• Sony's latest high-end pair of noise-cancelling headphones: the Sony WH-1000XM4. Sony
  • They come in silver or black. Sony
  • They look very similar to their predecessor. Sony
  • See what we mean? This is their predecessor, 2018's WH-1000XM3. Jeff Dunn
  • Sony says it has improved the noise-cancelling strength this time around and added a few new smart features. Sony
  • This new "Custom" button controls the headphone's noise cancelling and ambient sound modes and can be used to activate Google Assistant and Alexa, though you'll have to toy around in Sony's companion app to get that set up. Sony
  • They still fold up for more compact storage. Sony
  • A look at their included carrying case. Sony

Sony on Thursday announced its latest flagship pair of wireless noise-cancelling headphones: the WH-1000XM4. The new over-ear cans are the follow-up to Sony's WH-1000XM3, which have been widely regarded as being among the best premium pairs of noise-cancelling headphones on the market—and have been an Ars favorite—since launching in 2018.

The XM4 is available for pre-order starting today, with shipping to start sometime in "mid-August," according to Sony. The headphones cost $350, which is the same price as the XM3 at launch and Bose's competing QuietComfort 35 II, but $50 less than Bose's Noise Cancelling Headphones 700.

I've had the XM4 on hand for the past couple of days; I plan to have a more detailed comparison in the near future, but for now I can share some initial impressions alongside today's news.

A similar look

In general, the idea behind the XM4 is one of refinement more than radical reinvention. The design is nearly identical to its predecessor: we're still looking at a largely handsome design with a plastic yet sturdy and smooth finish, which is available in black or silver with copper accents. The earcups still fold up for easy storage, there's still a USB-C port for charging, and the device can still work over an included 3.5mm cable in a pinch. There's still a set of touch-based controls on the right earcup instead of physical playback buttons.

Sony says it has made some slight design tweaks to accommodate more head and ear sizes, though: the headband is slightly less padded but also a tinge wider, while the earpads are said to have a 10-percent larger surface area. Comfort was not a general area of concern with the XM3, and so far I've had no major complaints wearing the XM4 for extended periods. They still aren't as light as something like Bose's QuietComfort 35 II, but there's enough cushioning and space here to feel agreeable for hours at a time. At the same time, they still provide a just-firm-enough seal to keep too much outside noise from seeping in.

Updated ANC and noise processing

Though the active noise cancellation (ANC) on the XM3 was close to best in class, Sony says it has improved upon the tech with the XM4. The company claims that the headphones use a new Bluetooth audio SoC—it didn't specify which—and an updated algorithm for its own QN1 noise-cancelling chip to update and process noise cancelling in real time. According to Sony, this should make the XM4 slightly better at muting out low-end frequencies such as in airplane cabins or on rumbling trains but also provide more noticeable gains in mid- and higher-end frequencies, where most human voices and everyday noise reside.

I haven't been able to truly stress test this claim yet—a global pandemic isn't the most accommodating setting for such matters—but I can say that the ANC quality here is still deeply impressive, almost totally wiping out the droning of a busy air conditioner even without any music playing. If nothing else, it doesn't appear to be a downgrade from before. No noise-cancelling headphone can truly mute everything, and that won't change here, but any progress toward negating those higher-end noises would be a good thing.

Beyond that, the XM4 still features an "ambient sound" mode that does a reasonably good job of blending in outside noise without overwhelming your music completely, just in case you want to be better aware of your surroundings. Its strength is still adjustable on a 20-point scale found within Sony's companion app, and the mode can still be activated through a button on the headphones themselves. On the XM3, that button simply swapped between ANC, ambient sound, and a standard audio mode. Here, it has been replaced with a "Custom" button that can also be set to activate either the Google Assistant or Alexa voice assistant, both of which have built-in support. There's still no option to manually adjust the strength of the ANC, though, which is a key feature offered by Bose's Noise Cancelling Headphones 700.

Perhaps the most useful new feature I've used thus far is something Sony calls "Speak to Chat." After setting it up in Sony's companion app, the feature lets the XM4 automatically pause your music and amp up the ambient sound setting once it detects your voice. This is highly convenient for those brief conversations that come up when you're in the middle of something—instead of having to take the headphones off or fumbling with any pause buttons, you can simply speak when you need to, then either double-tap the right earcup or wait 15 seconds to start back up whatever you were listening to. The feature can be turned on and off at any time through the companion app or by holding your hand over the earcup for several seconds.

That comes in addition to "Quick Attention" mode found on the XM3, which lets you hold your hand over that earcup to momentarily lower the volume and let in ambient noise for things like flight attendant announcements.

Sony has also introduced a new "Adaptive Sound Control" feature that leans more heavily into location tracking and "smart headphone" functionality. This is another setting controlled in Sony's companion app. Essentially, it lets you program different audio settings—ambient sound strength, EQ settings, ANC and Speak to Chat activation—based on your activity level and current location, the latter being new to the XM4. You could set the headphones to automatically mute everything once it recognizes you're sitting down, for instance, or have it ramp up the ambient sound and turn on Speak to Chat when you're near a Starbucks and want to pick up a coffee without pausing your music. You can manually mark locations for different pre-sets within the app, and Sony says the headphones will automatically recognize frequently visited locations over time. Thankfully, all of this is completely optional for those who don't want their headphones constantly tracking their location. But it's there for those who want a more hands-free experience with headphones designed for travel.

Audio changes, battery life, and other features

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