Sony WH-1000XM4 Review
Pros: Superb active noise cancellation and overall sound quality, multipoint Bluetooth pairing, auto-pause, relatively comfortable for most people
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Our Analysis and Test Results
The Sony WH-1000XM4 set the standard in both consumer headphone noise cancellation and sound quality, and the price reflects that.
Overall, the Sony WH-1000XM4 are some of the best sounding headphones we've ever tested, but there's a decent chance you'll have to adjust the EQ settings to get them sounding the way you want.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 get impressively close to what audio nerds would call a flat frequency response. This means the headphones give fairly even expression/volume through the entirety of the low, mid, and high frequencies. In essence, the sound tends to be more "true" to the recording, with all the instruments shining through at the respective volumes at which they were played. This can create a very nuanced and rich listening experience, bringing your musical appreciation to another level.
Sound quality is an inherently subjective thing, and some people may not like the more even sound that the Sony WH-1000XM4 offers out of the box. In fact, many people like the warmer, more bass forward sound that many modern headphones favor. This kind of sound profile offers a bit more expression and volume in the bass frequencies, drops off a bit in the mids, and often ticks back up a little in the higher registers to lend some clarity to vocals and guitar solos. The Sony WH-1000XM4 are more than capable of producing this kind of sound, you just might have to go into the app and engage the "bass boost" mode, or adjust the EQ sliders yourself.
No matter how you'd like to adjust the EQ, these headphones are capable of incredibly sharp clarity, booming bass, and impressive fullness. If you put them on and close your eyes it may just feel like you're at a concert.
Phone calls sound great on these headphones. The microphones do a fairly good job of sifting through background noise to send a clear signal of your voice to whomever you're speaking to. However, the flagship Bose headphones maybe do a slightly better job in that regard.
Here again the Sony WH-1000XM4 are standard-setting. When we did our controlled test of sitting next to a 70 decibel fan with no music playing, the headphone didn't let any sound reach our ears. Similarly typing, tapping on the desk, having coworkers talk next to us, and turning a TV on in the background at a reasonable volume was all completely shielded from our ears. Turn music on and it totally feels like you're in your own little bubble, even if there's a good amount of ambient noise around you. Bottom line, if these headphones don't satisfy your noise cancelling needs nothing will.
Using the corresponding app also lets you fine tune the noise cancelling settings, but more on that in a bit.
We think that the vast majority of people are going to be able to find a comfortable fit with the Sony WH-1000XM4.
Sony has increased the amount of padding in these headphones a bit when compared to their predecessors, resulting in a slightly more cushy feel and slightly deeper earcups. The cushions themselves are covered in faux leather and feel comfortable against the skin. The headband has just enough padding that we didn't feel any hotspots when wearing them for multiple hours.
The ear cups are still a bit smaller than those on the competing Bose models, so those with larger ears may still prefer the latter. However, for most people the Sony WH-1000XM4 are likely to be comfortable for hours on end.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 uses an intuitive touch sensitive control pad and offers a number of broadly useful features, as well as some more niche features.
For most basic functions like play/pause and volume control the headphones use a touch sensitive pad on the right earcup. We found these controls both intuitive and responsive. Sony released these headphones in the summer, so we'll have to wait a few months to see if that touch pad loses its responsiveness in colder weather like its predecessor.
Perhaps the best new feature for these headphones is the multi point Bluetooth parking, which allows you to pair the headphones to two devices at once. This means you can be listening to Pandora on your laptop and then seamlessly switch over to your phone when you get a call.
A similarly great feature is auto-pause, which uses a sensor in the left earcup to detect when you remove the headphones from your head, automatically pausing your music when you do so.
Like previous iterations, these headphones also offer a "quick attention" mode. If you hold your hand over the right earcup it pauses the music, turns noise cancelling off, and turns on transparency mode, which pipes in outside noise through the headphones' microphones. This is great if you're in a train station or airport and want to quickly hear an announcement. It also lets you have a quick conversation without taking the headphones off.
A more advanced version of this is the "speak-to-talk" feature, which pauses music and goes into transparency mode when it senses that you start talking, and then remains in that mode for a predetermined amount of time (15 to 60 seconds). We found this feature a bit more clunky, as it was sometimes triggered by noises other than our voices, and often took an extra second or two to kick in when we did start speaking. Also, there's nothing like a pair of headphones that automatically pause your music every time you inadvertently talk to yourself to make you realize how crazy you've been driven by quarantine.
While no full-sized pair of headphones can be considered super portable, the Sony WH-1000XM4 comes fairly close.
First off, the headphones themselves fold flat, presenting a relatively small profile. They go into an included semi-rigid case that has helpful illustrations showing you how exactly to fold the headphones to make them fit. The case itself in't impervious, but offers enough protection that we didn't feel any trepidation in stuffing the headphones into a carry-on bag or an overloaded backpack.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 are premium noise cancelling headphones, and they are priced accordingly. If you're looking for the best of the best and are ok paying for that luxury, then you can consider the Sony WH-1000XM4 fairly priced. However, budget shoppers will likely want to steer clear.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 offers field leading sound quality backed up by field leading noise cancellation. If you're looking for the best possible headphones with which to enjoy music. Drown out distractions, or both, these definitely deserve your consideration.
— Max Mutter and Michelle Powell