Sony Has Practically Perfected Noise Cancelling Wireless Headphones

Photo: Andrew Liszewski/Gizmodo
Photo: Andrew Liszewski/Gizmodo

With the release of the WH-1000XM2 headphones three years ago, Sony succeeded in besting the feature Bose’s headphones were best known for: noise-cancelling. A year after that, Sony’s WH-1000XM3 update included some welcome improvements when it came to comfort, and while the new WH-1000XM4 continue to refine the headphones’ ability to block the world from your ears, it’s actually a handful of usability upgrades that make the latest version of the best noise-cancelling headphones a tempting upgrade.

Sony WH-1000XM4

WHAT IS IT?

Wireless noise-cancelling over the ear headphones.

PRICE

$549.95

LIKE

The best noise-cancelling performance, incredibly comfortable to wear, and now easy to pair with and switch between two devices.

DISLIKE

Touch controls work but are a little to easy to accidentally activate.

Two years after Sony’s WH-1000XM3 headphones were released, they still remain our top choice for noise-cancelling headphones with their unrivalled performance. A handful of competitors have come close, and for much less than $549.95 — the price point Sony is sticking with for its new WH-1000XM4 — but none have managed to replicate both the excellent noise-cancelling performance and comfort that Sony delivers. Having tested countless pairs of wireless headphones over the past few years, I often liken putting Sony’s WH-1000XM3 headphones on to slipping your feet into a well-worn pair of sneakers. They’re an excellent design, and it makes sense why, at least physically, Sony hasn’t changed much with its new WH-1000XM4 headphones.

Photo: Andrew Liszewski/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Photo: Andrew Liszewski/Gizmodo, In-House Art

The Sony WH-1000XM4 (black, left) look nearly identical to the WH-1000XM3 (silver, right) but there are a couple of minor improvements made to the design to improve comfort.

Photo: Andrew Liszewski/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Photo: Andrew Liszewski/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Were it not for the colour difference between the silver WH-1000XM3 and the black WH-1000XM4 I tested, it’s all but impossible to tell the previous iteration of these headphones from the latest version. The USB-C charging port and headphone jack are located in the same place, as are the two physical buttons used for power and cycling through noise-cancelling and ambient sound modes. (Although, the button for the latter is now labelled “Custom” instead of “NC/Ambient.”)

The curve of the headband on the WH-1000XM4 has been tweaked and the size of the head cushion has been reduced to reduce the pressure on the wearer's head. (Photo: Andrew Liszewski/Gizmodo)

There are a couple of very subtle design changes Sony has made with its new WH-1000XM4 headphones. The curve of the headband has been almost imperceptibly refined, and the size of the head cushion on top has been slightly slimmed to help reduce the pressure on the wearer’s head. That, coupled with a 10% size increase in the part of the earcups that actually touches the side of your head, are supposed to make the new WH-1000XM4 even more comfortable to wear, particularly for longer periods. Without a daily commute or the ability to fly anywhere this isn’t a claim I was able to thoroughly test, but the WH-1000XM3 were already some of the most comfortable headphones at this price point, and the WH-1000XM4 don’t feel any different.

Nope, that's not the USB-C charging port, it's one of the five microphones the WH-1000XM4 headphones use to detect noise and pick up the wearer's voice. (Photo: Andrew Liszewski/Gizmodo)

The standout feature of every update to the WH-1000X headphone line has been the improved noise-cancelling capabilities of each iteration. While Sony promises even better noise-cancelling performance on the WH-1000XM4 thanks to new algorithms powering its “HD Noise Cancelling Processor QN1″ inside, as well as a new “Bluetooth Audio SoC (System on Chip)“ that samples outside noise levels and characteristics 700 times per second, the improvements might not be immediately noticeable to most users.

One area where noise-cancelling technologies struggle is with higher frequencies, including human voices. Like its predecessors, the Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones are remarkably adept at completely eliminating the sound of a car’s engine, the low hum of an air conditioner, or the whiny roar inside a plane. (Which needs to be simulated these days.) But if you put them on in a busy office and expect the din of your fellow workers to completely disappear, it’s just not going to happen. When paired with music you can drown almost everything out, but the headphones don’t work as ear plugs that completely mute the world around you.

Sony promises the improvements made to the WH-1000XM4’s noise-cancellation capabilities expand the silenced frequencies into the higher-end of the spectrum, but the improvements aren’t as noticeable as they were between the WH-1000XM2 and WH-1000XM3. I’ll admit that testing noise-cancelling headphones in a time when we’re encouraged not to travel and to avoid loud crowds of people is a challenge, but even a small performance increase is a welcome improvement with this technology.

Sony might not be introducing a giant leap in noise-cancelling performance with its new WH-1000XM4, but it has introduced a couple of other usability improvements that make it almost impossible to go back to the previous version once you’ve tried them. The headphone’s ambient sound-boosting features can still be accessed by pressing a button on the left earcup to cycle through the various modes, and the“Quick Attention” feature still works great, letting you simply cover the right earcup with your hand to simultaneously turn down what you’re listening to and activate ambient sound boosting until you move your hand away.

But the WH-1000XM4 also includes a new “Speak to Chat” feature that’s automatically activated when the headphone wearer starts talking, stopping music playback until 30 seconds (or another specified length of time that can be changed in the Sony Headphones app) after a conversation is over. It works ok, but I found I accidentally activated it whenever I coughed or cleared my throat. Changing the sensitivity in the app made it a bit less sensitive, but if it becomes an annoyance, Speak to Chat can also be completely disabled.

The most useful upgrade the WH-1000XM4 headphones bring is the ability to connect to two Bluetooth devices simultaneously. One of our biggest complaints with the previous version was issues with connecting to multiple devices, which often required you to first manually disconnect from the current device before connecting to another. The WH-1000XM4 instead allow you to connect to two devices at the same time (like a computer and your smartphone) and will automatically switch between the two when a new sound trigger is detected. From my testing it works quite well (and Sony promises improved performance once the final firmware for the shipping product is released) and, for example, won’t automatically interrupt a song you’re listening to on your phone if a YouTube video starts playing on your computer. It will wait for you to manually pause the music playback first before switching to the computer audio. However, calls do seem to have a priority, and if you’re listening to something on your computer and you get a call on your smartphone, the headphones will automatically switch over so you can seamlessly take it.

The WH-1000XM4 headphones aren't necessarily a must-have upgrade, but if you use multiple devices all day long, the ability to connect to two Bluetooth devices simultaneously with intelligent automatic switching is hard to live without. (Photo: Andrew Liszewski/Gizmodo)

Most users won’t notice much of a difference with how the WH-1000XM4 sound — they’re still some of the best-sounding headphones we’ve tested — but the usability improvements make an already polished product almost perfect. I still occasionally unintentionally skipped a track when accidentally activating the headphone’s gesture controls on the side of the right earcup, but otherwise, it might be time to list your WH-1000XM3 on eBay before these officially ship in mid-August.

README

  • Slightly improved noise-cancelling performance is overshadowed by improved usability features including easier ways to temporarily activate ambient sound boosting when you need to hear something else or talk to someone without removing the headphones or manually pausing what you’re listening to.
  • You can now connect to two Bluetooth devices simultaneously and the headphones will intelligently switch between the two based on audio cues or incoming calls.
  • Sound quality is still fantastic, and it can be customised to your tastes using an EQ in the Sony Headphones app.
  • Still priced at $549.95, which puts it on the higher-end of consumer-focused noise-cancelling wireless headphones.
  • Battery life remains the same with 30 hours of playback promised, and up to five hours of playback after just 10 minutes of charging.
  • Improvements made to the fit mean an already very comfortable pair of headphones should be even more comfy to wear on a long flight.