If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Sony, it’s that it isn’t wed to annual updates. The WF-1000XM3 true wireless earbuds quickly shot to the top of our best of list when they debuted in 2019, primarily for their stellar mix of sound quality and handy features. Of course, that set wasn’t without its flaws, one of which was the massive size. 2020 came and went without a new version.
Today, Sony announced a follow-up, the WF-1000XM4 ($280), after a trove of leaks bent on ruining the big reveal. The company has managed to push the limits of what its true wireless products are capable of, but the M4 isn’t the bargain its predecessor was. And there’s one change that might cause some issues for you.
Sony WF-1000XM4 review
Sony totally overhauled its true wireless earbuds with a new design, more powerful noise cancellation, improved battery life and more. However, the choice to change to foam tips leads to an awkward fit that could be an issue for some people. The M4 is also more expensive than its predecessor, which wouldn’t be a big deal if fit wasn’t a concern.
I love nearly everything about the WF-1000XM3 earbuds — except the design. They’re huge. Not only does that lead to an awkward fit, but it also means the buds are quite noticeable when you’re wearing them. The rounded rectangle outer panels looked a bit like a Bluetooth headset from the early aughts. Thankfully, Sony has ditched that look entirely on the M4, opting for a more “traditional” earbud shape that’s compact and circular rather than elongated and rectangular.
A round touch panel accepts taps for track controls and the virtual assistant on the right side while the left earbud can be used to toggle active noise cancellation (ANC) modes or activate the quick attention feature. Those are the default actions, but Sony’s app will allow you to reconfigure things as you see fit. Like the M3, you can opt for on-board volume controls on the M4. However, you’ll have to sacrifice either your playback controls or your ability to change quickly from noise cancelling to ambient sound. You also have the ability to mirror the set of controls you choose on both sides.
The new design doesn’t lead to a massive reduction in overall size, though. In fact, Sony says the WF-1000XM4 is only 10 percent smaller than the M3. That’s because these new buds are just as deep, which means they also stick out from your head a bit. They’re more discreet than the previous version, but still bulky. And when you combine the heft with the new ear tips, you might encounter some issues when it comes to fit.
The included charging case is another item Sony redesigned. It’s 40 percent smaller than the accessory that came with the WF-1000XM3, which means you can more easily tuck it in your pants pocket. It sits upright now as well, with a USB-C port on the back for wired charging and an LED on the front for battery status.
Comfort and fit
Rather than the silicone tips you usually get with earbuds, like the ones Sony included with the M3, the company went with so-called Noise Isolation Earbud Tips this time around. These are made of a spongy foam that’s supposed to conform to your ear canal to offer a tighter fit and improved noise isolation. If you’re not someone who typically does the in-app fit test, you’ll want to make sure you do it here.
Despite the app telling me I had a good seal with the small and medium sizes, neither offered a secure fit. I finally found a decent option in the third pair (large), but it never felt comfortable. During longer listening sessions, they got slightly painful. In my frustration I pulled the silicone tips off the M3 and slapped them on the M4. No more ill-fitting earbuds. I just wish Sony would’ve included both foam and silicone options, which some other companies do.
Sometimes a company’s earbuds app doesn’t offer much in the way of customization. That’s not the case with Sony. The company’s premium buds and headphones offer so many features and such a degree of customization that its app is not only useful, it’s essential. In addition to the fit test, features like individual battery levels, Adaptive Sound Control, 360 Reality Audio setup and the EQ return from previous models. Adaptive Sound Control still allows you to let the app detect movement and automatically adjust presets accordingly. The feature can also do so based on your location if you give the software permission. For example, you could have different noise cancelling or ambient sound profiles for home, the office and the gym.
The Headphones app gives you the ability to fine tune ambient sound levels with a 20-step slider. You can also tell the software to focus on voices and suppress background noise when needed. The adjustable ambient sound comes in handy when you’re building your automatic presets for Adaptive Sound Control.
Sony debuted its Speak-to-Chat feature on its WH-1000XM4 headphones last year, and now it’s available on the WF-1000XM4 earbuds. It will automatically and temporarily pause the audio and activate ambient sound when the earbuds detect that you’re speaking. After a few seconds, the music will resume or you can tap either earbud to manually do so. It’s a handy feature, especially for those of us still working from home. However, the system still can’t distinguish between a cough and speech. Sometimes even when I clear my throat I inadvertently trip it. It’s not perfect, but it gets a lot of use from me, and I think the microphones on the M4 earbuds are quicker at detecting my voice than those on the headphones. If you don’t like it, you can always turn it off in the app.
Active noise cancellation
As Sony typically does with new headphone models, it made upgrades to the noise-cancelling abilities of the WF-1000XM4. More specifically, the company says its V1 Integrated Processor blocks more noise across all frequencies — from plane and vehicle rumble to human voices. In fact, Sony claims that the V1 is not more effective than the QN1e chip in the WF-1000XM3 and the WF-SP800N, but it uses less power. Combined with two noise sensor microphones on each earbud specifically designed to pick up more ambient sound and 6mm drivers built to block out more distractions, the M4s offer great noise cancelation.
It’s noticeably better than the WF-1000XM3 and would probably get higher marks if the new ear tips gave me a secure fit. In theory those should help further silence environmental noise through passive isolation. Still, these earbuds did a great job blocking constant roars like the dishwasher and a white noise machine. They also did well to quiet down loud talkers nearby. The M4 also has an Automatic Wind Noise Reduction feature to help cut down on the unwanted crackle a decent breeze can cause as it whips across the mics.
One thing I like about Sony’s headphones is how consistent the company is with its tuning. There’s no heavy handed bass or overly painful treble, and that continues on the WF-1000XM4. The audio profile is balanced across lows, mids and highs, offering bassy thump when a song like CHVRCHES synth-heavy “He Said She Said” demands it. When you switch to more mellow acoustic tunes like the bluegrass version of Sturgill Simpson’s “Long White Line,” that low-end blends appropriately with everything else, providing rhythm rather than distraction.
The WF-1000XM4 also has great clarity. Throughout Simpson’s Cutting Grass albums, the earbuds consistently reproduce subtle details like picking and string noise on acoustic instruments. There’s some great depth here as well, as the M4 does a solid job fooling you into thinking you’re in the room with Sturgill and his band of pickers.
Another big change from the M3 is the addition of LDAC support on the M4. LDAC is essentially Sony’s attempt at something akin to lossless audio for Bluetooth headphones. Since wireless devices don’t support lossless due to the compression required for signal transmission, Sony created a standard that improves sound quality by transmitting more data with a maximum bitrate of 990kbps. The inclusion of LDAC allows you to make the most of high-res streaming services. The WF-1000XM4 also supports DSEE Extreme upscaling where the M3 worked with DSEE HX. Sony says the former is “more accurate” due to its ability to upscale compressed music in real time. That new V1 processor helps with the computing power here, and DSEE Extreme makes a subtle, but noticeable difference.
In 2021, Sony isn’t going to introduce new flagship earbuds that don’t support 360 Reality Audio. Indeed, the company’s immersive audio format is available on the WF-1000XM4 along with a guided setup to tailor the settings to your ears. Of course, you’ll have to pay extra for a high-res streaming plan from the likes of Tidal or Amazon to unlock the proper content, but these earbuds do an admirable job with the limited 360RA library. As is typically the case, songs are slightly louder and have more presence than with “regular” streaming. It’s not quite as immersive as you might expect, but the 360RA tracks are obviously different. Whether or not they’re better is a matter of opinion, but I happen to enjoy them — when available.
The WF-1000XM4 is equipped with what Sony calls Precise Voice Pickup technology that’s supposed to do a better job of detecting your speech. This is part of the reason why Speak-to-Chat is more responsive than on the company’s over-ear headphones. Precise Voice Pickup leverages a combo of beamforming microphones and bone-conduction sensors to improve call quality. What’s more, the M4 can switch from ANC to ambient sound during calls, so you’re not shouting at the person on the other end because you can’t hear yourself.
That all sounds good on paper, and Sony delivers. The person on the other end (who I typically test earbuds with) said I sounded clearer than usual and noticeably better than speakerphone. They also noticed that the M4 blocked background noise when I wasn’t speaking to the point they thought the call had dropped. When I was talking, the sound of the TV behind me was noticeable, but not distracting. Earbud makers typically make big promises for call performance, but for once, Sony makes good on most of its assurances.
The upgrades continue with battery life. Sony says you can expect up to eight hours on the earbuds themselves with two additional charges in the case. That’s with the ANC active. If you can survive without noise cancelling, the company says you can extend listening time by four hours on the WF-1000XM4 (12 hours just on the buds). Both figures are more than the WF-1000XM3 which clocked in at six and eight hours for ANC on and noise cancelling off respectively. During my tests where I switched between ANC and ambient sound, used voice detection to automatically pause often and let the buds sit idle at times, I managed just under the stated figure with seven and a half hours of use. I also had DSEE Extreme active, which I assume impacts battery life as well.
The WF-1000XM4 supports wireless charging with Qi-certified accessories or with an Xperia phone that offers a battery share function. There’s also a quick-charge feature that gives you an hour of use in five minutes.
As is the case with over-ear noise-cancelling headphones, Bose has made a run at Sony’s earbuds crown too. The company debuted its QuietComfort Earbuds last fall, offering powerful ANC, good audio clarity and a comfy fit. However, the buds are big and awkward, and limited touch controls and customization hinder them. Still, in terms of pure noise cancellation, I have to give a slight edge to Bose. If we’re talking about the complete package though, Sony is still on top.
If sound quality is your primary concern, Sennheiser’s Momentum True Wireless 2 is the best choice. The audio is stellar, and the company offers a solid mix of other features alongside decent ANC. There’s no wireless charging and battery life is just okay, so these are really only worth considering if you’re in pursuit of sonic perfection. Sure, there are cheaper options, but at $280, Sony has positioned the WF-1000XM4 firmly in premium territory. The best competition is similarly pricey if you’re looking for comparable performance.
Sony nearly did it again. The company has dominated both over-ear and true wireless product categories for the last few years. It has a knack for creating a compelling combination of sound quality, noise cancelling performance, customization and features. None of the competition comes close to what the WF-1000XM4 offers in terms of what the earbuds can do for you automatically with features like Adaptive Sound Control and Speak-to-Chat. These are almost the complete package, if only the new ear tips offered a better fit. Even the best of the three pairs included in the box never felt truly comfortable. I only found relief when I grabbed the silicone tips from the M3 instead, and most people won’t have access to those. It seems so simple, but if you mess it up, a basic thing like ear tips can nearly ruin otherwise stellar earbuds.
The WF-1000XM4 is available now in black and silver color options for $280.