It’s been just less than two years since I reviewed the WF-1000XM3, and in that time, Sony headphones never stopped being the benchmark for high-end headphones. Seriously, I reviewed a new pair like a month ago and still made the usual reference.
That’s a rarity these days of the annual update cycle. And that doubles for wireless headphone space. It was already feeling crowded when Sony got it in earnest in mid-2019, and things have only gotten worse on that front. But the M3s were a breath of fresh air. With so many companies vying for the lower and middle end of the spectrum, Sony dropped something really premium.
Six months before the arrival of the AirPods Pro, the M3 hit the market with excellent sound and noise cancellation. The latter, of course, has been standardized across the category, but when Sony brought it in, it was almost unheard of. However, despite the warm reception of the headphones, the company waited two years for proper follow-up. Understandable, I guess. Improving very well is difficult.
I’m happy to report that the WF-1000XM4 is worth the wait. Sony is excellent at high-end headphones, and these are no exception. The new shoots represent an improvement over their predecessors in several ways. Unfortunately, they are priced accordingly. If you thought M3s were $ 230, I have some bad news for you, buddy. New ones cost an additional $ 50.
The upshot is that the new headphones mean a price drop on older units. A quick search shows them for around $ 178 in various places, putting them more in line with standard headphone prices. At $ 30 more than the AirPods Pro, Sony really leans toward the premium end of the spectrum. If anyone has the resources and scale to keep prices low, it’s Sony.
Is the WF-1000XM4 worth the price? It’s a pretty subjective question, of course. What I can definitely say is that they are among the best-sounding pairs of headphones you can buy. I’m still not convinced that anyone can really duplicate the experience of on-ear headphones in a pair of headphones; the form factor is too limited for now. But there are definitely advantages to going with buds, namely the portability and on these indescribably hot summer days, the opportunity to let your ears breathe.
Of course, buds are also better suited to fitness. Although if you’re specifically looking for a pair to work out, these probably shouldn’t be your first choice. I mean, they’re IPX4 water resistant, which is pretty good for sweat, but these are more like a long plane ride or sitting at your desk and really enjoy a jazz type of headphones to the fullest.
In part, because they are big. Of course, they are a bit smaller than their predecessors, and going from a paddle design to placing the components over the ear canal is a net benefit, but they are still a bit too large for the long haul. And while this is one of those things that varies drastically from person to person, I found that buttons tend to cause earache after wearing them for long periods. I found the pressure relieved a bit when I swapped the medium foam tips for a small one (I’m medium on pretty much the entire variety of headphone tips), although the small ones were much worse at forming a seal in my ears, a must for really take advantage of active noise cancellation. And still, the eventual dull ache wasn’t non-existent.
It is also worth noting that I have not had spectacular experiences with foam tips. They tend to be more prone to wear and tear than silicone and have a habit of getting a little kinky in the earwax department (see, this job isn’t always pretty). I do understand why high-end manufacturers go this way though, from a comfort perspective.
Well, kudos to Sony for opting for sustainable paper packaging. It’s not much to look at, but how often do you actually look at the package your electronic devices came in? Anything that is even a little better for the planet is a net positive in my opinion. And besides, the charging case looks great.
It is significantly smaller than the W3. These are way more pocket-sized. It’s an understated matte black, albeit with a fairly strong white Sony logo on top. The magnets are strong and the buds fit the case with authority; they also adhere to each other. A thin LED strip directly under the lid glows green or red, depending on the load. The case is wide enough to stand upright, so the USB-C port is located on the back, or you can charge it wirelessly with a Qi pad.
Interestingly, the indicated charging time is the same as that of the M3s, although the numbers have been changed. With the originals, you have six hours on the buds and another 18 in the case. Here it is eight hours on the buds and 16 in the case. So a full day, either way, but I certainly prefer the extra two hours on the actual headphones.
The buds themselves are a bit more eye-catching than the case. The design features two intersecting circles, the top of which is designed to align with the ear. The exterior is accented with a metal microphone, with a second microphone recessed on top.
The sound of the buds is really excellent. It has the kind of instrument separation that opens up new details in familiar songs that you missed with lower buttons. The default balance is great too. Sony does not lean too much for bass because it is not necessary. Headphones sound great on a wide range of varieties of music, as well as podcasts.
Noise cancellation is once again the industry leader. A simple tap on the left earbud toggles between ANC and ambient noise, and the difference is like night and day. I was very impressed by the sounds it was able to block out, including my extremely loud vegetable juicer. I was also impressed by the Bluetooth range of the headphones.
With headphones, it is true that you often get what you pay for. Certainly that is the case here. Once again, Sony managed to set the bar for high-end headphones with the WF-1000XM4.