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Sony WH-1000XM5 vs. XM4: which headphones should you buy?

When it comes to premium headphones, one of the best brands to get your gear from is Sony. From its impressive designs to the company’s dedication to top-shelf sound quality and noise-canceling tech, if you’re buying your cans from Sony, you know you’re in good hands. In fact, two of our favorite pairs of headphones happen to be the Sony WH-1000XM5 and their predecessor, the  Sony WH-1000XM4. For a while, the latter was one of the best sets in town, but ever since Sony put out the XM5 model, the XM4 has had some decent competition.

What’s interesting, though, is that Sony never meant to “replace” the XM4 with the XM5. That being said, if you’re interested in either pair, you’re probably wondering what features set them apart, if those differences are notable, and if it’s worth spending the extra money on the latest XM5s. That’s why we’ve put together this side-by-side comparison of both models to help inform your buying decision.

Packaging, case, accessories

The XM4 come in premium packaging, giving buyers the pride-in-ownership vibe one looks for when spending north of $300 on a piece of tech. While there’s nothing that screams out “I’m not earth-friendly” about the XM4 packaging, the XM5 packaging was clearly designed with sustainability and recyclability front of mind. There isn’t so much as a gram of plastic to be found here, and when you peel off the outer cardboard wrap, what you’re left with is a very plain Jane box that is clearly made of recycled material and is itself recyclable. In the end, when all of this is going to go in a bin anyway, it makes sense to let the function outweigh form.

Sony WH-1000XM5 wireless headphones in travel case.
Sony WH-1000XM5 case. Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

As we examine the headphones’ cases, the differences are pretty obvious. The XM5 case is larger and U-shaped, while the XM4 come in a more compact case. The XM5 case is larger due to the fact that the XM5 don’t collapse down like the XM4 do. This means the XM5 will take up more space in your pack, whether you use the case or not. On the plus side, there are fewer moving parts and the XM5 are easier to stow in their case.

Looking inside the XM5 case, we notice something new and something missing. A new magnetic flap reveals a storage compartment for a USB-A to USB-C charging cable and a 3.5 mm headphone cable. What’s missing is the airline adapter that has traditionally shipped with the XM4 and prior versions. Will this relic of an adapter really be “missed” though? Most airplanes in service no longer use the dual-style jack, if any jack is provided at all.

One final note: The included USB charging cable remains inexplicably short.

Winner: Tie

Design, fit, comfort

Sony WH-1000XM4 seen next to WH-1000XM5.
Sony WH-1000XM4 (from left) and WH-1000XM5. Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Moving on from past accessories, we take a look at the headphones themselves. The XM5 may not fold up like previous models, but they do offer sleeker lines and a fresher look. Too bad the model name didn’t get a similar refresh.

The most noticeable difference, however, is with the XM5’s lighter weight. You can feel the difference by suspending each pair of headphones in your hands. It’s a difference you feel as soon as you put them on your head, and continue to appreciate the longer they are worn.  The new synthetic leather also improves comfort for extended wear. In fact, we think the XM5 are among the most comfortable headphones you can buy. For some folks, this comfort upgrade may be enough of a reason to pay the premium for the XM5.

Winner: WH-1oooXM5

Battery life and charging

The XM5 will still give you about 30 hours of music listening performance with active noise canceling (ANC) engaged (or 20 hours of talk time) — the same as the XM4. However, the XM5’s quick-charge capability is improved. You’ll get three hours of performance from just three minutes of charging, but there is a catch: To get that kind of quick charge, you’ll need a USB Power Delivery-capable charging block. Otherwise, the quick charge is similar to the XM4, which offer about 5 hours of music listening with ANC from 10 minutes of charging.

Where battery life and charging are concerned, the practical difference for most users is likely negligible.

Winner: Tie

ANC performance

Sony WH-1000XM4 seen next to WH-1000XM5.
Sony WH-1000XM4 (from left) and WH-1000XM5. Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

The XM5 have noticeably superior noise-canceling performance compared with the XM4. They cut out more of the high mids and treble frequencies than the XM4. In fact, we think the XM5 offer the best noise-canceling you can get from any consumer headphone on the market, period. The improvement in performance here is credited to the addition of a second audio processor and a doubling of the onboard microphones.

With that improvement noted, it is worth pointing out that the XM4 offer noise-canceling that is more than sufficient for most users. Frankly, with both models, once you start playing movies or music, that’s basically all you’re going to hear. However, if you are just seeking the solace of silence, the XM5 will cut out more of the noise around you, including the cutting treble in a person’s voice or the high-end whish of wind rushing past. In fact, the XM5 are considerably better at dealing with wind.

The XM5 also automatically optimize noise-canceling based on environmental measurements using their onboard microphones, whereas optimization on the XM4 required repeated use of Sony’s headphone app for calibration.

Winner: WH-1oooXM5

Call quality

No question, the XM5 offer far better call quality. If you spend a lot of time on the phone or Zoom calls and you can’t always get to a quiet space, trust that the XM5 will basically erase any background noise going on. Barking dogs, a jackhammer, the bustle of baristas in a coffee shop – no noise is a match for the XM5, which will make you sound like you are alone in a room all by yourself, even if you are in the middle of a construction zone. Yes, they really are that good.

As for the voice quality itself? Well, you aren’t going to record a podcast with these — they aren’t that good — but for phone calls and video meetings, they do the trick nicely. Only the AirPods Max offer better voice fidelity in this price range.

Winner: WH-1oooXM5

Sound quality

Simon Cohen wears the Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones.
Sony WH-1000XM5. Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Given that sound quality is a very subjective matter, we feel the XM5 sound a bit better than the XM4, though the differences are nuanced. The most obvious difference in sound quality is in the bass performance, where the XM5 sound a bit more “refined.” This is not to say the XM5 have significantly less bass, but they are a bit less bass-forward than the XM4, with slightly less punch in the mid-bass.

If you are in the camp of the bigger the bass, the better, then we think you’d prefer the XM4. If you like a little more balance, but still plenty of bass, the XM5 may be more your bag. Otherwise, the soundstage, instrumental separation, and overall timbre between the XM5 and XM4 are so close that they are hardly worth mentioning.

Winner: Tie, as it depends on your preference

Extra features

Sony WH-1000XM5 wireless headphones hanging on a wall hook.
Sony WH-1000XM5 Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Both the XM5 and XM4 models offer some unique add-ons that may not get as much attention as some of the headphones’ calling card features. For instance, did you know that both the XM5 and XM4 support Bluetooth Multipoint? By default, this feature is actually disabled, but you can turn it on using the Sony Headphones Connect app (for iOS and Android devices). When you open the app, head to the System tab and switch on the toggle that says Connect to two devices simultaneously.

You’ll also be able to use the Headphones Connect app to automatically calibrate noise cancellation and ambient listening based on your location. It’s a feature called Adaptive Noise Cancellation, and it’s available on both the XM5 and XM4. Oh, and we can’t forget the awesome Quick Attention Mode (also available on both models). When you place your hand over either set of headphones’ right ear cup, whatever music or podcast you’re listening to will automatically lower and the onboard mics will allow environmental sound to trickle in.

Winner: Tie

The takeaway

If you want the best possible noise canceling, the best call quality you can get with a pair of headphones, and the most comfortable full-featured cans available, then the XM5 are the ticket. However, if your needs are less demanding or specific, the  XM4 are the better value overall and remain one of the best sets of full-featured cans you can buy. It’s just that … the XM5 are next-level insanely good.

Overall Winner: WH-1oooXM5

Editors' Recommendations

Michael Bizzaco
Michael Bizzaco has been writing about and working with consumer tech for well over a decade, writing about everything from…
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