First Look: Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones

Possibly the best consumer-level headphones on the market.

Two people wearing Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones.

Sony makes excellent headphones, and the WH-1000 series is the pinnacle of their consumer-level range. In the office here at Consumer a lot of people use the 1000XM3s – our highest-scoring pair of wireless headphones from 2019. The XM4s ($429) are so much better.

Whether you're after tiny ear buds you can go jogging with or getting perfect sound from giant over-ear headphones, our headphones test has got you covered.

The minor downsides

A pair of black Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones
Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones

As with most Sony audio products, what lets them down is the software. The Sony Headphones app connects the headphones to your phone – the set-up process takes far too long and switching between devices becomes equally tedious. The software is also a little too smart for its own good sometimes. For example, the speak-to-chat function turns off your music when you speak in case you’re trying to have a conversation with someone, but it also turns it off if you make any noise that even sounds like speech (think coughing). You can turn off this and other functions (including a motion detection function that turns noise cancelling on and off), however they’re on by default.

Part of the set-up involves using your phone to take photos of your ears, so the software can tailor the audio playback to your unique ear pattern. I remain unconvinced that this is a real thing, and I’m worried about the database my ear photos are currently sitting in.

The major upsides

The sound quality on the XM4s is undeniably good. The sounds are crisp and clear, and the bass is nice and rumbly. At no point did I think anything was too harsh or unbalanced. It’s also a very good pair of headphones for 3D sound. On the track Here Come the Warm Dreads I was able to hear the music move around me, including directly in front of me and behind me. Similarly, my test track of binaural rain recordings had a depth to the audio that was incredibly realistic. So maybe the ear photos did help.

The noise cancelling is exquisite. They blocked out almost all of the construction noise currently plaguing the Consumer NZ office and even the sound of people trying to talk to me.

They’re some of the most comfortable headphones I’ve ever worn. The pressure of the headband keeps them in place without squeezing my (admittedly large) head.

There’s a bunch of other little things as well. They fold up flat to fit in your bag or the supplied carry case. The touch controls on the right earcup are sensitive, but not so much that I set them off accidentally (a massive improvement on previous models).

All in all, the Sony WH-1000XM4 might be my favourite pair of headphones of all time. If we were still flying places, they would be my best travelling companion. Sony’s going to have to pull out all the stops to make their next headphones better than this.

Member comments

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28 Dec 2020
Agreed; try before you buy.

I agree with the previous comment - try before you buy.
I rushed in to purchasing the XM4 after seeing some reviews. I did try the XM3 in the shop for comfort, alongside a model of Sennheisers. The Sennheisers were more comfortable, but I was set on the Sony. I have a large head and I find them too tight.
I also have issues with the noise cancelling cutting in and out when I don't want it to, but that may just take a period of adjustment for me.

Jeff S.
26 Dec 2020
Bettering excellent

I too have the mx3 over ear purchased last year after leaving my Sennheisers on plane ,never to be seen again.
They are better than the Sennheisers and I tried but did not like the Bose. I am used to Meridian systems in my car and am always looking for clarity and definition rather than bass thump.They are also great at getting rid of flight noise on long trips( rememberThose?)
IMO the Sony are already the best performance price and portability package. The MX4 should be a world beater.

Robert W.
26 Dec 2020
Try before you buy

I have not tried these ‘phones, but I did purchase the previous model after falling for all the hype. The sound quality of the Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones is very poor IMO: muffled, with the mids and highs lacking in clarity. I understand that Bluetooth can never match wired for sound quality, but I expected better at this price, and after reading many reviews (too late, I read some more balanced reviews). EQ can help but only to a limited extent. That said, the battery life is excellent, and I the ANC superb; noticeably better than my old Bose ANC phones.
So try before you buy if sound quality is important to you. Hopefully, the sound quality of the Sony WH-1000XM4 has improved over the Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones.