Sony's WH-1000XM4 headphones are among the best wireless noise-cancelling headphones you can get in the $350 price range.
They have excellent noise cancellation, phone call quality that cuts out a tremendous amount of ambient noise, great battery life, and amazing audio performance.
If you're not satisfied by the way they sound out of the box, you can use Sony's Headphones app to tweak them. It's worth doing, because you can get better sound than the historical gold standard in wireless noise-cancelling headphones — the $400 Bose 700.
If you're looking at wireless noise-cancelling headphones, chances are you're also looking at the Bose 700. If so, check out our direct comparison between the Sony WH-1000XM4 and the Bose 700.
Table of Contents: Masthead Sticky
Right off the bat, the Sony WH-1000XM4 wireless noise-cancelling headphones should be serious contenders for your head and ears.
Indeed, "wireless" and "noise cancelling" have been popular criteria, and Sony gets these two aspects absolutely right. You're also getting great sound quality that you can refine to your liking by using the Sony Headphones app, and you might even like them more than the historical gold standard in wireless noise-cancelling headphones — the $400 Bose 700.
If $350 is in your budget for wireless noise-cancelling headphones, the XM4 should absolutely be high up in your shortlist, but make sure to read the full review below to ensure they're for you.
Drivers: 40mm dome
Connectivity: Bluetooth, NFC, 3.5mm jack, USB Type-C charging
Codecs: LDAC, DSEE
Battery Life: 30 hours
App: Sony Headphones for iOS and Android
Comfort and design
The XM4 are very comfortable headphones. The earcups covered in smooth leatherette are plush and don't grip onto my head, but they're just tight and lightweight enough that the headphones stay on while tilting and turning my head in every direction. For reference, my head around my brow and tips of my ears measure in at about 23 inches. The headband is made of something firmer, but also covered in smooth leatherette, and it doesn't apply too much pressure, nor does the top of my head get sore after long periods of listening.
Design-wise, the XM4 are pretty neutral and modern looking. Their matte plastic exterior is available in black and "silver," which looks more like a kind of light tan or gray beige. You could make the argument that there should be more metal for a pair of $350 headphones, but metal would probably add more weight, and it wouldn't really add much more to their premium feel.
What's objective and definitive is that the XM4 gets the basics right — they have a very rich sound and a good, fairly wide soundstage. Sony also boasts that it collaborated with Sony Music Studios Tokyo for the sound quality of the XM4s. To be honest, I'm not the right person to tell you how much that counts for, but I thought I'd mention it.
Outside of that, it's hard for me to tell you whether these sound good or not, because everyone hears differently and everyone has a preference to how their music sounds. And that happens to be an area where the XM4s shine. Their sound is customizable via the Sony Headphones app, and you can change the sound to however you want it to be. Customizing sound through equalizer (EQ) settings isn't new, it's just particularly effective with Sony's app and the XM4 headphones.
Thank goodness the XM4s are customizable, because their out-of-the-box sound isn't my favorite. In their default state, the XM4s have big, powerful sound that leans heavily towards bass and doesn't give very much attention to higher frequencies, which leads to a muffled sound that frankly isn't very impressive. If you like clarity and a better balance that features a little more treble and highs, the XM4 won't be for you, and you'll want to go into the Sony Headphones app to customize the sound.
So that's what I did, and I found an adjustment that makes my music sound amazing to me, and it was pretty easy and quick. In fact, my own customization turned the XM4 into a pair of headphones that are going to be hard to replace. It was worth going into the app and playing around with the sound settings, as I prefer the way the XM4 sound compared to the Bose. (If you're curious, I use the "Bright" preset, and set the "Clear Bass" to +5 or more.)
Some don't really care too much and just want a pair of headphones that they're told sound good without fiddling around in an app, and for those people, I'd suggest the $400 Bose 700 that can often be had for less. They offer excellent sound out of the box.
Noise cancellation and battery life
Noise cancellation on the XM4 is excellent and on par with Bose, which have set the standard for noise-cancelling wireless headphones with the Quiet Comfort line, and most recently its 700 line.
In an office-type environment at about 53 decibels, including air conditioning droning and a couple of loud fans, I could listen to music at significantly lower volumes than without noise cancelling. The ambient noise from the air conditioning and fans, and even the sound of my wife on a phone call in the same room was all but forgotten while listening to music.
Without music, some higher frequency fan noise was still audible, but the XM4 made the room significantly quieter and more comfortable to work in. I could also still hear my wife's phone conversation, but again, it was totally tolerable, and I could still easily work comfortably without feeling distracted.
I even tested the XM4 next to my home's 10KW backup power generator, which produces between 65 and 85 decibels — a range that decently represents a Midtown Manhattan avenue. The XM4 did remarkably well at cancelling out the generator's noise considering my proximity to the generator, and that the noise was coming exclusively from one source rather than the "everywhere" nature of noise in Manhattan.
In a sentence, the XM4 will absolutely make subway and walking commutes in busy cities significantly more tolerable and comfortable.
As for battery life, Sony touts an impressive 30 hours, and five hours of listening time from a quick 10-minute top-off charge with 1.5A or more adapter. All in all, battery life in real life is great — it never felt as if I was constantly charging the XM4.
Sony has worked to improve the ambient noise reduction during phone calls, and that work paid off. I had a phone conversation at around the 65-75 decibel range (near my generator), and the person I was speaking with said, for the most part, they wouldn't know I was next to a noisy engine that produces 10,000 watts of power at 240 volts.
Basically, that means you can walk around a city's busy streets and have a comfortable conversation with barely any city noise making its way into the phone call.
That brings the XM4s up to the Bose 700 region for phone call performance, which is saying something. The Bose 700 were a revelation for ambient noise control for phone calls.
Apps and other features
The Sony Headphones app is utilitarian but necessary to customize the sound to your liking, and while it was quick and easy for me, I see plenty of room for improvement to make it more intuitive and more attractive, especially for those who are less inclined on tech.
Sony has loaded the XM4s with one feature that's incredibly important for a pair of wireless headphones in 2020 and beyond, as well as a bunch of features that aren't entirely necessary, even questionable.
First, the important feature the XM4s include is Bluetooth multipoint technology, which lets you connect to two devices at the same time. Multipoint is essential if you often switch between your phone and computer — you can listen to music from your computer with the headphones, as well as pick up a phone call from your phone without any manual switching.
Another feature that works well is "Quick Attention," which reduces your music's volume and turns off noise cancelling when you place your hand over the right earcup. That's great when you need to communicate with someone briefly, like when you're buying something. Volume and noise cancellation come right back when you remove your hand from the right earcup. I'd still think I'm being rude if I kept my headphones on while communicating with another human being, but at least the motion of putting your hand to the earcup is an indication that you're doing something to pay attention to them.
There's also "Speak To Chat," where the headphones detect when you're talking, and music and noise cancellation are totally turned off. When the headphones detect that you're no longer talking, music and noise cancellation are re-engaged after a set amount of time. It works well, but if I'm going to chat with anyone for more than a brief amount of time, I'm going to take off the headphones. If it's not obvious, this is one of the questionable features.
The Sony app includes a noise cancellation optimizer designed to, well, optimize noise cancellation for you by analyzing anything that might alter the earcups' seal around your ears. I'm not entirely sure if it works, to be honest, but optimized or not, sound quality and noise cancellation remain excellent.
There's also a "360 Reality Audio" feature that supposedly enhances audio with some kind of surround sound enhancements. The setup process is odd, as you need to take photos of your ears, and it only works with the Tidal, Nugs, and Deezer streaming apps. I don't use any of these apps, so I couldn't test this feature. Honestly, these kinds of features rarely end up enhancing anything for the better.
Should you buy the Sony WH-1000XM4?
I could leave it at that, but I need to disclose that the XM4s work best if you use the Sony Headphones app. Maybe you'll like the default sound, but I find it lackluster. After a little effortless tweaking, the XM4 became one of my favorite pairs of all-around headphones — you're getting some of the best sound quality, comfort, noise cancellation, and phone call quality in the $350 price range.
If $350 is on the higher side, you could still pick up Sony's previous generation in the XM series, the WH-1000XM3. Sound quality, noise cancellation, and comfort are all just a hair under the new XM4, but for the sub-$250 price tags we're seeing these days for the XM3, they're a bargain. To note, the XM3s would also benefit from some minor finagling with the app to get the sound you like. See what we said about the XM3 headphones around the time they were released.
If you're truly not interested in playing around with an app and you "just want a good pair of headphones," I'd recommend the Bose 700 instead. You can check out the Bose 700 review here.
Pros: Comfortable, long battery life, excellent noise cancellation, great audio quality, incredibly effective sound customization, impressive ambient noise reduction for phone calls
Cons: Default sound is muffled and lacks highs and clarity, app is utilitarian and not super intuitive
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