The new WH-1000XM4 is definitely a debatable topic on wireless headphone forums. Let’s settle it. Is this model an adequate upgrade from its predecessor, WH-1000XM3 in terms of sound quality, comfort and technology implemented?
Before 2016, whenever I was asked to recommend the best noise cancellation headphones, Bose was definitely the first choice that came to my mind. I loved the QuietComfort25. However, the game changed in September 2016.
Sony announced the launch of MDR-1000X in 2016, to compete face to face with Bose QuietComfort 35. With better technology implementation, from MDR-1000X to WH-1000XM3, Sony has been recognized as one of the best noise-cancelling wireless headphones. Will the WH-1000XM4 continue to clinch the position for Sony? Let’s find out more in this article!
- Deep ear cups
- No pressure hotspot from the headband
- Deep extending sub-bass
- Well-controlled mid-bass
- Outstanding noise cancellation
- Well-designed application for easier control
- DSEE Extreme and LDAC for Hi-Res audio
- Improvement is less significant from previous generation
- Various types of control (on both smartphone application and headphones
The packaging of WH-1000XM4 is quite similar to its predecessor. I visited one of the Sony’s stores in Singapore after the launch of WH-1000XM4. To be honest, I cannot differentiate the boxes from afar. They are literally the same to an untrained eye.
Opening the box, the headphones are stored in a zipped semi hard case. In the case, users are to expect the following items:
- Flight adaptor
- USB Type-C charging cable
- 3.5mm audio cable
- Driver unit: 40mm, dome type (CCAW Voice coil)
- DSEE Extreme: Yes
- Bluetooth codecs: SBC, AAC and LDAC
- Battery life: 30 hours with ANC on and 200 hours with ANC off.
- Charging time: 3 hours
- Frequency response: 4Hz-40,000Hz
- Frequency response(Bluetooth): 20Hz – 20,000Hz (44.1kHz sampling) / 20Hz – 40,000Hz (LDAC 96kHz sampling, 990kbps)
- Frequency response (active operation): 4Hz-40,000Hz
- Passive operation: Yes
- NFC: Yes
- Cord length: Headphone cable (approx. 1.2m, OFC strands, gold-plated stereo mini plug)
Sony Singapore sent me the silver WH-1000XM4 for this review. I am glad to see this color because, since the first generation, I’ve seldom seen silver on the street or even in the store. It is relatively rare compared to the black.
The physical appearance of WH-1000XM4 is very similar to its predecessor, just like its packaging. I think this is acceptable because the WH-1000XM3’s build is pleasant and durable. It’s great that the fourth generation exhibits the DNA.
The ear cups are covered with memory foam. It provides a comfortable wearing experience. However, I always do not think this is suitable for a country like Singapore where it’s hot and humid all year long. I only use it when I am working in an air-conditioned room or travelling on a bus or train.
The headband and outer side of the ear cups are made of plastics. This is to reduce the weight and enhance the wearing experience. Despite using plastics, it does not compromise the classy look. When you stretch the headphones, it doesn’t give you crackling feedback (that those entry-level plastic headphones typically have).
The only difference that I can observe using my bare eyes is there is an additional sensor in the left ear cups. This sensor is used to detect when the headphones are removed and then pause the music playback. Otherwise, WH-1000XM3 and WH-1000XM4 are generally the same.
I am sorry but I have to mention this again – in terms of control wise, it’s the same as WH-1000XM3. By using different gestures on the right ear cups, different controls such as play/pause, volume control, quick attention and skipping of tracks can be done.
In this generation, there is an additional gesture: speak-to-chat. Putting 2 fingers on the ear cup for a few seconds, the speak-to-chat function can be toggled on and off.
To achieve full control on these headphones, users are recommended to download the “Headphones” application by Sony on their smartphones. There are plenty of controls such as noise cancellation level and equalizer in the app.
Active noise cancellation
As per Sony, WH-1000XM4 headphones are able to deliver their best ever noise cancelling performance, no matter if you are having a long distance flight or just sitting in a cafe with their dual noise sensor technology. Two microphones are embedded on each ear cup to capture surrounding noise and transmit the data to the Sony’s HD noise cancelling processor QN1.
With the latest algorithm, the QN1 performs a real time noise cancelling processing together with Sony’s latest Bluetooth Audio SoC (System on Chip) to detect and adjust to music and noise signals at over 700 times per second.
Besides the amazing noise cancellation processor, the WH-1000XM4 headphones incorporate another two technologies to further enhance noise cancelling performance. The first technology is Sony’s Unique Atmospheric Pressure Optimising. It helps to deliver comfortable wearing at high altitude by optimising the pressure. Personal Noise Cancellation Optimiser then helps to analyze the unique sonic characteristics caused by head size, glasses, and hair, and then tailors sound to the users.
DSEE Extreme and LDAC
With DSEE Extreme (Digital Sound Enhancement Engine) embedded with Sony’s LDAC audio codec enablement, the WH-1000XM4 is able to perform real-time restoration of all compressed files. But, how’s it done?
With the assistance of Edge-AI (Artificial Intelligence), which is co-developed with Sony Music Entertainment, DSEE Extreme is able to upsample compressed digital music files. The high-range sound lost while compressing can be restored by dynamically recognising instrumentation, musical genres, and individual elements of each song, such as vocals or interludes.
This feature is one of the most significant improvements in the WH-1000XM4. Speak-to-Chat is able to sense your conversation. Once sensed, it will automatically stop the music and let in ambient sound. This is useful if you want to keep your headphones on, or if your hands are full. However, I still find that wearing headphones while talking to others is rude. So, this might not be a stand-out feature for me.
Adaptive sound control
Adaptive Sound Control is a smart function that recognises locations where users frequently visit. For example, if you are always using the WH-1000XM4 in your office, the adaptive sound control will automatically toggle the noise cancellation profile which suits the office. Besides sensing location, it automatically detects what the users are up to – for example, walking, waiting or travelling – then adjusts ambient sound settings to suit the activities.
As mentioned in the build section, the WH-1000XM4 is comfortable to wear because of its light weight. I have a relatively big head. Yet, I don’t feel any pressure while wearing the WH-1000XM4. I can wear it for long periods of time, provided I am in air-conditioned places. Wearing it outdoors in Singapore is tough for me.
Running on Bluetooth 5.0, the connectivity is very stable. WH-1000XM4 supports SBC, AAC and LDAC codec. Most of the Android-powered smartphones in the market now support LDAC Bluetooth codec. With DSEE Extreme and LDAC codec, having Hi-Res audio on a wireless headphones is no longer a dream. Welcome to the future!
Overall Sound Signature
WH-1000XM4 has a pretty well-balanced sound signature with the majority of the focus on lows and mids. It’s comfortable to listen to because the presentation is not too engaging – no shouty mids or overly punchy bass.
The sound signature changes slightly when DSEE Extreme is turned on. With DSEE Extreme turned on, the notes are attacking and decaying faster, yielding a more snappy and analytical sound signature with better detail retrieval capability. As an IEM user, I prefer the sound signature with it on.
The WH-1000XM4 has a good sub-bass extension. The rumbles from sub-bass are definitely sufficient to fulfill bass-head audiophiles’ needs. The sub-bass can be further boosted with the “Headphones” smartphone application. With the bass boost, the WH-1000XM4 is brought nearer to Sony’s Extra Bass series.
No matter which series is suitable for you, WH-1000XM4’s got your back with a single smartphone application.
The bass is well controlled. It doesn’t bleed towards the mids. The attack and decay is average, bringing some amount of warmth and coloration to the overall presentation. This makes the overall listening experience comfortable because of the slight smoothing effect. If you are after details, you can choose to turn on the DSEE Extreme. The bass is tighter and faster under DSEE Extreme on.
The mids is positioned more forward compared to the bass and treble, making WH-1000XM4 a mid centric headphones. I like this positioning because it makes the vocals more engaging. It’s positioned at a sweet spot where the vocals are neither too shouty nor too distanced away.
The mids have some warmth, from the bass, making it full-bodied and rich in texture. The layering has been done well – with bass attacking from slightly further and mids positioned in front of the bass. They are flowing together smoothly and without congestion.
Listening to some strong-bass pop tracks, the presentation is not muddy or muffled even without DSEE Extreme on. Sony is extremely matured in getting this right – bass and mids can co-exist.
The profile of highs in WH-1000XM4 can be much affected by DSEE Extreme. When DSEE Extreme is turned off, the highs are more conservative and shy. It’s flowing at the back of mids and bass, making the whole presentation to be more warm and smooth. When the DSEE Extreme is turned on, it becomes more energetic and has more presence.
This change toggles the overall sound signature from slightly warm to slightly bright.
Personally I prefer the overall presentation with DSEE Extreme on because the staging becomes more spacious. Notes are separated further apart and details retrieval level is higher. The highs are very airy, well extended under this mode. The extension has been well-taken care of. It does not distort at the end of decay, making the presentation clean.
For warmth lovers and those with lower tolerance in bright treble, DSEE Extreme off should be the choice for you. For those with the opposite preference, WH-1000XM4 is still capable to fulfill your crave. What an all-rounder!
After looking through the WH-1000XM4 in detail, let’s revisit our initial question – is WH-1000XM4 an adequate upgrade? To me – yes and no.
Yes, if you are using the older version of this series – first and second. The improvements from these two series are significant and they will definitely enhance the overall listening experience. Besides this, the WH-1000XM4 is definitely a good upgrade for those who are using entry-level noise cancellation headphones from other manufacturers.
No, for those who are using the WH-1000XM3. To me, the improvement in this generation is not going to change the overall listening experience by huge magnitude. Besides those who are using the predecessor, for those who are using current flagship noise cancellation headphones from other manufacturers, the WH-1000XM4 is hardly an upgrade unless those additional functions such as Speak-to-Chat are extremely useful for you.
The noise cancellation capability, cutting-edge technologies implemented and comfort of WH-1000XM4 will definitely earn it one of the best noise cancelling wireless headphones in the industry now, without a doubt.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 is retailing at SGD$549 (USD$349). You can purchase it from Sony Official Website for individual countries. There are two color options – black and silver.