If you’ve only just started researching wireless headphones, let me give you the Cliff’s Notes version: Until August 2020, the Sony WH-1000XM3 were the best wireless headphones and the best active noise-canceling (ANC) wireless headphones you could buy.
What changed in August, you ask? Sony debuted the follow-up to the XM3, predictably called the WH-1000XM4. For the same price as the XM3 — $350 — the XM4 comes with a slew of small but meaningful improvements, and they’ve now taken their rightful place at the top of our lists of recommended headphones.
However, the WH-1000XM4 don’t start shipping until the middle of August 2020, so right now (and for an unknown period of time to come) the WH-1000XM3 are still available, and we’re seeing some retailers offering discounts on their remaining inventory.
That means now is the perfect time to put these two super headphones head-to-head so you can decide if it’s better to splurge and get the latest and greatest, or save some cash with the second-best headphones Sony has ever made.
Normally with these head-to-head comparisons, we break the contest down by category and declare a winner for each. But in this case, given that the XM4 are the same or better than the XM3 across the board, we’re simply going to focus on what’s changed, not who won (that’ll be obvious by the end).
Here’s how they stack up.
The WH-1000XM3 debuted in 2018 at $350, and even though they were available for less over the course of their life, those discounts were temporary and Sony never officially dropped the regular price.
The WH-1000XM4 debuted earlier this year at the same price. So you might say that the XM4 are actually cheaper, because inflation doesn’t appear to have had any effect, and Sony has added more features into the bargain.
But wait, aren’t the XM3 heavily discounted right now? Yes and no. Over the days since the XM4 broke cover, we’ve seen the XM3 selling anywhere between its regular $350, all the way down to $248.
You can look the XM3 and XM4 side-by-side all day long and I doubt you’ll find more than a tiny number of barely perceptible changes. That’s because Sony has only tweaked a few things on the XM4.
But the tweaks that were made are significant, with the biggest being comfort. By modifying the shape of the headband and the surface area of the ear cushions by mere fractions, the XM4 are now noticeably more comfortable than the XM3 (which were already very comfy). They feel lighter because the ear cushions are now absorbing more of the headband’s clamping force, but they still feel just as secure.
You may also notice things like a slightly more rubberized matte finish and a minutely thinner headband cushion, but overall, the XM3 and XM4 are visually identical. Even the carry case and accessories (a USB cable, analog cable, and airplane travel adapter) are exactly the same.
Another thing that hasn’t changed is battery life, which is a bit odd because almost every new wireless headphone or true wireless earbuds that have come out lately have boasted improved numbers. Not so with the WH-1000XM4, which maintains the same 30 hours of life with noise-canceling turned on, and 38 hours when it’s off.
ANC has improved from the WH-1000XM3 to the WH-1000XM4, but depending on how and where you use them, you may not notice. Sony claims it’s most apparent in higher-frequency background sounds like people talking. Digital Trends editors who tried them out could notice subtle changes, but nothing that stood out as a “wow.”
What we did notice was an improvement in passive noise cancellation thanks to the more generous contact surface between the ear-cushions and our heads, which in turn should lead to better overall ANC.
But one cool new feature on the XM4 is the ability to engage the headphones’ noise-canceling customization feature from the Custom button (previously labeled ANC/Ambient on the XM3), instead of needing to open the app.
For the WH-1000XM4, Sony has rolled out the latest version of its audio upscaling tech, DSEE, which is now called DSEE Extreme. The company claims that the new algorithms — which it trained in partnership with Sony Music — can now do a better job with high-frequency portions of a compressed song. For example, the sound of high-hat cymbals would be clearer and less distorted.
We were hard-pressed to hear a difference, but even Sony acknowledges it’s a subtle improvement that will likely be more noticeable on some tracks than on others.
Overall, the XM4 sound amazing, just like the XM3.
Bluetooth and special features
The biggest changes to the WH-1000XM4 are in the little details, and trust us when we say that, together, they add up to a much better experience.
The most welcome of these is Bluetooth Multipoint, which lets you keep the XM4 paired with two devices simultaneously (e.g. a phone and a computer). If you’re listening to tunes from the PC and you get a call on your phone, the headphones automatically switch over to the phone for audio so you can answer, and then switch back when the call has ended.
Not everyone feels this a big change, but once you’ve experienced the extra convenience of Bluetooth Multipoint, you won’t want to give it up.
Another big convenience feature: The XM4 have a wear sensor embedded in the left earcup. You can use it to automatically pause your tunes when you slide the headphones off your head, and they’ll restart the moment you put them back on. Sony’s Headphones App lets you decide how long the XM4 should stay in that paused state before automatically shutting down.
You’ve always been able to cover the left earcup on the XM3 to quickly engage listening mode, which momentarily brings ambient sound in while pausing your music, but the XM4 go one higher — the headphones can now enter this mode automatically when you start speaking.
It requires a bit of calibration in the app, but it’s surprisingly accurate as long as you don’t mind the occasional cough or sneeze accidentally triggering the feature.
By now, we’re confident you’ll agree that Sony took everything we loved about the XM3 and made them all slightly better in the XM4. Does this mean you should wait and pay full price for them when they start to ship, or should you grab one of the many deals that will no doubt move the last of the XM3 models off the shelves?
Given how great the XM3 are, we’re inclined to encourage you to grab a deal if you can get it — especially if you can score them for $100 off or more. However, keep in mind that with Black Friday and the rest of the 2020 holiday season rapidly approaching, it wouldn’t be unusual to see similar deals on the XM4 before the end of the year.
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