(Pocket-lint) - When Sony introduced its first - and admittedly ambitious - pair of 1000X adaptive noise-cancelling wireless headphones, it did so into a market dominated by Bose and Sennheiser. And, while the MDR-1000X won awards seemingly across the board, there was still a question over the active noise-cancelling (ANC) tech itself.

Not so these days. Sony has not only improved its ANC tech greatly, it has risen to the top of the mountain in the process – becoming the one to beat in the over-ear headphones category.

It's easy to see why – or, more to the point, hear – with its fourth-generation model. The WH-1000XM4 takes everything that has proven to be class-leading in its forebears, while adding many bells and whistles of its own.

Build and design

  • Fine-tuned headband curve
  • Closed back design
  • 10% larger earpads
  • Weight: 254g

Not that you'd notice looks wise. Casual observers would be hard pushed to notice any aesthetic differences between the XM4 and 2018's XM3 headphones.

Both come in the same colours – black with rose gold accents, or silver with gold – and have the same shape and form factor. However, minor design tweaks mean that the new headset is more comfortable to wear for longer periods.

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Of course, considering global circumstances in 2020, it's hard to imagine that these 'phones will be used for a primary purpose – air travel – for quite some time. And, being transparent, it's impossible for us to test them in that scenario at present. But we've tested plenty of wireless headphones over the years to know which could present issues when worn on a long-haul flight and we can safely estimate that these will be among the most comfortable when worn for many hours at a time.

The ear cushions have been increased in size and are super soft. Plus, the headband is less constrictive than many others on the market. There have also been minor adjustments made with the band and its tightness with the earcups to reduce noise bleed. And, while the main material used is plastic, these cans feel robust enough to chuck in an overnight bag – even without the included carry case.

Chips and dips

  • QN1 NC processing, Bluetooth Audio SoC
  • Bluetooth 5.0 with multipoint connectivity
  • Google Assistant / Amazon Alexa / Siri
  • DSEE Extreme upscaling
  • Adaptive sound control
  • NFC

So while there are few external enhancements, you will find plenty on the inside.

The WH-1000XM4 over-ears run 40mm dynamic driver units – one in each ear – but now come with improved sound processing. Sony has opted for the latest DSEE engine –  DSEE Extreme –  which doesn't really add much to lossless high-res tracks, but makes compressed file types sound better than ever before.

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This is thanks to the Edge AI system it adopts, which finds missing frequencies and accurately guesstimates what should be there. In short, you get much cleaner, less damaged playback from low bitrate music – such as MP3s and other audio tracks streamed over a mobile connection.

In addition, the Sony headphones carry the same QN1 processor as the last generation, but now with Bluetooth Audio built-in. This allows for better noise-cancelling, with more ambient sounds to be negated than ever before.

It's hard to judge the capability in real-world use to its fullest – as we've mainly been homebound in 2020 –  but having worn these over-ears while a kid plays PlayStation loudly nearby, we imagine plane or train noises would be a cakewalk. We also tried to emulate London's underground Tube station noises, through videos we found on YouTube, and the adaptive noise-cancelling worked admirably.

The best bit is it didn't hamper our enjoyment of music. One of the early criticisms of active or adaptive noise-cancelling technology in general was that it affected audio playback – the same can be said for wireless Bluetooth connectivity. However, things have come on leaps and bounds since then and the 1000XM4's audio talents are plentiful.

There is one caveat though: Sony has opted to omit aptX and aptX HD support this time around, favouring its own, proprietary LADC lossless streaming technology instead. It's a strange move considering the XM3 did include aptX compatibility, although iPhone and other iOS device owners won't give a jot as Apple has never supported the format. It'll irk Android phone users though, of which they are many.

The final hardware inclusion worth noting is Bluetooth 5.0 and the newfound ability to hook up to two devices simultaneously. Called multipoint, the headphones can be connected to two separate devices, with switching between the two a doddle – you no longer have to disconnect and reconnect each time. Plus, when one (say, your phone) receives a call, the XM4 will prioritise it and switch over automatically. This a great time saver rather than essential feature but is very neat to have. As are Alexa and Google Assistant voice support, along with Siri for iPhone and iPad users.

Features

  • Touch controls on earcup
  • Speak-to-chat mode

There are several other key new features too.

These include speak-to-chat, whereby music is paused and noise-cancelling switched off (to ambient sound mode) when you start to talk out loud. This effectively enables conversations without the need to remove the headphones. We can see this being really useful on, say, a flight when a steward comes to take a meal order or such like.

In addition, quick attention returns, where you just need to hold your hand over the right-hand earcup to turn the volume down and, again, switch ambient sound mode of for the duration. That way you can hear train announcements or other important information.

The noise-cancelling tech has an addition or two as well. Both atmospheric pressure optimising and the personal noise-cancellation optimiser return – which automatically adjust the ANC signature based on cabin pressure and any of your characteristics that might affect it (such as hair, glasses and head size). Added to those is now the ability to set different locations as favourites, with the headphones using your phone's GPS to determine where you are and the best sound mode to suit.

Using Sony's Headphones Connect app, you can have locations set as "work" or "home", say, and the ANC mode will adjust to offer the best experience. The ambient sound control functionality will assess your circumstances accurately anyway, so it all works very well – always providing the best audio quality for the scenario (such as turning noise-cancelling off entirely when it's not needed). This will also save battery life, which is something addressed further in the 1000XM4.

Battery and charging

  • 30 hours battery life (claimed)
  • Fast charge - 10 minutes for five hours playback
  • Proximity sensor that turns off headphones when not worn

The battery life of the XM4 headphones is claimed to be 30 hours with noise-cancelling switched on, or 38 hours with ANC off. That much is fairly standard for wireless over-ears these days, including the last pair of Sony cans.

However, the XM4 also has fast-charge capabilities, which add five hours of playback time from just 10 minutes of charging. Plus, thanks to a proximity sensor found in the left earcup and the motion sensors inside both, playback will pause as soon as you remove these cans from your head, resuming when planted back in position again.

If you leave the XM4 off for 15 minutes then auto-off will ensure the battery doesn't keep on draining. This should increase battery life even further – and we'd imagine a trip from the UK to LA and back would be possible without the need to plug in at all. We hope to test that out ourselves one day.

Indeed, we've only fully charged the XM4 once and have used these headphones often over the space of two weeks. Admittedly, we haven't had to listen to anything at too high a volume, so that's helped keep power usage down, but long gone are the days of having to recharge headphones while in transit, that's for sure.

Audio performance

  • 40mm dynamic driver units
  • High-Res Audio
  • 360 Reality Audio
  • No aptX or aptX HD

Fancy features aside, it's with sound performance where the WH-1000XM4 over-ears get the most right. Audio is simply superb.

You get plenty of grunt where needed when it comes to bass-heavy tracks, but there is a neutrality in tuning that makes the XM4 ideal for all musical tastes.

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Sony's own 360 Reality Audio tracks – as found on music services, such as Tidal and Deezer – also make for a great listen. Although all headphones are technically compatible, the Headphones Connect app even scans images of your ears to optimise the virtual surround sound format to you specifically.

Whether this works or not, we're not so sure, but the 360 experience is quite magical and brilliant rendered by these 'phones. Liam Gallagher's MTV Unplugged gig is available in its entirety in 360 Reality Audio on Tidal and tracks such as Now That I've Found You sound like you are genuinely sitting in the venue during recording.

Another great track to test what these are made of is Kodaline's Honest, recorded at Irving Plaza in New York. Each guitar strum can be heard clearly, while the vocals echo around your head as the crowd murmur and cheer.

The XM4 is great with stereo tracks too, of course. Nirvana's Lithium makes great use of the aforementioned bass control, while the playback of Radiohead's Fake Plastic Trees will send shivers up your spine.

Verdict

Until normal replaces the new normal once more it's hard to fully experience the Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones at their very best – in circumstances for which they were designed. But regardless, it is plain to see and hear just how good these headphones are.

Yes, the XM4 looks identical to the last generation, but there are plenty of additions and tweaks that put the fourth-gen model on a higher level still.

Our only gripe is the odd absence of aptX support, but we can live without it, especially when the trade-off is so impressive. Sonically speaking the WH-1000XM4 delivers a premium result in every sense of the word.

Like with phones, however, you might not fancy spending another few hundred on an upgrade if you already own the XM3 – as there's not really enough extra to justify that kind of spend. But, if you have the original 1000X, or perhaps are just desperate for some amazing new noise-cancelling headphones to drown out the madness of your household, it could very well be time to make a leap up in quality.

And if you don't have any Sony ANC headphones lying around at all, there's no excuse not to make that right.

Also consider

Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700

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Arguably the finest over-ear noise-cancelling travel headphones on the market. Although the Sony does give Bose's effort a good run for its money...

Writing by Rik Henderson.