Seemingly unable to squeeze any more fidelity from its beloved flagship headphones, Sony has turned to artificial intelligence to give this fourth generation of noise cancelling headphones an edge – and it’s a smart move.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 retains all the things we loved about their predecessor, the Sony WH-1000XM3 (which is to say, sonic performance and comfort), and add some clever twists that might just change the way you use headphones.
A strong contender for best headphones of 2020? Hell, yeah!
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Sony WH-1000XM4 review: Features
You want features? These Sony’s have features up the wazoo. Adaptive Sound Control, Speak-to-Chat, enhanced DSEE Extreme. There’s a lot of clever processing onboard.
The secret is Edge-AI. No, this isn’t some hellish U2 upgrade, but artificial intelligence that operates without the need for a network connection, which means Sony can innovate with some cool new tricks, using smarter silicon.
DSEE Extreme is an upgraded version of regular DSEE, a technology which compensates for audio lost during digital compression. Able to analyse music in real time and restore high frequency sounds, it’s basically sonic Botox, here given a smart AI boost.
Then there’s Speak-to-Chat. The WH-1000XM4 will recognise your voice, pausing music when you speak, meaning you don’t have to take your headphones off to hold a conversation. Tunes automatically start playing 30 seconds after you’ve last spoken, or 15 if you speed it up in the accompanying app.
Finally there’s Adaptive Sound Control. This doesn’t just optimise performance when out and about, it can adjust automatically based on locations you frequently visit. We might be more excited for this if we were actually going anywhere these days, but ce la vie...
One thing missing from the WH-1000XM4’s extensive feature roster is Bluetooth aptX. Sony says it doesn’t need it, because these phones support LDAC instead, which offers a similar headroom boost when used with a smartphone that supports LDAC. Might be worth checking your mobile supports it.
Naturally, they’re hi-res 24-bit 96kHz capable, too.
Battery life runs to a generous 30 hours. If you’re in a rush, a 10 minute top-up will give you up to 5 hours more play time.
Sony WH-1000XM4 review: Performance
Audio quality is unchanged from last year’s model – but that’s no bad thing. The headphones use the same boisterous 40mm Liquid Crystal Polymer drivers, able to reach high and deliver appreciable bass. The midrange, much like Rob Halford’s head, is bullet smooth.
The Struts and Robbie Williams collab Strange Days shows off the XM4’s excellent spatial clarity. Even as Luke Spiller’s vocals crack and soar, the cans reveal errant bird song low in the mix before Williams joins in and the hook bites.
Thankfully, they can bludgeon when required too. Napalm Death’s A Bellyful Of Salt And Spleen stomps like a legion of Roman cohorts, each ear cup struggling to contain the band’s interminable riffing, mesmeric vocals cresting like a Centurion’s helmet beneath the headband.
If you want to hear a perfect example of the WH-1000XM4’s ability to slam fast and hard, cue up the divine hair-metal of Stryper’s Even The Devil Believes. These Sony’s positively worship the spit-balling axe-work of Oz Fox and Michael Sweet’s surging vocals. Those big drivers exert angelic pressure during the dark and dirty Divider, and you’ll wonder why god even bothered to invent noise cancelling when Middle Finger Messiah is in full flow.
Sony has actually tweaked noise cancelling on this model, curtailing unwanted high and mid frequencies a smidge. This manifests itself as better voice cancellation when out and about, although for all intents and purposes the ANC is the same, which is to say it remains freakishly effective.
Sony WH-1000XM4 review: Comfort & accessories
The WH-1000XM4 may look largely unchanged compared to their predecessor, but there are differences, albeit subtle ones. The ear cups are a tad larger, to accommodate the extra sensor required for auto switch-off (another new trick), and apparently the headband hinge has altered slightly, but from almost any vantage point they look much the same.
The style remains fashionably minimalistic and on the right side of premium. The faux leather pads are seductively-soft, and the headband generously cushioned. You’ll get away with relatively long stints before they become uncomfortable.
Available in standard black and silver grey, they’re bundled with a smart carry case, travel adapter, headphone cable and USB-C cable.
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