Sony WH-1000XM4 wireless noise-canceling headset review: Making the world better through a flawless music listening experience

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There has been a battle waging for years between Bose and Sony for the title of best the wireless active-noise canceling cans. After more than a week of intensive time with the new Sony WH-1000XM4 I think it is clear we have an undisputed winner.

With the coronavirus driving millions of people from the office and workplace back into their houses for remote work, it is important to create an environment where work can continue productively. Many people have pets, children, roommates, and other distractions that can inhibit an effective work space. Thanks to the new Sony wireless noise-canceling headphones you can simply place them on your head and enter another world free from distractions.

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Early last month a PR contact reached out to ask if I was interested in checking out an “innovative and highly anticipated” product from Sony. I thought it was going to be a Sony Xperia 1 II and looked forward to trying one out.

A couple of weeks later a heavy box arrived with a unique sound-activated LED light array inside. It turns out the package contained the new Sony WH-1000XM4 wireless noise-canceling headphones and after listening to them for several hours every day for the last 10 days I am hooked.

Specifications

  • Driver: 1.57 inch, dome type, with liquid crystal polymer diaphragms
  • Microphones: Two in each earcup
  • Wireless connectivity: Bluetooth 5.0 and NFC
  • BT profiles: A2DP, AVRCP, HFP, HSP
  • Sensors: Capacitive touch on right earcup, accelerometers for on-ear detection
  • Battery life: Up to 30 hours of ANC play and 38 hours with ANC off. Three hours to achieve full charge via USB-C, but with just 10 minutes of charge you can get up to five hours of playback.
  • Headphone weight: 250 grams

Hardware

The retail package includes the Sony headphones, a carrying case, an airplane adapter, a 47 inch 3.5mm audio cable, and an eight inch USB-A to USB-C cable. Silver and black headphones are available to purchase.

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I tested out the black pair of headphones that has some copper highlights on the zipper of the carrying case and in a few areas on the headphones. All parts of the headphones are covered in matte soft-touch coating. The earcups and top piece of the band resting on your head are foamed urethane that are very soft and comfortable for wearing for hours.

The earcups fold flat so you can rest your headset on a table. They also fold in so that you can create a small footprint to carry them in the included carrying case or in your gear bag. Each side above the earcups can be extended about an inch to fit different sized heads. I had it extended less than half an inch for my perfect fit.

Also: Sony WF-SP800N review: Nine hour battery, ANC, and water resistance, but poor active fit

The outside flat surface of the right earcup is touch-sensitive and I was amazed by the consistent performance of the controls. Touch controls let you manage volume, play/pause, skip forward and back, and more. It was awesome to trust my touches on the right earcup to always perform my intended action.

A USB-C port is positioned at the bottom of the right earcup with a small charging indicator light next to the port. There is a red R on the inside of the band over the right earcup to make it clear how to wear the headphones.

Along the bottom of the left earcup we find a 3.5mm audio port, power button and indicator light, and a custom button. Use the Sony Headphones Connect software on your smartphone to setup the custom button for your specific needs. The left earcup also houses the NFC chip.

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Smartphone software

In order to optimize your use of the Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones, you need to download and install the Sony Headphones Connect application to your Android or iOS smartphone. After installation, simply turn on the headphones to initiate pairing with your smartphone.

The Sony Headphones Connect application shows the battery level of the headphones. Through the upper right menu option you can view a tutorial, check the firmware version of the earbuds, and more.

There are three main tabs in the application; Status, Sound, and System. The Status tab shows the music being played and provides back, play, and forward buttons with a volume slider below the controls. The Adaptive Sound Control option is also available.

Tapping Adaptive Sound Control brings up another screen where you can toggle this function on and off. This function detects your actions and locations so that headphone settings are switched to allow some ambient sound. You can toggle on various controls on this screen, including having the headphones learn from locations or maps.

Moving along to the Sound tab, we find the ability to toggle Ambient Sound Control on or off and also adjust the level of active noise cancellation. You can also toggle to focus on voice.

One of the most useful features I’ve ever seen on a headset is the ability to enable the Speak-to-Chat option. With this enabled, you simply start talking to have your music paused. I cannot tell you how many times this has been used over the past 10 days as I leave my home office to go talk to someone else in the house and leave my headset on. You can even set how long your music stays paused after you stop talking.

Next on the Sound tab we have the noise-canceling optimizer section. Tap start with your headphones on to have the headphones perform some audio tests to customize ANC to your body. Atmospheric pressure optimization is also setup in this section of the app.

Below this section is the equalizer area with an option for boosting the bass as well. Various default options are available, but you can also setup a couple of custom levels for your specific preferences.

At the bottom of the screen is the 360 Reality Audio Setup area. I went through the setup that takes photos of your ears and provides a simple hearing test, but you also need to subscribe and install 360 by Deezer, nugs.net, or Tidal in order to enjoy the audio experience offered here. The test audio sample sure sounded good, but I was unable to use it since I do not subscribe to any of these services.

The System tab is where you customize other settings on your headphones. These options include connecting to two devices simultaneously, setting up the custom button, toggling the touch sensor on or off, choosing to turn off the headset when you remove it or keep it powered on, and more.

Options available for the custom button include ambient sound control, Google Assistant, or Amazon Alexa. Single, double, and long press actions can be setup here in the settings.

Daily usage experiences

I was pleasantly surprised to discover the product sent along for review, but also didn’t have high expectations since most headphones tend to cause me ear pain after a couple of hours. Earbuds are my preferred form factor, but after several hours a day of wearing the Sony WH-1000XM4 I am not sure I can go back to earbuds unless I am out running.

These new Sony headphones are focused primarily on an optimal music listening experience and you truly disappear into a world of audio delight when you place these on your head and hit the play button. Audio is loud, crisp, and simply fantastic. It is the best headset I have ever had on my head and I highly recommend them. Just to make sure it wasn’t my own fascination with the headphones, I had the four other members of my family try them out and they universally praised the audio performance.

While the audio experience is thrilling, it is also the other utilities provided by Sony that makes the entire experience a near perfect one. Simply place your hand over the right earcup to toggle on Quick Attention Mode that lowers volume to a barely audible level so you can have a quick conversation, order a coffee, answer the door, or perform another short talk. The Speak-to-Chat option is also perfect and works consistently. The same can be said for the flawless touch sensor controls.

While the new Sony WH-1000XM4 is clearly focused on the best music experience, since I was wearing them all day long I also used them for phone calls. Callers said that I sounded crystal clear so you can use them as your singular remote work headset.

I spent tens of hours using the headphones over the past week and honestly could not find a flaw in their design or performance. While the noise-canceling worked wonders for silencing a water feature, lawn care professionals, pets, and other noises in my neighborhood I cannot wait to try them out on an airplane or train commute into the city. Sony has a winner here and has lived up to expectations at a launch price the same as the last model, $349.99.

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