Sony WH-1000XM4 noise-canceling headphones arrive with upgraded ANC & usability

The hotly-anticipated Sony WH-1000XM4 noise-canceling headphones have arrived, an upgrade to the WH-1000XM3 with improvements to sound isolation and usability. Although at first glance they may not look much different to the outgoing headphones, the new WH-1000XM4 pairs Sony's QN1 Noise-Canceling Processor with a new Bluetooth Audio SoC.

That, Sony says, tracks changes in music and ambient noise at more than 700 times per second, and then applies real-time noise cancelation with a new algorithm for the headphones. At the same time, Sony's Edge-AI DSEE Extreme DSP tries to fill in the gaps in your music left by file compression.

It's usability where the WH-1000XM4 look to particularly step forward over the old cans. As before, there's a Quick Attention mode where you can temporarily reduce the ANC by putting your hand over the right earcup. That lowers the music volume of what you're listening to, and pipes ambient noise through from outside if you need to hear an announcement or chat with a colleague.

New, though, is Speak-to-Chat which reacts to speech instead. Start talking, and the WH-1000XM4 recognize your voice and automatically pause playback and allow more ambient sound through. After 30 seconds without speaking, the settings revert to normal.

In total there are five microphones in the headphones, which work with a new Precise Voice Pickup technology for better in-call sound. It's also used to make sure the ANC is only paused in Speak-to-Chat when you're speaking, not people around you. A newly-added proximity sensor inside the left earcup, along with a pair of accelerometers, add wearing detection.

That way, music and ANC are both paused when you take the headphones off, and resume when you put them back on again. Battery life is the same 30 hours with noise cancelation turned on as before, or 38 hours with it turned off. With a USB-C charger, ten minutes plugged in is enough for up to 5 hours of playback.

Another big improvement to an area of WH-1000XM3 annoyance is multiple device pairing support, and how that's handled. The WH-1000XM4 can be paired with two Bluetooth devices simultaneously – your phone and your laptop, for example – and promise to intelligently switch between them as appropriate. If the phone starts ringing, the headphones can automatically switch the connection to them for you to answer.

Alternatively you can use the touch pad on the right earcup to switch between Bluetooth devices manually; that's also where you can swipe to control volume and track skip, and tap to play/pause. A long-tap triggers your phone's voice assistant of choice, such as Siri on iPhone or the Google Assistant on Android. Amazon Alexa and the Google Assistant are also built-in, if you're paired to a device with a data connection.

There's now Bluetooth 5.0, rather than the 4.2 of the old headphones, and you still get a 3.5mm headphone cable for wired use, plus an adapter for older planes that use the double-pin format. Sony puts a hard-sided carry case in the box as well, and the headphones are ever so slightly lighter, at 8.96 ounces versus 8.99 oz.

You're unlikely to notice that – I've been using the WH-1000XM3 since they launched, and I didn't notice any real difference in feel with the WH-1000XM4 in the short amount of time I've had with them. The outer aesthetics are basically the same, too, with slight metallic accents to the exterior microphones and Sony logos. Happily that means comfort hasn't been sacrificed along the way.

While I've not had time to directly compare ANC performance between the old and new versions, I'll be doing that for our full review. My first impressions, though, is that Sony has wisely left alone what didn't need fixing, and focused its attentions on the few rough edges reviewers and owners identified. The Sony WH-1000XM4 go up for preorder today at $349.99, and will ship in mid-August.