When we say that the release of the Sony WH-1000XM4 wireless noise-cancelling headphones was undoubtedly the biggest headphone launch of 2020, we're not kidding. Why? They replaced the What Hi-Fi? Award-winning, Bose-baiting, Sennheiser-slaying WH-1000XM3, one of the most popular pairs of headphones on the globe. They're pretty significant.

Sony WH-1000XM4 Wireless Noise Canceling Headphones
Rather than just rebadging the previous model and changing the '3' to a '4,' Sony says that the WH-1000XM4 has a more comfortable design, greater noise-cancellation, better audio, better call quality, and more useful functions than its predecessors. We're in for a treat if they live up to all of that, but if they don't, this may all end in tears.


Sony's WH-1000XM4 noise-canceling headphones cost £350 (€380, $350, AU$550). That puts them in the same price range as Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 (£350, $399, AU$550) and Sennheiser Momentum 3 Wireless (£350, $400, AU$548), among others. In instance, the Sony WH-1000XM3 costs £330 ($350, AU$500) when they were first released in 2018.


Sony hasn't exactly reinvented the wheel with the WH-1000XM4 over-ear headphones (if it ain't busted, don't fix it), but there are a few minor tweaks. The first concerns the polymers used to encase the earcups and sliders. When opposed to the flat surfaces of the XM3s, things seem slightly more textured, which we believe helps create the sense that they are slightly sturdier. 

They don't quite have the same expensive or attractive appearance as a set of B&W PX7 or Bose Noise Cancelling 700 headphones, but they do give the idea of being designed to last. The WH-1000XM4 features the same 40mm drivers as the previous model, as well as the same Black or Platinum Silver finishes.

The 'hangar' portion of the headset has been updated (the hinged fork that hangs down and connects to the earcups). The distance between the hangar and the cups has been lowered to limit the risk for sound leaking, and the region where they attach to the earcups has been shortened to provide a more seamless look. The earcups on the WH-1000XM4 are slimmer, while the cushions are softer and 10% bigger than those on the XM3. The head cushion has also been slimmed down. In addition, the XM4 is one gramme lighter overall (254g vs 255g).

All of these elements work together to provide an extremely comfortable fit. The headphones provide just enough pressure to grab your ears and form a strong seal without feeling too loose. We wouldn't advocate wearing the headphones while exercise because the grip isn't as vice-like as other competitors', and the headphones still don't have an IP certification (for water and dust protection).

From the XM3, the power button, USB-C charging connector, and 3.5mm headphone jack have all been retained. On the XM4, the Ambient/NC (noise-cancelling) button has also been renamed 'Custom.' Although the nomenclature has changed, it still performs the same functions, such as toggling between noise-cancelling and Ambient Sound modes and running the NC Optimiser.

Before you use the headphones for the first time, you'll need to run Sony's NC Optimiser. If you're unfamiliar with this software, it's essentially an auto-calibration programme that you activate by holding down the Custom button for a long time. They adjust the noise-cancelling based on a variety of criteria, including your facial shape and whether or not you wear spectacles. They can even adjust for fluctuations in air pressure if you're a regular flier.


The introduction of a whole new sound processor is the WH-1000XM4's standout feature. Sony has replaced the DSEE HX engine with the new DSEE Extreme engine. The new engine not only tries to upgrade compressed audio to near hi-res quality, but it also incorporates Edge-AI, an artificial intelligence technique. It was created with the assistance of Sony Music Studios Tokyo to analyse music in real-time in order to replicate a more exact and authentic sound to the original track.

The Sonys don't support aptX or aptX HD, but they are compatible with Sony's proprietary LDAC technology. This enables you to wirelessly stream high-quality music from a suitable source, such as certain Android smartphones running Android 8.0 or above. The WH-1000M4 may be used to listen to music encoded in Sony 360 Reality Audio if you subscribe to a streaming service that supports the format.

The XM3's Quick Attention function, which allows you to cover the right earcup with your hand to have a conversation, is carried over, but Sony has pushed the Sony WH-1000XM4's conversational abilities to a whole new level. You may now use 'Speak to Chat,' a function that allows you to communicate with someone while wearing your headphones and without moving a muscle.

When the headphones detect that you are conversing, they will immediately pause playback and switch to Ambient Sound mode. It's a fun party trick that we've found to be quite effective. However, there is a tiny lag between starting to talk and the mode kicking in, which we'd like to see reduced. In Sony's Headphones Connect app, you may adjust the sensitivity of Speak-to-Chat to prevent it from being accidently activated. We've used a cough and a passionate sing-along to activate the function, but you can just slide a finger up or down on the right touchpad to return to your music.

'Wearing Detection' is another new function for the 2020 model. When you remove the headphones, they employ a proximity sensor and acceleration sensors in each ear cup to halt playback and then automatically resume when you put them back on. It's a function we've seen in other headphones, such as the B&W PX7, and it's a welcome addition.

Sony has also improved the Sony WH-1000XM4's Adaptive Sound Control function. The XM3 could detect whether you were moving or staying put and adjust the sound settings accordingly; the XM4 can utilise location learning and GPS data from your phone to adjust noise-cancelling and ambient sound levels based on specific places. One minor disadvantage is that if the GPS connection is lost, the headphones will not be able to modify their settings automatically. However, you can use the Headphones Connect app to create profiles and geo-fence specific regions, and the WH1000XM4s will automatically switch modes when you enter them.

The inability to connect to more than one device at the same time was one of the WH-1000XM3's flaws. Thanks to the WH-1000XM4's new 'Multipoint' function, which was activated in a firmware update published shortly after its introduction, this has been corrected. You may now toggle between two Bluetooth-enabled devices.

Sony has also worked to improve the clarity of the WH-1000XM4's voice calls. The headphones regulate the mics and employ signal processing to make speech sound crisper and more exact, which Sony calls Precise Voice Pickup technology. It also works. When we use the new headphones, we notice that voices sound more lifelike.

With both Bluetooth and noise-cancelling enabled, the battery life remains among the best in class, lasting up to 30 hours on a full charge. If you don't use the noise-cancelling headphones, the time increases to 38 hours. From a ten-minute burst of power, charging the headphones with an AC adaptor will give you five hours of battery life.

Sony has been making waves in the noise-cancelling headphones industry for a few years, and the WH-1000XM4 is claimed to be able to cancel out more midrange and high-frequency noises than ever before. Its HD Noise Cancelling Processor QN1 employs a novel algorithm and works in conjunction with a new Bluetooth System on Chip (SoC). They can continually monitor audio and noise signals, as well as the interaction between the speaker drivers and your ears, when they work together. This is all happening in real time, which is a first for Sony headphones, and the technology is said to offer the noise-cancelling system more control.

We're happy to announce that all of this technical jargon translates to a fantastic noise-cancelling performance. You feel cut off from the rest of the world, which allows you to focus on the music being played in your ears. From the rumble of a train as you pass beneath a railway bridge to the hustle and bustle of a crowded high street, the Sonys have no issue blocking out undesirable extraneous sounds.


So far, so good in terms of comfort, noise cancellation, and functions, but how does the WH-1000XM4 perform acoustically? The response is quite well-written. The DAC and analogue amplifier combo that Sony used in the XM3 performed admirably, and it does so again here.

After listening to a variety of tunes, it's clear that Sony has managed to squeeze even more performance out of the WH-1000XM4. The soundfield appears to be broader, and the headphones are able to reveal even more detail because to the greater headroom. The WH-1000XM4 has a more composed and assured sound, especially at lower frequencies. There's a strength, punch, and poise to the WH-1000XM3 that makes it sound, dare we say, tubby.

The clarity and sharpness of the strings truly show through in Ramin Djawadi's version of The White Stripes' Seven Nation Army. The treble has a fresh smoothness that makes the old model seem a little rough in contrast. The song's deep bass notes add to the intensity of the music, creating a lasting effect on the listener.

Sony's WH series has always set the bar for timing and dynamics, and the XM4s maintain that tradition. The headphones express dynamic alterations, such as transitions from quiet to loud, with ease. Their ability to get into the rhythm of a song and stick to it means they can amuse you with the most basic of beats and then seamlessly transition to more complicated arrangements. They're equally at ease sprinting through The XX's I Dare You as they are grappling with the nuances of Radiohead's 15 Step, thanks to their zeal, velocity, and agility.

A dramatic synth rift sets the tone for Click by Charli XCX, which is followed by a flawless voice that floats over a backdrop of delicate, glittering percussion. From the first note to the last, the Sonys make whatever music you send them seem engaging.


We weren't sure Sony could top the XM3, but the Sony WH-1000XM4 wireless noise cancelling headphones manage to do just that: they're as comfy as ever, they add essential features that improve the user experience, and, most crucially, you receive a significant increase in sound quality for your money. Their musicianship and energy are still as addicting as ever, but there are significant improvements to be heard across the board. We have no doubt that these incredible Sony headphones will be difficult to surpass.