Voted Best Wireless Headphones at the TechRadar Choice Awards 2021
The Sony WH-1000XM4 Wireless Headphones are a wonderful pair of wireless noise-cancelling headphones in every way. That’s why they’re still our pick for the best headphones of 2021, even though they were released in 2020. We love that they deliver exactly what they promise and then some, thanks to their exceptional noise cancellation and cutting-edge codec support.
Granted, they haven’t seen a massive overhaul aesthetically from the Sony WH-1000XM3 that were released back in 2018. However, the WH-1000XM4 headphones pack in a number of new improvements, including DSEE Extreme audio upscaling and multipoint pairing.
The Sony WH-1000XM4s support Sony’s 360 Reality Audio format, which enables spatial audio on stereo headphones, plus the LDAC codec that can send a bitrate of up to 990 kbps. The unfortunate bit there, though, is that it no longer supports aptX or aptX HD, so your Hi-Res Audio support mileage may vary.
Thanks to their extremely comfortable fit and great noise cancellation, we highly recommend the Sony WH-1000XM4 for most people, but particularly travelers or those with long commutes. However, they’re not great for workout enthusiasts who need a secure fit and water-resistance – or business people who require a best-in-class microphone for phone calls. For nearly everyone else, however, these are some of the best wireless headphones you can buy from a brand with an excellent track record in audio devices.
Since their release in August 2020, the Sony WH-1000XM4 have been given a few updates. For starters, Sony released a limited edition white colorway with a gold finish. The company also releases a firmware update to improve Bluetooth stability when the headphones are paired to multiple devices and to fix a bug which saw users struggle to connect the Sony WH-1000XM4 to Windows computers.
While the Sony WH-1000XM4 aren’t a pair of cheap headphones, we’re starting to see a few discounts now that they’re a little bit older. In the run up to Black Friday and Cyber Monday, we’ve seen some fantastic early Sony WH-1000XM4 Black Friday deals – however, we’re yet to see them return to their lowest price in the US and the UK ($248 / £201).
We’re keeping a keen eye on all the best Black Friday headphones deals in the run up to November 29, and we think there’s a good chance the WH-1000XM4 will return to – or even beat – these all-time-low prices. So, if you’re looking to buy the best headphones of 2021, be sure to keep an eye on key retailers like Amazon, Walmart, Best Buy, John Lewis, and Currys over the next week or so.
Sony WH-1000XM4 price and release date
- Price: $349 in the US
- Price: £349 in the UK
- Price: AU$549 in Australia
- Released in August 2020
In terms of price, you’re looking at $349.99 / £349 / AU$549 – which is exactly what the Sony WH-1000XM3 launched in 2018 in the US, and £50 more expensive in the UK.
That puts the Sony WH-1000XM4 in the same price range as the Bose Noise-Cancelling 700 Headphones that come in at $339.99 / £349.95 / AU$599.95, and slightly less than the more upscale Bowers and Wilkins PX7 that cost $399.99 / £349 / AU$600. They’re also far cheaper than the Apple AirPods Max, which cost $549 / £549 / AU$899.
- Imperceptible design changes to the 1000XM3
- Sturdy build and comfortable padding
- New SoC for improved noise cancellation
- Lack any sort of water-resistance
Though the Sony WH-100XM4 have a slew of new components inside the headphones themselves, there’s not a major difference between them and their predecessors in terms of aesthetics. In fact, put them next to each other and you’d have a hard time telling the 1000XM3 apart from the 1000XM4.
That’s not the end of the world, though, as the design of the 1000XM3 is refined and subtle, allowing it to blend in on subway stations, planes and offices without drawing any attention.
In terms of materials, you’re mostly looking at a high-quality plastic build with supple pleather padding. The result is a product that feels mostly durable while remaining extremely comfortable to wear for an extended period of time.
Around the outside of the earcups you’ll find two physical control buttons for power/pairing and a button that cycles through noise-cancelling modes, as well as a 3.5mm aux. jack and a USB-C port for charging. The outer part of the earcups act as a touch-capacitive control panel that can be used to play, pause or skip music, and raise or lower the volume.
Inside the headphones is where the magic happens, though. Sony has swapped out the old system-on-a-chip (SoC) for a new one that promises better noise cancellation. Key to that, of course, is the Sony QNe1 Processor that constantly samples ambient audio to reactively adjust the level of noise cancellation. It’s an ingenious setup and design that separates it from the one-size-fits-all noise cancelling algorithm from other manufacturers.
The bad news here, however, is that the Sony WH-1000XM4 aren’t water-friendly – they’re not splash-proof, water-proof or even very water-resistant. Sony recommends keeping them dry and far away from any source of water that might damage them. That sounds like common sense – and fairly easy to achieve – but that does limit the places you can bring them: if you’re looking for a pair of running headphones, these aren’t them.
- Class-leading noise cancellation
- Situational and conversational awareness
- Multi-point pairing to connect to two devices
- May pause the music if it hears you singing along
The Sony WH-1000XM3 were feature-rich upon release, full of inventive control schemes and intelligent applications of their noise cancellation technology. All that was great about the WH-1000XM3 headphones has carried over to the new WH-1000XM4 successors, and with some all-new tricks, too. These aren’t just gimmicks either – they’re useful additions that actually work as advertised.
So let’s kick off with the brand-new stuff. First, and perhaps most importantly, Sony has refined its wireless noise-cancelling approach. Like all good design, it’s subtle to the point where you may not notice it at first (such was the strength of the previous system, anyway).
But with the WH-1000XM4, you’re getting a much greater sense of noise cancellation in the mid-ranges – those sorts of areas where you get a low-level humming kind of sound that you could attribute to a fan, or air conditioning unit, or engine noise. It’s never fully silenced, but it’s remarkably quiet, and as soon as you have actual audio playing through the cans, you can’t hear the outside world at all.
Though high wind can still cause a bit of extraneous noise to come through, it’s otherwise among the best (if not, the best) noise-cancelling system we’ve heard from a pair of wireless headphones.
These noise-cancelling modes are intelligent, too – with your permission, the WH-1000XM4 headphones can learn where you are using geo-location access, and apply your preferred level of noise-cancellation or ambient sound passthrough depending on where you are. So, at home you may prefer a fully cancelled noise mode, while in the office you may want voices to come through.
With the feature activated, the Sony headphones play a small chiming tone when it’s reached one of your set locations, and dials the noise-cancellation up or back appropriately. Though GPS requirements mean it won’t be able to work during a subterranean commute, you can preset your station or travel hub in the accompanying Headphones Connect app, and have it activate your preferred noise cancelling settings whilst above ground before descending.
The best of the WH-1000XM4 features though are those that pander to convenience. They’re simple and effective additions. A sensor in the earcups will recognize when you take the headphones off, and pause music accordingly, resuming playback automatically when you replace them. If they’re paused for a few minutes (at a delay of your choosing), they’ll automatically switch off to save battery life. A new multipoint connection lets the headphones connect to two devices at once, intelligently switching between both as the requirement of each device dictates – say, to deliver a notification or answering a call.
Most impressive is a new Speak-to-Chat feature. With this option switched on, the headphones’ microphone will intelligently recognize when you’ve started talking, and pause your music while ramping up ambient noise being funneled into the cans. It’ll let you have a chat naturally without taking your headphones off, with a short pause occurring after you stop chatting before resuming music playback.
However, it’s a double edged sword, as it’s almost too effective – if you decide to break into song and sing along with your tunes with the feature activated, it’ll pause your track, ending your karaoke session. Convenient then – so long as you’re restrained with your vocal gymnastics.
- Circumaural 40mm drivers
- Warm and balanced, clear and powerful bass
- Support for 360 Reality Audio for spatial audio
- LDAC and AAC but not aptX or aptX HD
Sony’s using the same 40mm drivers in the WH-1000XM4 as it had in the WH-1000XM3, so tonally and in terms of mix, there’s not much to separate the WH-1000XM4 from the WH-1000XM3 headphones that preceded them. It’s a warm and balanced sound that does well to offer a wide soundstage when required and detail that can pierce through a powerful bass performance.
On the noise-cancelling front, Sony’s using its Dual Noise Sensor tech, making use of two mics in each earcup to suck in sound and analyse it with the QN1 noise cancelling processor. This allows the headphones to adjust its noise cancellation response imperceptibly quickly, at more than 700 times a second. It’s fantastically powerful, and never gets in the way of your tunes.
While aptX HD support would have been welcome, the Sony’s LDAC codec, present here, does a good job with devices that support it, pushing lots of detail through wirelessly. The introduction of DSEE Extreme, an AI-driven process that looks to restore detail from lossy compressed formats, does well to bring clarity to even the lower quality formats and files you may throw at the WH-1000XM4.
Sony’s still pushing its 360 Reality Audio offering too, which is its homegrown immersive audio format, putting you in the middle of a surround-sound mix, and it’s still impressive – even if actually accessing its library is limited to just a few streaming services, and the catalogue’s growth has been slow.
As ever, we put the headphones through their paces with a mixture of streaming services, file formats and spoken word clips, and the Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones impressed across the board.
Jeff Buckley’s elegiac Last Goodbye shimmers into action, its slide guitar giving way to a warm bass groove and layers of acoustic guitars, jangling electrics and orchestral strings. It’s a complicated mix, but the WH-1000XM4 headphones do it justice, soaring with Buckley’s falsetto comfortably sitting at the fore.
Putting the bass to the test by jumping over to Bjork’s Army of Me, you can hear the can’s masterful management of bass frequencies, with the arpeggiated bass line walking through the song as the machine-like snare snaps through.
For something a little softer, Bright Eyes’ First Day of My Life has a great warmth – great vocal clarity is paired with sparkly finger picked guitars and a comforting, guiding double bass that never sounds flabby.
At the other end of the spectrum, Janelle Monae’s absolute banger Make Me Feel sounds supremely powerful on the WH-1000XM4 headphones. From the bop of the percussion to the wall of sound that accompanies the pre-chorus, it sees the Sony WH-1000XM4s firing on all cylinders, with expressive dynamics and clear and distinct separation between each instrument. It’s a pleasure at the best of times, and Sony’s cans bring out the best of the track.
From the perspective of a work-at-home, share-the-kitchen-table-with-a-flatmate user scenario, those around us did notice a substantial amount of noise leakage from the Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones – enough to distract at even half their maximum volume level. You may not be able to hear the outside world, but it can hear what you’re listening to, so keep that in mind if you’re planning on taking these to a quiet office or library.
- No improvement on battery life compared to predecessors
- 30 hours with noise cancelling on / 38 hours with it off
- Quick charging (five hours of charge after just 10 minutes)
- Last just as long or longer than the competition
While the Sony WH-1000XM4 didn’t get a boost in battery life compared to their predecessors, you’re getting a substantial 30 hours with noise cancelling turned on and around 38 hours with noise cancelling turned off.
At first, that number somewhat disappointed us – how could a product not improve battery life year-on-year? But then it dawned on us that now the headphones have speech detection, a new SoC and algorithm, plus new sensors, too. The fact that it remained the same in spite of adding a host of new features is actually kind of impressive.
What about the competition?
Although the Sony WH-1000XM4 don’t come with a battery life improvement compared to their predecessors, they do stretch their playback time as far as possible thanks to the new auto-on/off and play/pause sensor inside the earcup that can tell when you’ve taken the headphones off. It’s a huge boon to folks who might forget to turn off their headphones at the end of the day only to find that they’re dead 24 hours later.
The 30 hours should be enough to get you through multiple international flights or a few days to the office, but it’s also good to know that the headphones can be charged in a matter of minutes thanks to fast-charging. According to Sony, you can get about five hours of charge from 10 minutes of power and a full charge after about three hours.
So how do the Sony WH-1000XM4 compare to the competition? Quite favorably. The Bose Noise-Cancelling 700 only clocked in at around 20 hours of battery life with noise cancelling turned on, while the Bowers and Wilkins PX7 matches the Sony at 30.