This review should have been an easy one to write. Last year’s WH-1000XM3 was widely credited for supplanting Bose from the throne of noise cancelling headphones. As its successor, the WH-1000XM4’s were poised to take over the mantle, by improving upon the previous generation with updated specs and added quality-of-life features.
So naturally, the Sony WH-1000XM4 has been universally praised by critics to be the best pair of noise cancelling headphones you can get.
Then what is there left for me to say regarding these headphones? Perhaps not much. But I recently purchased the Drop Panda, which I got for roughly the same price (~S$479) as what the XM4 are currently on sale for. I also own the Sennheiser PXC 550, which is another active noise cancelling headphone of the same class as the Sony’s. So hopefully my personal experience comparing these headphones to the Sony’s will be insightful to some.
Perhaps the best way to approach this review is to first consider the differences between the XM4’s and the XM3’s.
XM4 vs XM3
- Slightly better noise cancelling
- Automatic music pausing when headphones are taken off (can be disabled in app)
- Speak-to-chat function (music pauses and transparency mode turned on when you start talking), but I found this to be a nuisance since the music pauses from me yawning; I’ve since disabled this feature in the app
- Bluetooth 5.0 (vs 4.2), supports connection to 2 devices simultaneously (but AAC will be used instead of LDAC when this happens). The XM3 only supports connection to a single device at a time
- XM4’s retain LDAC connection when EQ setting is changed in Sony’s app, XM3’s drop to SBC on Android, but remain at AAC on iPhone
The last two points are the main sticking points for me.
Firstly, if you have an Android phone and want to use the EQ in Sony’s app, you will compromise on audio quality with the XM3 but not the XM4. And as you’ll see later on in this review, you’ll most definitely want to change the EQ settings on Sony’s headphones. If your phone has an in-built EQ like on OnePlus, this will be less of an issue but still a hassle regardless.
Secondly, don’t get the XM3 if you want to be able to connect to 2 devices simultaneously.
The final thing to consider is the price. You might be able to find the XM3s at a killer deal now, and if you do, it may be very well worth it over the newer XM4.
Comfort & fit
The WH-1000XM4 are an extremely comfortable pair of headphones. At 254g, they are slightly heavier than my PXC 550 (227g), but extremely light nonetheless. There is plenty of cushioning in the headband, something which is sorely lacking from the much heavier (375g) Drop Panda.
The over-ear earcups provide a good fit and seal, leading to decent passive isolation. Some have reported that the earcups get warm easily, but in sunny Singapore, all headphone earcups will get warm and sweaty if you’re wearing them outdoors. I’ve found them to be alright indoors.
When I first listened to the XM4, I remarked that the sound signature was a lot more balanced and less bass-heavy than what I remembered on the XM3. I later realised, after installing the Sony Headphones Connect app, that Sony has set the default EQ to “Vocal” out of the box.
And that’s a good thing, because when I turned the EQ off, the headphones immediately sounded way too warm. Bass was muddy and clouded any vocals or instruments present. Listening to “BoomTrap Protocol” by Logic was a prime example of this; you can hardly hear the vocals over the constant rumble of the bass. But even with less bass-heavy tracks, I found the muddy bass to be an issue. As long as some bass is present in the track, clarity in the vocals is completely lost.
In comparison, the Drop Pandas are a lot more balanced. The Pandas also have much cleaner and faster bass response, compared to the Sony’s muddy bass. The PXC 550 are a tad too bright to the point of almost becoming sibilant to my ears, but even that sound signature is preferable to me personally to the default signature on the Sony’s.
If you do get the XM4, I’d recommend keeping the EQ set at “Vocal” or “Bright”. If you set a manual EQ profile, I’d also recommend elevating the mids and highs. Someone on Reddit seems to have found a good EQ setting.
With this brighter EQ, the Sony’s become a very enjoyable and easy listen.
Soundstage & imaging
Soundstage and imaging aren’t particularly good on these headphones compared to some other headphones that you can get for the money. Compared to the Drop Panda for example, the Sony’s have more of that “in your head” feeling to the music. You won’t notice a ton of instrument separation or sounds coming from further away.
This is especially noticeable in more atmospheric tracks like Linkin Park’s “Robot Boy”, or Taylor Swift’s “gold rush”.
That being said, the performance of the Sony’s in this regard are perfectly comparable to other active noise cancelling wireless headphones on the market. I found it to be mostly similar to, if not slightly worse than, the PXC 550.
I personally think that if you haven’t listened to headphones that have a wider soundstage than conventional consumer headphones, or if you aren’t familiar with what soundstage and imaging are, you’d be very content with the XM4.
In fact, without A/B testing the XM4 with my Drop Panda, I was rather pleased with what the Sony’s offered. It’s only after A/B testing that I’d become dissatisfied with the soundstage and imaging on the Sony’s. They don’t even come close to the Panda’s.
I’ve briefly talked about the features that the XM4 offers in the section comparing it to the XM3, but I’ll go through some of them here in greater detail.
New to the XM4 are the automatic pausing of music when the headphones are taken off, and speak-to-chat. I found the latter feature to be too sensitive, triggering even when I yawn or cough, and so I disabled it in the app.
One feature that I found extremely useful on the PXC 550 was its transparency mode. Such a feature allows you to listen to your surroundings as though you didn’t have headphones on, usually so that you can have a brief conversation with someone. I typically used it when I was ordering food at a cafe and didn’t want to take my headphones off. This feature is also present on the XM4, though the implementation is slightly different.
On the PXC 550, double tapping the right earcup pauses your music and activates transparency so you can hear your surroundings. Double tapping on the earcup again deactivates transparency and resumes playback.
On the XM4, putting your palm up to the earcup lowers the volume of the music and activates transparency; removing your palm deactivates this mode.
My main issue with this is that music doesn’t pause on the XM4 when using transparency mode. The gesture is also more awkward than on the PXC 550, as you have to keep your palm up to your ear for as long as you’re speaking to the other party. I also found the transparency less natural-sounding than on the PXC 550.
Noise cancelling on the XM4’s are top-notch, blocking out basically everything, even the majority of human voices. They are far superior to my PXC 550, and apparently on par with or better than Bose. It won’t block out discrete, high frequency sounds as much, like the clacking of a keyboard. But once you get some music playing, even those sounds are hardly audible.
The Drop Pandas do not offer any of such smart features or active noise cancelling. They are simply a pair of wireless closed-back planar magnetic headphones with a focus on audio quality.
Pricing & conclusion
- Light, comfortable
- Top-notch active noise cancelling
- Smart features like auto-pausing when taken off head, transparency mode
- Comprehensive companion app with lots of custom settings and EQ
- Able to connect to two devices simultaneously (though sound quality takes a hit)
- Default sound signature is too bass-heavy, but can be fixed via EQ in the Sony Headphones app
- Muddy bass response
- Soundstage and imaging very much “in your head”
- Expensive at official retail price of S$549 (now on sale for S$429)
The comparison between the XM4 and the Drop Panda is a challenging one. For one, they aren’t even the same type of headphones. The Sony’s are active noise cancelling smart travel headphones. The Panda’s are focused on producing the best wireless audio without any of the smart features or active noise cancelling. As such, they are also far less comfortable than the Sony’s.
Secondly, while the Panda’s (US$399) and Sony’s (S$549) cost roughly the same at full retail price, the XM4’s are a lot more common, which means you can find them on sale more often, or get them on sites like Carousell. Right now they’re on sale on Sony’s website for S$429, and I’ve even seen them going brand new on Carousell for less than S$400.
So why did I personally purchase the Panda’s over the XM4 or XM3? Mostly because I already own the PXC 550, which are a similar class of headphone to the Sony’s. I wanted something that was closer to audiophile quality sound, but still wireless. A closed-back, wireless, planar magnetic was unique and hence enticing enough for me to purchase.
But let’s say I don’t own any headphones and I was in the market to get my first pair of wireless headphones. If I’m looking for something brand new, I’d get the XM4’s hands down.
Their default sound signature is horrid, but a non-issue thanks to the EQ on Sony’s app. The active noise cancelling is the best on the market and this makes them a joy to use on long commutes or in a noisy environment like a cafe. They’re also a lot lighter and more comfortable than the Panda’s.
As such, there are just a lot more use cases for the Sony’s compared to the Panda’s. I am willing to sacrifice on some sound quality if it means that I am more likely to use my headphones wherever I go. In fact, the better sound on the Panda’s is almost irrelevant if it means I won’t be able to listen to them properly on my commute or at a noisy coffee shop. The passive noise isolation just doesn’t cut it.
If I could only own one pair of headphones, the Sony WH-1000XM4 would be it. Simply because I’d be able to listen to them anywhere and still have a decently pleasant experience.
But perhaps the ~S$400 price tag is still too steep for you and you don’t mind getting an older headphone model. If so, I recommend checking out the Sony WH-1000XM3, or even the Bose QC35. Those are likely considerably cheaper now and still offer a great noise cancelling experience.
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