Year after year, Sony reliably produces some of the best audio hardware in the world. The brand tops both our list of the best wireless headphones of 2022 and our list of the best wireless earbuds of 2022.
You can see the pattern emerging. Sony’s newest true wireless earbuds, the WF-1000XM4 launched last year. Not content with simply tinkering around the edges of the already excellent WF-1000XM3 earphones (£119, Sony.co.uk), Sony’s taken the bold approach of re-engineering the earbuds with an all-new style and features lifted from its latest over-ear headphones.
The result is a pair of earbuds that’s difficult to find fault with. There’s proprietary noise-cancellation tech that submerges you in your music, intelligent features, comfortable design and tremendous audio and call quality in even the most cacophonous situations.
We like to poke fun at Sony’s cryptic naming conventions for its various audio products, but with a little determination it’s possible to decipher the code. Its range of over-ear headphones begin with WH (for wireless headband) followed by 1000X (denoting the premium product range) and M4 (the generation, or mark). Its in-ear earbuds are named in much the same way, except they begin with WF, for wireless... something. Apparently not even Sony’s own marketing department knows.
How we tested
We tested the WF-1000XM4 over several weeks and in a variety of environments, including busy city streets, on the Tube, on a short flight, and while concentrating at home in the evening. We paired the earbuds with a Pixel 6 pro and an iPad air – pairing is instant with Android phones, and just requires opening the Bluetooth menu with Apple devices – and used the Google Assistant for voice commands.
When testing audio quality we fired up our chaotic playlist of maddeningly incongruous music genres, which includes entries from Arcade Fire, Anna Meredith, T. Rex, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Todd Terje.
Sony WF-1000XM4: £217.72, Amazon.co.uk
Style: True wireless
Driver unit: 6mm
Waterproof: Yes (IPX4)
Battery life: 8 hours (earbuds), 16 hours (charging case)
Pros: Class-leading active noise-cancelling, superb audio quality
Cons: Can’t connect to multiple devices at once
Design and battery life
The WF-1000XM4 take the previous model and compress it into a smaller, sleeker form factor. All while adding some of the best features of Sony’s latest over-ear headphones such as adaptive noise-cancellation and the option to have the earbuds automatically pause your music and enhance voice sounds when they detect that you’re speaking to somebody.
The distinctive pill-shaped design of the older version has been entirely scrapped, and replaced with the more fashionable and lower-profile teardrop design seen in the newer Pixel buds and Galaxy buds.
Read more: The best wireless headphones in 2022
The carry case has been improved too. The magnetic clamshell design is now 40 per cent smaller while increasing the amount of charge it can hold, which boosts the overall battery life of the WF-1000XM4 to an advertised 24 hours when you include the eight hours the earbuds themselves can carry.
In our tests we estimated it to be closer to roughly 16 hours – we go heavy on noise-cancellation and volume – but you’ll be popping the earbuds in and out of the charging case so often that it’s perhaps more useful to consider how often we found ourselves accidentally running out of juice, which was never. The Sony app gives you a nudge when you start to run low, and the case can be charged wirelessly if you’re nowhere near a cable. You can even charge it by placing it on the back of your smartphone, if your phone has a reverse charging feature.
It’s taken a while for wireless earphone designers to really consider the form and function of their charging cases, but Sony has created something that’s not only as small as it can physically be while still holding the earbuds, but that looks premium and offers useful charging features.
The WF-1000XM4 come with three pairs of polyurethane ear tips in small, medium and large, which feel like squishable foam earplugs and fit snugly in the ear canal. There’s a pop-and-twist action to get them right in there, and once situated they feel secure despite the lack of supporting wingtips.
They’re newly IPX4 splash resistant, so you can run around in them as much as you like without gumming them up in sweat, but while the WF-1000XM4 never fell out during workouts we still prefer the reassurance of an ear hook or neckband style wireless earbud. Sprinting along a canal towpath with £100 in each ear seems like asking for trouble.
Read more: The best Bluetooth speakers for every budget
Once you find the right fit, the compressible ear tips form an airtight seal to help the active noise-cancellation do its job properly. The companion app can also test the fit for you by playing certain tones, which takes the guesswork out of choosing the correct size of tip. Crucially, they’re comfortable to wear over very long periods, such as entire workdays at home when extensive engineering work is taking place right outside your window.
Both earbuds have large round touchpads that can be customised to control media playback, dial in the intensity of the noise-cancellation and activate a transparency mode, which essentially gives you superhero hearing abilities. On-ear touch controls are an unavoidably terrible way of doing anything, but your chosen voice assistant can be summoned hands-free with a wake word, meaning skipping tracks and choosing songs can all happen with spoken commands.
The speak-to-chat feature is designed to let you have a conversation without removing the earbuds by actively listening out for your voice before pausing your media and filtering out everything apart from vocal frequencies.
When it works it is magical, but we found the feature would accidentally trigger whenever we idly cleared our throat or started singing along to our music (something we do a lot more often than we thought, apparently). You can dial down the sensitivity to help avoid this happening, or switch it off completely.
To stop you having to constantly adjust the level of noise-cancelling as you move from noisy environments to quiet ones, the WF-1000XM4 can detect your surroundings and automatically switch to the most suitable profile for the situation. When sitting still, for example, you can enjoy complete isolation from external noise. When walking near traffic, the earbuds allow some road noise to filter in to help you avoid getting splatted by a Ford Focus.
These profiles are all adjustable and the companion app gradually learns your routines, so you can fully automate the degree of noise-cancellation from the moment you leave your flat, get on a clattering commuter train, navigate the busy streets to your office and plonk yourself down at your desk. It’s thoughtful, well-designed software.
All this fancy technology thrumming along in the background wouldn’t be worth much if the WF-1000XM4 sounded rubbish, so thankfully Sony hasn’t dropped the ball when it comes to the basics. Helped hugely by the airtight fit, the earbuds can produce an amazing sound: bass is rich and detailed without any of the claggy distortion often found in small, overcompensating drivers.
Mid-tones and highs are crisp too, with clear vocal detail and clarity whether you’re listening to dirty metal, drum and bass, or light, plucky acoustic. The WF-1000XM4 simply sound better than any other wireless earbuds we’ve tested, including the Beoplay EQ, which are twice as expensive and built by renowned audio engineers Bang & Olufsen.
The call quality on the WF-1000XM4 is impeccable too. We’re not entirely sure on the finer details of beamforming microphones and bone conduction sensors – the earbuds can seemingly isolate your voice for other sounds by listening to your skull – but we do know that we could make and take phone calls while walking in central London without the person on the end of the line suspecting we were chatting through our earbuds.
The verdict: Sony WF-1000XM4
Sony leads the pack when it comes to active noise-cancellation, and the WF-1000XM4 are the finest implementation of the technology yet. If you commute by train, live in a noisy neighbourhood, or just enjoy the sensation of being cocooned in a silent, womb-like aural void, these earphones are a cut above every other rival out there.
When it comes to comfort, audio fidelity, noise-blocking, voice assistance, function, price and looks, the WF-1000XM4 are as near to faultless as earbuds come. They’re the culmination of several generations’ worth of iterative design, they sound fantastic, and leave little room for improvement.
Buy now £190.85, Amazon.co.uk
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