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Lead image

Sony WF-1000XM4 review

Our take on Sony's best noise-canceling true wireless earbuds

When Sony developed the WF-1000XM4 true wireless earbuds, it would've been easy to rest on their laurels. After all, they've already established their "1000X" headphone lineage as a true noise-canceling juggernaut — so they could coast on name alone. Instead, Sony swung for the fences with a complete redesign.

And after auditioning these earbuds for a week, I feel they've knocked it into the upper deck.

Much like their over-ear counterpart, these 'XM4s simply excel at everything they do. These earbuds are 100% wire-free and play music via Bluetooth version 5.2, the strongest most reliable Bluetooth available. They also feature top-notch noise cancellation and spacious, detailed sound courtesy of Sony's new V1 processor chip. But no single ingredient sticks out above the others — they all blend together to create a delightful dish.

Sony WF-1000xm4 earbuds on a table with a laptop, glasses and a journal

The Sony WF-1000XM4 earbuds (shown in silver) are 100% wire-free and can hush loud distractions as well as many over-ear noise-canceling headphones.

WF-1000XM3 vs. WF-1000XM4

While the whole may be greater than the sum of its parts, the 'XM4s have some absolutely killer attributes. I think they are best illustrated by comparing them to the previous generation Sony WF-1000XM3 earbuds — one of our top-selling and best-received true wireless models. And full disclosure, my "everyday" earbuds for the last couple of years.

So as I detail the improvements and updates for this newer model, I'll use the 'XM3 earbuds as a baseline. And they will help frame my review and overall experience with the WF-1000XM4 earbuds. 

Unboxing with earth-conscious packaging

Over the last year, I've received more product samples at home than usual, and like everyone, I've done a ton of online shopping. So I've seen all types of packaging and boxes. The Sony WF-1000XM4 packaging is a true standout — and not because there's some ostentatious presentation or reveal.

a hand holding Sony WF-1000XM4 earbuds

The compact 'XM4 earbuds arrive neatly packed, along with a pocket-sized charging case.

Actually, the exact opposite. The earbuds arrived inside their small charging case packed neatly inside a low-key, yet substantial carton made of a recyclable blended material. Sony told me that this sustainable packaging is made "from bamboo, sugarcane fibers, and post-consumer recycled paper, all of which are available around the world's largest manufacturing hubs in Asia."

It's refreshing to see big companies like Sony becoming mindful of their packing materials — and trusting their products to do the talking. Call it the evolution of the "wow" factor.

Special foam tips for a noise-isolating seal

Sony included three sizes of foam ear tips, specially designed to expand and create a noise-isolating seal. I was a little surprised there were no silicone tips included — since those are more common and familiar. But I've always been a big fan of foam tips because of how well they avoid pressure points. Plus, the spongier material is just so malleable. 

Sony WF-1000XM4 foam ear tips in small, medium and large

Sony includes three sizes of ear tips made of spongy, malleable foam.

Case in point — while the medium tips fit me most naturally, I had to go up one size for the best noise canceling performance. Still, I had no problem wearing the larger size for long listening sessions. They stayed in place as I moved and aligned the drivers correctly with my ears, reinforcing the bass and dialing in proper imaging.

Improvements over the WF-1000XM3 earbuds

The 'XM3 earbuds have been a trustworthy companion during late nights when my 1-year-old wakes up. I can pop in one earbud or both and listen to podcasts while I rock him to sleep. They connect to my phone easily and just work — no weird pairing issues or audio dropouts. I know that sounds like a low bar, but I've learned not to take it for granted with wireless technology. Certainly not when I'm fumbling for my phone at 3:45 AM.

They work so well, I went into this review with no intention of replacing them — but these 'XM4s have proven even more reliable. And they improve in almost every key category.

Sony WF-1000XM3 shown next to the WF-1000XM4 earbuds.

The Sony WF-1000XM3 earbuds (left) shown next to the more compact (and more advanced) WF-1000XM4 earbuds.

Streamlined, travel-friendly design: The WF-1000XM4 earbuds sport a lighter, more compact design. Rather than the oblong shape of the previous model, these are more circular and sit just outside the ear. The ear tips cover a thin nozzle, and the weight is nicely distributed, so I felt very little strain on my ears as I wore them. And this version is also sweat- and water-resistant.

Better battery life:  Efficiency is also improved by the V1 chip, so the WF-1000XM4s have very good battery life for true wireless earbuds. They offer up to eight hours of music listening with noise cancellation and 13 hours without it. The pocket-sized charging case can bank up to 16 hours of power, and a five minute quick-charge gives you up to 60 minutes of use. 

Cleaner, more spacious sound: Each earbud includes a single 6mm dynamic driver tuned for a wide-open, well-balanced sound. Sony uses larger magnets for these drivers than the ones found in the 'XM3s, and the soundstage is considerably larger. I'll share more listening impressions below, but these in-ears deliver a rich sound presentation that expands beyond the head.

And thanks to refinements from the V1 chip, the highs and mids are present and well-defined, and the bass powerful, yet nimble. This model also has Sony's LDAC technology on-board, which allows the wireless signal to retain more musical detail from a Sony High-res Walkman or compatible device.

Elite noise cancellation

The most notable upgrade from the Sony WF-1000XM3s is the noise-canceling circuitry. The WF-1000XM4 earbuds cancel noise better than 'XM3 earbuds and the Apple AirPods Pro, two of the best in-ear noise-cancelers of 2019 and 2020.  

Sony's state-of-the-art V1 chip works in concert with a new four-mic system (two in each earbud, facing different directions) to monitor external sounds and neutralize noise in real time. As a result, the 'XM4s offer noise cancellation that is a cut above the best noise-canceling earbuds of the previous generation.

I'd rank them in the upper echelon of in-ears for their noise-canceling performance, along with the Bose QC earbuds and B&W PI7s — the only other in-ear headphones that cancel noise as well as over-ears. And they easily passed my lawnmower test: the throbbing engine sound was reduced so low that I could listen to music and podcasts at a safe, comfortable volume.

Sony's built-in mics allowed outside sound in while I wore the earbuds. A single tap of the left earbud toggles between noise cancellation and "Ambient Sound" mode. And I could hold the left earbud to activate Sony's "Quick Attention" feature that temporarily turns off all audio and noise cancellation circuitry.

A woman touching the earbud

Hold the left earbud to quickly hear external sounds and voices.

Sony's Headphones Connect mobile app offers even more control over what noises you let in or keep out. You can customize the level of noise cancellation or ambient sound based on your task, movement, or even location. I've used it with other Sony headphones, and it works well — but it wasn't available pre-launch for me to try here.

Listening impressions

Like their predecessors, I found the WF-1000XM4 earbuds to be fuss-free and extremely versatile. As noted, I used these durable earbuds for mowing the lawn. But in the morning I would also pop one in to listen to podcasts as I made coffee, then later use both for a focused music listening session or background music as I worked.

Sony WF-1000XM4 breakdown of components

Each WF-1000XM4 earbud includes a single 6mm driver, dual beam-forming mics, and an array of cutting-edge microchips and sensors.

The noise cancellation is really effective at lower frequencies — the running dryer next to my home office was completely silenced. So I'm confident these would work well on a flight.

Large, dynamic sound

I tested this product before it was released, so I didn't get to play around with the sound settings in the Headphone Connect app. No worries. The sound out of the box was pleasant, powerful, and punchy. When headphones have a soundstage this large, they often lose something in terms of dynamics or detail.

These earbuds managed to retain all that, even as the music spread out in front of me and to the side. I listened to a Yo-Yo Ma playlist on Qobuz that alternated between hypnotizing classical pieces and toe-tapping jazz standards. On both, the subtle, quieter parts came through with as much character and authenticity as the thump of the stand-up bass or the louder, more vivacious cello activity.

And every instrument had a distinct sense of place. That outsized soundstage with precise imaging is a Sony touchstone. It's a characteristic that Sony Walkman engineer Tomo Sato told me they strive for with every piece of personal audio gear they design. 

Jeff, talking to Tomo Sato of Sony, at Can jam in New York City back in 2019.

Back in 2019, I spoke to Tomoaki "Tomo" Sato of Sony Tokyo about the company's tell-tale sound characteristics.

With the 'XM4s' noise-canceling circuitry keeping distractions at bay, all these interesting, nuanced sounds helped keep my mind active and focused. And when a rare vocal track played, the singer's voice leapt at me from dead center. Like Rhiannon Gibbons firing up the New Orleans classic "St. James Infirmary #1", and giving me an unexpected jolt of energy.

Deep bass punch without bloat

Later I switched over to DMX's first posthumous album, Exodus, to see how the WF-1000XM4s handled bass-heavy tracks. I was impressed at how deep these small 'buds can go. On the track "Hood Blues" featuring Griselda, I had that coveted sensation that I could feel the bass as much as hear it — rare when it comes to headphones, especially earbuds.

But the low-end knock never felt muddy or overbearing to the mix. And there is a lot going on in this track —  from the ad-libs coming from the far left and right, to the swanky horns lifted from 1971's oft-sampled "Shady Blues" by Lee Mason and his orchestra. Lesser earbuds can't quite handle the juxtaposition of Westside Gunn's higher-register b-boy staccato next to DMX's iconic, soulful growl. It comes off bland or muffled.  

Through the 'XM4 earbuds, it all sounds cohesive and thrilling over that quick, powerful bass. 

Jeff with the Sony WF-1000xm4 earbuds

With their compact size and top-notch noise cancellation, I consider the 'XM4 earbuds a no-brainer pick for both travel and work.

Product highlights

  • 100% wire-free headphones with active noise cancellation
  • Bluetooth 5.2 for wireless music listening and phone calls (with LDAC decoding)
  • 6mm dynamic drivers tuned for spacious, well-balanced sound with clean bass
  • IPX4 water-resistant design
  • built-in rechargeable batteries offers 8 hours of listening with noise cancellation (13 hours without)
  • compact charging case banks up to 16 hours of power to wirelessly recharge headphones
  • free Sony Headphones Connect app for Apple® and Android™ lets you customize sound and noise cancellation
  • immersive Sony 360 reality audio playback with select music services
  • touch controls on each earbud let you answer calls, control music playback, and toggle noise cancellation
  • earbuds can be used one at a time or as a pair
  • beam-forming four-microphone system for clear phone calls
  • warranty: 1 year

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  • Hal from NJ

    Posted on 6/9/2021

    How well does this cancel out another person's snoring next to me and can I wear these comfortably while I sleep without them falling out easily?

    Commenter image

    Jeff Miller from Crutchfield

    on 6/9/2021

    I think these would do well with snoring, especially since that's typically a low-frequency sound with a (relatively) constant pattern. Plus, the V1 chip is designed to read and react to noise in real time.

    As noted in my earlier response, I fell asleep one night and they stayed in place well. They certainly shouldn't fall out unless you were really moving around. I don't know how well they'd work for nightly use, but if you're talking sleeping on a plane, I think they'd work just fine.
  • Geoff Rennie from Sherwood

    Posted on 6/9/2021

    What I have found in earbuds that I have tried, that they may have good to great noise cancellation but when trying to use for a phone call is where they fall off, usually the other person can not hear you or you sound far away. How do these do when in a phone call? Everyone seems to leave that function out of reviews. thanks

    Commenter image

    Jeff Miller from Crutchfield

    on 6/9/2021

    Sorry, I should've covered phone calls more thoroughly. Sony says they use beam-forming mics and even a bone-conductor sensor to keep phone calls clear. I routinely made and took calls while wearing them -- including outside when it was pretty windy. I didn't have any audio dropouts or complaints from people on the other end. On my end, phone calls sounded natural without any weird delays.

    When I read your comment, I called my wife and specifically asked if I sounded like I was far away. She said it sounded different from when I have my mouth next to the receiver, but not too distant or faint. She had no problem understanding me.
  • Daemach Laratin from Portland

    Posted on 6/9/2021

    How seamless is the connection with an iphone? I use airpods (not pro) now.

    Commenter image

    Jeff Miller from Crutchfield

    on 6/9/2021

    Daemach --

    I used my Android phone (Samsung Galaxy), but my wife has an iPhone. Let me test it some tonight and we'll get back in touch with you directly...and update this comment.
  • Matt T from Fremont

    Posted on 6/9/2021

    Did you try lying on your side with them on? Do you think you could sleep with them on?

    Commenter image

    Jeff Miller from Crutchfield

    on 6/9/2021

    Matt, I actually fell asleep a couple of times when I was up with my kid. (Don't worry, he was back in his crib...I was just trying to lay still on the couch, avoid any sudden noises, and dozed off. Haha.) The XM4s stick out a bit from my ear, but they didn't feel too bulky on a pillow. Also, since I used the larger foam tips, they stayed in place pretty well and didn't feel jammed into my ear or anything when I woke back up.
  • Wajid Amir Raja from Dammam

    Posted on 6/9/2021

    What is this metal connection does it connect iem cable?

    Commenter image

    Jeff Miller from Crutchfield

    on 6/9/2021

    Good question, that is not a connection. I'll double-check with Sony, but I think it is primarily a design touch and also an opening that allows the built-in mics to pick up external sounds.
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