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

According to Sony, the new WH-1000XM5 headphones aren’t a replacement for the WH-1000XM4, they are an upgrade. Since both models will exist right next to each other on physical and virtual store shelves, which model should you buy?

With the WH-1000XM5, Sony has promised a number of upgrades, and in our WH-1000XM5 review, we concluded that Sony delivered on those promises. What remains to be discussed is whether the XM5 are worth the added cost on a user-by-user basis. After all, the XM4 have sat at the top of Digital Trends’ best headphones list since the day they came out, and by all measures, they are still stellar headphones. But the XM5 have indeed dethroned the XM4. So, let’s dig in and see if we can figure out which might be the best choice for you.

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 USC charging able 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.

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.

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 is concerned, the practical difference for most users is likely negligible.

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.

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.

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.

The takeaway

If you want the best possible noise canceling, the best call quality you can get with a headphone, 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.

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