I had to wait slightly longer than I wanted to do the Sony WF-1000XM4 review but as you’ll find out — you often have to wait for royalty. A lot of products come saddled with a lot of pre-game hype and this pair of wireless earbuds had to be spectacular or many would question if Sony had the technical prowess to put even more distance between itself and Bose, Apple, and Sennheiser.
Sony has built a superb reputation in the wireless headphone/earphone segment and have overtaken Bose in recent years in the ANC segment of the market as well. You’ll find the Sony models at the top of many recommendation lists in both the in-ear (WF) and over-ear (WH) categories.
So the burning question is how much of that reputation is earned and how much is name recognition?
When one can walk into any big box store in North America and find Sony products, it’s no wonder they have higher sales totals than models only offered via Ali-express. If you ask any consumer to name three brands of consumer electronics — one will almost assuredly be Sony.
Meet the New Boss
The Sony WF-1000XM4 are the fourth generation of the noise cancelling in-ear model but you wouldn’t know that by looking at them.
The WF-1000XM4 look nothing like the previous generation XM3 ($168 at Crutchfield), which has led to more than a few comments as to why Sony would do that. The XM3 was already class leading and at the top of many recommendation lists when this new model was being designed so it would have been easy for Sony to make minor incremental changes to its already popular design. Instead, the XM4 is a completely re-imagined model with a new shape, new internals, and some rather significant improvements.
This starts with the packaging. Gone are the high gloss graphics in favor of a much smaller box made of recycled materials which will please the environmentally conscious.
Inside the box, the kit contains the earpieces, case, charging cable, and three sets of ear-tips (all foam). It is worth noting that although a USB Type-C charging cable is provided, the XM4 offers wireless charging so USB isn’t the only option like it was on earlier generations.
The case is now considerably smaller than the previous model, which combined with a longer battery life again shows off Sony’s engineering prowess. The case provides two full charges before it needs to be recharged itself which gives the XM4 nearly a full 24 hours of use without having to recharge the case.
Opening the case reveals a completely redesigned shell that looks and feels nothing like the XM3. The XM4 sits more in ear than on it as the XM3 did — and combined with the foam tips, provides better isolation as a result.
The exterior bulb of the shell serves as a touch sensor which takes a little getting used to as the small metal bullseye directly over the ear canal seems to be a natural target when reaching to change songs.
The new shell is also IP42 rated making it safer to use in the gym or outdoors. I was able to get between 6.5 and 8 hours of use from the earpieces before needing to charge them depending on volume and ANC level which puts the XM4 near the top in battery life as well.
Internally, the XM4 still utilizes a single 6mm dynamic driver per side but the electronics have been upgraded with the new Sony V1 processor offering improved noise reduction, LDAC connectivity and DSEE Extreme. For those not familiar with DSEE, this is Sony’s proprietary Digital Sound Enhancement Engine which is DSP designed to restore lost information to compressed music files in real-time.
Unlike EQ or re-sampling, DSEE uses the V1 processor to identify individual instruments and vocals and restore the ranges normally lost due to compression. I have to say that while I still prefer my uncompressed FLAC files, at times it was hard to tell the difference between reasonable quality mp3 files and FLAC when using the XM4.
The XM4 won’t make lossy mp3 files sound like 24-bit/96kHz recordings but there is definitely something to the technology because the improvements were quite audible.
Sound quality is very good with or without ANC enabled and this is one area where Sony has put some distance between itself and the competition.
Quite often I find that engaging the ANC reduces noise but introduces some other artifacts that detract from the sound quality. Sony has done an admirable job of keeping that to an absolute minimum.
Bass extension and definition are excellent, vocals are clear and detailed without getting thin or harsh, and there is enough treble to give the feeling of some space and air at the top. The top end extension is another area where the WF-1000XM4 has created some daylight between itself and the other models in the category.
The soundstage is well proportioned but fairly intimate as is almost always the case with ANC models; instrument separation is good enough to keep things from sounding congested or closed-in.
The noise cancellation works quite well; wind noise is reduced substantially which is usually an issue with ANC models. The noise cancellation still has its limits as sharp loud noises are not reduced as effectively as droning; but the overall performance ranks at the top of all the models I’ve tested so far. Sony and Bose now occupy the top spot in regard to noise cancellation technology and that only adds to the value of the WF-1000XM4 wireless earbuds.
Some people like to bash Sony products as nothing more than mid-tier components with high price tags. The reality is that Sony has become one of the top manufacturers of 4K TVs and headphones and one has to give the brand credit for keeping its eye on the prize.
The Sony WF-1000XM4 are very solid wireless earbuds; excellent engineering, build quality, sound quality, and state-of-the-art noise cancellation performance.
The WF-1000XM4 are the Corvette of the TWS IEM world.
There may be a boutique maker that makes something with more features, or slightly higher performance but much like the car market, they are probably more finicky, less cost-effective, and quite possibly more about style than substance. There is a reason that nearly every sports car gets compared to the C8 and why every new ANC IEM gets compared to the XM4.
Until something a lot better comes along, the Sony WF-1000XM4 are the best true wireless earbuds currently available.
For more information: Sony WF-1000XM4