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Unless you’re raking in cash from the TikTok creator program or you sold your Dogecoin at just the right time, $300 Bluetooth earbuds are a serious splurge. But when you successfully auction off that NFT you want something substantial to show for it, right, and the $279 Sony WF-1000XM4 earbuds aren’t built for subtlety. These little electronic nuggets may be no bigger than a 20-sided die, but they signal that you are all-in on Sony’s most advanced audio and noise-canceling technology.
It’s easy for products like these to become a Frankenstein’s monster of fancy features. Of course, having the best tech inside doesn’t matter if it can’t work together. Sony has avoided that pitfall and made a truly great set of True Wireless (TWS) earbuds. They combine strong active noise cancellation (ANC), excellent sound, and a heap of customization options. There are a few nitpicks—why no multidevice connectivity!?!—but the Sony WF-1000XM4 buds work very hard to earn their high price.
What are the Sony WF-1000XM4 earbuds?
Sony’s penchant for naming audio products like experimental, highly classified chemical agents can make navigating its lineup confusing, but there is some logic. The WF-1000XM4 earbuds build on the successful, vaguely bean-shaped WF-1000XM3 and they employ some of the same noise-canceling tech you’ll find in the over-the-ear WH-1000XM4.
Compared to its direct predecessor, the new Sony earbuds employ a totally redesigned 6mm driver. They also come toting a totally new processor, which Sony calls the V1. It’s a system-on-chip arrangement that powers everything from sound performance to noise-canceling.
Despite the WF-1000XM4’s iterative name, Sony says this is a complete overhaul from the previous Sony wireless earbuds. It’s easy to believe when you use—or even hold—them. A few of the small upgrades are also very notable for some users. For instance, the Sony WF-1000XM4 earbuds now boast an IPX4 weather-resistance rating. That means you can wear them more confidently in the rain or to the gym. The case also now charges wirelessly on any Qi-compatible charger. These are the kinds of refinements we like to see as a product line evolves.
The Sony WF-1000XM4’s design
If you’re upgrading from the WF-1000XM3 earbuds, the redesign will feel substantial. Sony has ditched the Bluetooth headset aesthetic from the previous model and shrunk both the earbuds and the charging case. The buds are still relatively chunky—each weighs just 0.25 ounces. They fit comfortably, but it will take a while for you to forget that they’re in there.
Despite their relative heft, I had no problem with them falling out. Even at the gym, they stayed locked in place. The chunky earbud bodies wedge comfortably into the outer part of the ear while the new memory foam tips settle securely into the opening of the ear canal. In short, you can work out, headbang, ride on a dune buggy, or do whatever other jangly activity you want to engage in with relative confidence.
From a purely aesthetic standpoint, the buds look modern and slick. The stylistic appeal may feel amplified due to the dowdiness of the previous version. But I really like this new design. I don’t know if I could pull off the white version, but the black version is understated and appealing despite its size and brushed metal accents.
Keep on keeping on
Because these earbuds are fairly chunky, the WF-1000XM4 earbuds have lots of room for the battery inside. You’ll get up to eight hours of playback, with ANC turned on, from a single charge. The battery case holds two full charges. That means you essentially get 24 hours of noise-canceling playback before going back on the charger. Turn off ANC and you can get up to 36 hours total between the buds and the case. I had no problem wearing the WF-1000XM4 earbuds all day during work without running out of juice.
Finger on the pulse
Earbuds like this frequently employ design elements that prevent you from ever having to take them out of your ears. For instance, if the buds realize that you’re walking down the street, they can allow in more ambient sound. That could prevent you from getting pancaked by a delivery truck.
The ambient sound coming in sounds relatively natural, and it’s easy to get to. A setting allows the earbuds to notice when you’re talking and lower the volume of any music that might be playing. When it doesn’t hear you talking for 15 seconds, they turn the volume back up. I found, however, that I triggered this too often accidentally, so I turned it off; I don’t need to sit in silence for 15 seconds every time I cough.
Holding a finger on the left earbud achieves the same effect. If you want to talk to someone with both earbuds in, you can do so. It works, but I still find it awkward. Personally, I’d rather just take one earbud out, but that’s just a matter of personal preference.
Setting up the Sony WF-1000XM4
Setup could not be simpler. At first. You can simply remove the Sony WF-1000XM4 earbuds from their case, connect them to your phone through the companion app, and start listening. However, Sony also offers more robust setup options that let you tweak the performance. In fact, it’s a lot of different setup options.
First, Sony offers an automatic mode that uses the buds’ built-in microphones to test the fit of your chosen tips. The app plays a twinkly elevator music-style sound and listens to the amount of audio that spills out of your ear canal to see if you need a bigger tip.
Setting up 360 Reality Audio—Sony’s version of digitally generated faux surround sound, like Apple’s Spatial Audio—is even more involved, as the app guides you through the process of taking photos of your ears. You position your head in front of the camera, then the app uses ear recognition (seriously) to detect your ear and snap a photo. It’s surprisingly tricky to get a photo of your own ear, even with AI helping you. Once it has the photos, the app runs through an automated process, which it says takes about 30 seconds, but took more than a minute for me.
Even once you’re done with the automated setup processes, there are still tons of settings to tweak. You can pick your EQ presets, change the functions of the touch-sensitive controls on the buds themselves, and tweak the ANC modes. The adaptive ANC feature even allows you to register specific locations where you expect to use the earbuds so it knows exactly how much ambient noise to let in when you’re in that physical space.
All told, I spent the first 30 minutes or so with the WF-1000XM4 messing around with menu options and going through the setup process. It’s a very far cry from the intuitive tech of something like Apple’s noise-canceling earbuds, the AirPods Pro, or the Beats Solo Pro headphones, which I basically tapped against my phone before immediately listening. Which of those experiences you prefer is really up to you.
Cutting through the chatter
Sony has been engaging in a years-long arms race with Bose when it comes to pure noise-canceling power. Well, Sony has landed a serious blow with the WF-1000XM4 earbuds.
Even before we get to the electronics, Sony’s new memory foam tips provide excellent sound isolation. If you’ve used something like Comply foam before, this material feels denser and a little slower to rebound if you really squish it. When I’m sitting in my office or some other relatively quiet space, the isolation alone is enough for me to forgo ANC. I just didn’t need it.
Out in the world, however, the ANC starts to shine. Each Sony WF-1000XM4 earbud employs a pair of microphones: one faces outward to catch incoming noise, while the other faces inward to monitor feedback. The result, in short, is excellent. It easily drowned out the din of a crowded coffee shop and the drone of the road while sitting in the passenger seat of a car on the highway. Even without music, the WF-1000XM4 earbuds do a solid job of drowning out the world. With music playing, it even blissfully blocked the sound of 3 a.m. fireworks in my neighborhood. Sony prides itself on its ability to adapt its noise-canceling to your environment, and for good reason.
Sony brags about its new 6mm driver and it lives up to the hype. I put the WF-1000XM4 earbuds through my usual gauntlet of music that headphones hate. The default settings prioritize bass performance but don’t necessarily sacrifice much—if anything—in the mids and highs.
The looped vocal melody on Mac Miller’s “Knock Knock” didn’t get buried under the robust bassline. Peter Steele’s distinctive pronunciations on Type O Negative’s “Black No. 1” cut through the droning instrumentals with unnerving clarity. I never had a problem with the WF-1000XM4 earbuds sounding bad and found myself impressed with their performance on more than one occasion.
If you want to tweak the EQ, Sony offers roughly a half-dozen presets from which you can choose. There are also two custom slots in which you can save your own settings. Personally, I think the default tuning does a great job in most cases, delivering consistently throughout the 20 Hz – 20,000 Hz frequency response.
High-resolution and multidimensional audio
Both hi-res and “3D audio” have been on the table for quite some time now in various hardware and streaming services. But, Apple recently got into the game, which has brought these enhanced audio technologies to the forefront.
Sony’s flagship earbuds support Bluetooth 5.2 and a maximum transfer rate of up to 990 kbps—plus high frequencies up to 40,000 Hz, beyond human hearing—thanks to the LDAC codec. (For reference, Apple’s AAC format, which is also supported, goes up to 256 kbps.) So, if you have access to hi-res audio files from a service like TIDAL, Qobuz, or even Apple Music, as well as gear that transmits the LDAC format, the Sony WF-1000XM4 can technically take advantage of them. The Sony earbuds also support DSEE Extreme, an algorithm that upscales lower-bit rate files. I typically left DSEE off since I didn’t notice a profound difference in sound quality and it affects battery life. It’s good for Sony to support these technologies, but you’ll have to try them for yourself to see if you can even notice the difference. You can always tell everyone you notice the difference, even if you don’t.
And, if you opt to go through the 360 Reality Audio setup that requires taking pictures of your ears, you can take advantage of perhaps the most controversial thing happening in audio at the moment. You will likely notice a difference when listening to a spatially rendered song, but whether you think it’s an improvement or not is up to you. It’s worth noting that Sony’s earbuds won’t give you Spatial Audio with video content like some of Apple’s higher-end AirPods (the Pro and Max) can. It would have been great for Sony to enable this feature with the PS5 when using its flagship earbuds; they could easily replace a bulky pair of gaming headphones. For now, Sony’s WF-1000XM4 surround sound audio offerings are limited to music only.
The rest of the specs
You get a few handy features that you’d expect out of high-end earbuds. Proximity sensors pause playback when you remove an earbud from your ear. Plus, they connect quickly to an Android device (using Fast Pair) or a PC (using Swift Pair). Unfortunately, however, they lack multipoint connectivity, so you’ll have to choose one device at a time. Apple has really spoiled some users when it comes to keeping multiple devices connected to AirPods and quickly switching between them. It would have been great to see something similar from Sony here.
From a voice calling standpoint, I found the WF-1000XM4 earbuds just OK. Sony added a bone conduction sensor to detect vibrations from your voice as you speak. That’s in addition to the beamforming microphones that focus on your voice. People on the other end of my calls didn’t have trouble hearing me, but they did pick up some background noise. I also noticed occasional crackles or slight feedback during calls, too. It’s all normal stuff, but it’s not quite on the same level as the sound and ANC performance.
So, who should buy the Sony WF-1000XM4?
If you’re an iPhone user, you’ll miss out on some platform-specific features offered by the cheaper AirPods Pro. The Apple earbuds connect easier, support more Spatial Audio features (like head tracking), and easily switch between devices. It’s up to you how much you value those kinds of usability features because they can’t offer the same kind of customizability as the Sony buds can.
If you’re not an Apple devotee, you’re unbothered by the lofty $279 price tag, and you’re looking for the best wireless earbuds, then Sony’s high-end option delivers on some rather lofty promises. With great battery life, excellent sound quality, and powerful noise-canceling, the Sony WF-1000XM4 earbuds check all the boxes.