Sony WF-1000XM4: Is this series still the go-to for high-tech True Wireless?

Sony's high-tech true wireless earbuds carved out its own niche and looks impossible to dislodge.

by Justin Choo

Short answer: yes.

Long answer: yes, but if you have the XM3, it’s not a major upgrade unless you like the new sound profile.

For the benefit of those who aren’t familiar with earphones, Sony’s vaunted WH and WF series of headphones and in-ears (respectively) are popular among casuals and enthusiasts alike and are often go-to recommendations if you don’t mind spending a little more.

Casual listeners like them because they are easily accessible and offer a lot of features and performance for the money. Enthusiasts like them because they strike the perfect balance between audio quality and the day-to-day experience. Context – it’s one thing to offer a great audio experience, but not many companies can add software features that aren’t (too) buggy unless they have a big development team. The fact that Sony can do both is a rarity.

The XM3 was (and still is) a great pair of in-ears, and the XM4 is designed to fill in the missing gaps. It’s no simple update, as the shell redesign suggests. They could well have renamed the entire series as it looks nothing like its predecessor. And as first impressions go, the XM4 is a far more polished pair of in-ears. The matte finish is top-notch and looks considerably more luxe than the flagship it replaces, which comes across as more of a tech gadget than a lifestyle device.

The XM4 comes housed in a considerably smaller case, and yet they’ve managed to enable wireless charging. Lest you think that they’ve compromised the battery life, the XM4 does slightly better overall in day to day use. On average, I can coax about an hour or so more of listening, give or take.

And it’s not just the case that’s smaller as well. Whereas the XM3 presents itself very distinctly when you wear them, the XM4 is more subdued, sporting a rounded profile that sits a little more discreetly in your ear, gold trim notwithstanding. It’s not actually smaller; it just sticks out less. I find it way more comfortable, and it’s so much easier to get a snug fit. I’d take this for a light workout without hesitation as soon as I stop putting it of till tomorrow (I did try, so it can work, but your mileage may vary, etc). That’s because it’s water-resistant as well, but in all honesty, outside of a light jog, it makes more sense to wear cheaper earbuds for these things. Why take the risk?

The snug fit is thanks in part to the new foam tip material, which is some form of polyurethane. It’s tough enough to hold its shape and soft enough to conform to your ear without being uncomfortable, and overall provides decent sound isolation and transmits the sound well. The downside is the foam seems to be a little fragile and I can see it’s cracking up a little already after a short period of use. But it’s a small issue since there’s a wealth of third party aftermarket solutions should you need an alternative.

On top of having a distinctly different physical profile, the XM4 sounds like a different headset as well. It’s this bit that might be a little more polarising. Fans of the XM3 profile may not take too kindly to the change, and I can see the appeal in the slightly more even-sounding profile of the XM3. But personally, the XM4 is objectively better in terms of audio quality and the detail it can render. The low end is where it shines especially and you’ll be surprised by how a mainstream offering can be as expressive and detailed as this. The XM4 is worth the effort to tweak to taste if you don’t take a shine to it straight out of the box.

Whether you’re relying on a higher resolution source material and running it through an LDAC connection or just Sony’s DSEEE Extreme processing (which frankly does a decent job), the expansiveness of the audio is night and day. For whatever reason, it doesn’t support aptX HD. Sony has chosen to only support its proprietary codec, which limits sources to specialised Digital Audio Players and mobile phones, and (surprisingly) Chinese mobile phones like Xiaomi and Huawei. In other words, more often than not, the data is transmitted via SBC or AAC.

While not ideal, the listening experience isn’t as compromised as you think it would be. This might feel like an affront to those looking for an audiophile-level solution with all the pleasantries of an everyday consumer device but in all honesty, the reality is that you usually have to jump through hoops to utilise the most advanced codecs and whether the result is worth the hassle is somewhat debatable. The XM4 demonstrates that clever engineering can make SBC transmissions sound like a million bucks – in most cases, we’re listening to these things while rushing from point A to point B, and we’ll lose the nuances anyway. Couple this with the fact that many portable audiophile solutions in the low hundreds are of the standard that you’d rather go down the wired route if audio quality is the primary concern.

But back to the XM4. A big part of why you shell out the money, for one, lies in the amenities. The hard truth is that you might not find many of these features useful. They are rather clever, though not entirely foolproof. Right from the moment you pick it out of its case, you are inundated with tech galore. The XM4 will check if the fit is snug enough for noise isolation to ensure that you’re using the correct-sized foam. Adaptive Sound Control switches optimal listening settings according to whether you are moving or where you are (location-wise). If I’m honest, I’m more comfortable doing it myself. And since I can’t be bothered to keep changing the settings… I tend to not bother at all in the end. For those who value privacy, the fact that you give the app access to your location might be an immediate no bueno.

I find features like Speak-to-Chat more useful, even if there’s a slight lag and sometimes can be triggered by an innocuous cough or something of that nature. But more importantly it works way more often than not, but your mileage may vary, of course. Other quality of life enhancements include Google Fast Pair and Swift Pair for Windows machines.

If I’m honest, I’m quite ambivalent to many of these fancy features, but I can see why some may find one of the features useful; that is why the XM4 stands alone. The fact that they’re even there at all – my word, there are more than a few of them – and they work well enough, speaks volumes. There’s bound to be something you’d like. And who knows, over time you might find yourself using all of them.

The WF-1000XM4 isn’t the most expensive true wireless in-ears out there, as offerings from the likes of Bowers & Wilkins and Master & Dynamic dwarf even the XM4 in terms of price. But we’re treading into luxury territory here, so they have to be assessed a little differently: in most cases, you don’t need to offer a kaleidoscope of features as long as you can deliver a luxurious listening experience.

But at the $400 mark, there’s pretty much only the Bose QuietComfort, B&O E8, and perhaps the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless. As decent as the rest are, the Sony is pretty much the strongest all-rounder in the pack. While I believe the Sony has the edge in terms of sound, I’d still advise that you pick whichever you enjoy listening to most – because ultimately we all have different tastes – and not to worry about the rest of the features. But if I had to recommend blind, there’s only one winner, and still the reigning champion…


Sony WF-1000XM4

Features – 9/10
Value Proposition – 8/10
Performance – 9/10
Design & Build Quality – _/10

This is prime example of Sony playing to their strengths: strong audio performance and paired with more tech than you can handle.

*Since we’re talking about Sony earbuds – Sony is currently running a promotion with Decathlon whereby you stand a chance to win a $15 Decathlon Gift Voucher. If you do buy a pair of XM4s or any other Sony earbuds, then post a photo of them in Instagram and tag #sonysg_earbuds and one of the following: #sgfitness, #sgig, #singaporefoodie, or #studentlife. Multiple entries are allowed and winners will be selected at random and notified via Direct Message.