Sony WH-1000XM4 review: Still the best noise-cancelling headphones

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Sony WH-1000XM4 review: Still the best noise-cancelling headphones

Two years ago, when when I reviewed Sony’s WH-1000XM3 active noise-cancelling headphones, I said that Sony had finally eclipsed Bose in this category. And I wasn’t the only one to say it. Now, the company is back with the all-new WH-1000XM4. While these new cans don’t advance the ball by a lot, they nonetheless are my new top recommendation for music lovers looking for great-sounding headphones that also deliver terrific noise cancellation.

Key improvements include a proximity sensor that automatically toggles play/pause when you put the headphones on and take them off, support for Sony’s LDAC high-res audio codec (a common feature on high-end digital audio players), and multipoint connection via Bluetooth 5.0 (so you can connect to two sources at once). Sony made other very small improvements to the hardware and software, too; but for the most part, those are just tweaks to a winning foundation.

This review is part of TechHive’s coverage of the best headphones, where you’ll find reviews of competing products, plus a buyer’s guide to the features you should consider when shopping for this type of product.

Let’s dive into the specifics that make Sony’s WH-1000XM4 so great, and why the older WH-1000XM3—which are still available and can be found for about $100 less if you shop around—remain a great value.

Sony WH-1000XM4 Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

There are some tiny changes, but at this distance you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between the new and old version.

Same great hardware, refined

The Sony WH-1000XM4 maintains the signature look this line is known for, with subtle gold accents and minimal buttons. Most of the controls are still handled by taps and swipes on the right ear cup. I’ve grown accustomed to this but it’s never been my favorite means of navigation. The easy-to-find Power button sits on the bottom of the left ear cup, along with a Custom button that can be programmed to either select Ambient Sound Control options or activate voice assistants. It’s a minimal and classy design that still holds up years later, but the touch controls still present a learning curve.

Sony WH-1000XM4 Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

The side of the headphones has a nice texture when using the touch controls.

The slim headband introduced in the previous model is very comfortable along the top of the head. Sony claims the newer model features slightly upgraded ear pads, which should help during long listening sessions, but I could barely tell a difference. The new set is more comfortable compared to the old model, but that could also be attributed to the wear I’ve placed on the older pair. I’ve worn the WH-1000XM3 on plenty of long flights and encountered some pressure fatigue after many hours, so any upgrade in that area is welcome. Overall, it’s a comfortable design that sits snug on my head and melts away while I’m working. The swiveling cups and folding design are also retained, so the new model is easy to stuff in a backpack. I’m happy they didn’t mess with a winning formula.

For more protection in transit, the included carrying case got a slight upgrade, too, with improved stitching and a stiffer shell that should last even longer. Other tiny upgrades to the case include cloth pockets for the zipper to recede into, and extra flap length on the divider. Apart from the stiffer case, none of these changes make a huge difference, but I appreciate the attention to detail Sony paid to things as minor as the carrying case. As before, provided accessories include a 3.5mm cable, a very short USB-C charging cable, and an airline adapter. 

Sony WH-1000XM4 Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

The carrying case is plenty tough and has some nice touches.

Sony claims the same 30 hours of battery life with noise cancelling enabled, and with my heavy mixed usage over the course of my review, I found the battery to last almost as long as the previous pair. Here again, Sony promises its optional power adapter will deliver the same quick-charge feature that provides five hours of listening time after just 10 minutes of charging, but Sony didn’t send that component, so I wasn’t able to test that claim. The stock USB-C cable charged the cans within a couple hours.

My favorite new feature on the WH-1000XM4 is a proximity sensor that detects when you take the cans off, so as to automatically pause playback. The music resumes instantly when you put them back over your ears. This worked like a charm. I tried to trick the sensor by placing the headphones on my thigh, tightly around my neck, and even wore them like a crown and I never triggered a false positive. When I returned the headphones to my ears, the music quickly resumed with no problem. This feature alone would make me consider upgrading from the previous version, and not just because it should extend battery life.

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