To say the Sony WF1000XM4 was my most anticipated bit of personal audio kit of 2021 is an understatement. If you’ve read my review of the XM3s you’d already know that I’m now a true believer in Sony’s ability to outgun the competition when it comes to headphones and earphones. Now, much has changed, which means the XM4 arrived to much scrutiny from me and had some immense standards to live up to. That leaves this review open to some nitpicky observations, of course, but just know that any negatives are light and largely irrelevant. I’ll say this now so you can either choose to keep reading or not, this is a resounding 4.5-star verdict that falls slightly short of perfection for several reasons.
Note that this is the same store I gave the XM3s, but put it into context here. Now, there’s more competition in the space, and stronger alternatives that are just as good from – mainly from the likes of Samsung, Jabra, and Sennheiser. Although Sony has them all beat when it comes to what matters the most, the sound. Read on to find out more.
This is a sexy, finessed, and slimed improvement over the predecessor. These tiny buds are clearly reduced in size and look much more stylish when they’re in the ears. The case no longer has an awkwardly bulbous bronze bottom but is a seamless black (or silver) all around, it too slimmed down to fit better in a pocket and slip into a bag.
Even the packaging is better, and the first impression you’ll get from the XM4 is a good one. This is recycled packaging that contains the small black charging case with the buds inside and a USB-C charger with the standard instruction menu. Nothing fancy here, and while the cardboard packaging means Sony doesn’t get to dress their new flagship earphones up with a premium first-impression, it’s a simple and likeable packaging that’s easy to interact with.
Do note that while these earbuds use USB-C to charge, while in their case, you can also use reverse wireless charging if you have a suitable Qi charging pad. This means you can also use the charge from the case as a power supply with any compatible smartphones, playing into the modern ecosystem of devices and adding another layer of convenience.
The body of each bud is rounder and fits in the ear easier, helping with comfort even though they still have some stability issues. These aren’t running earbuds, they are lifestyle through and through. If you want a pair of exercise buds you’ll be better off looking at brands like Jabra and Beats. Those polyurethane ear tips are much better than straight silicone, helping make up some of the stability and promising a better fit to help with passive noise cancellation and audio performance.
If you are having trouble with securing the right fit from the 3 sizes of ear tips included, Sony has wisely included an air-tightness test, which uses the accompanying Headphones Connect app to measure fit. It’s worth playing around with this one if you want the best bass response and noise cancellation experience.
You’ve got a modest IPX4 rating here, which falls behind some competitors but still maintains a decent level of splash and sweat resistance.
On each bud you have a touch-sensitive pad that can be re-mapped via the app. This customisation is always welcome, although straight out of the box the default controls are intuitive enough. Tap the left bud once and you’ll toggle between noise-cancellation and ambient sound modes, tap the right once and you’ll pass the music immediately, with other series of taps scrolling through music either forwards or backwards. It all works well enough, and the touchpads aren’t overly sensitive so you won’t have much of an issue with accidental touches.
You will, however, have an issue with speak-to-chat. The feature, which was introduced with the WH1000X4 is impressive as it dulls music when you speak so you can have a conversation without having to do anything extra. The problem here is that it can be too sensitive, so even a cough can trigger the mode. You can either keep this turned off or adjust sensitivity via the app.
Under the hood, Sony has made an improvement to the DAC with an enhanced V1 integrated processor and included the signature DSEE Extreme audio processor with Edge-A. No one is beating Sony when it comes to processing, and this is only proof as the performance is virtually unmatched both when it comes to active noise cancelling (Bose still comes close) and audio performance.
The biggest improvement in performance here is call quality. Sony’s mics are now better at isolating a speakers voice and using beamforming so ambient sounds aren’t a problem when you’re walking and talking outside. There’s also automatic wind reduction, and I’ve found that those on the other end of the line can hear me much clearer when I’m speaking what the buds, even in settings where the wind has picked up considerably. There’s of course always going to be that lack of quality outside, but the fact that Sony has managed to finally get it right is well worth the praise.
The audio performance on this blows me away, even months after first testing them out. The bass is noticeably toned down and refined from the XM3s, and what you’ll get here is a much better balance with the soundstage than I think any other pair of earbuds I’ve owned. The texture, clarity and resonance is stable at all volumes, giving you plenty of space to pick up the deeper details in each track. All styles of music sound good here, from EDM and hip hop, to jazz and soul – testament to how tight and confident Sony’s redesigned drivers have become.
With a sophisticated sound that can reveal more detail in each song, I can confidently say that these are the best sounds earbuds on the market right now. That makes the high price tag a bit easier to swallow.
And now for one big annoyance. Where the XM3 sometimes had connection issue, the XM4 perhaps overcorrected and now is desperate to connect at just about every moment. I would have times when I’m speaking on the phone normally and then I realised the buds have connected to my phone simply because the case may have moved around in my pocket, when the buds assumed they were open and rearing to go. I’ve even had “dude, why are your buds trying to connect to my phone” before, as the buds are horny little Bluetooth buggers that try and connect at every opportune moment.
If you’re using these when your favourite streaming service, you might be disappointed with Sony’s decision not to include AptX HD, which should be standard by now and helps greatly when syncing modern content and handling it all efficiently.
Battery life has improved as well, but the biggest improvement is seen in how fast the XM4 can juice up in the charging case. Leave these little beauties in their home for 5 minutes and you should be able to claw 1 hour of playtime back. The battery is rated for 8 hours of play with noise-cancelling and Bluetooth turned on, with a total of 16 hours when considered with the charging case. That’s not bad at all, especially when considering how good these buds are.
Verdict & Value
Is $349 too much to pay for these buds? No. Considering the near-perfect performance, that’ll definitely leave you with higher expectations from Sony, and how essential music has become to daily life, the XM4 is one of the best devices you can own right now. There is of course some room for improvement, but this is a company that has – especially since the XM3 – been knocking it out of the park for years. I have little doubt that the sequel will be even better.
FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Highlights: Unmatched audio performance; better design with a more portable charging case;
Lowlights: Only IPX4; can be too zealous with Bluetooth connection; still sync issues when watching content; no aptX HD.