceful, popping, flirtatious basslines rings through with exactly the sort of authority you would hope for from a $350 headphone (wireless or not). Linda Ronstadt’s inimitable vocals are delivered with utter sweetness and clarity, and in perfect balance with Simon’s voice.
The guitars and percussion are the real stars of this track, though, and they utterly shine through the XM4. The drums sound a million miles tall and just as far away, while the guitars have an immediacy and intimacy that simply can’t be pulled off by lesser headphones.
Toto’s “Africa” (also via Qobuz) is yet another track that sounds too good to be true through the XM4 with proper EQ settings. Far too often, I find this track’s vocal intelligibility a little lacking with many headphones. Get the tonal balance and/or the dynamics wrong, and David Paich’s lead vocal can get a little muddled, especially during the verses. But they ring through with sparkling clarity here.
For that matter, everything about the track is just perfectly balanced, from the loping percussion to the soft bassline to the atmospheric keyboards to the vocal harmonies. As with “Blue Sky” and “Under African Skies,” the track simply sounds huge through the XM4 — not out of proportion with what you’d hear from a good hi-fi speaker setup, but certainly a lot bigger than you’ll hear from a lot of wireless headphones. I never got that “music trapped in my noggin” feeling that I do with a lot of closed-back ‘phones, nor did I feel that the soundstage was in any way constrained or muddied.
Another track that illustrates so many of the WH-1000XM4’s strengths (again, with the right EQ profile applied) is “Brown Paper Bag” by Roni Size and Reprazent from the album New Forms2. The gut-punching, descending bassline — which causes such a struggle for so many audiophile headphones — is delivered with utter control and authority here. What’s more, the bass does absolutely nothing to interfere with the swirling, whirling, tinkling and twirling instrumentation, the crisp and poppy percussion, or the mumbling vocals. The XM4’s handling of the track is absolute perfection.
Noise-cancellation is also seriously impressive. Don’t expect the quality of cancellation you’ll get with something like the Bose 700, especially when it comes to blocking low frequencies. But the XM4 does a surprisingly good job with midrange frequencies, so depending on your environment, you may actually prefer its approach to ANC.
As with most of you, my air travel is on hold for the moment, so I haven’t had the chance to test Sony’s ANC against the roar of a jet engine. But I did put it to the test with the outdoor unit of my central air-conditioning system and found its ability to block that whine admirable. I also slapped the XM4 on briefly while taking a ride with my dad in our C7 Corvette with the top down and the NPP exhaust set to Track Mode (i.e., loud!), and found the ANC to be pretty great, although, again, not quite up to the Bose 700.
What I love most about the XM4’s ANC, though, is that it has no real appreciable effect on the sound quality of the headphones. Turn noise-cancellation on and off, and the overall tonal balance and fidelity of the music remains the same, which is practically a magic trick as far as I’m concerned.
In terms of comfort, I think the WH-1000XM4 is probably my favorite headphone I’ve auditioned to date. Its combination of super-cushy padding, ridiculously light weight, and perfect clamping force made it a pleasure to wear even for hours on end. Even with glasses, which is often a huge sticking point for me. What’s more, my big hipster-ass Warby Parker frames did nothing to break the seal and interfere with the MX4’s passive noise isolation, which is another huge bonus.
In terms of call quality, the WH-1000XM4 is good, although not great. I called my wife while in the aforementioned open-air ride in the ‘Vette, and we also did some testing with me sitting in front of my Vornado 660 fan and in a quiet room. In every case, she said my voice sounded clear, although not wholly natural.
That said, the XM4’s noise rejection is in a different league altogether from most headphones I’ve tried. So, depending on whether or not you make a lot of calls in windy environments, you may find its call quality very good. Sitting about two feet from the Vornado, which was blowing straight at my face, I made it all the way up to the third of four speed settings before she started having trouble understanding my voice through the torrent of wind. Only at the fourth level did she find it unacceptable. With my Bowers & Wilkins PX Wireless, by contrast, she found me all but unintelligible with the speed set to 2.
In terms of audio performance gripes, my only bone to pick is that Sony didn’t offer an EQ preset similar to the one I cooked up myself (or something similar to Brent and Lauren’s EQ preset, which hugs closer to the Harman curve). With all of the wacky custom settings offered here, you’d think that one with a more neutral balance would have been a no-brainer, especially given the reputation of Sony’s own MDR-7506. An EQ preset simply labeled “7506” or “Studio” or “Pro” or whatever would have been a very welcome addition to the list, and it wouldn’t have been difficult to add, since the discrepancies in tonal balance between the 7506 and MX4 line up very well with the latter’s available EQ bands. That said, at least the XM4 can be EQ’d for neutrality. That’s not an option with a lot of wireless cans.
What can’t be compensated for by the app is the WH-1000XM4’s lack of aptX and aptX HD support. If you’re an iOS user, this is of little consequence, since Apple’s portable devices support only AAC, and the XM4 has you covered there. For Android users, though, if your device doesn’t support LDAC, you’re out of luck when it comes to more advanced Bluetooth codecs. Granted, more new Android phones support LDAC than aptX HD these days, so if Sony had to choose one or the other, they made the right choice. Still, you need to check your phone’s specs to make sure you won’t be stuck with lackluster SBC.
My only other criticism of the WH-1000XM4 is wholly subjective, and you’re free to disagree, of course. But I just don’t think this looks like a $350 wireless headphone. It feels like one, to be sure, but the reliance on flat black (or gray) plastic gives the headphone a somewhat generic look that does it no favors.
Then again, I’ll admit that I may be completely alone in this. An entire cottage industry has evolved over the past few years to design custom skins for the WH-1000XM3, and I’m sure we’ll see the same for the WH-1000XM4 once it saturates the market. With the right skin, you can make the headphone look like anything you want, from old-school, wood-grained retro-cans to sleek and modern carbon-fiber headphones to outrageous gaming headsets, and anything/everything in between. That makes the XM4 something of a blank canvas for you to personalize.
If you’re shopping around at this level for a set of wireless noise-cancelling headphones, chances are good that three big XM4 competitors are also at or near the top of your shopping list: the Bose Headphones 700, the Sennheiser Momentum 3 Wireless, and the Bowers & Wilkins PX7 Wireless.
The Bose 700 sports a somewhat higher MSRP at $399 (with a street price closer to $380 since the release of the WH-1000XM4). Both headphones weigh exactly the same, although I find the Sony’s fit more comfortable. I also very much prefer the folding design of the XM4. Where the Bose leads is in the area of active noise-cancellation, which is no real surprise given the brand’s history with this technology. In addition to offering adjustable levels of noise-cancelation, the 700 simply does a better job of blocking low-frequency rumbles, especially in the neighborhood of, say, 500Hz.
That said, Bose only offers a three-band EQ (low, mid, high), and it simply isn’t possible to eke the sort of sumptuous tonal neutrality out of the 700 (especially in the upper frequencies) that you can with the WH-1000XM4, thanks to the latter’s excellent five-band EQ. The Sony is also rated for up to 30 hours of playtime with ANC engaged, whereas the Bose only gives you 20 hours at most.
The Bowers & Wilkins PX7 is quite a bit heavier than either the Bose or Sony, but it’s second only to the Sony in terms of comfort due to excellent padding and just-right clamping force. (For what it’s worth, my wife says I’ve got this right backwards; the PX7 is far more comfortable to her, despite the added weight, due to its superior padding.) Noise-cancellation isn’t as good as either the Bose or Sony, but it does the job. One thing that the B&W has in spades over both the Sony and Bose is its luxurious design and sexy styling. This looks and feels like a $399 headphone for sure… especially the new Carbon Edition.
In terms of sound quality, the has a warm, fun, Yacht-Rock sound that’s immediately endearing, if a little bass-heavy for my taste. That said, the B&W app lacks an EQ. Given that I don’t want to rely on third-party EQ apps (the iPhone’s internal equalizer only works with the Music app), and I have no patience for switching EQ profiles on my phone every time I swap headphones or playback devices, I’m going to have to give the WH-1000XM4 an appreciable performance edge here, especially in terms of detail and spaciousness. I also like the Sony’s fold-down design, which gives it an edge in terms of portability that will hopefully become an important consideration if I ever get on an airplane again.
If I believed in fate or serendipity or whatever you want to call it, I would say there’s something a little spooky about the fact that the Sony WH-1000XM4 came into my life right at the point where I’d decided to give up on wired headphones and Lightning dongles altogether for my portable listening. Around the house, sure, I’m still going to rock my open-backed planar magnetics connected to a good headphone amp, but for on-the-go listening, I’m finally completely ready to embrace the convenience of wireless connectivity for good.
And it just so happens that I was ready for that transition right as I discovered what I consider to be as close to the perfect wireless headphone as you could ask for. Sure, I can grump about the out-of-the-box sound of the XM4 and the lack of an EQ preset that restores true tonal neutrality, but that’s just nitpicking. The fact that the XM4 can be tweaked to perfection with custom EQ settings is enough for me.
Honestly, the excellent noise-cancellation is almost icing on already delicious cake. But when you consider the complete feature set, combined with the comfort and the sound quality, the WH-1000XM4 is exactly the headphone I needed to break my addiction to wires once and for all when I’m listening to music via my phone.