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Sony’s WF-1000XM4 are some of the best noise-canceling earbuds yet | CNN Underscored



CNN
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Sony’s brand-new WF-1000XM4 true wireless earbuds are available now for $279.99. These aren’t the smallest earbuds in the world, but over a week of testing, we found them to be quite comfortable in our ears, with rich sound quality and strong active noise cancellation (ANC).

Who these are for: If you’re willing to spend a bit more on earbuds, you’ll find that the WF-1000XM4 deliver a rich and crisp sound experience that works for any genre. You can customize the mix via an equalizer in the companion app as well. These don’t feature an extended stem out of the ear like AirPods or AirPods Pro, which makes them a bit more comfortable for extended use. And if you value battery life above all else, the WF-1000XM4 are the longest-lasting earbuds, with ANC on or off, that we’ve tested.

What you need to know: The WF-1000XM4 earbuds are more expensive than both Galaxy Buds Pro and AirPods Pro, but for those looking for more control over how playback sounds, the custom EQ mix could make the price more digestible.

How they compare: ANC on the XM4 zooms past the Echo Buds, Galaxy Buds Pro and AirPods Pro to deliver an experience that really lets you be alone with your thoughts and music. Compared to the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds — our pick for best noise-canceling earbuds — noise cancellation is a toss-up; the Bose buds create a better seal in-ear, while the Sony buds are better at blocking higher-frequency sounds. Sony kicks things up a notch with sound by offering better instrument separation on a track and stronger bass over other leading earbuds like AirPods Pro or the Bose QuietComfort. The XM4 shine with the longest battery life with ANC on or off (eight or 12 hours, respectively) against other earbuds we’ve tested.

Jacob Krol/CNN

Unlike other true wireless earbuds (like the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds), you can customize the audio mix on the fly within the companion app. Sony offers several presets (like bass boosts or a live concert mix), and you can make your own dedicated mix.

You’ll navigate into the Headphones Connect app on Android or iOS and open the “sound” tab. Scroll to equalizer and you’ll be able to scroll through the presets. It takes under a second to adjust the current mix, and this allows you to evaluate it in real time. Tapping “custom 1” or “custom 2” brings up a digital mixing board of sorts. Here you can manually adjust levels across the sound spectrum. Sony also has a dedicated bar for bass adjustments.

It’s very similar to the experience with the class-leading WH-1000XM4 headphones. With so many mixes possible, you can make the buds work for any genre of music. Sony’s adjustments let you get pretty specific with how you want a song to sound. It’s also the most technical, with no marking for lows, mids or highs but rather frequencies on the digital board itself. You can be more precise in your adjustments when compared to the EQ mixer for Echo Buds as well.

“Good 4 U” by Olivia Rodrigo opens with a strong bass beat that doesn’t crackle or spark like on some cheaper earbuds. The XM4 play the track back with clear instrument separation, allowing you to hear the guitar riff, mid-to-high vocals and a loud snare.

There is a decent amount of sound leakage at higher listening volumes, though.

For a small-sized earbud, the 6-millimeter drivers in each bud deliver a wide range of sound. That custom driver works in tandem with a new integrated V1 processor. This mixes the music in real time, handles noise cancellation and even connectivity. Like Apple’s M1 chips, Sony is delivering an entire system on a chip.

Sony’s mix doesn’t leave much, if anything, to be desired. The WF-1000XM4 deliver a thoroughly enjoyable sound experience that doesn’t sacrifice any portion of a track.

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Jacob Krol/CNN

The XM4 offer full active noise cancellation and a bevy of ambient sound modes. And while we’re not ready to say these outpace the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds (our current pick for best noise-canceling earbud), it’s an incredibly close call.

Let’s level set a bit: Earbuds are not at the same level of active noise cancellation as over-ear headphones. The latter physically wrap around your ears and work to block out the noise around you passively. Here, the WF-1000XM4 earbuds sit inside your ears with tips that create a tight seal and have four microphones on board with the V1 processor to detect noise and block it.

With noise cancellation engaged, it reduced a noisy HVAC system in our apartment down to a relatively low hum, even when standing directly next to the blower. It’s pretty impressive and mostly on par with our experience with Bose’s QuietComfort Earbuds. Bose offers 11 levels, and Sony offers a bevy that starts from silent noise cancellation and dwindles to an ambient sound mode that lets you hear the loud blower. Ambient sound is ideal when you’re out and about. We were able to hear people chatting as we passed them on the street. It’s a pretty incredible experience, and when you want to tune folks out, you can adjust the mode to noise cancellation

Sony also offers a Speak to Chat function that we first saw on the WF-1000XM4. When it picks up your voice, it will pause the music and wait a few seconds for silence and resume — a pretty handy feature if you’re traveling, in a shared space or at the office. You can turn this on or off in the companion app.

Similarly, the buds use four onboard microphones (two in each bud) for voice detection. On cellular or Wi-Fi calls, we found our voice to be crisp with minimal echo. The same held true for VoIP solutions like WebEx, Zoom, Teams and Slack calls.

Battery life is usually a concern with buds sporting noise cancellation, as on average you can expect between four and a half to five and a half hours. With the XM4, though, we got eight hours and 10 minutes of runtime with active noise cancellation engaged. With ANC off at an average volume of 50%, Sony promises 12 hours; we hit 12 hours and 30 minutes with no modes engaged, just playback.

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Jacob Krol/CNN

Compared to their predecessor, Sony’s WF-1000XM4 are more circular in design than the long oval design Sony previously opted for. They’re still decently compact, as the outward portion of the 1000XM4 fits in the diameter of a quarter with room to spare. That makes them smaller than the previous 1000XM3 and pretty close to the chunky Bose QuietComfort Earbuds. Sony’s are a bit wider, while Bose’s are a bit longer.

The buds are touch-sensitive — and Sony has finally added volume controls. It’s a single tap to raise and a long press to lower. This function joins tap to play or pause, as well as the ability to engage ANC. Within the companion Headphones Connect app for Android or iOS, you can customize these a bit as well. Under “Touch Sensor Function” you can set what a tap or hold does on the left or right earbuds. The touchpad on the WF-1000XM4 was pretty sensitive, but not to the point where it led to accidental commands.

The WF-1000XM4 do stick out a good amount, but they never weighed down our ears. Most of the pressure we felt alleviated after about two days of use — that’s pretty average for a pair of earbuds, especially a pair that sticks into your ear with a long ear tip. Sony’s upgraded ear tips provide a decent amount of cushion and form to your ear. Made of a memory foam-like material, the tips held the shape of our ears while seeking to fill that space. When out of ear, they eventually expanded back to their original form.

You’ll get two additional sizes (small and large) in the box, in addition to the medium-size tips installed out of the box. Like the second-gen Echo Buds, Sony is color-coding the sizes, making it easy to identify the ear tips. Small is orange, medium is green and large is light blue. You’ll be able to confirm which ear tip is the best for your ears through a fitting test found in the companion Android or iOS app. We’ve been testing with a preproduction version and, like Ear Tip Fit Test on AirPods Pro, it plays varying tones to test fit.

The WF-1000XM4’s case fit comfortably in the palm of our hand. It’s on par with AirPods Pro and is much smaller than the WF-1000XM3 and the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds. You can charge the case through a USB-C port or with a wireless charger. It’s a simple case with light branding (just a Sony logo on top) and an LED indicator bar on the front.

Sony also added something we noted was missing on the WF-1000XM3: both dust and water resistance, thanks to an IPX4 resistance, meaning they’ll hold up against sweat and a bit of rain.

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Jacob Krol/CNN

Sony’s WF-1000XM4 mix best-in-class sound with super-long battery life and a bevy of other features. If you’re looking for a pair of earbuds that can outlast any other pair in terms of runtime, the WF-100XM4 are the best option for you.

The active noise-canceling experience is on par with our top pick, and we’ll continue to test them alongside each other. While we prefer Bose’s ear tip, Sony’s provide a comfortable experience that takes a bit longer to get used to. If $279.99 is a bit much but you want the Sony audio experience, we’d look at the WF-1000XM3. They’re still on the market for $229.99.

Sony’s WF-1000XM4 are up for order now at $279.99 in your choice of black or white.

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