I live in a middle-floor apartment between a playground and the parking lot, with only a couple of treelines separating me from the nightmare innocuously named I-4. As you can imagine, this means that I deal with a lot of unexpected and unwelcome sounds encroaching upon my awesome abode, from the revving of motorcycles and wail of emergency sirens and of miniature humans.
I've been needing to invest in a good pair of active noise-canceling earbuds for months now, and when the Sony WF-1000XM4 showed up on my doorstep, I knew I was in for a treat. Its predecessor, the WF-1000XM3 — Sony, your naming system sucks — was still one of the better true wireless earbuds on the market even two years after launch, and the new ones are significantly smaller while packing even better ANC and sound quality thanks to improvements with the LDAC codec and support for 360 Reality Audio.
Of course, these buds are also $280, which feels quite steep after two years of impressive-sounding $150-$200 earbuds like the Galaxy Buds Pro, the Jabra Elite 75t, and even the Google Pixel Buds despite the ridiculous connection issues. I was wondering just how these earbuds, which cost more than my favorite tablet, could justify that price and earn my love.
It didn't take long to find the answer. Crank the tunes and tune out the world with our Sony WF-1000XM4 review.
At a glance
Sony WF-1000XM4 True Wireless Earbuds
Bottom line: While Sony asks you for a pretty penny for the WF-1000XM4 earbuds, it's worth every cent. Sony's sound quality is blissful, the ANC leads the market, and the battery on the buds is wonderful and the case can triple it.
- The best ANC on earbuds to date
- Stellar sound quality
- Amazing battery life
- Wireless charging case with USB-C
- LDAC and 360 Audio support
- IPX4 water resistance for the earbuds
- Touch controls are fine but should be better
- If your ears are small, it'll hurt the first week
- Single-bud mode limited to the right buds
Sony WF-1000XM4 Price and availability
Sony announced the WF-1000XM4 on June 8, 2021 and released them the same month. They're available at Amazon, Best Buy, B&H, and most major electronics stores and department stores.
If you're outside the United States, the Sony WF-1000XM4 True Wireless Earbuds are £250 in the United Kingdom, 279€ in Europe, and $450 AUD in Australia. Canada, my friends and bosses to the north, I'm sorry to tell you that the Sony WF-1000XM4 will set you back $400 CAD.
Sony WF-1000XM4 Design
Sony's previous buds, the WF-1000XM3, weren't ridiculously huge buds, but the case they came in was noticeably larger than all of its high-end competitors. Thankfully, Sony's engineers have shrunk the case by 40% this go-around, resulting in a case about the same size as the Google Pixel Buds that also features wireless charging and USB-C wired charging. The buds themselves are only about 10% smaller than the XM3s, but they're comfortable to wear for long periods — though there is an adjustment period if your ears are small like mine.
The design of the buds has the buds sit in the concha, nestled between your tragus, antitragus, and antihelix. There are no wingtips or stems for stabilization, and it's easy to use the golden nub at the bottom center as a pivot when you're putting the buds in and adjusting your fit without disturbing the touch panel. There are three sets of hybrid tips inside the Sony WF-1000XM4 box, small, medium, and large. The mediums fit my ears okay, and you can double-check your fit through the Sony | Headphones Connect app.
The Noise Isolation Earbud tips are surprisingly easy to get used to if you're used to silicone tips. They won't discolor from your earwax — at least not right away. I tried to wipe down the tips every couple of days to avoid buildup, and the buds are still pretty decent-looking after a week of heavy use. The touchpads are easy enough to consistently hit, and while I do have errant touches when I'm smoothing my hair or when I put my arms straight up in a stretch, for the most part, the controls are good, if a bit basic.
Water resistance was missing on the last generation, and while IPX4 ratings have been added for the XM4 buds themselves, the case is not water and sweat resistant, so if you tend to sweat like a sauna — or you just live in a sauna-like Florida — I recommend grabbing a silicone plug from the best phone cleaning kits and plugging the USB-C plug before you get something in it. Wireless charging is the better way to charge the case anyway.
You won't need to charge every night, even on heavy listening, because the buds themselves get about 6-8 hours on a single charge and the case carries two extra charges. After the 3.5-hour battery life on the Pixel Buds, the Sony WF-1000XM4s are like a dream for battery, and if you ever do hit a low battery warning, you can stow them back in the case for five minutes to get another hour and a half of music time back. I only hit the low battery warning on the XM4s once in my review period, and I wore them at least six hours every day.
Sony WF-1000XM4 Software and settings
Once you get the buds situated in your ears, pairing and using the buds is pretty easy thanks to Fast Pair, which will then automatically launch into the Google Assistant setup. You'll still need the Sony | Wireless Connect app in order to adjust any of the settings. The companion app's okay, but it could certainly stand to take a few cues from Google and Samsung's iterations.
The settings are broken into three tabs: Status, which has the Adaptive Sound Control and current track info, Sound, where you control ANC, sound quality, and 360 Reality Audio, and System, where you adjust the touch controls, voice assistant, and power functions. The System menu has a handy tool for determining if your current tips are sealing properly in your ears, and the Sound section has a section to analyze your ear shape as part of the 360-degree setup where you take pictures of your ears.
When customizing the touch controls, you can only pick up to two control types — one for each ear — but at least the controls that you can set work well. You have far wider options when setting the equalizer, but we'll touch on those in the sound section in a moment. The Adaptive Sound Control, however, I will quickly touch on: it'll swap between ANC and ambient mode based off your location, eventually learning where you like ANC and where you like to still hear things. I, however, want ANC on at all times to block out the world, so I shut this off the second it reared its automatic head during my first excursion.
A better mode for swapping between ANC and Ambient is Speak-to-Chat, which will pause the music and turn on ambient mode when it detects you talking. It works well, and you can adjust the timing between when it last hears you and when it turns back on the ANC and music. That said, it means that you cannot hum or sing along to the music you listen to, ever. I am very much a sing-alonger, so that meant this setting was also quickly shut off.
I didn't think this was possible
Sony WF-1000XM4 ANC and sound quality
These are by far the nicest sounding earbuds I have ever used, but since they're also the most expensive I've ever used, that's to be expected. While the 360 Audio support wasn't something I couldn't take advantage of, the LDAC codec and Amazon Music's lossless upgrade let me get a nice wide sample of high-quality sound outside my normal listening with YouTube Music (which I use for the cloud locker and its ability to mix with subscription and YouTube content).
Regardless of the music service you're using on your phone, these buds will sound great with it, even on the default equalizer. I used the "Bright" preset because it punched up my music in a way that was pleasant to me, but audiophiles are free to set two custom EQ profiles if they so desire. Sony has an EXTRA BASS counter in the EQ that will score how much each preset amplifies the bass, which can help those of us who don't need to feel the bass pound in our skulls.
I'm not an audiophile, but the sound quality and ANC alone turned me right around on the high price of the XM4s. This is worth every penny, and I will never scoff at my editor's ridiculously huge collection of true wireless earbuds ever again. The music is playing at as high a quality as Bluetooth is capable of today, and the quality of sound you hear is impressive and noticeable, even when out in the world, thanks to ANC shutting out most of the world's hustle and bustle.
If you really want to give ANC headphones a workout, take 'em to a theme park filled with screaming kids, cacophonous crowds, and super-loud rides. So, that's what I did, and even though these aren't my first ANC earbuds, it's hard not to be amazed at how good Sony's ANC is here. We've already waxed poetic about this noise-canceling magic in our Sony WH-1000XM4 over-ear headphones review, but getting that level of isolation and noise cancelation into earbuds this small is a technical feat that Sony deserves a standing ovation for.
This ANC is straight-up magic.
Why am I so absolutely head-over-heels in love with this ANC? I'm someone who absolutely hates loud noises, and so whenever I'm testing headphones passive or active noise cancelation, I take them on Big Thunder Mountain at the Magic Kingdom. Big Thunder has a 90-decibel lift hill that is painfully loud — and in a fake cavern, so the noise just echoes and echoes — and the Sony WF-1000XM4 erased it with All Time Low playing at only 35% volume.
I almost cried in the middle of the first lift hill, it was just so beautiful. Not having to shove the buds in for a better seal, no having to max the volume out trying to drown it out, just that sweet drum and guitar riff after the opening hook. The ANC on the Sony WF-1000XM4 just works.
Walking around the parks during summer crowds was the exact same. While some errant conversations wormed their way in when obnoxious people stood too close, the ANC worked marvelously. I just left the buds in during a concert at Epcot with the ANC on to reduce the music to a non-damaging level.
The only disappointment with the ANC is that it kicks off the second you start a call or join a video chat. Presumably, this is so the XM4s can focus that noise-canceling magic on the microphones instead so you sound as clear as possible without a stem to shotgun the mics. I have to believe that it's possible to do both, and if anyone could figure it out, it'd be Sony. Work your magic here, please, I want to answer video calls without having to hear my AC return vent blasting across the apartment, please.
Speaking of calls, the mic here is okay but not stellar. Again, no stem means Sony had to make do, and while everyone on the other end of my video and voice calls thought I sounded fine, it's definitely not the mic quality you'd expect on a $280 product. The noise cancellation on the mics was pretty good at blocking out most crowd noise, but the mic quality itself is firmly just okay.
Sony WF-1000XM4 (Literal) Pain points
I am a relatively small woman with relatively small ears. For most buds, I need the smallest tips and for the vast majority of wireless earbuds, they either won't fit at all, or they'll be too uncomfortable to tolerate for more than an hour. When the XM4s first arrived on my doorstep, I was a little apprehensive about how they'd fit in my ears.
The pain slowly fades, but the music is forever.
I'm pleased to say that users with smaller ears will be able to use these, but there will be about 4-7 days of soreness. I received these on Tuesday, and the following Monday as I write this review, it's the first day my tragus (the little nub in your ear the bud rests against) hasn't been unhappy with me after my extended listening session. Considering the way these sit in your ear as opposed to other earbuds like the Pixel Buds and their size, it's not unexpected, but it's something smaller listeners will need to be aware of.
Other pain points for the Sony WF-1000XM4 deal with the companion app and touch controls: I really, really wish that touch controls on these were a bit more evolved. You set touch controls per earbud, so you can only pick two of the three categories — volume, playback, and ANC modes. I always left ANC on, but I wish you could manually assign the controls to mix-and-match or that there were also swipe controls so that maybe volume could be swipes and taps could be playback controls, like on the Pixel Buds.
I've also had a few instances of the app taking a while to recognize that the buds are connected, as well as some glitchy connections that resolved once I put the buds back in the case and put them back in. Bluetooth gonna Bluetooth, but any connectivity issues on $280 earbuds are worth pointing out because they shouldn't be happening, period.
As a final note, if you're on a Samsung and want to use LDAC, you have to enable it in Bluetooth settings and in the companion app, under Bluetooth Connect Quality select Priority on Sound Quality.
Sony WF-1000XM4 Competition
Sony is making a serious play for best wireless earbuds with the Sony WF-1000XM4, but there's more competition in this space than ever. The Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro have many of the same features — good sound quality, effective ANC, wireless charging — for a more reasonable price of $200. The XM4s sound a little better than the Galaxy Buds Pro, and the touch controls are much more consistent on the Sony, and the Voice detect on the Sony is slightly less gimmicky.
The Bose QuietComfort Earbuds are $280 like the WF-1000XM4, while they have excellent sound and ENC performance, you can't customize the sound or controls the way Sony lets you. The Bose is also bigger than Sony's last generation, so that means it's patently huge by 2021 standards. The Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2 is $250 with good audio quality, but there's no sweat resistance, and the controls are worse than Sony.
The Jabra Elite 85t is another much-beloved set of wireless earbuds with good sound and very effective ANC below $200, but the battery life is average at best, and it lacks aptX and aptX HD codecs.
Sony WF-1000XM4 Should you buy it?
You should buy this if ...
- You want the best ANC on the market
- You're not willing to compromise on sound quality
- Battery life is essential to you
- You need LDAC and 360 Audio support
You should not buy this if ...
- You have a tight budget
- You have a low tolerance for inferior touch controls
Sony's flagship earbuds have done it again. The Sony WF-1000XM4 are practically perfect in almost every way (except maybe that name), and they more than justify their admittedly high price tag. The ANC is just hands-down the best available today — especially for wireless earbuds — and the battery life and sound quality are stellar even with ANC on.
Sure, Sony's gone a little gimmicky with some of the new features like the Speak-to-Chat and the Adaptive Sound Control that'll swap from ANC to Ambient when you're somewhere you're supposed to be paying attention. Once you get the settings where you want, though, the WF-1000XM4 are excellent earbuds that will serve you well day in and day out for years to come.
So good, it's magic
Sony WF-1000XM4 True Wireless Earbuds
Stunning sound, ANC, and battery life
While Sony asks you for a pretty penny for the WF-1000XM4 earbuds, it's worth every cent. Sony's sound quality is blissful, the ANC leads the market, and the battery on the buds is wonderful and the case can triple it.
This article was originally published in June 2021. It was updated in September 2021 with the following changes:
- Prices have been updated to reflect the whopping $2 price drop at Amazon and B&H.
- Four months later update was added.
- Changelog added.
Sony WF-1000XM4 review, 4 months later
I've been using the Sony WF-1000XM4 for over four months now and I have to say, I'm still in love with them. The battery life is great, the touchpads are wide enough to tap consistently, and after the initial pain of getting my cartilage to shift for the buds, they fit quite well in my ears. I've made only one change to my setup: I swapped out the hybrid tips for regular old silicone.
While I was home seeing my family this summer, I let my dad try the earbuds, and he heard the quality easily, but he immediately went back into his room and pulled out a box of spare silicone tips. After experimenting with which tips would fit in my ears — and even more importantly, which tips were short enough to still let them fit flat in the case for charging — I agreed with him. These triple flange conical tips silicone tips weren't as keen to slowly slide out of my ears as the hybrid tips, and they produced a better seal for better passive and active noise canceling. Getting the silicone tips onto the buds was an impressively difficult task, but if you try the in-box ear tips and can't get a good seal, try a silicone tip that's less than 10mm in length.
We've had a few software updates, mostly to fix bugs that previous updates caused, and the stability of the Bluetooth connection remains solid. There are have been a few more 360 Audio apps added, but I've still yet to see it with a music platform I use.
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