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Sony WF-1000XM4 review: Cheaper than they've ever been

Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
250
inc VAT

The Sony WF-1000XM4 earbuds are the complete package, offering first-rate sound quality, effective ANC and numerous useful features

Pros 
Excellent audio quality
Smart, effective noise cancellation
Useful quality-of-life features
Cons 
No multipoint pairing
Fit can be a bit fiddly
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Don't miss this BEST-EVER price on the class-leading WF-1000XM4

In our opinion, the Sony WF-1000XM4 are the best true wireless earbuds around and they've had their price slashed by over £50. It's the first time these exceptional earbuds have dropped below £220, making this one of the most attractive headphones offers around.
Amazon
Was £250
Now £199

Sony’s recent track record when it comes to headphones has left its latest pair of true wireless earbuds - the Sony WF-1000XM4 – with a lot to live up to. The Japanese corporation’s over-ear WH-1000XM3 and WH-1000XM4 both received our coveted Best Buy award, as did its third-generation WF-1000XM3 earbuds.

But those fearing a drop in quality can breathe a sigh of relief. The WF-1000XM4 address all of the key issues we had with their predecessors and incorporate a number of new features to deliver supremely well-rounded audio.

Sony WF-1000XM4 review: What you need to know

Like the WF-1000XM3, the Sony WF-1000XM4 are active noise-cancelling (ANC) true wireless earbuds aimed at those with plenty of disposable income.

This is not simply an iterative update, however. The WF-1000XM4 have been redesigned from the ground up and are more compact and better-looking than their predecessors. But their sleeker appearance is just the tip of the upgrade iceberg.

The QN1e chip has been replaced by the Integrated Processor V1 to enhance ANC effectiveness, while the 6mm speaker drivers have been tweaked to improve low-end performance. The buds now operate over Bluetooth 5.2, and there’s support for Sony’s Hi-Res LDAC codec in addition to SBC and AAC (the two codecs supported by the XM3).

That’s an impressive list, but the improvements don’t stop there. The charging case can now be topped up wirelessly, Sony’s Digital Sound Enhancement Engine (DSEE), which upscales lossy audio formats, has been upgraded, and the buds have had an IPX4 rating for water resistance slapped on them.

What’s more, the buds incorporate a couple of the best features from their over-ear stablemates, the Sony WH-1000XM4. Speak-to-Chat has been added, as has the ability for the buds to learn about places you visit and automatically switch noise-cancelling profiles to suit those environments.

I’ll delve deeper into how all of these changes work below but, suffice to say, the Sony WF-1000XM4 are among the most fully featured earbuds on the market.

Sony WF-1000XM4 review: Price and competition

The Sony WF-1000XM4 are available in either black or silver and will set you back £250. That’s undeniably pricey, but Sony’s latest in-ear offerings are some way off being the most expensive noise-cancelling earbuds I’ve reviewed.

That title goes to the £349 Bowers & Wilkins PI7, which deliver exceptional audio quality and come with a charging case that doubles up as a Bluetooth transmitter.

Of the numerous ANC earbuds I’ve tested, none reduces environmental sound quite as effectively as the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds (£250). Apple’s AirPods Pro aren’t too far off the pace, however, and remain the go-to choice for iPhone users due to lightning-fast pairing with Apple products and hands-free Siri activation. They’ve been steadily dropping in price since release and can now be picked up for £189.

If you’re after premium brand noise-cancelling earbuds at a more affordable price, you’ll struggle to find better value buds than the WF-1000XM4’s predecessors, the WF-1000XM3. Sony’s third-generation earbuds launched at £220 but are currently available for £139.

Should you be unable to stretch your budget that far, there are a few cheaper alternatives out there worth considering. The Urbanista London and Panasonic RZ-S500W are both available for £100, while Huawei’s FreeBuds 4i are just £80.

Sony WF-1000XM4 review: Design, battery life and comfort

Sony’s new earbuds may follow the same naming convention as their predecessors, but they’ve received a significant design overhaul.

They’re 10% smaller than the WF-1000XM3 and a completely different shape, with the flat panels of old having been replaced by rounder bodies boasting improved in-ear ergonomics. They’re still not the most petite earbuds around, but they don’t protrude too far out of your ears and the updated design is more aesthetically appealing.

The charging case has also been shrunk and is 40% smaller than the one that comes with the WF-1000XM3. The XM3’s chunky case was one of their few drawbacks, so the downsizing is particularly welcome.

Surprisingly, the total battery life offered by the buds and case remains the same. You’ll still get up to 24 hours of audio playback with both ANC and Bluetooth switched on. However, the split between the buds and case has changed slightly.

The WF-1000XM3 offered up to six hours of audio playback per charge, with the case providing three full charges. The WF-1000XM4 provide up to eight hours per charge, outlasting rivals such as the Bose QC Earbuds, Apple AirPods Pro and Bowers & Wilkins PI7, while the case holds a further 16 hours of juice (that’s two extra charges).

You’re unlikely to find yourself using them for eight hours straight but the WF-1000XM4 are comfortable enough to wear for long periods, once you’ve managed to achieve a good fit. Doing so proved a little tricky and I had to fiddle about with them a fair bit before they felt truly secure.

The eartips provided are made from polyurethane foam rather than the industry-standard silicone, and the malleable material took a bit of getting used to. The foam does isolate sound well, however, and didn’t cause any undue pressure on my ear canals.

The final design change of note comes in the form of an IPX4 rating. This means the WF-1000XM4 can withstand water splashes from any direction so they’re a much better choice than the WF-1000XM3, which had no such protection, for trips to the gym and listening in all weather.

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Sony WF-1000XM4 review: Setup and features

The Sony WF-1000XM4 are a breeze to set up, particularly if you’re using an Android phone. They support Google Fast Pair so all you need to do is take the buds out of their case and you’ll receive a pop-up prompting you to connect them to your device. It worked perfectly with my Realme 6i, but pairing them with my iPhone 8 was hardly a chore – you simply connect as normal via the Bluetooth menu on the settings screen.

Unlike the over-ear WH-1000XM4, the WF-1000XM4 don’t support multipoint pairing. This means they can only be connected to one Bluetooth device at a time and can’t quickly switch between sources. It’s not a huge deal, but it is a disappointing omission.

Once you’re connected to your phone you’ll want to download Sony’s Headphones Connect app, which is available on both the Apple App Store and Google Play Store. This serves as the control hub for the buds and grants access to various customisation options.

You can set up your voice assistant using the app – hands-free Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa and Siri are all supported – activate wear detection, which pauses audio when you take one or both of the buds out of your ear, and instruct the buds to turn themselves off if not worn for a while.

There’s also an option to configure the Sony WF-1000XM4’s touch controls, although you’re fairly limited in what can be changed. Instead of being able to assign specific actions to certain touch commands, you have to choose between sets of controls governing ambient sound, playback and volume control.

By default, the left earbud covers ambient sound control functions. A single tap on the left bud switches between the buds’ noise cancelling and ambient sound modes, while holding your finger on the bud activates “Quick Attention”. This drops the volume of your music right down and lets in ambient sound, providing you with a swift way of engaging with the outside world.

Touch commands on the right earbud are initially set up to handle playback controls and are easy enough to remember: a single tap plays or pauses audio, a double tap plays the next song, a triple tap skips to the previous song and long-pressing the bud will hail your voice assistant.

Should you choose to use volume controls instead of one of the above options, a single tap raises your volume while long-pressing decreases it. Due to the way the WF-1000XM4 handle noise cancellation, I didn’t mind sacrificing ambient sound control in favour of volume control. It would be nice to access all three sets of controls simultaneously, however.

One of the WF-1000XM4’s most useful features is Speak-to-Chat. It debuted in the over-ear WH-1000XM4 and works in exactly the same manner here. When toggled on in the Headphones Connect app, it automatically pauses your music and cranks ambient sound right up whenever it detects your voice, allowing you to have a conversation without taking the buds out of your ears.

It works consistently well and can be customised to suit your needs. Out of the box, voice detection sensitivity adjusts automatically based on your environment, but you can choose low or high sensitivity if you find this doesn’t work for you.

You can also choose how long you want it to remain active after speech to ensure the mode doesn’t close mid-conversation. The “short” (five seconds) and “standard” (15 seconds) options felt a little restrictive to me, but 30 seconds proved ample. If you’ve got a particularly chatty partner or friend you can choose to prevent the mode from shutting down automatically and manually end it by touching either of the earbuds.

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Sony WF-1000XM4 review: Adaptive sound control

The Sony WF-1000XM4 use the same adaptive sound control technology as the WH-1000XM4 and it works supremely well.

With the feature on and “automatic switching based on actions” enabled in the app, the earbuds will switch between noise cancelling and ambient sound modes depending on what you’re doing at the time.

They’re able to pick up on four activity types – staying (sitting or standing still), walking, running and transport – and you can choose whether you want noise cancelling or a specific level of ambient sound applied in each circumstance. I opted for noise cancelling while stationary and on transport, ambient sound at level 10 while walking, and maximum ambient sound (level 20) while running.

Being able to customise how much sound makes its way into your ears in those four scenarios is very useful, and the noise cancellation on offer is top drawer. It isn’t quite class-leading – Bose’s QuietComfort Earbuds still hold that crown – but it was able to drown out a sizable chunk of the noise on a busy train full of jubilant England football fans, which is no mean feat.

Adaptive sound control was available on the Sony WF-1000XM4’s predecessors but, this time, you can have the buds switch settings based on your location as well.

Locations are registered in the companion app in two different ways. You can add specific places using an in-app map, while simultaneously having the headphones learn about the places you frequent using the GPS on your phone.

Once you’ve spent enough time in one place, it becomes available to register in the app and, from there, you can create bespoke settings that are applied every time you visit that location. You can even tie different EQs to various locations and the result is a level of customisability no other earbuds I’ve tested can match; it’s truly ingenious.

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Sony WF-1000XM4 review: Sound quality

The WF-1000XM4 deliver the goods in the sound quality department as well. Like their predecessors, they communicate dynamics in an enthralling fashion. But they nail every other important element of musical presentation, too.

Their articulation of “Three Lions” by Baddiel, Skinner and the Lightning Seeds left me with goosebumps, and not simply because of the emotional resonance of the football anthem. They captured the anticipation in the build-up to the first chorus wonderfully and handled the contrasting components of the song with aplomb.

Everything from the crowd chants that kick off the track to the iconic electric piano chords, commentators’ interjections and rousing choruses were crisp, detailed and confidently presented.

That confidence and clarity becomes increasingly evident on more musical tracks. The 2009 remaster of The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” shone brightly like the titular star, with all aspects of the arrangement beautifully balanced yet given room to express themselves individually. George Harrison’s lead vocals were nuanced, smooth and filled with whimsical joy.

It doesn’t normally take me four paragraphs to get to talking about how well a pair of headphones deliver bass frequencies but don’t see that as a sign that the WF-1000XM4 are weak on that front. On the contrary, bass reproduction is full-bodied, punchy and clean. The bassline on the 2014 remaster of The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize” had a depth and clarity that elevated the filthy squelch underpinning the track to a level where I found it impossible not to bop my head and tap my feet.

I didn’t find the Sony WF-1000XM4’s bass overpowering, but it’s definitely weighty, so some may want to dial it back a touch via the five-band EQ in the companion app. You can save two custom EQs and there are a handful of presets available, too, including Bright, Excited and Relaxed.

The three songs I’ve referenced above couldn't be more different, which should serve to demonstrate just how versatile the Sony WF-1000XM4 are. They sound great, no matter what you’re listening to.

It’s also worth mentioning that the earbuds support 360 Reality Audio, Sony’s spatial audio technology. This is designed to deliver a listening experience akin to being at a concert or in a recording studio and can be optimised for your ears if you’re willing to take a couple of photos of your head and lugholes.

I had a similar experience with it while using the WF-1000XM4 as I did with the WH-1000XM4. Some songs benefit from the improved positioning of audio cues but it’s rather hit and miss and can feel a bit forced.

The services that support its use with headphones are limited to Deezer, nugs.net and Tidal and the tracks available only number around 1,000, so at present, its potential far outweighs its mass appeal.

Sony WF-1000XM4 review: Verdict

The Sony WF-1000XM4 don’t dethrone the Bose QC Earbuds as the most effective noise cancellers around, nor do they quite match the B&W PI7 for sound quality. But they deliver brilliantly in both of those areas and can't be beaten as an all-round package.

They’re stylish, comfortable and crammed full of neat features and customisation options. Achieving a secure fit takes a little work and the absence of multipoint Bluetooth pairing is a little disappointing. However, neither of those issues is serious enough to prevent Sony from scooping another Best Buy award for a pair of truly magnificent headphones.

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