Sony WH-1000XM3 vs Sony WH-1000XM4: should you upgrade?

The best headphones just got better, but do you need them?

Last week Sony announced the successor to the best noise-cancelling headphones money can buy. Enter the Sony WH-1000XM4.

The new cans largely look and the sound same as their excellent predecessors, but Sony has added a host of new features, like multipoint connectivity, better noise-cancelling, wear detection and a ‘Speak-to-Chat’ mode that automatically pauses your tunes and activates ambient mode when you start taking.

But are these enhancements just nice-to-haves or compelling reasons to upgrade from the M3s? Allow us to break it down for you.

Design: You look familiar

If you’re one of those people who wants everyone on the train to know that you’re on the bleeding edge of iterative headphone updates, you might be disappointed with the WH-1000XM4s.

Because unless someone yanks them off your head and puts them on their own, they’re not going to be able to tell the difference between Sony’s new cans and those that came before them.

The new Sonys favour the same aesthetics to the extent that they’re damn near indistinguishable at a glance. A combination of premium matte-look plastic and soft padding, they’re minimalist by design and oh-so comfortable.

On the left cup there are still two buttons: a power/pairing button and a custom button which can either be used for toggling noise-cancelling modes or summoning your chosen voice assistant. The right earcup is still touch-sensitive and the USB-C charging port sits underneath.

There are subtle design differences, though. A new hanger structure makes for a slightly less boxy look when worn and the pads are a bit softer. Peer into the left earcup and you’ll see a wear little sensor at the top, which is used to detect when you’re wearing them. And despite internal additions, they’re actually a fraction lighter than the headphones they replace.

Features: bigger arsenal

This is where WH-1000XM3 owners will be given pause for thought. The M4s comes with a variety of new features, some more useful than others.

What Sony refers to as new 'Precise Voice Pickup Technology' performs advanced audio signal processing to more effectively isolate your voice on a call. Call quality was one of the few marks against the M3s, and the improvements might be enough to sway you if you make a lot of hands-free calls with your headphones. Previously, Bose’s Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 had a clear edge here.

Also new is 'Speak-to-Chat', a software-enabled feature that detects your voice and simultaneously pauses music and allows ambient sound to pass through so you can have a conversation without removing the headphones.

The M4s also add wear detection, which knows when the headphones have been removed and pauses/resumes audio accordingly. Once you have this feature it’s hard to go back. Leave the cans on the table for 15 minutes and they’ll automatically turn off.

The other considerable feature-based upgrade from the M3s is the new multipoint connection, which allows you to have two Bluetooth devices connected to the headphones at once. The M4s intelligently switch between each when required. Hopping between different devices was far too fiddly on the M3s and for everyday convenience, the new MPC is another enviable, if not essential upgrade.

Performance and battery life: you’re cancelled

With the same 40mm drivers, the M4s sound pretty identical to their forerunners, but that’s no bad thing. These headphones are an incredibly enjoyable listen: incisive base, a wide soundstage and the kind of tonal warmth that you’ll never grow tired of.

There have been subtle improvements, however, to the already excellent noise-cancelling functionality. Sony’s Dual Noise Sensor tech captures ambient racket and passes the data to its existing HD Noise Cancelling Processor QN1. A new Bluetooth Audio SoC senses and adjusts to music and noise at over 700 times per second. Plenty, then.

Using a new algorithm, the headphones apply noise-cancelling processing in real time, and Sony says the outcome is reduced high and mid frequency sounds and fewer outside distractions from your tunes.

The introduction of AI-driven DSEE Extreme, meanwhile, means your lossy compressed files can be upscaled to rescue detail.

Battery life remains at a very acceptable 30 hours.

Initial verdict

In terms of sound and looks, M3 owners aren’t missing out if they hold off on an upgrade. Whether they should depends on how much they value convenience and feature sets.

You can probably live without Speak-to-Chat, but multipoint connection, wear detection and the improved mics definitely improve the overall user experience. Throw in even better noise-cancellation and the M4s become an even more tempting proposition.

If you’re yet to invest in a pair of Sonys or have a much older model, know that you won’t find a better pair of noise-cancelling headphones on the market.