Headphones offer superb sounds

The Sony WH-1000XM4 can connect to two devices at the same time, and pauses music playback and lets in ambient sound when it detects you are talking.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 can connect to two devices at the same time, and pauses music playback and lets in ambient sound when it detects you are talking.

Sony's WH-1000XM4, successor to the critically acclaimed WH-1000XM3 wireless over-ear headphones, is finally here after a long wait of two years.

In terms of looks, it does not differ much from its predecessor, with a minimalist design, two big ear cups and a cushioned headband. It is available in black and silver (version tested).

The inner part of the ear cups feels larger than its predecessor's, giving my ears more room, while the ear cup padding is soft and comfortable. The headband does not clamp down, allowing me to wear the headphones for long periods of time without discomfort.

At the bottom of the right ear cup are the power button and a custom button for turning on ambient sound or active noise cancellation (ANC), along with a 3.5mm jack. At the bottom of the left ear cup is a USB-C port for charging the headphones.

The exterior of the right ear cup is a touch-sensitive panel. I find the touch controls intuitive - swipe up or down to increase or lower the volume, double tap to play or pause a track, swipe forward to skip to the next track, and swipe backwards to return to the previous track.

On the downside, it does not have a water-resistance rating, so do not wear it for even gym workouts.

In terms of audio quality, the WH-1000XM4 is superb.

On my first try, the bass is punchy and the mids and trebles are sparkling, so I am under the impression the bass boost mode is on.

But when I check the Sony Headphone Connect app (available on Android and iOS), I realise it is on the default flat equaliser (EQ) preset. With the rich and vibrant way details are presented in this EQ mode, classical music and Japanese composer Kitaro's tunes are an audio feast.

The WH-1000XM3 is widely regarded as having the best ANC of its genre. The WH-1000XM4 is just as good in this department. I think it just edges out its closest competitor, Bose's latest Noise Cancelling Headphones 700.

The app offers a noise-cancellation optimiser that analyses sonic characteristics caused by the wearer's head size, glasses and even hair, to tailor the noise cancellation to each user.

The ANC blocks out my "re-creation" of the engine hum inside an airplane cabin - which I simulate with the maximum fan setting of my decade-old air-conditioning unit.

  • FOR

    •Superb audio quality with rich details

    •Industry-leading active noise cancellation

    •Able to connect to two devices concurrently

    •Very comfortable to wear

    •Long battery life

    AGAINST

    •Looks the same as the WH-1000XM3

    •No water resistance

    SPECS

    PRICE: $549

    DRIVERS: 40mm neodymium

    FREQUENCY RESPONSE: 4Hz to 40KHz

    CONNECTIVITY: Bluetooth 5.0, Near Field Communication, 3.5mm

    WEIGHT: 254g

    RATING

    FEATURES: 4/5

    DESIGN: 4.5/5

    PERFORMANCE: 5/5

    BATTERY LIFE: 5/5

    VALUE FOR MONEY: 4/5

    OVERALL: 4.5/5

It also cuts out noise from my neighbour's home-improvement work upstairs. I think I will be able to get hours of good sleep on long-haul flights if I wear it.

The WH-1000XM4 also retains the Adaptive Sound Control feature, which detects the wearer's actions and location and automatically switches the headphones to, say, ambient sound mode. This feature may not be useful for the work-from-home brigade, though.

More useful is its new ability to be connected to two devices at the same time, such as a laptop and a smartphone.

Say you are watching a webinar on your laptop and the phone rings. The headphones will automatically switch from your laptop to smartphone so you can pick up the call.

Not to mention, my callers tell me my voice comes across crystal clear. You can also manually switch between your two paired devices.

Also new is the Speak-to-Chat feature, which automatically pauses music playback and lets in ambient sound when it detects you are talking, so you can have a conversation.

This sounds good if you are in the office, but irritating if you are working from home and want to sing along to the tune you are listening to. However, you can turn off this feature in the app.

In terms of battery life, the WH-1000XM4 is rated at 30 hours with ANC on, much longer than the 20 hours of the Noise Cancelling Headphones 700.

In my test, I find that it has about 80 per cent battery left after six hours of music playback with ANC turned on.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 09, 2020, with the headline 'Headphones offer superb sounds'. Print Edition | Subscribe