It has been just less than two years ago I reviewed the WF-1000XM3, and at that time Sony’s earplugs never ceased to be the reference point for advanced earplugs. Seriously, I reviewed a new pair like a month ago, and still made the usual reference.
It is a rarity these days of the annual upgrade cycle. And it goes double for the wireless earplug area. It already felt crowded when Sony went for it in earnest in mid-2019, and things have only gotten worse on that front. But the M3s were a breath of fresh air. With so many companies competing for the middle and bottom end of the spectrum, Sony dropped something truly premium.
Six months before the AirPods Pro arrived, the M3 hit the market with excellent sound and noise reduction. The latter has of course been standardized across the entire category, but when Sony included it, it was almost unheard of. Despite the warm reception of the headphones, however, the company waited two years to deliver a proper follow-up. Understandable I guess. Improving very well is difficult.
I’m happy to report that the WF-1000XM4 is worth the wait. Sony’s great headphones, and these are no exception. The new buds represent an improvement over their predecessors in several ways. Unfortunately, they are priced to match. If you thought the M3s were steep at $ 230, I have some bad news for you, buddy. The new ones have an additional $ 50.
The result is that new headphones mean a drop in the price of the older devices. A quick search shows them for around $ 178 from a variety of places, giving them more compliance with standard earplug pricing. At $ 30 more than the AirPods Pro, Sony really leans into the premium end of the range. If anyone has the resources and scope to keep prices down, it’s Sony.
Is the WF-1000XM4s worth the price? That’s a pretty subjective question, of course. What I can definitely say is that they are among the best sounding pair of earplugs you can buy. I’m still not convinced that anyone can really duplicate the headphone experience in a few buds – the form factor is just too limited for now. But there are definitely benefits to going with buds – namely portability and on these unspeakably hot summer days, a chance to let your ears breathe.
Buds are of course also better suited for training. Even if you are specifically looking for a pair to train in, these should probably not be your first choice. I mean, they are IPX4 water repellent, which is very good for sweating, but these are more of a long flight or sitting at your desk and really enjoying a jazz record kind of earplugs.
Partly because they are big. Admittedly, they are slightly smaller than their predecessors, and it is a net advantage to move from a paddle design to place the components over the ear canal, but they are still a bit too large in the long run. And although this is one of those things that varies dramatically from person to person, I found that the buds tended to cause ear problems after using them for long stretches. I found the pressure relieved a bit when I changed the midsole tips to a small one (I am a medium in almost all different earplugs), although the small ones were much worse at forming a seal in my ears – a necessity to really benefit from the active the noise reduction. And yet, the final dull pain was not absent.
It is also worth noting that I have had less than spectacular experiences with foam tips. They tend to be more prone to abrasion than silicone and tend to get a little dull in the earwax department (see, this job is not always pretty). Although I understand why high-end manufacturers go this route, from a comfort perspective.
Also hello, greetings to Sony for going with sustainable paper packaging. There’s not much to look at, but how often do you actually look at the package your electronics came in? Everything that is even better for the planet is net positive in my book. And besides, the charging case looks great.
It is significantly smaller than the W3. These are much more pocket-friendly. It’s an understated matte black, albeit with a rather tall white Sony logo on top. The magnets are strong and the knobs snap into the case with authority – they will also attach to each other. A thin LED strip just below the lid lights up green or red, depending on the charge. The case is wide enough to sit upright, so the USB-C port is around the back – or you can charge it wirelessly with a Qi pad.
Interestingly, the stated charging time is the same as the M3s, even though the numbers have been shifted. With the originals you got six hours on the buds and another 18 from the case. Here it is eight hours on the buds and 16 on the case. So, a whole day, anyway, but I absolutely prefer the two extra hours on the actual earplugs.
The buds themselves are a bit flashy than the case. The design has two intersecting circles, the upper of which is designed to be flush with the ear. The outside is accented with a metal microphone, with a second, flush microphone up.
The sound of the buds is really excellent. It has the kind of instrument divider that allows for new details about famous songs you missed with worse knobs. The standard balance is also very good. Sony does not lean heavily into the bass because it does not need it. The headphones sound very good over a wide range of music variants, as well as podcasts.
Noise reduction is again the industry leader. A simple tap on the left earplug goes between the ANC and ambient noise, and the difference is like night and day. I was really impressed with the sounds it could block, including my extremely loud vegetable juicer. I was also impressed with the buttons’ Bluetooth range.
With earplugs, it is true that you often get what you pay for. That is certainly the case here. Sony once again managed to set the bar for high-end knobs with the WF-1000XM4.