Over the last several months I’ve had the pleasure of auditioning a wide range of earphones, ranging from consumer friendly options through to models promising greater audio fidelity and increased functionality. After recently listening to Sony’s excellent LinkBuds S, which borrows significantly from higher-end models, I was most intrigued to see what a jump up to one of their flagship devices would bring. Do the Sony WF-1000XM4 earphones live up to their stellar reputation and make the extra investment worth it? Read on to find out!

Specifications of Sony WF-1000XM4 earphones

  • Weight: 1.45oz
  • Frequency response: 20Hz-20,000Hz (44.1 sampling) / 20Hz-40,000Hz (LDAC @ 990kb/s)
  • Neodymium magnet 6mm drivers
  • Battery life: 8hrs (NC on) / 12hrs (NC off)
  • Bluetooth formats: SBC, AAC, LDAC
  • Noise cancelling: Yes (with ambient sound mode and quick attention settings)
  • DSEE enhancement

Unboxing the Sony WF-1000XM4 earphones

Like with some of their other models Sony has taken a very pragmatic path for their packaging, eschewing fancy boxes-in-boxes and instead focusing on simply protecting the premium device contained within. For the WF-1000XM4 a simple clamshell wrapped in colour paper holds within the case a charging cable, documentation, and replacement earpads. Instead of wowing with initial unboxing experiences Sony is letting the earphones be the central focus. I applaud this ethos.

The earbuds themselves seem beefier and more robust than previous models, but I was pleased to see that they don’t feel overly hefty or fatiguing inside the ears. The charging case is delineated with a gold Sony logo, matching the same colour accent that rings one of the microphone elements. It’s classy, understated, and above all, thoroughly functional. Once again, high marks for keeping the eyes on the prize.

Where other earbuds tend to use a rubber ear pad the WF-1000XM4 use memory foam inserts, with differing sizes on offer to allow you to tweak. The Sony app even has a “fit test”, essentially using the microphones to check for audio leakage. It’s a great feature, and for these the default medium fit perfectly well without ever slipping out.

Setting up the Sony WF-1000XM4 earphones

Having learned my lessons on previous models my configuration of the WF-1000XM4 was a breeze. For those on Android that wish to achieve the best sound quality via the LDAC codec the trick is to select the option to “prioritize sound quality” which unlocks the option when connecting via Bluetooth. Unfortunately iPhone users cannot employ this transmission format, but testing using standard AAC and SBC codes still proved to be satisfactory for all but the most critical listening sessions.

There are robust equalization settings that can be employed, and while there’s a very slight bass bump in the native sound signature of the earphones I found the default voicing perfect for most things I actively listen to. If you’re slamming your head with very deep electronic bass tracks on a regular basis you may wish to tame, and setting custom EQ did nothing to degrade the general fidelity of the sound.

I continue to be impressed with Sony’s active noise cancellation implementation, and it remains just about the only models where I tend to engage the mode. While other brands tend to colour the sound dramatically when ANC is employed there’s essentially no difference between on and off, a remarkable achievement. The memory foam earpads are of course more comfortable than the normal rubber ones, but in turn they tend to let certain frequencies leak through in loud environments. I’ve already had a couple cross-continental flights using these earbuds and was extremely pleased with how they obviated the rumble of the engines or the caterwauling of infants without needing to crank the tunes.

The sound signature of the Sony WF-1000XM4 earphones

Sony WF-1000XM4 earphonesSimply put, the Sony WF-1000XM4 earphones sound exceptional. Clear, articulate mids, deep bass when required without ever sounding bloated, and clear highs without appearing brittle or harsh. From subtle orchestral scores to the deep throb of Hans Zimmer’s score for Dune, they provide a wide soundstage with significant sonic impact. As with all self-amplified earphones you’re limited as to how loud these will go, relying upon the built-in limitations that wired headphones do not suffer from.

While most contemporary music is mastered with much higher peak volumes and significant compression to make things shine next to the neighbour streamed track, more “audiophile” oriented mixes, particularly using acoustic instruments, are a real killer for most in-ear models. The WF-1000XM4s were robust enough to provide enough detail even at 80pct volume, bringing out the subtleties of recordings buried by lesser models. In direct comparison to my reference pair of professional In Ear Monitors, these earphones absolutely held their weight, with a retail price less than half of what my other set cost. It’s a tribute to not only advances in amplification, DSP, and material construction over the last few years, but also a further reminder of the incredible legacy that Sony engineers have developed over the decades.

Directly contrasted with my experience of the LinkBuds S, it’s clear that my enthusiasm for that other model was warranted. This WF-1000XM4 higher-end model certainly provides a greater experience, allowing you to dive deeper into certain tracks and focus on the most subtle of musical elements but the LinkBuds S clearly do benefit from the DNA of their older sibling. It’s a tough choice to make between the two models, and the lightness and comfort fit of the LinkBuds S is not to be underestimated, with the WF-1000XM4s a bit heavier and slightly more cumbersome to have in-ear. I’m privileged to be able to select from both of these models during those long flights when the batteries needed to be recharged in the case. Switching immediately back and forth, sometimes mid-track, was quite revealing. The difference is clear, yet I was extremely pleased that the timbre and overall sound signature was extremely complimentary. While I found myself prioritizing the 1000XM4s whenever I could, both models prove in real world use to be particularly excellent.

Why should you choose to upgrade to the Sony WF-1000XM4?

True wireless earphones are all the rage, and selecting from the myriad of models is no easy task. The Sony WF-1000XM4 have earned a terrific reputation, and being able to give them a thorough test drive has proven that the hype is well earned.

There remain certain inherent limitations with any of these models, including codec support between different devices, the need to separately charge from your device, and even the lifespan concerns where inevitably the battery will give up the ghost after many years, where a quality pair of wired In-Ear Monitors could last a lifetime. Bluetooth transmission is still limited compared to true high-resolution audio, and even with LDAC, you’re getting a level of compression that wired devices simply do not suffer from.

Given all of this, why would one choose such a premium product for listening on the go? My feeling is simple—often it’s during these long trips or commutes where you have the time locked away from other distractions to fully immerse yourself into the music. Yes, there is a ceiling of how much sound data is being sent to the internal amplification, yet with the WF-1000XM4 you’re essentially wringing out the maximum of what can be accomplished over current wireless protocols. For some this may be overkill, of course, but I believe these models in fact provide a perfect balance between the convenience of wireless operation with the absolute minimum of sonic sacrifice. For any streaming platform these are ideal, and even for high resolution WAV, FLAC, or DSD files they performed extraordinarily well.

Final thoughts

WF-1000XM4 provides extraordinary sound in a small package, providing the convenience of on-the-go listening while fully immersing you in the music. It’s easy to see why this model is beloved by many, and if you have the opportunity to grab a pair for yourself you’ll be treated to class leading performance that will not disappoint. Beautifully engineered, easy to use and operate, the WF-1000XM4 earphones have quickly become my daily drivers, encouraging me to leave my clunkier reference In-Ear Monitors at home in favour of the Sony models. Thanks to their powerful drivers and form fitting factor I have enjoyed listening for hours and hours with this model, and given just how robust and well constructed they appear to be I plan to do so well into the future.

The Sony WF-1000XM4 earphones are available at Best Buy along with a range of high- quality truly wireless headphones.

Jason Gorber
Jason Gorber, M.A., is a film, technology, and media journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He is the managing editor and chief film critic at That Shelf and a regular contributor to POV Magazine, SlashFilm, and CBC Radio. Jason has been a Tomatometer-approved critic for over 20 years, is an avid collector of music, movies, LEGO and many other aesthetic and technical treats.