Released in the early summer of 2021, the Sony WF-1000XM4 in-ear headphones were issued as an upgrade to the well-received WF-1000XM3 earbuds which appeared on the market in 2019.
Not wanting to stand still in the face of stiff competition in the ever-growing in-ear market, Sony really pushed the boat out on WF-1000XM4 and have produced one of the best noise cancelling in-ear headphones out there. Sure, they’re pricy, but with performance this good, I'm not going to quibble too much.
Sony WF-1000XM4 review: Design
The Sony WF-1000XM4 look the part and come in black and white variations. They might look a little chunky in pictures, but they are light and comfortable to wear – even for long durations – and have a matte finish branded with a small Sony logo on the side. The included charging case carries the same finish as the earbuds and while a little bigger than some cases, is still small enough to pop into a pocket with ease.
A tap on the left earbud switches between ambient sound and noise cancelling, while a double tap on the right skips tracks. If someone’s trying to get your attention, a long hold of the left bud quietens everything down, and the music pauses should you remove the right earbud.
The Sony WF-1000XM4 also utilise Sony’s Headphones Connect app, where you can update the headphones' software, tweak EQ settings, set your ambient sound levels and analyse your ears to get the best from the 360 Reality Audio Setup which is used by Tidal (opens in new tab), Deezer (opens in new tab), Artist Connection (opens in new tab) and live concert audio service Nugs.net (opens in new tab).
I’m also going to give the packaging a shout out, as Sony have used no plastic here. Instead, they’ve implemented their “Made To Be Remade” philosophy which means 99% of the paper packaging used in the outer box is from recycled material.
Sony WF-1000XM4 review: Features
The Sony WF-1000XM4 use the audio firm’s Integrated Processor V1 to improve general noise cancelling – a feature Sony say “delivers the industry’s highest level of noise canceling yet uses less power.” Now, I can’t verify that, but what I will say is that the noise cancelling in these in-ear headphones is excellent.
I’ve used them on a three-hour train journey and while out running in a windy winter in the west of Scotland – and they didn’t let me down once. Sure, some muffled wind sound does travel through, but never enough to make you want to up the volume.
The Sony WF-1000XM4 come with small, medium and large isolation earbud tips and I found these to be snug and never in danger of popping out. These do need a bit of a squish before inserting into the ear, but comfort was great. Pair that with IPX4 water resistance tech, and these earbuds can stand up to a decent splash of wet weather too.
As for battery life, and I've been more than impressed with what the Sony WF-1000XM4 delivers. With noise cancelling activated, you'll get approximately eight hours of music from a full charge, while the case will give you the option of a further 16 hours on top of that.
With ambient sound on, you'll get 12 hours of charge with a further boost of up to 36 hours when you factor in the carry case. And, if you're in a hurry to catch the bus or train but haven't had time to charge up, five-minutes through the mains will give you an hour of playback. Wireless charging is also a thing, so you don't need to necessarily have a USB-C charging cable handy – although one is included in the box.
I don't tend to receive many calls when I'm out and about, preferring to text or call back when I'm settled in somewhere, but I did try this on the Sony WF-1000XM4 several times. When a call comes in, the Speak-To-Chat feature pauses whatever you're listening to as soon as your voice is picked up, with your music/podcast resuming as soon as the call ends.
This works well but isn't perfect. It can be a bit muddy sounding on a busy street and some background noise can still be filtered through. Personally, this isn't a deal breaker for me as I bought these specifically for their audio playback and noise cancellation. Just bear this in mind if you take a lot of calls on the go.
Sony WF-1000XM4 review: Sound
To put these in-ear headphones through their paces, I selected a few albums from metal, jazz and classic rock/prog.
First up, was Herbie Hancock’s 1974 album Thrust and the lead track Palm Grease. The Sony WF-1000XM4 produced beautifully balanced sound with Hancock’s keyboard flourishes layered perfectly over Paul Jackson’s crystal clear bass and Bennie Maupin’s saxophone work. The drumming and percussion from Mike Clark and Bill Summers was sharp and punchy and the cowbells jingle from ear to ear in perfect harmony. It was a joy to listen to both with noise cancelling activated or ambient sound triggered.
For the metal test, I went for Slipknot’s All Hope Is Gone album and specifically the track Psychosocial – and wow! What a punch! The audio was again crystal clear and every instrument could be heard perfectly, with Corey Taylor’s vocals mixing wonderfully with the surrounding gut-punching chaos.
Rush’s Hold Your Fire album was up next – the first Rush album I ever bought (on vinyl with my paper round money in 1987) and as such, it has a special place in my heart.
I fired up Turn The Page and was immediately impressed with how Geddy Lee’s bass sounded. Not too thumping, but smooth and glowing. Alex Lifeson’s guitar, while not to the front on this album due to the band being in their 80s groove, still sounded sharp and impressive, and the late, great Neil Peart’s drums drove along brilliantly. Even on the first chorus I was greeted by Lee’s vocals swirling around my head in perfect clarity – an astonishing surprise as this particular element had completely passed me by, despite owning the album for 35 years! Wonderful stuff.
Sony WF-1000XM4 review: The alternatives
When considering buying a new set of noise cancelling in-ear headphones, audio quality, performance and price are going to come into the equation. There's no escaping the fact that the Sony WF-1000XM4 are pricy compared with some of its competitors, so that could alter your view.
The Apple AirPods Pro are worth serious consideration if you're looking for a quality set of earbuds. They sound brilliant, especially when paired with Apple Music's Spatial Audio, are comfy and have a great battery life.
Alternatively, the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds retail for a similar price as the Sony WF-1000XM4 and offer many of the same features. We’ve found the battery life to be slightly inferior to the Sony product, but they’re still worth a closer look if you prefer the Bose style.