Sony WH-1000XM4 review: Did the best really get better?

Review: Sony WH-1000XM4 are about as good as you could expect current day over-ear noise cancelling wireless headphones to get.
The Sony WH-1000XM4. Photo credit: Newshub.

When Sony revealed its new WH-1000XM4 model of wireless, noise-cancelling headphones were on the way, parts of the internet lit up with excitement.

"The best just got better," exclaimed multiple tech websites which published reviews the same day the product was announced.

Sony itself used the exact same phrasing in their announcement. That's quite a bold claim - so how true is it? 

After using a pair myself for the last week, here are my thoughts.

The good

The hype is totally deserved - these headphones are incredible. Aside from super high-end, professional studio headphones that cost thousands, these are the best sounding cans I've ever experienced.

The speakers have 40mm drivers with liquid crystal polymer diaphragms and can reproduce frequencies up to 40kHz.

But there's some other new tech making these things sound so good, including a new DSEE Extreme audio processor that upscales compressed audio and uses artificial intelligence to analyse music in real-time, to reproduce a more accurate sound.

It makes streaming music from Spotify or Apple Music sound pretty much the same as lossless FLAC.

Sound quality is the number one thing I'm interested in with headphones and it's just gorgeous in the WH-1000XM4. But it's also just the start of what makes them good.

The active noise-canceling (ANC) is the best Sony has achieved yet and superior to pairs of Bose, Turtle Beach and JBL headsets I compared it to.

There's two mics in each earcup constantly passing data into the fancy new processor which Sony says works with the Bluetooth system to adjust music at over 700 times per seconds, which is why the ANC is so good.

You can actually control the ANC, along with other features, through a companion app. You need to be connected to your phone to do that, but the headphones allow a connection to two devices at once, so you can adjust the headphones via your phone while using them with your laptop, if you like.

Other features mean the music will stop if you pop your headphones off, while the ANC will turn off and lower music in volume if you speak with them on or pop a hand over the top of the right earcup.

These sorts of things are handy when you need to hear someone for just a moment and don't want to take your headphones off - but be warned, that can look rude and some people won't like you doing it!

You can also pause, play, turn volume up or down, make and take phone calls all by touching the side of the right earcup, too.

Another new feature is 360 Reality Audio, which if you're really into, can literally send Sony photos of your ears and they'll customise the tech for your own ear shape. Object-based spatial audio technology is fairly new and seems a bit gimmicky for me, but it's in there if you want it.

Then there's Adaptive Sound Control, which is said to sense where you are and what you're doing then automatically adjust settings accordingly. If you aren't fussed about the related privacy issues, you can allow the app to track where you regularly go and remember those locations, then jump to automatic sound and ANC presets that are best for them.

Despite all of that technology going on in the WH-1000XM4, its battery life is a whopping 30 hours.

They're also nice and light, with wonderfully comfortable design. I've only gotten mild ear-strain after using these for the better part of a full eight hour work day.

Newshub's Daniel Rutledge gives the Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones a glowing review.
The Sony WH-1000XM4. Photo credit: Newshub.

The bad

The most obvious problem is the price. These aren't very cheap.

But they're also not expensive, when compared to similar competitors - most if not all of which they're better than.

Although they're very comfortable, the size of each earcup is a little smaller than some alternatives and might mean bad ear-strain after like 10 hours straight hours of use. When we're allowed on long-haul flights again is when I'll find that out for sure.

There's so much functionality in the WH-1000XM4 unit that it may be a bit annoying for some people. All of it can be turned off fairly easily, but just doing that - along with the initial set-up - costs a few seconds that a more basic set of headphones won't.

I know how trivial that is, but I have to find something negative to mention in a review and it's hard with a product this good!

Speaking of trivial issues - I actually prefer the carry case of the Bose. It has slightly more room and the correct way of storing the headphones is printed on its inside, whereas the Sony version has a printed piece of cardboard doing the same job.

The verdict

If you want a premium set of wireless, noise-cancelling, over-ear headphones, the Sony WH-1000XM4 should be at the top of your list.

There are some great alternatives from Bose on the market and a few other fairly good options from the likes of Sennheiser, Beats and the like. Personal preference comes into these decisions, of course, and you may want to try a few of these options out in a shop before deciding which to purchase.

But the WH-1000XM4 are being heralded the best for a reason.

The sound and ANC quality, comfort and features you get for what these cost make them about as good a package as you could possibly ask for.