If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Sony, it’s that it isn’t wed to annual updates. The WF-1000XM3 true wireless earbuds quickly shot to the top of our best of list when they debuted in 2019, primarily for their stellar mix of sound quality and handy features. Of course, that set wasn’t without its flaws, one of which was the massive size. 2020 came and went without a new version.
Today, Sony announced a follow-up, the WF-1000XM4 ($280), after a trove of leaks bent on ruining the big reveal. The company has managed to push the limits of what its true wireless products are capable of, but the M4 isn’t the bargain its predecessor was. And there’s one change that might cause some issues for you.
- Great sound quality
- Powerful ANC
- Improved battery life
- Wireless charging
- 360 and high-res audio support
- New ear tips can be awkward
- Redesigned earbuds are still big
- Speak-to-Chat is handy but imperfect
Gallery: Sony WF-1000XM4 review | 21 Photos
Gallery: Sony WF-1000XM4 review | 21 Photos
I love nearly everything about the WF-1000XM3 earbuds — except the design. They’re huge. Not only does that lead to an awkward fit, but it also means the buds are quite noticeable when you’re wearing them. The rounded rectangle outer panels looked a bit like a Bluetooth headset from the early aughts. Thankfully, Sony has ditched that look entirely on the M4, opting for a more “traditional” earbud shape that’s compact and circular rather than elongated and rectangular.
A round touch panel accepts taps for track controls and the virtual assistant on the right side while the left earbud can be used to toggle active noise cancellation (ANC) modes or activate the quick attention feature. Those are the default actions, but Sony’s app will allow you to reconfigure things as you see fit. Like the M3, you can opt for on-board volume controls on the M4. However, you’ll have to sacrifice either your playback controls or your ability to change quickly from noise cancelling to ambient sound. You also have the ability to mirror the set of controls you choose on both sides.
The new design doesn’t lead to a massive reduction in overall size, though. In fact, Sony says the WF-1000XM4 is only 10 percent smaller than the M3. That’s because these new buds are just as deep, which means they also stick out from your head a bit. They’re more discreet than the previous version, but still bulky. And when you combine the heft with the new ear tips, you might encounter some issues when it comes to fit.
The included charging case is another item Sony redesigned. It’s 40 percent smaller than the accessory that came with the WF-1000XM3, which means you can more easily tuck it in your pants pocket. It sits upright now as well, with a USB-C port on the back for wired charging and an LED on the front for battery status.
Comfort and fit
Rather than the silicone tips you usually get with earbuds, like the ones Sony included with the M3, the company went with so-called Noise Isolation Earbud Tips this time around. These are made of a spongy foam that’s supposed to conform to your ear canal to offer a tighter fit and improved noise isolation. If you’re not someone who typically does the in-app fit test, you’ll want to make sure you do it here.
Despite the app telling me I had a good seal with the small and medium sizes, neither offered a secure fit. I finally found a decent option in the third pair (large), but it never felt comfortable. During longer listening sessions, they got slightly painful. In my frustration I pulled the silicone tips off the M3 and slapped them on the M4. No more ill-fitting earbuds. I just wish Sony would’ve included both foam and silicone options, which some other companies do.
Sometimes a company’s earbuds app doesn’t offer much in the way of customization. That’s not the case with Sony. The company’s premium buds and headphones offer so many features and such a degree of customization that its app is not only useful, it’s essential. In addition to the fit test, features like individual battery levels, Adaptive Sound Control, 360 Reality Audio setup and the EQ return from previous models. Adaptive Sound Control still allows you to let the app detect movement and automatically adjust presets accordingly. The feature can also do so based on your location if you give the software permission. For example, you could have different noise cancelling or ambient sound profiles for home, the office and the gym.
The Headphones app gives you the ability to fine tune ambient sound levels with a 20-step slider. You can also tell the software to focus on voices and suppress background noise when needed. The adjustable ambient sound comes in handy when you’re building your automatic presets for Adaptive Sound Control.
Sony debuted its Speak-to-Chat feature on its WH-1000XM4 headphones last year, and now it’s available on the WF-1000XM4 earbuds. It will automatically and temporarily pause the audio and activate ambient sound when the earbuds detect that you’re speaking. After a few seconds, the music will resume or you can tap either earbud to manually do so. It’s a handy feature, especially for those of us still working from home. However, the system still can’t distinguish between a cough and speech. Sometimes even when I clear my throat I inadvertently trip it. It’s not perfect, but it gets a lot of use from me, and I think the microphones on the M4 earbuds are quicker at detecting my voice than those on the headphones. If you don’t like it, you can always turn it off in the app.