There are perhaps very few companies that have consistently delivered on a quality audio experience for the better part of the decade. Sony, while taking a hit in the smartphone world, has been one of my go-to brands for anything audio. As years have progressed, Active Noise Cancelling (ANC) has become a very important selling point for premium headphones. While it was pioneered by Bose and its QuietComfort series of headphones, Sony has more than caught up to the competition with its 1000XM series. I had used Sony’s WH-1000XM3 (review) last year which went head-to-head with Bose’s Noise Cancelling 700 headphones (review). While Bose’s offering came ahead in front owing to better microphone quality and multi-device support, Sony’s sound signature and ANC was unmatched even then. Which is why, Sony has mostly adopted an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach for its latest and greatest, the WH-1000XM4 headphones. By the looks of it, Sony could have the ultimate headphones experience on its hand. However, priced at Rs 29,990, the Sony WH-1000XM4 are an expensive proposition, so let’s dive into the review to find out if the headphones do justice to the premium price tag.
Design and comfort
The Sony 1000XM4 ship with the same design as last year’s model, which isn’t a bad thing. The 1000XM3 was one of the most comfortable pair of headphones aside from the NC700 or Sennheiser Momentum 3. In a similar fashion, the earcups on the WH-1000XM4 pack substantial memory foam on the outer layering, paving way for a hermetic seal over my ears. As for the rest of the headset, Sony has employed premium build materials for the XM4’s construction, with faux leather and traces of memory foam cushioning covering most of the headband. The frame makes use of flexible polycarbonate material with the weight the balanced out on either side for a comfortable wearing experience. What’s more, the 1000XM4 feature folding earcups, making them more portable over something like the NC700. As for colours, the Sony WH-1000XM4 come in two hues. I received the Black colour variant for review which has a smooth matte finish that I very much appreciated over the Silver option.
Sony is sticking with its slightly weird case design where the headphones need to be contorted to fit inside. The Bose NC700’s case is elegant and the procedure to put the headphone back in is very simple. There is also a nice little magnetic flap for housing the charging and 3.5mm cable. Presentation of the product is key and Sony’s slightly haphazard case construction does leave a sour taste. However, the actual listening and user experience is anything but that.
Coming to the I/O, the top left earcup houses two physical buttons. The first one is the power button which can be long-pressed to put the headphones into pairing mode. The second button is customisable and by default, can be used to invoke your choice of AI assistant (Google or Alexa) with a single press, while a long press will read out your notifications. You can, however, remap the button to enable one-tap switch between ANC and ambient noise mode by configuring the same through the Sony Headphones app. There are touch controls but only on the right cup and they are still a bit rusty like last year’s XM3. Swiping up and down on just the right part will increase and decrease the volume. Swiping left and right will change the track and a double tap will play/pause your music. I wouldn’t place a lot of faith in the gestures though, as quite a few times I accidentally skipped a track when trying to increase the volume. There is also a Type-C port for charging and a 3.5mm headphone jack for connecting the AUX cable.
Features and Active Noise Cancelling
The substantial price tag of the Sony WH-1000XM4 warrants additional features contributing to a more refined listening experience. Rest assured, the headset has seen some new additions which build upon the features from last year.
- The much asked for Wear Detection is present on the headphones which will Play/Pause when you take the headphones off or put them on.
- Then there is the multi-device support which has been a long time coming for the 1000XM series. For my work, I need my laptop and phone connected to the same wireless headset and thanks to the 1000XM4, that is now possible. Switching audio between devices can be a bit tricky since the first device needs to be paused before going to the second one. However, if I’m getting a call on my phone while the headset is playing music from my laptop, the XM4 automatically switches to my phone and vice versa.
- You can also cover the right earcup with your palm to turn on ambient noise and pause a soundtrack quickly. Quite handy to quickly hear announcements or catch up on a conversation if someone is speaking to you.
- Then there is the highly customisable Sony Headphones app for Android and iOS. The app will automatically detect the headset when the latter’s pairing mode is turned on. There are a ton of settings in the app which will fine-tune the audio experience to your needs. There are three tabs that are present once the headset is paired with the app namely Status, Sound and System.
- In the Status tab, you can see the battery percentage along with the number of devices that are connected currently with the headset, the song that is being played, and volume controls. Like last year’s XM3, you also get Adaptive Sound Control with the cans, which in my opinion, is an amazing feature that sets the XM4 apart from the horde of premium headsets. Basically, the sensors on the headphones will detect if you are sitting, standing or walking and will adapt accordingly. For example, if you are sitting and suddenly get up and start walking, ambient noise will automatically turn up to make you more aware of your surroundings. Then you can customise the app to learn when you are in certain locations and fine-tune your listening accordingly. All of this works to the T and is extremely responsive. Adaptive Sound Control can be turned off if you want but I highly recommend you keep it turned on.
- The Sound tab has the Ambient Sound Control which changes the level of noise cancellation and ambient noise. The sensor can also learn your voice and automatically pause music if you are talking to someone with the Speak-to-chat settings. It works surprisingly well and the utility could decipher my voice even in a crowded room. You can also optimise Noise Cancelling based on the Atmospheric Pressure as well as your hearing. Below that is the Equalizer with several presets such as Vocal, Relaxed, Treble Boost and more. You can also manually change the frequencies and bass and then save it under a custom preset. Finally, there is the rather comical setup for the 360 Reality Audio wherein, you will be asked to take photos of both your ears to be analysed within the app. However, at present, this feature only works with a couple of apps (Artist Connection and nugs.net) and the music library is very limited and expensive, which is why I didn’t use it. There is also the DSEE Extreme toggle for upscaling compressed audio files using AI. More on that later.
- The System Tab deals with settings about automatic sleep mode, remapping the Assitant button, downloading software updates, and language control.
Sony has retained its position as the foremost authority in the ANC category with the WH-1000XM4 headphones. The pair ships with two microphones, one in each cup to facilitate ANC. When enabled, the outside hum of the world is dissolved in silence. Car horns or some extremely loud noise on the outside will still penetrate the earcups seal, but low-decibel ambient noise is cut off. That said, once the music starts playing, you’ll feel completely immersed and enveloped in the song. The QN1 chip inside the headphones adjusts noise cancellation 700 times a second, thereby providing impeccable ANC. Quite frankly, it’s fun to hear the outside noise drown out when you move the Ambient Sound Control slider in the Headphones app. Now I did not get to test the XM4 on an aeroplane to see if they block the irritating hum of the turbine. However, if the Bose NC700 ANC were able to do it, I can confidently say that it will be a piece of cake on the XM4. Simply put: you are not getting a better pair of ANC headphones for Rs 30,000
Sound Quality and battery life
Right then, the pièce de résistance of Sony’s most premium audio offering: sound quality. I had gone into the review with very high expectations from the headphones and rest assured, I am not disappointed in the slightest. The XM4 pack in the same 40mm circumaural drivers from last year’s XM3, so the sound quality remains inherently unchanged between the two models. Sony’s sound signature has not changed in a while too, and the company’s offerings still lean in favour of mids and extra bass. As a matter of fact, I had the XM3 on hand and there was very little that set the two acoustics on the two headphones apart. Listening to Pink Floyd’s melodious Keep Talking the XM4 amplifies the listening experience and relays the sound track’s legendary solo and low-fi electronic beats with utmost precision. In a similar fashion, the XM4’s delicately separate the vocals from the background piano solo in Floyd’s Us and Them, thereby giving each note its moment under the limelight. Thanks to the pair’s excellent imaging, each instrument in any given track is decipherable in a way that only a few audio products can pull off. For hip/hop and rap enthusiasts such as myself, the XM4 provides exceptional clarity to lyrics, even if the track has a ton of chaotic beats. The level of underlying detailing in the score of Inception is, to put it mildly, surreal on the XM4.
Sony’s LDAC along with SBC and AAC codecs are supported although Qualcomm’s low-latency aptX and aptX-HD are not. As for the DSEE Extreme toggle mentioned earlier, well, that allegedly helps in upscaling the quality of compressed music codecs such as MP3 using AI. Sony says that it does this by raising the sampling frequency and bit rate higher than the original value. Honestly, to my ears, I didn’t notice that big of a difference when DSEE Extreme was turned on but your mileage could vary.
Apart from sound quality, the XM3 was lamented for having a poor microphone for receiving calls and such. The situation has been improved marginally but the mics still can’t hold a candle to the NC700. I was able to test the call quality in a fairly crowded room with multiple people talking very loudly. At times, the receiver could barely make out what I was saying but mostly, the audio being relayed to my ears was clear. Consequently, if you take a lot of calls whilst travelling, the XM4 might not be the best option.
Much like its predecessor, the 1000XM4 reportedly offers 30 hours of music playback with the ANC enabled. When pit against the competition, the XM4, in theory, fair substantially well as the Bose NC700 only promises about 20 hours of playback. Thankfully, the pair delivers as advertised. My regular usage consisted of listening to music and streaming videos for about 3-4 hours a day. I found myself charging the XM4 about once a week and at times, I was able to plough over to the next week too. The headphone’s phenomenal battery life can be accredited due to the rigorous auto-sleep feature which kicks in when the headphones are not in use. And, should you run out of juice, the XM4’s come with quick charge technology that will power it up to 100 percent in about two hours.
You can probably guess how impressed the XM4 has left me and I’m not the least bit surprised about it. The choices are very few when you choose to invest Rs 30,000 on a pair of headphones. It was a neck-to-neck between Bose and Sony for a while but the XM4 have resolved most of the issues that were plaguing the XM3. You now have multi-device support, wear detection, better ANC and Adaptive Sound Control that improve on an already near-perfect audio product. There is very little I can say to dissuade anyone of buying the 1000XM4 if they have the budget for it. The Bose NC700, launched last year, are the only real competition and with no successor looking likely soon, there is little incentive in going for them. The only issue I have with 1000XM4 is the microphone quality and the shoddy touch controls. Otherwise, it is music made perfect.
Editor’s rating: 4 / 5
- Comfortable wearing experience
- Best-in-class noise cancellation and sound quality
- Feature rich
- Excellent battery life
- Microphone quality could have been better
- No aptX or aptXHD support
- Touch controls are iffy