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  • Cheryl Tan

Sony WH-1000XM4 First Impressions: King of ANC Headphones, Yet Again

Updated: Nov 25, 2021

What’s that saying again? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it? Well, Sony’s taken that to heart for their new Sony WH-1000XM4, since the WH-1000XM3 was pretty much close to perfect. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t improvements.

So, I’ve had the opportunity to try the XM4 out for five days now, and the moment I opened the case, I was like, wow. Sony kept it 99% alike. The case looks the same, the way the cables and stuff inside are arranged are the same, the headphones look the same, mostly, and if you don’t have these next to a pair of XM3s, you literally, can’t tell the difference just by looking.

But if you do have a pair of old XM3s in silver, you might notice that the new Platinum Silver XM4s don’t look quite the same. In my memory at least, the silver XM3s had more of a warm, beige-y look to them, which was a bit more feminine. The silver XM4 definitely is a bit less beige-y, more of a slightly darker shade of grey.

Aside from that though, it looks pretty identical to the XM3. The only other difference on the outside that I can tell is it feels like Sony might have changed the soft-touch coating on the earcups since the XM4s feel a bit more satin-like. This might just be because we were testing against an old pair of XM3s, so the coating might be more worn on those.

Moving onto the earcup padding, it’s pretty much the same. They’re soft and comfortable, but because of that, the earcups are a bit on the shallow side. Users with bigger ears might find their ears touching the foam inside. My right ear does occasionally start to rub against the foam after a period of walking and moving my head, but it’s nothing a quick adjustment won’t fix. There were rumours that the headband might be more padded on the XM4, but it’s approximately the same, which means you get the same super comfortable fit since Sony managed to shave off one gram from the weight, from 255g to 254g.

The big new addition is wearing detection. I know, plenty of other headphones have them, but Sony is just now adding it to their XM4, and it works well. There’s a proximity sensor in the left earcup, and two acceleration sensors, so it’s quite surprising that despite the added hardware, Sony still managed to reduce the weight, even if it’s a minuscule amount.

Internally, the headphones still use the same HD Noise Cancelling Processor QN1, which was in the XM3, but there’s a new algorithm which Sony claims to work together with a new Bluetooth audio SoC to sense music and noise at more than 700 times per second. That’s right, the noise-cancelling adjusts itself that many times a second. That’s insane.

There’s also Bluetooth 5.0 connectivity, which is great, and finally, finally! Sony has given us multipoint connection with the XM4. This was a feature that plenty of people wanted and grumbled about not having on the XM3, so it’s fantastic that Sony has listened. The one downside? You can’t use Sony’s LDAC when you have multipoint connection turned on. There’s still SBC and AAC, but unfortunately, Sony has decided to remove aptX and aptX HD from the XM4. It’s a bit puzzling, but there’s LDAC for high-res audio, and I’ve not experienced any audio lag or sync issues when watching videos or movies either.

Let’s talk about noise cancelling. The WH-1000XM3 was the most effective ANC headphones for me, and for a lot of others out there. And Sony has built on that excellent foundation with the XM4. Low droning sounds like a car’s engine or air conditioner are pretty much all cancelled out, while the XM4 has improved on voice cancellation by a touch. Voices are a bit more muffled now, and unless the speaker is close by, speaking at a loud volume or just has a higher-pitched voice, you’ll most likely not notice it if you have music playing.

Sony has introduced new QOL features though. They’ve kept the Quick Attention feature, which I love by the way, where you can simply put your right hand over the right earcup to pause your music and pipe in external noise. If you don’t want to raise your hand up though, there’s now a “Speak-to-Chat” feature, where the headphones will automatically detect you speaking and pause your music, pipe in external noise and wait until you’re done speaking, to resume.

Now, I tested this out and.. It’s not bad actually. It doesn’t activate if you just say one or two words, but rattle off a sentence, maybe like “Hey, can I get a gin and tonic” and the headphone picks it up. The best part? It doesn’t activate when people around you speak, so there’s no worry about your music constantly cutting out when you’re in a noisy environment. I’m guessing the headphone uses the acceleration sensors to detect when you’re speaking to avoid accidentally picking up someone else’s voice and activating.

There are different levels of settings in the Sony Headphones app for this, you can choose between low and high sensitivity, or just turn it off if you don’t think you’ll ever use the feature. The standard time for the headphones to wait before resuming music playback is 30 seconds though, which is way too long. I recommend turning it to 15 seconds, unless you know that most people you talk to will prattle on for 30 seconds without you getting a word in, then, leave it I guess.

Adaptive Sound Control is still here, and… It’s generally passable. The one time it wonked out was when I was in a car and travelling at 60km/h, that’s around 37 miles per hour, and it set itself to walking, for some reason. I don’t know anybody who can walk at 60km/h, but… Aside from that though, it’s okay. Personally, I’d just turn it off. There’s no need to use it when you have convenient features like Quick Attention and Speak To Chat to pipe in external noise when you need it. The whole point of getting ANC headphones is to use the ANC, right?

Let’s talk sound. The XM4 is compatible with Sony’s 360 Reality Audio technology out of the box and you get a free trial subscription to Tidal, Deezer or where you can try out 360RA compatible songs, so if you’re into 360 audio, you have that. Sound quality though, picks up where the XM3 left off. It’s typical Sony, it’s warm, lush and bass inclined.

Personally, it still fits my taste, mostly, but I’ve started taking a liking to brighter sounds, so I played around with the EQ presets Sony provides in the Headphones app, and I found the Bright preset to really liven up the sound. The soundstage opens up a bit more, you get airier vocals and highs, and it just injects more energy into the song. You can also tinker with the EQ and save them as presets, so go wild.

There are five microphones in the XM4, and Sony claims there’s a new Precise Voice Pickup technology. I guess it’s true, none of my colleagues complained they couldn’t hear me during our daily calls, but they did mention that there was less depth to my voice, and I sounded a bit flat. Although that might be more on my energy levels in the morning than the headphones!

Battery life is kept the same, at 30 hours on a Bluetooth connection with ANC turned on and 38 hours with ANC turned off. The XM3 was pretty spot on with its battery life, so I’ll take Sony’s estimate for it.

So, is this an upgrade to the XM3? Yeah, but it’s a small one. If you already have the XM3 and it’s still working well, I’d say there’s no pressing need to buy an XM4 right away. The improvements are mostly quality of life and convenience, while the ANC is just slightly better. To me, I wouldn’t pay another S$549 for the minor upgrade.

But if you don’t already have ANC headphones and you’re in the market for one, get these. The XM3s were fantastic, market-leading even. As for whether these are better than other ANC headphones out there, for me, it’s a yes.

Granted, the Sony sound isn’t for everyone. If you’re not big on how the XM4s sound, you might be better off trading a bit of ANC performance for a sound you like. But if you enjoy a warmer, more musical sound and you want the best ANC out there, get these.

More information about the Sony WH-1000XM4 (S$549) can be found on Sony’s website. The headphones are now available at selected retail outlets and online stores.


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