Sony WH-1000XM4

Sony’s 4th iteration of the worst name to be attached to a product WH-1000 over-ear noise-cancelling headphones. The last 3 versions were clear leaders only being outdone by the newest generation. A pretty impressive feat when you consider just how many noise-cancelling headphones are on the market. How do the XM4’s stack up then?

The goalposts have changed somewhat in my headphone review process. Days gone by, bursting out a 10,000 mile Trans Atlantic jaunt or being in a densely populated area or packed out tube just to see how good a bit of tech works would be the norm… fond memories. Instead, I’ve tried my best to put the headphones through their paces with what I have access to.

Noise cancelling

Sadly, AmEx wouldn’t give me a line of credit large enough for a Rolls’ Trent XWB-97 engine or 2 so I’ve had to make do with a selection of power tools 😂. Starting off with the big guns, a Hilti TE 2000-AVR demolition breaker. 95db over a consistent 3 hour period my initial impressions were similar to the idea of using a breaker for a solid 3 hours none stop, not good.

The basic concept of noise-cancelling goes something along the lines of, The headphone external mic’s pick up the sounds outside of the headphones. The processor kicks in and plays a sound that cancels out said sound. The microphones inside the headphones analyse what can be heard and compare the 2 to see if it is doing the job correctly. Different to noise isolation, where no noise gets through.

With most tools such as the pictured mitre saw, the noise was constant and as such the noise cancelling worked fairly well.

With the jackhammer, I had to have whatever I was listening to almost uncomfortably loud just to drown out the monstrous sound. A clear case that the Sony HD Noise Cancelling Processor QN1 wasn’t up to the task. This could well be because of the way in which the jackhammer emits sound. Yes, there is a constant loud wurring which was cancelled out without any problems, the issue is the fluctuating spikes in audio. When the chisel hammers into the concrete 8-10 times a second those 8-10 extremely large spikes in sound per second shatter through not just the concrete but the processor. I would be more lenient if it was a variable resonance however it was a constant tempo, the maximum which the jackhammer could output. After a few seconds, I would expect the processor to be able to clearly understand the resonance and be able to send counterwaves through the headphone to nullify the sound. Maybe I’m asking for too much?

An Airplane!!!!

The good thing about doing reviews over a rather lengthy period of time is you get to truly test the thing you’re reviewing. Having finally managed to get on a flight it’s great to hear the XM4’s come into their own, after all this is without a shadow of a doubt their best use case and it’s an area where they are unmatched in performance.

Picture the case, you’re on your way home from a 5-day session in Ibiza where you booked the cheapest hotel having the intention of being in the clubs throughout the night and sleeping by the pool during the day. You’re absolutely destroyed and frankly feeling not far from your death bed as you are getting as much Lucozade Sport into you as you can. The thought of a 3-hour flight back to the UK isn’t exactly appealing. Now I’m not saying the XM4’s are a godsend in said situation, but they’ll certainly take the edge off it by totally blocking out the engine noise without any sort of pressure on your ears. Where they do become a godsend is if there’s a baby on board said flight, you simply wouldn’t even know.

Exercise

Having WuFlu restrictions in place for a long time meant no gym sessions, no rope climbs, no snatch, no bench, etc. Having been able to go to the gym for the last few months now, I simply CBA anyway but I’m pretty sure the XM4’s would come up wanting. There’s barely any clamping pressure which is nice for being on a plane, running or even rollerblading but any movement which isn’t on the vertical plane and they’re shambolic. That’s based solely on bending over whilst using a saw and having to stop to reposition them.

I’m not sure why Sony decided to change something which they got so right on the MK2’s and MK3’s. They used to hold in any position (Read hanging upside down on the monkey bars in LA) yet still be nice to wear for 10+ hours at a time. With the MK4’s they’re that loose, you have no confidence in them. I thought it may have been an issue specifically with me having shall we say a full head of hair, but even after cutting the majority of it off it made no difference.

Audio Quality

The audio quality is a difficult one to write about. The sound profile is flat regardless of the volume. What changes though at different audio levels are how they perform. Below 60% volume, it’s as if some of the range is missing and frequencies are almost crushed together. Towards the 60% volume and up is where you’ll have the best experience with clear separation and the full range that the headphones can deliver. That leaves you with about 20% before the audio levels start to become very uncomfortable at 80% and above.

These aren’t open-backed headphones with their own external amp, etc so don’t be expecting perfect reproduction. If you’re coming from any other set of headphones priced around or below £300 you’ll be hearing things vastly different and will no doubt bring you a new appreciation for the music you listen to.

Comfort

As I mentioned earlier, I see no issue in wearing these for a good 8 to 10, maybe even 12 hours and them still being comfortable. So long as you are upright!

The leather headband and cups are very soft and smooth with plenty of padding. It is worth pointing out that if you are going to be exercising in them, they’ll be soaked by the end of your workout. It’s no issue, you can just wipe them down but they do collect a lot of sweat.

Build Quality

Unlike Apple’s attempt to revolutionise things by going all-metal, Sony stuck with the tried and tested method of using lightweight plastic. There’s a reason everyone does it this way, it’s lighter, comfier and just works. The drawback of course is plastic snaps, I know this first hand due to my mk2’s deciding to snap mid-run after 2-3 years of abuse. The mk2’s and 3’s were tanks, the mk4’s don’t have that feel about them leaving you concerned should you be participating in any abnormal physical situations, say taking your hoody off or on without taking your headphones off.

Watertight they are not! The packaging explicitly states that they aren’t even showerproof and this for me was a big issue. Say you are on a 2-hour run, how are you supposed to know if it’s going to rain at any point in your run. Technology should be enabling and never a hindrance. Not going out because it’s raining and you don’t want to write your snazzy headphones off is a clear hindrance. Again, with my mk2’s I’d be out in amongst Hurricane Katrina nodding inattentively without a care in the world.

Battery

Realistically if you’re using them to block out the world on your commute to work and then in the gym, you’ll be charging them once a week or maybe even every other week. For heavy users, once every few days or a quick 30-minute charge before you head out. Sony rates them for 30 hours of use which is crazy. I’ve found myself barely ever charging them due to how long the battery lasts. As such I’ll often hear the “Please recharge headset” notification because I can’t remember when I last charged them.

A nice convenient feature is the ability to get 5 hours of charge from plugging them in for just 10 minutes. What that means is; you can put them on charge, pack a gym bag or put your trainers on etc, have a drink then by the time you’re heading out you can grab them and they’ll see you through most situations. If you’re wanting the full 30 hours, you’ll have to charge them for about 3 hours.

If 30 hours of charge isn’t enough, you still have the option to use the 3.5mm headphone jack and cable to use them as normal headphones, you just won’t get the noise cancelling.

Controls

Just like on the 3 previous iterations you get the same 2 button layout. Located on the right cup, the first is the power button. A long press turns on the headset. A short press when the headset is on will give you an audible readout of the battery level, “Battery level, High”, ” Battery level, Medium” and ” Battery level, Low”. Press and hold whilst the headset is on for a good 5 seconds and that will begin the Bluetooth pairing process.

The second button is set by default as the noise-cancelling button. This can be reprogrammed to voice assist in the app though. Unlike previous versions which were Siri if you’re on iPhone or Google Assistant on Android you now have access to Amazon Alexa. Press once for notifications and time, press and hold for a voice command, double press to cancel the voice command.

Also on the right cup, you have the touchpad. Slide your finger from the back to the front to skip the track, front to back to skip backwards, bottom to top for volume up, top to bottom for volume down. Double tap for pause, touch and hold to disable noise cancelling then release to enable again.

I don’t have access to more than one pair unfortunately but with my XM’4, the touchpad is horrible in comparison to older models. it requires a lot more feedback to the point where I’m not far from punching myself in the ear similar to an NFL star getting psyched up just to pause a track.

Useless features

When removing your headphones, you can set them to automatically pause whatever music is playing. This is done through a proximity sensor in the left ear cup. Once they’ve been removed for longer than 15 minutes, they will automatically power off.

NONE of that works. Well, it did, maybe 1 or 2 times in the year that I’ve owned them and that’s it. highly inconvenient.

Rather than hold your hand on the touchpad to be able to hear what is being said, you can enable “speak to chat”. This is supposed to automatically detect when you’re talking lower the volume, disable noise-cancelling and make it like you were talking without headphones on…

Again this has worked once in the year I’ve had them. That one time it did work was awesome but no luck and I’ve found myself disabling it and taking the headset off to converse after a lot of “Oh sorry can you repeat that, I was expecting my headphones to cut out so I could hear you” followed by “sorry about that”. You can change the sensitivity between 3 settings but even at the most sensitive setting talking would be hit and miss but a bus going past would activate it.

The App

A simple to use interface which can transform the experience of using the XM4’s. Read that as install the app and go through the below steps.

Firstly there’s the 3 step noise cancelling optimizer which takes less than 10 seconds to set up. It’s worth going through this process if you’ve had a haircut, are lying down instead of sitting or standing or have changed your environment.

Should you be inclined, there is an adjustable equalizer. The xm4’s come with a flat profile just like all the previous wh-1000’s. I’ve left mine that way, you can change it up o that they’re warmer, more bass-heavy or balanced.

Updates

All updates can be done through the app though whether you choose to update or not is another thing. In the 12 months since release, there have been 2 updates and the latest one seems to have taken the headphones a step back. Pre update, you would press the assistant button and it would instantly tell you the time and give you your notifications. Now, you press it and it’s as if there’s a 2-3 second buffer before you get anything. This is the same when you want to use voice commands. You’ll hold the button then 2-3 seconds later its prompts you to start talking. A very small difference, but when you’re used to instant it’s slightly jarring. Also, the update process isn’t the quickest sometimes taking 15-20 minutes. Just make sure you follow the onscreen instructions as you can brick the headphones.

The Case

I didn’t think the case needed any improvements from previous years, I was wrong and it’s only apparent when you get the XM4’s. It’s the same semi hard-shelled design with new material that has a nice texture to it and the revised layout inside meaning you can hold both the included USB charging cable along with the 3.5mm cable. The tight netted mesh on the rear is perfect for holding your passport and maybe even your wallet if you have a very slim provided one. The best improvement though has to be the ability to tuck the zip into the case when it’s closed. A tiny detail but hearing a zip click and clack when you move is annoying, this irradicates that.

To Conclude

For the TL;DR I’d still say to buy them based solely on the fact they’re the best new noise-cancelling headphones on the market and for everyday use they’re great. If you have any of the previous versions, the ability to pair 2 devices, say your laptop and phone (this is very handy should you be working away in a Costa on your laptop and someone calls you) along with the ability to use the quick charge feature are the main reasons you should consider upgrading. If you’re buying for the first time and don’t do so much travelling it might be hard to justify the £279 price tag which they currently have on Amazon. If you’re paying the full price though (£350) I honestly couldn’t recommend them and that’s down to the narrow volume band where you get great audio quality and the fact that if you were in a gym doing simple stuff they’d slide off your head. That 1 instance where there is a crying baby involved and you’ll instantly love them.

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