Few other products come close to the 1000XM3 in terms of instant ubiquity. Not including the AirPods, Sony managed to give Bose a hard time at their own game and even won it with the now-legendary WH-1000XM3, a pair of headphones so competent and well-rounded that even I couldn’t resist dropping my money to buy a pair back in 2018.
Travel wasn’t the same again and one of my personal favourite features was the inclusion of a 3.5mm jack that continued to be active even when you were out of battery power. On a 15hr non-stop flight, that could be the difference between preserving your sanity or enduring your co-passengers’ snoring. After ruling the roost for a good three years, Sony has taken the wraps off its successor, the WH-1000XM4 and it’s a bit of an anticlimax at first. It looks almost exactly the same, has the same finish options and to most users, might even sound the same. Then why do I feel as excited as a 10yr old in Disneyland? Well, part of it is because how accomplished its predecessor was, expectations are high from this M4 version and Sony isn’t a brand to take success lightly.
Same, but different
While the earpads are slightly larger, it’s impossible to tell by looking at them. Wearing the new M4 suggests a mild drop in weight but also more comfort, thanks a bit more padding. Clamping force is just right without giving you a headache even after extended hours of use. In our kind of climate though, it does tend to make the ears sweat if you’re not in an air-conditioned environment and that’s the only thing that works against these closed-back cans.
The touch controls work just as well, thanks to the large touch surface on the outside of the ear cups and the M4 also substitute the Quick Attention feature with an automated Speak to Chat feature. The built-in microphones (4 for each earcup) sense that you are talking to someone and automatically mute the music. It works well in practice but even the minimum resume time of 15 seconds seems too long when all you do is say “OK” to someone. This can be fixed easily with an OTA update of the Sony Headphones Connect app and I hope they do offer reduced resume times of 3-5secs. Alternatively, you can touch anywhere on the right earcup to resume playback manually.
What’s also new inside the left ear cup is the proximity sensor that automatically pauses the music when you take them off your head and resume when you wear them again. Sony hasn’t fixed what wasn’t broken, so you still get the large 40mm drivers powered by an analog amplifier with a built-in DAC and the same QN1 processor is responsible for this. Sony claims that they have changed the noise-cancelling algorithm though and a new Bluetooth SoC to more accurately analyse your surroundings.
The M4 also let you finally connect to two devices at the same time, which was a sore point of the M3. You can now connect it to your phone and tablet/laptop at the same time and seamlessly switch back and forth without having to disengage BT connection from one device first.
A lot pivots around the Headphones Connect app and the WH-1000XM4 joins in the 360 Reality Audio party too, just like the WF-1000XM3 we reviewed recently. You also get the option to activate Sony’s DSEE Extreme, which now has Edge AI to reconstruct “lost detail” from compressed MP3/MP4 files. Not that it matters, but the app loses the Sound Position Control features from the M3 version that let you place the music in a virtual space either to the front, rear or side of your head. It was unique and an unobtrusive way of listening to talk radio, sort of like overhearing a conversation in a coffee shop. Well, if anyone ever used that, that’s gone now. What you do get is Ambient Sound Control and a personal optimiser that also uses atmospheric pressure optimising which has been unique to the Sony WH series. But how have the changes under the hood affected the sound, you ask?
Features: Speak performance
I’m glad to report Sony has moved the goalposts even further. Since I had the WH-1000XM3 for comparison, the difference in sonic upgrades was clear and evident. There’s more sparkle at the top end, which might need to be tamed via the app EQ for some, but it also offers more detail and enhanced openness compared to the previous-gen model. Vocals too sound more direct, like a thin veil has been lifted from the microphone they were singing into and the soundstage is more coherently layered now, suggesting that a lot of electronic improvements have been made, if not actual driver change. Dancing with a Stranger makes Normani and Sam Smith’s vocals do their magic while delivering a full-bodied bottom-end that doesn’t overpower the rest of the frequency spectrum. It’s this even-handed balance that won the M3 a lot of accolades too and with the M4, Sony has refined it even further. The EQ allows fine-tuning to personal tastes and works brilliantly too, making subtle enough changes for audiophiles too.
The ANC, now armed with new software also cuts off more ambient noise that is the everyday variety and while sitting on a chair in my balcony, I couldn’t hear any car horns or traffic noise that was just a few feet away. And the Sony’s masterstroke has always been preserving sonic integrity without compromising on the ANC performance so more often than not, the best sound quality also is achieved by keeping the ANC on, even in a quiet enough environment.
Battery life is the same at 30hrs with a quick charge of 10mins giving you another 5hr play time. Nothing to report here except that it’s still great! The 3.5mm wired connection comes in handy during flights where you would want to use the on-board entertainment screen but with your own headphones and it can be used irrespective of battery power.
In recent times, the operating price for the WH-1000XM3 has dived into the low ₹20,000 mark and the M4 do cost a fair bit more. So are they worth the additional outlay? Absolutely. If you need a great ANC headphone for travel that sound good, by all means, grab a great deal on the M3. But if you’re a critical listener and spend all your time listening to music or movies on your headphone, the additional convenience features like wear detection, speak-to-chat and multi-device connectivity are just the icing on the cake that sounds even more communicative and detailed now. The practical folding design, voice assistant support, sturdy case and good-quality materials are thankfully all retained. Sony has ensured it’s firmly perched at the top of the ANC leaderboard with the WH-1000XM4!