Tuesday, 13 October 2020 22:51

Review – Sony WH-1000XM4 noise-cancelling headphones


Sony brings its decades of audio expertise to deliver an immersive and high-tech experience in its new flagship headphones, the WH-1000XM4.

Everybody needs a good set of headphones. I'm convinced this is part of anybody's essential toolkit. Whether you're working in the office, at home, hotels, airports or elsewhere, or whether you're a student, a music lover, a gamer, a streamer, an ASMR listener, you share a house with other people, or simply anyone who, for whatever reason, needs to listen to sound from their computer, laptop, phone, tablet or TV then quality headphones are a must.

Block out outside noise and focus on your work. Attend webinars or Zoom calls without asking people to repeat themselves. Hear every note of your music. Enjoy your flight. And when I do these things, I'm looking for headphones that are durable, comfortable, and with long-lasting battery life.

Sony's WH-1000XM4 was released only in August, stepping up as the next iteration of the WH-1000XM3, regularly lauded as Bose-beaters, and rightly earning accolades as noise-cancelling headphones of the years, for several years running.

It was thus a no-brainer to test the XM4, and immediately there's a lot to like, beginning with the soft, yet hard and protective, feel of the included carrying case. This stores not only your headphones - with a helpful inlay indicating where the left and right earcups go - but also the USB-C charge cable, 3.5mm headphone cable, and nicely, an aeroplane adapter too.

The headphones are sturdy, comfortable and ergonomic and bring hours and hours of continual use without any aches. The varying sockets and buttons are clearly labelled and distinctive to the touch.

However, behind the soft padding is a swathe of technology. Four microphones are spread across the two earcups and pair with real-time processing to strip outside noises. Artificial intelligence processing rebuilds audio lost during digital compression to restore full fidelity. 360 Reality Audio, paired with an appropriate streaming service, brings truly immersive surround sound helping you forget the world around you. A trial music service subscription is included in the box.

An additional five microphones work together with Precise Voice Pickup technology to pick up voices clearly and precisely for hands-free calls and a novel “speak to chat” feature, where the headphones realise you are speaking to others and pause your music. Of course, if you love to belt out a good sing-a-long you might like to disable this.

You can pair the WH-1000XM4 with two Bluetooth devices at the same time - your mobile phone and laptop, for example, or phone and TV. Play music on one and the headphones will connect to an incoming call automatically no matter which device it rings on. Or, tap once to manually switch between devices.

An accompanying app helps recognise how you use your headphones over time at different locations and tailors your sound to suit. You can have different profiles at your home, workplace, gym or other environments allowing you to lose yourself in the music, or gently enjoy it while still being aware of the surrounding noise, or other mixes.

The app also allows you to calibrate playback and noise cancelling to the physical and unique shape of your ears. The science is beyond me, but the effect was instant and phenomenal. I pressed the button, the headphones played a series of inaudible noises, and that was it. Yet, it truly made a difference - the noise cancelling was excellent before I tuned it, and was astounding afterwards. People could have been shouting right at me and I would not have known.

The WH-1000XM4 is NFC enabled, has a battery life of up to 30 hours, and can quick charge to five hours wireless playback in only 10 minutes. It has built-in Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa support. The headphones retail for $549.95 and come in black and platinum.

The WH-1000XM4 has quickly become my favourite set of headphones, standing the test of all-day phone calls, conference calls, light music while still listening to the world around me, and immersive playback shutting the world out. With COVID-19 still among us, I haven’t taken it flying but the headphones sound so good and are so light and comfortable they’ve truly made audio a pleasure. They’ve transformed headphones from a useful tool to something I want to find new reasons to use.

Ordinarily, I would end this review saying if you're looking for quality headphones for your work or leisure then give the Sony WH-1000XM4 a good look. However, this time I think I simply have to say just go ahead and get them. Do your ears a favour.

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David M Williams

David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. David subsequently worked as a UNIX Systems Manager, Asia-Pacific technical specialist for an international software company, Business Analyst, IT Manager, and other roles. David has been the Chief Information Officer for national public companies since 2007, delivering IT knowledge and business acumen, seeking to transform the industries within which he works. David is also involved in the user group community, the Australian Computer Society technical advisory boards, and education.

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