The Sony WF-1000XM4 true wireless earbuds are here, and there’s no doubt they are a big improvement over the prior version, the WF-1000XM3. But are they good enough to take down the AirPods Pro as my go-to wireless buds?
While the AirPods Pro are far from perfect — they don’t have the best sound, the best battery life, the best noise-canceling — somehow they became my go-to earbuds. Time to mow the lawn? I grab the AirPods Pro. Zoom meeting coming up? AirPods Pro. But why?
I think it’s because while they aren’t the very best at any one thing, they still do pretty well at just about everything. That is, they are well-rounded and dependable. I’ve got nine other pairs of true wireless buds I really enjoy, but each of those let me down in some way, which is why I keep coming back to the AirPods Pro. But with improved battery life, better noise canceling, and superior sound, do the Sony WF-1000XM4 have what it takes for me to finally shelve the AirPods Pro? Let’s find out.
Form and fit
Let’s start with the most obvious thing, which is the shape of the buds. Since we’re all pretty familiar with the AirPods Pro by now, let’s focus on the Sony XM4. You’ll notice they look like … earbuds! That’s a huge improvement over the previous version, which I always felt were bulky and awkward and looked a little too much like those old-school Bluetooth headsets we used to rock back in the day. So right off the bat, the XM4 are already more competitive with the AirPods Pro than the XM3 were, and in terms of looks alone, I prefer the Sony.
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But now we need to move on to the fit. The AirPods Pro use silicone eartips, and I’ve never had a problem with them fitting in my ear and staying pretty secure. They also provide a respectable seal for me, which is important for sound quality — you get better bass with a good seal — as well as passive noise isolation and active noise canceling.
The XM4, interestingly enough, come with foam eartips only. Now, in my experience, foam eartips provide the best seal for blocking out noise, but they tend to roll off the high frequencies in the sound. So to combat that loss of treble, the earbuds need to be voiced with a little extra treble coming from the drivers inside so it sounds balanced after the foam tips do what they do to the sound. And I’ll definitely get to the sound quality soon.
There’s another aspect to fit that we need to talk about and that has to do with how the bud sits in the ear. With the AirPods Pro, the circular part of the bud is pretty small, so it doesn’t really come into play in terms of how the buds fit and feel. They’re going to be comfortable for just about everyone, save those with super-tiny ears.
In terms of fit, the AirPods Pro take the win.
The Sony XM4 are a bit different in that they are designed to fit snugly in the ears right in the concha — that’s the cavity at the innermost part of the outer ear that funnels to the ear canal. It’s really hard to predict how this is going to work for any given person’s ears because this section of the ear can be big in small ears or small in big ears. So, ultimately, how the Sony XM4 feel is going to be unique from person to person. For that reason, I strongly urge you to try them on if you can, or just buy from a retailer with a solid return policy just in case they don’t feel good to you. Also, the XM4 are bulkier and heavier.
So, in terms of fit, the AirPods Pro take the win — but I still prefer how the Sony XM4 look, and they fit me just fine.
Case and battery life
Now let’s take a look at the case. The XM4’s case got slimmed down significantly from the XM3’s, and it’s more rounded now, which I like. It also supports wireless charging, which was missing from the XM3’s case. Both the XM4 and AirPods Pro cases are easily pocketable, and they both hold the buds securely with magnets. But the case is also there as a battery to recharge the buds, so let’s get into battery life.
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Just a reminder: The AirPods Pro will go for about four-and-a-half hours with ANC on and about five hours with it off before needing a charge in the case, and with the case, you can get about 24 hours total before you need to recharge the whole kit.
The Sony XM4 blow those numbers out of the water. With the XM4, you’ll get about eight hours with ANC on, 12 hours with ANC off, and with the case, you’ll get anywhere from 24 to 36 hours total depending on your noise-canceling usage. Advantage Sony in the battery life department.
ANC and transparency modes
Time to talk about active noise-canceling — or ANC — and on the other end of that, transparency mode. When it comes to noise-canceling, the AirPods Pro and XM4 are very close — so close that I really have to call it a draw. When I cranked up a noisy box fan, the XM4 did a better job of canceling the noise from close proximity while the AirPods Pro did better when I was further away. I got the same experience when using a noisy lawnmower, so for airline flights, I think both buds will work great. Both also did a pretty good job of blocking out voices, street noise, etc. So, either way, I think you’ll be very pleased with the noise-canceling.
The AirPods Pro, however, have a slightly superior transparency mode — they just get a bit closer to the sound of not having earbuds in at all than the Sony manage. Still, the Sony do fine at piping in outside noise, and since this is not a huge category for me, I’m calling it a draw once again.
As for call quality, it’s super close, but the Sony XM4 manage to eke out a win. The clarity of your voice on the other end is about the same between the two, but the XM4 do a better job of canceling out the noise around you and managing wind noise — a bigger problem for folks who like to ride a bike or run while talking. So, in noisy environments, the XM4 are the better option. If you make calls on the street or take Zoom meetings with a lot of folks talking around you, you want the WF-1000XM4.
I’m about to get into sound quality, but before I do, I just want to discuss what I’ll call the “bells and whistles” category — or you could also say, “user features.”
The Sony XM4 are just a more richly featured set of buds. For one thing, the Sony Headphones app provides a lot of control over the sound quality: You can adjust the strength of noise-canceling and there’s pressure compensation, which is great for a more natural feel on flights. Then there’s the auto-transparency mode, which kicks in when the buds detect you speaking, though I should point out that any loud noise will kick in that feature, and it drives me nuts when I’m mowing the lawn and the earbuds go into transparency mode when I very specifically want them to cancel the noise. Fortunately, you can turn that feature off if you want.
Other features include location detection, which aims to adjust the noise-canceling based on where you are and the level of noise in your surroundings. While this sounds cool, I turned it off. When I want noise canceling, I want it full power.
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The app will also help you make sure you get the perfect eartip fit, and it supports Sony’s 360 Reality Audio (360RA) spatial audio format, which is offered by streaming services like Tidal and Amazon Music Unlimited. It even has you take pictures of your ears to optimize the experience.
The Sony XM4 kick the AirPods Pro to the curb in sound quality.
All of those Sony bonuses are fine, but at the end of the day, I think there’s something to be said for simplicity, so I don’t find myself so wooed by all those bells and whistles.
As for hands-free assistant control — the XM4 will let you call up the Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa hands-free, but you need to press a button to call up Siri. On iPhone, though, the XM4 require a button press for any of them. Obviously, the AirPods Pro will let you call up Siri hands-free on an iPhone, and it’s a button press for anything else.
Let’s not mince words here, the Sony XM4 kick the AirPods Pro to the curb in sound quality and, frankly, I’m not surprised. The XM3 did the same. The XM4 have just a little less energy in the high frequencies than the XM3, which I attribute to the foam eartips, but once my ears relaxed into them, I wasn’t aware of it.
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By all measures, the XM4 give you richer, more punchy, and linear bass, transparent midrange for extremely clear vocals, and more high-frequency detail than you get with the AirPods Pro. So if sound quality is the most important thing for you, there’s no question the Sony XM4 are the better pick.
So .. time to answer the question: Are the Sony XM4 good enough to replace the AirPods Pro as my go-to wireless buds? Honestly, this was a tough call. The AirPods Pro are such a great tool. They are just so utilitarian and well-rounded that I never find myself complaining about them. But, on the other hand, the Sony XM4 sound so much better, I like that they call less attention to themselves, the ANC is great, the battery life is much better, and they offer more features than the AirPods do.
In the end, I’m keeping the Sony around, but I don’t know that they’ll replace my AirPods Pro. The AirPods are best for business, while the Sony XM4 are better for pleasure. If I’m working, AirPods Pro; if I’m enjoying myself, it’s the Sony XM4. You could say the two pair up for the perfect mullet of audio. Business up front, and party in the back.