In the over-the-ear headset market, the battle between noise-canceling headphones is primarily between Sony and Bose. However, in the wireless earbuds space, there are many competitors with noise-canceling capability now present even in some earbuds priced less than $100.
At the top end of the market, we see earbuds from Apple, Jabra, Sony, Master & Dynamic, Cambridge Audio, Sennheiser, Samsung, Bose, and many more battling for the title of best wireless earbud. For the past week, I’ve had audio streaming gloriously into my ears through the new Sony WF-1000XM4 headphones. Audio playback, with noise cancellation, has been amazing while my phone calls have never sounded clearer on both sides of the conversation.
While I absolutely love the audio experience of the Sony WH-1000XM4 cans, I prefer the earbud form factor for extended wear and portability for daily train commutes. Most of the excellent technologies and features found in this larger headset are now present in these small earbuds and fans of this form factor are such to appreciate the latest generation, Mark 4, of the WF-1000 series.
- Micrphones: Two noise-sensing mics on each earbud, one forward and one back
- Drivers: 6mm
- Wireless connectivity: Bluetooth 5.2
- Water resistance: IPX4
- Sensors: Capacitive touch for controls, on-ear detection
- Battery life: Up to eight hours of ANC play from each earbud or 12 hours with noise-canceling switched off. 16 more hours of noise-cance play (two full charges of each earbud) are provided by the case or 24 hours of standard playback without NC. The case can be charged via USB-C or wireless Qi charging. A five-minute charge provides up to 60 minutes of play time.
- Earbud weight: 7.3 grams each
- Charging case weight: 41 grams
One of the first things that struck me when the review package arrived was the eco-friendly packaging material. There is a simple wrap-around paper band with a color photo of the earbud product and other product info, but all other packaging materials are original blended material. This original blended material is a durable paper material from Sony made from bamboo, sugarcane fibers, and post-consumer recycled paper. It is well designed and also very easy to open and access.
The retail package includes the Sony earbuds, wireless charging/carrying case, short USB-A to USB-C cable, and three pairs of earbud tips (small, medium, and large). The earbuds are available in black and silver, we tested out the black model.
The medium earbuds are to attached the WF-1000XM4 out of the box. The earbud tips are a bit interesting themselves as Sony offers a material that appears to be a combination of silicone and Comply tips with the look and feel of silicone, but with the rigidity of a Comply material. It’s fantastic and the earbuds stay in my ears very well without having to squeeze down the tip to fit. They are also very comfortable for long term wear. It is also handy to see the inner silicon part that attaches around the earbud post is color-coded for each size so it is very easy to distinguish between the different size earbud tips. Nice work here on this detail Sony.
I tested out the black pair of earbuds that have some copper highlights on the Sony brand name, rear mic opening, and outer post. All parts of the earbuds are covered in matte soft-touch coating. The outer touch-sensitive surface is rounded and large so it is easy to tap and hold for the different control functions. There is red color around the right, R, earbud label so you can easily figure out which is the right or left earbud. There is also a sensor near the three charging spots for detecting whether or not you have the earbuds inserted.
Strong magnets are found in the charging case to hold each earbud securely in place in its comportment. A central LED is present to show the charging status of the case and earbuds. A strong magnet also keeps the lid closed on the charging case. The charging case is quite compact and has rounded edges so it can be carried comfortably in your pocket. A USB-C port is on the back for wired charging while Qi wireless charging is supported. You can even charge it up on compatible phones, such as the Sony Xperia 1 III. The charging case is not water-resistant so make sure to keep it safe in a dry location.
Inside of each earbud, we find the Sony Integrated Processor V1 that improves the noise canceling performance of Sony’s QN1e chip. The headphones analyze ambient noise to provide noise cancellation. Automatic wind noise reduction can be toggled on to compensate when windy conditions are detected.
Sony Headphones Connect software
In order to optimize your use of the Sony WF-1000XM4 headphones, you need to download and install the Sony Headphones Connect application to your Android or iOS smartphone. After installation, simply take out the earbuds and position them into your ears to initiate pairing with your smartphone.
The Sony Headphones Connect application shows the battery level of each earbud and the charging case. Through the upper right menu option, you can view a tutorial, check the firmware version of the earbuds, and more.
There are three main tabs in the application; Status, Sound, and System. The Status tab shows the music being played and provides back, play, and forward buttons with a volume slider below the controls. The Adaptive Sound Control option is also available.
Tapping Adaptive Sound Control brings up another screen where you can toggle this function on and off. This function detects your actions and locations so that headphone settings are switched to allow some ambient sound. You can toggle on various controls on this screen, including having the headphones learn from locations or maps.
Moving along to the Sound tab, we find the ability to choose noise canceling, ambient sound, or off. If noise canceling is selected then the automatic wind noise reduction option can also be toggled on or off. In the ambient sound settings you can use a slider to control the level of ambient sound and also toggle on the focus on voice option.
One of the most useful features I’ve ever seen on a headset is the ability to enable the Speak-to-Chat option and I experienced that on the WH-1000XM4. It is awesome to see this feature present on these earbuds, especially for those who work remotely when they may want to speak with other family members without having to remove their earbuds. You can choose from automatic, high, or low sensitivity to voice detection, which may be useful if you like to sing along to your music.
My wife and daughters often walk into my office when I am working and over the past week I just start speaking and the Sony earbuds pause the music. You can choose when to have the music start playing again or choose to turn off the automatic feature. I have it set to 15 seconds and that has been perfect for my situation.
Below this section is the equalizer area with an option for boosting the bass as well. Various default options are available, but you can also set up a couple of custom levels for your specific preferences.
Further down the display we find the 360 Reality Audio Setup area. I did not test this functionality yet since you also need to subscribe and install 360 by Deezer, nugs.net, or Tidal in order to enjoy the audio experience offered here. The test audio sample sure sounded good, but I was unable to use it since I do not subscribe to any of these services.
Below the 360 Reality Audio section is a Bluetooth connection quality selector where you can choose to put a priority on a stable connection or sound quality. I primarily tested a stable connection since the sound was fantastic. There is also a toggle for DSEE Extreme.
The System tab is where you customize other settings on your earbuds. These options include choosing your voice assistant. I had my iPhone 12 Pro Max connected to the Sony WF-1000XM4 and Siri is not an option. Given that Siri works just fine through the headset and the phone, I chose to use Google Assistant since I now have the option to take advantage of the power of Google Assistant on an iPhone while using Siri for standard iPhone-related functions. I love that I can use both voice assistants on the iPhone more easily with the direct Sony connection. Amazon Alexa is also an option for the voice assistant.
A handy utility to determine optimal earbud tip size is present on the System tab. Select it and then the air-tightness of the earbuds is tested with a short audio clip. The results indicate if you should try another tip or if you have a good fit. When I tested with the default medium tips, I was told to adjust or try another tip. I put on the large tips and was informed the earbud tips are air-tight. This is accurate since I often have to use larger size earbud tips with my headphones and Apple’s never seems to fit me well.
Pricing and competition
The Apple AirPods Pro are available for $249 and are a favorite for millions of people, especially those who use Apple mobile products. They have a stem design similar to the standard AirPods, but with solid active noise cancellation. The new Sony earbuds have about twice the battery life and many more options for a custom audio experience.
The Jabra Elite 85t earbuds are available for $185 and are a great choice for those making phone calls with their earbuds. There are quite a few settings available and they function much like the Sony earbuds. Sony’s new offering brings better overall music playback quality.
Daily usage experiences and conclusion
Since I workout with headphones and these new Sony earbuds have an IPX4 water-resistant rating, I decided to pair them up with a Garmin GPS sports watch, the new Forerunner 945 LTE, to test out music playback. In order to pair to something like a watch, you need to insert both earbuds and then press and hold both of them to get into pairing mode. Audio playback was fantastic from the Garmin watch with all of the previous touch control settings established through the smartphone app being present on the earbuds. The Sony WF-1000XM4 also supports Microsoft Swift Pair for easy connectivity to Windows 10 devices.
While I tested out the ability to use each earbud individually, given the industry-leading 8-12 hours of wireless playback and Speak-to-Chat option there really is no need to use only one earbud with the Sony WF-1000XM4. It turns out that you can indeed use the right earbud by itself, but you cannot use just the left earbud. This could have extended you for days of using this headset with one earbud at a time and alternating, but this isn’t that big of an issue for the majority of people looking for a high-quality stereo audio experience.
In addition to using the earbuds while I workout, I enjoy using wireless earbuds for yard work where I need both hands and headphones that stay in place while actively moving around. A personal test of mine is to wear noise-canceling earbuds while I mow with a gas lawnmower and then blow down the area with a high-speed gas leaf blower. The Sony WF-1000XM4 performed extremely well and I barely heard the mower or blower while enjoying my classic rock stations. Even better, I no longer have to remove my gloves and then an earbud to speak to my wife when she interrupts my yard work. With the Speak-to-Chat option enabled I simply start talking to her and the music pauses.
Most people focus on high-end wireless stereo headphones for music playback quality, but for businesses, it is also important to understand phone call quality. In the past, I’ve been very pleased with Jabra’s wireless earbuds as they focus on call quality. I’m pleased to say that these new Sony WF-1000XM4 earbuds set the bar for phone calls, in my experience. Callers said I sounded crystal clear and they could not tell at all that I was on a wireless headset, not to mention simple earbuds. On my end, the callers were also crisp and clear, just like they were in the room talking with me. In addition to its multiple beam forming mics on each earbud Sony’s Precise Voice Technology includes a bone conduction sensor that picks up vibrations from your voice.
The Speak-to-Chat option is great for remote work or office environments where you need to speak to people and then go back to using your headset. The Sony WF-1000XM4 also has Quick Attention support so you simply touch your finger to the left earbud surface and your music volume will be lowered to an extremely low level so that you can hear the outside environment temporarily for things like loudspeaker announcements at the airport or on a plane. It’s a cool function to let you turn your focus to something else while your finger rests on the left earbud touchpad.
The instant pause and play function is also a great way to refocus your attention on something else. Remove the earbuds to have your music paused and then when you return them to your ears the music will pick right back up where you left it.
The Sony WF-1000XM4 earbuds are 10% lighters than the Mark 3 version with a 40% smaller charging case. The headset has many of the technologies and features of the larger over-the-ear WH-1000XM4 in a form factor that some of us prefer more. They are not inexpensive at $279.99, but the amazing audio performance, crystal-clear calling support, useful technologies, very long battery life, and more make the Sony WF-1000XM4 an extremely compelling earbud solution and I highly recommend them.