Sony's WF-1000XM4 in-ears are the best 'buds from the company to date, which means that if you've never worn a pair before, it's long past time to get educated. But if you're already the owner of a set of Sony WF-1000XM3s, you don't really have to upgrade. Not quite yet.
Earbuds are a relatively new audio segment and, like all new territory, it’s being wildly contested. Sony’s WF-1000XM4 in-ear ‘buds are perhaps the best entry to come out of the Japanese company’s extremely well-stocked audio engineering labs. By extension, that means that these are perhaps the best wireless earbuds on the planet right now.
But don’t go getting all indignant. There’s a very small chance that you could secure better audio quality from your earbuds, but then there’s a sacrifice made elsewhere. The battery life may not be up to par or the companion app is weak or perhaps the fit isn’t exactly what you would call comfortable. There’s no such problem here. Sony’s newest in-ears tick almost every box — but does that mean you should buy a set?
Judging a book
The Sony WF-1000XM4s are considerably different in terms of design from their immediate predecessors. The WF-1000XM3 buds might have been the first to include active noise cancelling (we’ll get to that in a sec) but they also spent time in a considerably bulkier case than the one Sony’s supplied with the XM4s.
The earbuds themselves are also different. They’re a whole new shape, a blockier one that doesn’t look as though they’ll be as comfortable as they actually are. Inserting them takes a spot of getting used to — there’s a little screwing motion that leaves them almost weightless in your ears — but once you’ve got it, you’ll wonder how you used any other in-ears. They all but disappear, with none of the top-heavy sensation felt in Samsung’s current ‘buds headliners.
The smaller size means battery life overall takes a slight knock, but you’ll barely notice because you’ll get around eight hours from the buds fully charged and with ANC enabled — and they’re comfortable to wear for almost that long — with the slimmed-down case augmenting that with a ‘mere’ total of 24 hours. And, as long as you have the companion app installed, you’ll never find yourself out of power. It’s quite firm about reminding you to keep your battery topped up, but only when it’s actually becoming an issue.
Sony’s WF-1000XM4 in-ears use Bluetooth 5.2 to keep you connected to your smartphone, with some impressive range to boot. You’ll find yourself wandering further afield to get them to drop connection than you might expect, which is always only ever a good thing. Charging is taken care of via speedy USB-C or through a Qi charge pad, if you happen to have one handy.
The ‘buds supports SBC and AAC codecs as well as Sony’s own version of LDAC, and there’s a whole lot of lovely compatibility with Sony’s Xperia smartphones… that you can’t officially buy in South Africa any more. Not that it matters, because even without companion Sony hardware, these in-ears are almost impossible to beat in terms of features. Like their larger WH-1000XM4 sibling, they come packed with a new speak-to-chat feature that automagically detect when you’re talking and let the conversation flow without the new Rammstein album getting in the way.
There are also beam-forming mics and bone-conduction sensors helping out with the excellent active noise cancellation, a hear-through option in case you’re somewhere there’s traffic, an IPX4 rating to shrug off sweat and a tight enough fit from the included tips that you’ll a) be able to use them while running and b) benefit from some solid passive noise cancellation.
Sounds like the future
But no amount of features on the planet will help if Sony’s in-ears only feature mediocre sound. That’s very obviously not the case, because you saw the rating at the top of the page before getting to this point, but it helps to know specifics sometimes.
The 1000XM4s are an extremely detailed, accomplished set of headphones. Partly the result of the fit, partly Sony’s excellent app and the company’s new V1 processor, you’ll find yourself marvelling at just how much better your music sounds when you transition from just about any other set of in-ears. They handle masses of bass without losing clarity in other areas, but never devolve into that crumping sort of auditory earthquake that bass-focused kit tends to favour.
We were unable to find a single genre of music (and not just metal and… other sorts of metal) that Sony’s new in-ears couldn’t handle without a single glance at the app. If you’re serious about your audio, then you can also use the app to analyse your ear shape and take advantage of Sony’s 360 Reality Audio tech — but you’ll need Deezer, Tidal or Apple Music to take advantage of that. Or just use the EQ, if you’re old-school like that.
Let’s be clear, you’ll find at least one set of buds out there that sound a little better than these. You’ll also find a (different) set that has better battery life and yet another with incrementally better noise cancelling. But none of the competition do the whole package as well as the Sony WF-1000XM4s do. That fact alone makes them worth owning. Unless, that is, you already have a pair of WF-1000XM3s. The jump from those still-excellent ‘buds just isn’t that far.
Sony WF-1000XM4 verdict
If you look around, you’ll find several sets of in-ear wireless ‘buds that do a single thing better than Sony’s candidate for your attention. It might be the battery, the audio (and even then, it’s close) or noise cancelling, but the competition just don’t have the all-round skills that Sony’s 1000XM4s do. That said, if you’ve already got a pair of WF-1000XM3s at home, it’s a little hard to justify the jump. Just like the evolution of Sony’s over-ear equivalent, the previous generation was so good that new features like speak-to-chat and tweaked audio/noise cancelling skills aren’t enough to bring you onboard. But if you’re using literally anything else, Sony’s newest in-ears are worth a listen — even at R7,000 a pop.