Sony WH-1000XM4 vs Sony WF-1000XM3: can the new noise-cancelling headphones beat the class-leading in-ears?

sony wh-1000xm4
The Sony WH-1000XM4 Wireless Headphones. (Image credit: Sony)
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When it comes to the best noise-cancelling headphones, it’s been hard to beat Sony in recent times. Its WH-1000XM3 offered superior ambient noise reduction, smart hardware controls and a comfortable fit – not to mention cracking sound – with premium functionality that, while not cheap, certainly didn’t break the bank in the way other high-end headphones can do. 

Its true wireless earbuds, the WF-1000XM3 buds were similarly impressive, offering tight sound, a good fit and great noise cancellation for the form factor.

But no tech reign can last forever. Thankfully for Sony, the key competition to the WH-1000XM3 headphones comes from their own successors, the Sony WH-1000XM4. Making key improvements to the existing product specs, while adding some all-new features and flair, they’re certainly superior to the WH-1000XM3s. 

However, does that mean they’re worth an upgrade if you’ve already got a pair of WH-1000XM3s? And what if you’re not a fan of the over-ear style, and prefer the freedom of in-ear headphones

Read on to better understand the key distinctions between the WH-1000XM4 and the WH-1000XM3, beyond their obvious form-factor differences.

sony wh-1000xm4

(Image credit: Sony)

What’s good about the Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones?

Improved noise cancellation: The noise cancelling techniques used on the WH-1000XM3 headphones were already very powerful at keeping the outside world away from your tunes. But it’s even better with the WH-1000XM4, thanks to a revised algorithm that’s capable of analyzing and tweaking the sound profile up to 700 times a second. This is particularly well tuned for sounds in the midrange – the hum of an engine or whirr of a fan, for instance.

Comfortable fit: Lighter than their predecessors, the WH-1000XM4 headphones are comfortable to use over extended listening sessions. Clamping to your head without being overly tight, their weight is well distributed, with thinner earcups that allow heat to dissipate more freely.

Excellent sound quality: Though the 40mm drivers haven’t changed over the WH-1000XM3 cans, that’s no bad thing for the WH-1000XM4 follow up. This is a warm and detailed-sounding pair of headphones that does justice to a wide range of music styles – particularly if you’re making use of high-resolution audio formats, or Sony’s 360 Reality Audio options. It’s here where the WH-1000XM4 truly has the edge over the WF-1000XM3, which just can’t compete with the added space the over-ear format affords.

Speak-to-Chat: The Sony WH-1000XM4 cans feature an all-new, intelligent speech recognition mode that pauses your music when it hears you speaking, and activates ambient passthrough audio. It means you can have a conversation without taking the headphones off, with a short delay after you stop speaking before the audio kicks back in. It’s great – but thankfully it’s an optional feature, as habitual singers will notice that having a sing-along will cause the headphones to pause too, annoyingly.

Location-aware noise cancelling: If you opt-in to Sony keeping tabs on your movements, the headphones do a great job of tweaking the noise-cancelling settings based on your location. So, you can have a different noise-cancelling profile in the office (perhaps allowing more voice sound to come in), from your completely silenced home profile. It’ll switch on the fly, and is very useful.

Multipoint connectivity: Tired of having to jump between multiple devices you want to connect to? The WH-1000XM4 has a feature that lets you keep two devices connected to your headphones simultaneously. If you’ve got more than two devices you’d like to connect, it remembers them all, and will try to pick the next available device when it becomes available – for instance, connecting to your phone and laptop during the day, and dropping the laptop when it’s switched off in the evening in favor of your tablet device.

Sony WF-1000XM3

The Sony WF-1000XM3 true wireless earbuds. (Image credit: Steve May)

What’s good about the Sony WF-1000XM3 headphones?

Small, lightweight form factor: Sometimes, it’s just not practical to have a large, chunky pair of over-ear headphones on. True wireless earbuds like the Sony WF-1000XM3 keep you completely free of cables, while featuring only discreet inserts for your ears to deliver the tunes. Paired with a small and portable charging case, they’re usually far better suited for everyday activities than over-ears, which are better suited for stable and static listening sessions. You’ll feel more comfortable on-the-go with the Sony WF-1000XM3.

Solid battery life: 32 hours of battery life (that’s with the buds and case combined), isn’t quite class leading, but it is very respectable. And it’s a couple of hours longer than you can expect to squeeze out of the over-ears, making them a good traveling companion if you’re expecting to be away from a power outlet for an extended period of time.

More exercise-friendly: We love the WH-1000XM4, but we wouldn’t recommend exercising in them – the over-ear design and headband just isn’t practical for a sweaty, bumpy workout session. While the WF-1000XM3 aren't explicitly designed as a workout companion (we wouldn’t trust the locking mechanism on vigorous outside run, for instance), they’d see you through a session on the machines at a gym quite comfortably.

Excellent sound and noise cancelling for earbuds: Now, it’s unfair to put a pair of true wireless earbuds up against the dramatically bigger drivers of dedicated over-ear headphones. And while the WF-1000XM3 does not support the higher-resolution LDAC standard seen in the WH-1000XM4 (nor the aptX HD you’d find in other true wireless headphones), they are still admirable performers. Sound quality is detailed, bass is tight, and noise cancelling performance is among the best we’ve seen from in ears.

Verdict

Choosing between the Sony WH-1000XM4 and the Sony WF-1000XM3 is more of a lifestyle choice than a product comparison in many ways. They’re both at the top of their game in their respective headphone fields, and neither purchase will disappoint.

If audio quality is of paramount importance to you, then it’s an easy choice – with its superior drivers and noise cancelling, the Sony WH-1000XM4 has a luscious sound and premium finish. All its extra connected features and smart controls are just the icing on the cake.

But if you’re the on-the-go type, or feel a bit claustrophobic with a pair of cans attached to your head, the WF-1000XM3 buds are far more portable, and offer great audio performance for the form factor.

What may be more of a deciding factor is price. Slightly aging now, the WF-1000XM3 (depending on your territory and associated currency) can regularly be found at close to half the price of the WH-1000XM4. If money is a big sticking point, you can’t go far wrong with Sony’s in-ears.

Gerald is Editor-in-Chief of iMore.com. Previously he was the Executive Editor for TechRadar, taking care of the site's home cinema, gaming, smart home, entertainment and audio output. He loves gaming, but don't expect him to play with you unless your console is hooked up to a 4K HDR screen and a 7.1 surround system. Before TechRadar, Gerald was Editor of Gizmodo UK. He is also the author of 'Get Technology: Upgrade Your Future', published by Aurum Press.