At a glance:
|For:||Great sound, best wireless ear bud noise cancellation, long battery life.|
|Against:||Microphone less than wonderful, expensive, possibly too big for people with small ears.|
|Maybe:||Could be more comfortable. You either love of hate the look.|
|Verdict:||Excellent if you’re prepared to pay for better noise cancelling and sound quality.|
|Rating:||5 out of 5.|
Sony’s WF-1000XM4 noise cancelling ear buds are a revelation. There may be ear buds with better sound quality and noise cancellation. But I have yet to hear them.
Sound quality and excellent noise cancellation comes at a price. At NZ$500, they are expensive. That is NZ$50 more than the price of Apple’s AirPod Pro. It could be more than you’d pay for a phone. What do you get for $500?
Sony’s ear buds are bigger than AirPod Pros and heavier. In use they feel bigger and heavier. This makes them less comfortable, but not to the point that becomes an issue.
The WF-1000XM4 weigh 7.3g. With the charging case the total is around 41g. This compares to the AirPod Pro at 5.4g for the ear buds and 46g for the case.
That extra bulk is put to good use. Inside the ear bud are 6mm drivers that handle a wide frequency range. Sony has coupled these with its integrated V1 processor, it handles the music in real time.
The result is outstanding sound quality. You’ll get plenty of detailed sound. It’s hard to fault the quality. But if you don’t like what you hear first time, you can adjust the sound to better fit your tastes.
On my first try, I tested the WF-1000XM4 on factory settings against a set of corded studio monitor headphones. These have a flat response. I was listening to melodic house music and indie rock on Apple Music.
It sounded great, but I could tell the ear buds added a few dB at the bottom and the top of the range. This makes them good for listing to modern music. Your taste may differ, but it felt like there is too much colour for softer classical music or jazz.
To fix this I turned to Sony’s Headphone Connect app. You would need to download this from the Apple or Google Play App Store. Here you will find a ‘sound’ tab. This takes you to an equaliser.
There are a series of presets which cover various types of music and two slots for you to customise the sound. This can all get fussy and tricky. Yet the software does a fine job of learning your tastes and needs and adjusting things.
With other headphones and ear buds you often need to push phone, tablet or computer sound output towards the higher volumes to get the best quality.
In practice the WF-1000XM4 work best at around two-thirds to three quarters on the dial. Go higher and you may run into distortion. Likewise, the sound leaks at high volumes.
To make the most of noise cancelling, you need the ear buds to have a tight fit. Sony provides three sizes of tips and an app to help you get the best fit. I didn’t fly anywhere during the testing period. If I do, I’ll write an addendum to this post.
Instead I travelled around Auckland on a series of buses to give the noise cancelling a workout. For extra testing I worked for an hour in a noisy downtown coffee shop. There I barely heard a whisper as the barista hissed the espresso machine and called out orders. There was nothing to fault.
I didn’t have enough time to make a full comparison with the AirPods Pro. Both do a fine job. When I read the marketing blurb, I suspected Sony might be talking up its noise cancellation. In use, the ear buds live up to the promise.
AirPods Pro comparison
If you are a committed Apple user, you might not choose the WF-1000XM4 in preference to the AirPod Pros. There are far too many Apple ecosystem advantages from staying with the brand.
AirPods are lighter, more comfortable and have terrific noise cancelling. That said, there’s no question the newer WF-1000XM4 beat Apple’s 18-month-old AirPods Pro on sound quality. They could be a smidgeon ahead on noise cancelling, ask me again after I’ve used both for a few more weeks.
AirPods handle transparency and, so long as you have an iPhone, do phone calls better. The technology is improving fast. It will be interesting to see what Apple can do if it updates the Pods.
The WF-1000XM4 ear buds arrived in a box that is 350 x 120 x 70mm. That’s a lot of packaging for ear buds. This compares with 100 x 100 x 50mm for Apple’s AirPods Pro. This may be special review packaging with consumers getting a smaller box1.
If there’s an area of weakness it is the microphone. Sure, it isn’t important to talk in high definition sound in a phone call, but Sony is a distance behind Apple in this department.
The technology does a good job of capturing your voice amongst all the background hubbub, but it can make you sound robotic. It could be too much compression. Whatever the reason, it’s a minor negative.
Unless you plan to use your ear buds to make live radio crosses back to the studio, you can dismiss this as a problem. WF-1000XM4 comes in a white version and a black version with copper coloured highlights. No-one would mistake either for AirPods.
Verdict – Sony WF-1000XM4
If you don’t live in Apple’s world and you’ve got the budget the WF-1000XM4 ear buds would have to top your list. They tick the important boxes: sound quality, noise cancelling and enough battery life for a flight from New Zealand to Europe2.