Sony WF-1000XM4 earphones Review: Great sound, ANC at a premium
We have covered a lot of budget and mid-range true wireless (TWS) earphones in the past, and now it is time to focus on the premium segment. In India, it is generally a four horse race between Sony, Apple, Bose and Sennheiser at the top of the food chain. In 2020, Sony impressed one and all with the launch of their WF-1000XM3 TWS buds, and set a new benchmark for active noise cancellation (ANC). We expect its successor to be no less in that department. While the XM3 was an impressive performer, there were some noticeable shortcomings like lack of ingress protection or support for high-end Bluetooth codecs like Qualcomm's aptX HD or Sony's LDAC. Also, the buds and case were quite bulky and heavy. The new Sony WF-1000XM4 looks to address all those issues and raise the performance bar in the premium segment of TWS earphones. Time to figure out if it succeeds.
Sturdy build, comfortable, but in-ear fit could have been better
The XM4 design has absolutely no resemblance to that of the XM3's, and the new product looks a lot more like TWS earphones than a Bluetooth headset. Sony has managed to make the buds 10% smaller this time, but they are still on the larger side courtesy of the advanced circuitry inside, and tend to stick out of the ears. The build quality feels sturdy and the buds have a smooth matte finish and sizable circular touch zones at the back. The charging case sees a major size reduction, and is not just 40% smaller than the XM3's, but also weighs almost half of that. It sports the exact shade and finish as of the buds. The Sony WF-1000XM4 comes in two color variants - black and gray, and we got the latter for review. I personally like the black better, as gray is not my shade and I find it a tad dull. A metallic ring around the microphone vents adds a bit of character to the design. The case has a USB-C charging port at the back and a multi-colored charge status LED at the front. Coming back to the buds, despite their larger size, they fit quite well in the ears without causing any discomfort. The fit isn't very reassuring though, and you get a constant feeling that one of them may fall off during a jog. Thankfully, no such thing happened during the course of my testing. The bundled foam ear-tips provide a good seal around the ear canals, and as a result the passive noise isolation is quite impressive. You get three pairs of foam ear-tips in the bundle including the preinstalled mid-sized tips. It is always advisable to spend a few minutes choosing the right size as it helps in achieving better noise cancellation. The companion app has a feature that assists you in zeroing in on the right sized tips.
Support for LDAC codecs is extremely rare on TWS earbuds
Each earbud is fitted with a 6mm driver and weighs 7.3 grams. On paper, it may seem heavier than average TWS buds, but the weight distribution is good and you don't feel the extra load in the ear. As I mentioned earlier, each bud is packed with some advanced circuitry that includes Sony's V1 processor that not just handles the ANC part but also the LDAC codecs over Bluetooth 5.2. LDAC can support a maximum throughput of 990Kbps, and that is quite a bit of data to crunch while retaining a stable connection. The Sony WF-1000XM4 also supports AAC and SBC codecs in case the source device isn't LDAC compliant, for instance, an Apple iPhone. You also have DSEE Extreme to upscale compressed audio files in real time. The buds have wear detection sensors to pause the audio when you remove them from your ear and resume automatically when you put them back on. The earbuds are touch enabled and let you perform a handful of tasks using single tap, double tap and triple tap gestures. You hear a soft beep for every registered touch, thus giving you an idea about the number of times you tapped it. The preassigned functions can be reconfigured using Sony's Headphones Connect app. Another area where it does better than its predecessor is the presence of IPX4 rated ingress protection for the buds, making them sweat resistant. It can also handle the odd splash.
Good wireless range and feature-rich companion app
The wireless range is pretty good at a little over 10 meters with a clear line of sight, and a half of that even with a concrete wall in between the buds and the source. While that seems normal, it is impressive here given that I was using LDAC codecs throughout with a higher priority to sound quality. Pairing the XM4 for the first time is a straightforward process, but to pair it with a different device, you need to touch and hold both buds for a few seconds to get them in pairing mode. Else, they simply won't show up in the list of Bluetooth devices. The Sony WF-1000XM4 supports three noise cancellation modes (for want of a better phrase) - Noise Cancellation, Ambient Sounds and Off (normal mode with ANC/ambient sounds off). You can select any two or all three from the Headphones Connect app and toggle between by tapping the left earbud once. If interested, the app also lets you manually select the amount of ambient noise that you want them to let through. In addition, the app gives you access to other audio settings like equalizers, 360 Reality Audio setup and DSEE Extreme. The touch controls are programmable, but one cannot choose individual functions for each gesture. You have to assign an entire set of functions for a particular bud. For example, if you choose Playback controls for the right earbud, a single tap performs Play/Pause function, double tap takes you to the next track and triple tap jumps to previous track; that cannot be changed. So, one can either choose volume control or ANC toggle for the left bud, but not both. I would have preferred assigning a specific function of choice to each of the gestures.
Excellent audio quality though not neutral; best in class ANC
Now we come to the business end of the review. The Sony WF-1000XM4 is amply loud even at 60% volume level, and the sound quality is one of the finest I have heard on TWS earphones. The sound signature isn't neutral, and I can already see the purists frowning. The low end frequencies are boosted, which in simple terms means a little extra bass. But the bass boost isn't excessive, and does not mask other frequencies like in case of budget earphones. It is just right to provide a pleasantly warm sound output without impacting the sharpness. The bass is tight and there's ample punch in the sub-bass that one can feel. The mids are reproduced very well with great clarity in vocals and good instrument separation. The highs are perfectly tempered with a good amount of sparkle without sounding sibilant. The sound stage is fairly broad with a good sense of space. All this translates into a highly enjoyable sound output with excellent detail. Most popular genres of music sound good on the Sony WF-1000XM4, and it is bound to appeal to a broader audience looking for a premium pair of TWS earphones with ANC. Speaking of ANC, that is another department this pair excels in. The active noise cancellation is as good as it gets with the right pair or ear-tips, and arguably the best you get on TWS earphones. When indoors, it cuts down on a lot of ambient sounds like the whir of a ceiling fan or the hum of an AC. When outdoors, it drowns the traffic noises with ease (sound of car engines, not the honking) along with the background human chatter. When you need to be aware of your surroundings or want to have a quick conversation without taking the buds off, you have the ambient mode that works just right.
Average call quality but good battery backup
While the audio output of the WF-1000XM4 is excellent, I cannot say the same about the call quality. It is fine indoors with both parties perfectly audible to each other. But when outdoors, especially in busy areas, the microphones tend to pick up some ambient noise that is clearly audible to the person on the line. The ENC algorithm still needs a bit of work. The battery life here is pretty good. Sony advertises figures of eight hours for the buds and a total of 24 hours with the charging case. During my usage, the buds lasted a little under seven hours on a full charge with ANC switched on half the time. The case recharges them twice more, thus taking the total battery backup a shade over 20 hours. These are impressive figures given that I was using the LDAC codec throughout the course of my testing and about 10 hours of ANC overall. The battery status of each earbud as well as the charging case is available in the companion app. The app also prompts you when the juice in the case drops below 30%. It takes about an hour and a half to charge the buds and case fully using a standard USB-C charger. When in a hurry, five minutes of charging can give you about an hour of music playback, which is a good option to have. The case also supports Qi wireless charging, but it is understandably slower in comparison to the wired option.
Arguably the best under 20K in terms of sound quality
The Sony WF-1000XM4 TWS earphones can be purchased online and offline for Rs. 19,990 with a one year warranty. Yes, this is a premium product with performance that is a cut above the rest of the TWS options available in India under Rs. 20,000, including the Apple AirPods Pro, in terms of sound quality and active noise cancellation. Add to that, support for LDAC codecs which is extremely rare in the TWS segment, a useful companion app, impressive battery life and the premium is somewhat justified. Having said that, this is not a perfect product on every front. The design is a bit bulky and the lack of neutral sound signature will not please the purists or audiophiles, but there are ample takers for warm and detailed sound output. Call quality can also use a bit of a tweak, especially the ENC algorithm outdoors. And lastly, the price tag will take it beyond the reach of the masses. But if budget is not a constraint, you have an LDAC compliant phone and are looking for TWS earphones with excellent sound quality and ANC, the Sony WF-1000XM4 should be your top pick.