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Sony WH-1000XM4 Review: This Is How To Make Brilliant Noise Cancelling Headphones Almost Flawless

By: Vishal Mathur

Last Updated: September 18, 2020, 12:30 IST

Sony WH-1000XM4 Review: This Is How To Make Brilliant Noise Cancelling Headphones Almost Flawless

The Sony WH-1000XM4 succeeds the WH-1000XM3 and competes with the Sennheiser Momentum 3 Wireless. Sony has really upped the game with noise cancellation, audio processing and retains the battery brilliance. But would you rather splash your cash for the leather and metal personality of the Momentum 3 Wireless?

When Sony gave the world the WH-1000XM3 headphones back in 2018, they really took the noise-cancelling headphones benchmark and reset it. The Bose QuietComfort 35 were left far behind. Fast forward to 2020, a year that not many will remember fondly. And we have the successor the Sony WH-1000XM3. The Sony WH-1000XM4 have landed. What Sony must have gone through here is similar to what their Bravia OLED TV boffins must go through every few months. How do you improve a product and experience that is already flawless? The WH-1000XM3 was quite flawless all that time ago. By far the best headphones when noise cancellation was the most important buying factor. Time flies. What can the Sony WH-1000XM4 really do? It has a tough job. Following up on excellence is never easy.

While a lot may seem similar between the Sony WH-1000XM4 and the WH-1000XM3 from 2018, there is also a lot that is different. As in new. At this time, the Sony WH-1000XM4 is priced at Rs 29,990 which means it isn’t any more expensive in terms of the price point than its predecessor. Two years hasn’t made a difference there, and that is great news. This also means the WH-1000XM4 competes against the Sennheiser Momentum 3 Wireless. I had really liked these Sennheiser headphones when I had the chance to review them earlier this year, and these retail for around Rs 34,990. The battle royale for noise cancelling headphones has well and truly resumed.

The More Things Change, The More They Remain The Same

At first glance, the Sony WH-1000XM4 doesn’t look entirely different from its predecessor. The illustrious predecessor. The design, the footprint, the finish and the materials all look very similar. In fact, the Sony WH-1000XM4 will, just like the WH-1000XM3, will also be available in the silver and black colour options. Personally, I like the darker black finish, which is nicely dressed in matte. I have also come to terms with the plastic finish that Sony has still carried forward, which is taking a different approach to the mix of steel and leather which adorns the Sennheiser Momentum 3 Wireless headphones. But look closely, and you’ll notice that the earcups on the WH-1000XM4 are just a bit larger than the predecessor, giving your ears more room and which means they will most certainly be more comfortable to wear for long stretches of time. As and when it resumes again, which one hopes would be in the life cycle of the Sony WH-1000XM4, these headphones will be great to wear on long flights. The material now used for the earpads is foamed urethane which is comparatively softer than what the predecessor offered. There are changes to how the headband padding has been deployed, but no major tweaks on that front.

To be honest, the slight alterations made to enhance comfort have worked. I had noted in the WH-1000XM3 review in 2018 that “The synthetic leather feels good up against the skin, but do remember, this will not be best tuned for ventilation. The ears, as we realized, can get a bit warm after a couple of hours of wearing these inside an air-conditioned environment.” The Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones, with design and material changes, offers just that little additional comfort over long durations. While retaining the charm and the aura that only full-fledged earphones can truly claim to have. And it remains very easy to pack them too—the swivel foldable structure means that one of the earcups can be folded inwards and the compact carry case which is bundled can hold them safely in your backpack, your study table drawer or on your bedside table.

Even the button placement remains the same as before, but the Noise Cancellation button now gets the more flexible “Custom” branding. From the companion Sony Headphones Connect app, you can customize this to continue to manage the noise cancellation or transparency mode duties or set them to invoke the virtual assistant from the phone. Long pressing this key takes the WH-1000XM4 into a calibration mode that tries to understand the contours of your head, how you wear the headphones and so on, to try and make the sound even better for you. I’m not exactly a fan of these optimizations because they do sometimes make changes to the sound that I don’t really like—not to say that Sony’s algorithms would have done the same too, but not in the mood for any gambles.

Oh, and Sony have managed to shave off a complete gram—the Sony WH-1000XM4 weighs 253 grams while the WH-1000XM3 tipped the scales at 254 grams. And there is a slightly different colour shade for the Sony logo where the headband joins the earcups.

Really, Why Are These Things Still Missing in 2020?

What remains missing is that there is no water resistance or water proofing on the Sony WH-1000XM4. If you are out and about and get caught in a surprise shower, you’d better fold these up and slide them into your backpack.

It is also a bit perplexing that the USB-C port has not been enabled for audio, and remains just for charging. It may have made a lot of sense to use the USB-C port and a USB-C to USB-C cable with many Android phones instead of using the 3.5mm headphone cable at either end—and in the case of some smartphones, an adapter at one end.

It is also perplexing that Sony has dropped support for the Qualcomm aptX and aptX HD audio codecs, which the Sony WH-1000XM3 did support. It may not make much difference to you, particularly if you are an iPhone user, but purists might complain endlessly about it.

Changes Under The Hood Are Great News For Sound

Things have been tweaked a bit here as well. While the Sony WH-1000XM4 continuous to use the HD Noise Cancelling Processor QN1, just like its predecessor and also the absolutely brilliant Sony WF-1000XM3 wireless earbuds, there is a change on the Bluetooth front. The WH-1000XM4 uses a new Bluetooth Audio SoC that has more processing power and uses the updated algorithms for noise cancellation—Sony says this makes calculation as many as 700 times per second for digital signal processing and understanding the ambient noise. At the same time, the Sony WH-1000XM4 uses the same powerful 40mm audio drivers in each ear. There seem to be very subtle changes to the tuning, and this is the most neutral sounding Sony cans I have heard in a long time. That is great news for versatility, for the soundstage and for the detailing.

That simply means the sound that you get is nothing short of what can be defined as absolutely fantastic. Factor in the further improvements the new Bluetooth SoC potentially brings, the new algorithms that the HD Noise Cancelling Processor QN1 brings and the wider gamut of noise cancellation features, and your audio experience will be nothing short of pristine. As you slide into Over Now by Calvin Harris and The Weeknd, you’ll understand how the Sony WH-1000XM4 has really upped the sound game, even over its predecessor, which sometimes struggled to detail very few frequencies. Switch over to trance music, the genre I really listen to, and it is absolutely delightful how the Sony WH-1000XM4 immerse you. Belief Without Sight by Dennis Kenzo and Sarah Lynn or Born To Love by Alexander Popov have never sounded this good. That being said, the Sennheiser Momentum 3 Wireless do get incredibly close in terms of the sound quality, with the very familiar neutral Sennheiser sound signature as the foundation to build on.

Switch gears to some Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Quibi streaming, and the delivery of dialogues isn’t at all hampered by the fact that the Sony WH-1000XM4 are tuned brilliantly for music. It turns out, they are tuned just as well for something that involves a lot of spoken word too. You wouldn’t want to trade the Sony WH-1000XM4 for any other headphones, and rightly so too.

A lot of the brilliance must be attributed to the Sony HD Noise Cancelling Processor QN1e—this chip handles the digital noise cancellation algorithms, the 24bit audio signal processing and the digital to analogue conversion with amplification duties. The Sony WH-1000XM4 also supports the Digital Sound Enhancement Engine HX (DSEE HX) feature which uses the prowess of this hardware chip to upscale audio files to improve their resolution and bring them closer to the High-Resolution Audio without the content being originally High Res ready. This option is turned off by default in the Sony Headphones Connect app (free for Android and iOS) but I would recommend you turn this on, because it genuinely makes a very audible difference, for the better, with pretty much every music service you may be using. Including Apple Music as well as Spotify.

The new Bluetooth SoC also means that the Sony WH-1000XM4 solves its predecessor’s one limitation—this can now pair with two devices at the same time.

Noise cancellation in the Sony WH-1000XM4 really has taken the next step, not just in terms of how well it isolates you but also the feature set around it. You can tweak noise cancellation according to your preference, Ambient Sound Control and Atmospheric-Pressure Optimization. In the Sony Headphone Connect app, you will notice a noise cancellation slider which lets you change the intensity of isolation depending on how noisy your environment is. These detailed options are part of the new Sense Engine, something we experienced with the WF-1000XM3 wireless earbuds as well. For instance, there is the Adaptive Sound Control, which based on what you are doing at the time and your location, changes the sound mode of the earphones—traveling, walking etc. When you switch on the Sony WH-1000XM4, you will hear a beep after a few seconds—that is the headphone notifying you that its identified your movement status (it is mostly sitting in my case!) and altered the noise cancellation accordingly. There is the Quick Attention mode which lets you hear someone who may have come to have a chat with you or pay attention to any announcements around you, for instance.

You Really Won’t Need To Worry About The Charger With This One

The Sony WH-1000XM4 are just the headphones that you probably want, in case you absolutely dislike plugging in gadgets and accessories with bad battery life again and again for charging. With noise cancellation active and depending on the intensity of NC you have set in the app, the WH-1000XM4 will last you around 30 hours on a single charge. There is the quick charge option as well, where a 10-minute splash and dash of the battery is good for 5 hours of music playback.

The Last Word: An Incremental Update That Resets The Benchmarks

To be honest, I wouldn’t have wanted to be in the shoes of Sony’s engineers and product developers, as they set about trying to improve on the already excellent Sony WH-1000XM3. One shouldn’t begrudge the two years it took for the Sony WH-1000XM4 to come along, purely because following up on brilliance with even more brilliance, takes time. The WH-1000XM4 is an incremental step up from the predecessor, and in all honesty, that is just what it needed to be. More powerful and versatile noise cancellation, robust battery life, even improved sound and tweaks to make the build more comfortable are all changes that again reset the benchmarks for the rivals.

As for the Sennheiser Momentum 3 Wireless, it does match the Sony WH-1000XM4 every bit of the way as far as the brilliance of the sound is concerned. For most users, that is what will matter through and through—and it’ll be a tough decision to pick between the two purely based on sound. It also has a very likeable personality, and feels great with the mix of leather and metal interacting with your hand every time you touch it. That being said, Sony has pushed the envelope as far as location based features and the versatile noise cancellation is concerned. And Sony also has the advantage with the WH-1000XM4’s battery life of around 30 hours, which is significantly higher than the Momentum 3 Wireless’ 17 hour mark.

If the last 24 months or so are anything to go by, the Sony WH-1000XM4 may very well remain unchallenged, for a while at least.

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