Sony’s WH-1000XM3 noise-canceling headphones have been our top pick since their debut in 2018. The company continued to improve its powerful ANC (active noise cancellation), sound quality and design in the third-gen version of its flagship over-ear model. It really is a complete package -- or so we thought. As it turns out, Sony had more tricks up its sleeve, and a few new upgrades make the WH-1000XM4 ($350) even better.
Gallery: Sony WH-1000XM4 review | 20 Photos
Gallery: Sony WH-1000XM4 review | 20 Photos
The first change you’ll notice is the exterior: The M4 has a tactile matte coating where the M3 was a slicker plastic. The change doesn’t really alter the overall look, but the M4 does feel a bit more premium. Sony also slimmed down the headband cushion and tweaked the curve, so the newly shaped version offers a better fit. On previous versions the headband was a more oval shape, so it looked somewhat boxy -- especially for people like me with huge heads. The company made some changes here between the WH-1000XM2 and M3, but the new design takes things a step further.
- Powerful custom ANC
- Immersive sound with punchy bass
- Automatic pausing when you speak
- Multi-device connectivity
- 360 Reality Audio is still limited
- Adaptive Sound Control requires location sharing
Sony also redesigned the earpads so that 10 percent more surface touches the side of your head. This helps relieve some of the pressure that ANC headphones need to create a good seal on your dome. Indeed, I can tell a big difference there as I had no issue wearing the M4 for hours on end without ever feeling the dreaded vise sensation. Aside from those three key updates, the exterior to the M4 resembles its predecessor. From the earcup shape to the bronze accents on the black version, Sony kept the overall aesthetic of the M3 intact.
That includes the location of the on-board controls. The power and Custom buttons are still on the edge of the left cup. While the power button doubles as the pairing control, the Custom option handles noise cancellation by default. The button allows you to cycle through ANC on, ANC off and ambient sound mode right on the headphones. A press and hold will run the Noise Canceling Optimizer: a feature that tailors the noise cancellation to account for things like head size, glasses, hair and atmospheric pressure (for air travel). You can also opt for one-touch access to Google Assistant or Alexa here if you’d rather have that. Simply reassign the Custom button in Sony’s app.
The core controls are accessible on the outside of the right ear cup. As we’ve seen before in the 1000X line, these are all touch gestures. A swipe down lowers volume while swiping up increases it. Swipe from back to front to skip tracks forward and do the opposite to go back. A double tap will pause the audio or receive/end a call. And lastly, tap and hold on the center of the touchpad to access your voice assistant. These controls frustrated us on previous models, but I didn’t have any issues from the start on the M4. They work reliably and I don’t remember ever having to repeat an action. Even with wet hands from cooking or washing dishes, I had no trouble with the M4 receiving my gesture-based commands.
Quick Attention mode returns here as well. Simply place your hand flat against the touchpad to lower the volume and activate ambient sound quickly. It’s a great feature when you need to hear an announcement or have a quick conversation. However, you don’t actually have to raise a hand in order to do this anymore.
On the M4, Sony is debuting a Speak-to-Chat tool that automatically pauses whatever you’re listening to when you start talking. No more scrambling to hit pause when your co-worker (or family member in today’s work-from home world) walks up to your desk. I was skeptical about how well this would work, but I was pleasantly surprised that it does a solid job picking up my voice. It’s not perfect, though: You have to speak rather loudly for the M4 to hear you when you first begin, so my family all wondered why I was almost yelling at them. Speak-to-Chat is also sometimes activated by a cough or sneeze, and it takes 30 seconds to resume the audio after you finish talking. You can speed things up by double tapping the right earcup like you would to pause, but the long wait for the hands-free option is a bit much. Basically, the feature can come in handy, but it needs some fine-tuning. Even if I could adjust the time before the audio resumes, that would go a long way. But if you don’t like it, you can disable it completely in the Sony Headphones app.
Sony also added wearing detection to the M4. A motion sensor on the inside of the left earcup determines when you take off the headphones and automatically pauses the music or podcast you’re listening to. Ditto for when you put it back on: the M4 will resume where you left off without you having to push a button or reach for your phone. During my tests, this worked as advertised. It’s useful when you need to have a chat and you don’t want to keep the headphones on. The M4 pauses quickly when you remove it, and the audio resumes as quickly as you put it back on your ears.