For months, the entire audio community has been anticipating the launch of Sony’s 4th-generation over-ear wireless noise cancelling headphones. Today, Sony officially announced the WH-1000XM4 which will be available from 7 Aug 2020 at selected retail shops and online stores at a retail price of S$549. Thanks to Sony Singapore, I received the headphones prior to official announcement for an early review.
Sony continues to position the new WH-1000XM4 as the headphones to elevate your everyday experiences, delivering the best ever noise cancelling performance to get you covered for every occasion. Be it working from home, commuting around, or chilling around cafes, the WH-1000XM4 will keep you immersed in the audio, while at the same time, intelligently keeping you aware of the surrounding. The Sony WH-1000XM3 has already achieved that effectively since 2018, so the WH-1000XM4 offers just a few tweaks to keep it up to date with technology.
What’s New on the WH-1000XM4
Design-wise, the WH-1000XM4 looks identical to the WH-1000XM3, with just minor tweaks, like the labeling of the button from “ANC/AMBIENT” to “CUSTOM”, and the debossed “NFC” logo instead of printing. On the left earcup, you can see a prominent black sensor used for wear detection.
Feature-wise, Sony reveals that the new WH-1000XM4 uses the existing HD Noise Cancelling Processor QN1. On top of that, a new Bluetooth Audio SoC senses and adjusts to music and noise at over 700 times per second. Using a new algorithm, the HD Noise Cancelling Processor QN1 applies noise cancelling processing in real time. Naturally, it reduces mid and high frequency noise better than the WH-1000XM3. I did not have the M3 with me, so I have to take their word for it. I mean, it has to be better, right?
Another new feature is the DSEE Extreme, which more accurately rebuilds audio lost during digital compression. This is done through Edge-AI, which analyses music in real time and recognises instruments, music genres and individual elements of each song to restore the high range sounds lost in compression. Based on my audition, it extends the upper frequencies to bring more airiness, making violin solos more life-like. It is very subtle, but for listeners with keen ears, it makes a difference. The DSEE Extreme does not otherwise alter the sound balancing, so I would enable it as default.
Sony WH-1000XM4 no longer support aptX audio codec, only LDAC, SBC and AAC.
New “Speak-To-Chat” Elevates Headphones Experience
New to the WH-1000XM4 and the headphone industry is “Speak-to-Chat“. When the wearer starts talking, the headphones automatically pauses music and switches on ambient sound for 30 seconds or any length configurable from the smartphone app. I am very impressed at how intuitive it is. You can resume music earlier by double-tap the right earcup. Quick Attention is an existing feature, and though I cannot recall if it’s faster than the previous version, the activation speed from the moment I put my hands on the right earcup is very fast.
These 2 features position WH-1000XM4 as the most technologically-superior ANC headphones, and thoroughly elevates the joy of wearing the WH-1000XM4 in public. The moment I speak, the headphones intuitively switches to ambient sound without me lifting my hand. I think “Speak-to-Chat” is one innovative feature to watch in the market, introduced will propel Sony into the next evolution like what they did with Quick Attention which is imitated in some form by other manufacturers.
Playing catch-up, Sony WH-1000XM4 finally supports wearing detection, so music will be paused when the headphones are removed from the ears. It uses a proximity sensor located prominently inside the left earcup, which improves the detection and prevent false positives situations.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 also finally supports connecting two devices at the same time, which can be enabled from the smartphone app. When enabled, the audio codec will be downgraded to SBC. You can also see the device names appearing on the smartphone app. Update 7 Aug: a new firmware V2.0.6 is available that improves the multi-point connection.
Despite all the new features, the battery life remains at 30 hours.
360 Reality Audio
As covered in my Sony WF-SP800N review, the 360 Reality Audio is specially-packaged audio content that can only be decoded by supported audio devices. Because of this, the 3D sound mapping is more accurate than the other competitive formats. While content is limited, they sound good and very enjoyable. I was grooving with the albums Elvis: As Recorded by Madison Square Garden in 360 Reality Audio on TIDAL, absolute joy. The ear-analyze process is also easier thanks to on-screen guide. I highly recommend you to set up 360RA and try out the music content, and once you do, you would hope that Sony can produce more content.
Adaptive Sound Control
Similarly, while the Adaptive Sound Control has been a Sony feature for quite a while, it has been improved and more reliable now. What it does is that it detects motion and then switches around the ambient sound. It can even learn your usage pattern and adapt by location. While the motion detection is a a lot more accurate now, I still don’t find it that useful compared to the Speak-to-Chat feature.
Early Impressions: Audio and ANC Quality
Based on my first impressions over the past few days, I find that the WH-1000XM4 is tuned with slightly beefier bass for good effects. It may have the tendency to obscure the highs, but since most of the modern tracks are already treble-heavy, this tuning should work great for the majority of the consumers. Midrange is well-presented, treble is clear and detailed though not as transparent as Beyerdynamic Lagoon ANC. The sound signature is not tuned to be neutral or faithful, but it makes music sound good and well-represented overall. In any case, you can fall back on the custom EQ on the smartphone app to tune to your absolute liking, and that’s one thing the Sony WH-1000XM4 trumps over the rest.
As for ANC, I did some comparison with Bose HP 700 and found just very fine difference, in favour of Sony. However, Bose is still better in the ambient sound and more refined style. On the WH-1000XM4, I find that even when I tune the Ambient Sound until the max level, it is still not as open-sounding and natural. This would be the next thing that Sony should improve in subsequent versions. Additionally, perhaps Sony could consider supporting digital USB audio.
Call quality is good. The voice sounds warm and in close proximity. Under strong winds, your voice will get disrupted.
There isn’t a lot of new features on the WH-1000XM4, but that’s because it is already very good. For existing WH-1000XM3 owners, there is little reason to upgrade, more so when the design is almost identical, providing little freshness to the new purchase.
But for new owners, the WH-1000XM4 ups the ante. Given the number of technology built into the headphones, the value is so hard to beat. If you frequently commute in public transport, this is the gold standard for headphones on the go. It keeps out the noise extremely well, yet at the same time, welcomes conversations without taking them off. Sony has perfected this experience.