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Sony WH-1000XM4 Review (noise cancelling headphone)

amirm

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#1
This is a review and detailed measurements of the Sony WH-1000XM4 noise cancelling, closed back headphone. It was kindly purchased by a member from Amazon and drop shipped to me. It costs US $278 including Prime shipping.

It comes in three colors; this one is black:
Sony WH-1000XM4 review noise cancelling headphone bluetooth.jpg


I like the feel of the unit. Seems high quality. The detents in the slide mechanism is not strong so adjusting it was a bit of a pain.

This headphone has 1000 features which I won't be covering here but as a quick example, has a proximity sensor in one of the cups so it can shut itself off when you take it off your head.

There is a cord to use it hardwired without the unit being on but as you will see, the story here is complex.

These are the dimensions:
Sony WH-1000XM4 review noise cancelling headphone bluetooth dimensions.jpg


Note: The measurements you are about to see are preformed using standardized GRAS 45CA headphone measurement fixture. Headphone measurements require more interpretation than speaker tests and have more of a requirement for subjective testing as a result. In addition, comparison of measurements between different people doing it using different configurations requires fair bit of skill. So don't look for matching results. Focus on high level picture. Listening tests are performed using RME ADI-2 DAC and its headphone output.

Fitting the WH-1000XM4 on the measurement fixture was very challenging. Slightest movement and variation would make a large change in response. I got lucky in that all of a sudden, both channels locked together indicating at least balanced mounting. So that is what I ran with. I suggest you look at the high level picture per above even more than usual.

Sony WH-1000XM4 Measurements
As usual, let's start with the WH-1000MX4 frequency response in passive mode (electronics turned off):
Sony WH-1000XM4 Measurements Frequency Response When Off.png


Ouch, ouch, ouch! What on earth is that huge hump between 100 and 200 Hz? That, combined with the large dip between 2 and 3 kHz is going to make this sound muffled and unpleasant.

Switching the unit on causes massive transformation for the better:
Sony WH-1000XM4 Measurements Noise Cancellation Frequency Response When On.png


Levels shifted way up and I forgot to compensate for it. So imagine the curve is pulled down a few dB. Then you see that the bass response is more or less is following the preference target. We still have a peak around 800 Hz to deal with and the same dip around 2 kHz but we are much closer to where we need to be.

I guess this confirms that Sony knows the response is broken without DSP and left it that way assuming (correctly) that most people will use this with noise cancellation on. And if Sony can fix the bass with EQ, so can we!

From here on, I am going to show the passive performance until we get to listening tests. Here is our relative response:
Sony WH-1000XM4 Measurements relative Frequency Response When Off.png


Can you say deeply colored? I knew you could. We have whopping 24 dB deviation from our target. No matter which way you skin this, and how much inaccuracy you want to read into the measurements, this is way off any kind of proper frequency response. Pretty sure this is the worse we have seen so far in any headphone.

Distortion is present but at low levels, it should be OK:

Sony WH-1000XM4 Measurements relative distortion When Off.png


Sony WH-1000XM4 Measurements distortion When Off.png


Impedance is both low and variable:
Sony WH-1000XM4 Measurements Impedance.png


As noted, the moment you turn on the headphone, it becomes a different animal because then you are feeding the input of the ADC and the internal amplifier is then driving the headphone. Sadly, because the internal amp is battery powered, it is anemic and can severely distort if you turn it up way . The headphone is efficient though so not a concern in everyday listening.

Efficiency is quite high which is good:
Most sensitive bluetooth headphone review.png


Finally, group delay tells us something is amiss in the response that is causing that large peak in upper bass:

Sony WH-1000XM4 Measurements group delay.png


Sony WH-1000XM4 Listening and Equalization
One listen to the headphone off and you would want to put it down. It is just so unpleasant as far as tonality. I can't even describe it in words. So let's not suffer too much and apply EQ to fix what ails it:

Sony WH-1000XM4 equalization eq When Off.png


You can see the large amount of correction I had to apply to it. It took it though and it started to sound quite "normal" and pleasant. I could listen to it for hours this way.

As I noted earlier, I did not have level compensated measurements for when noise cancelling is on. Fortunately as it is, the sound is fairly good. Gone is the recessed and cluster phobic sound of when the unit is off. As such my equalization is slight:

Sony WH-1000XM4 equalization eq When On Noise Cancellation.png


As I noted in the measurement section though, distortion increases at higher levels so I would personally opt to use the passive with EQ when at the desk.

Speaking of noise cancellation, I did a quick test of that (not set up yet for formal, objective tests). As usual, these headphones rely on "belts and suspenders" principle by isolating noise passively as much as they can and then use noise cancellation. I used my very noisy Audio Precision analyzer as stimulus. Just wearing the headphone with it off, it got rid of 80% of the noise. What was left was naturally lower frequencies that are harder to filter. Once I turned on NC, it zeroed that noise out like it never was there.

Note that the active mode had no effect on non-repetitive noise sources such as my wife working downstairs, doing dishes, etc.

Conclusions
The Sony WH-1000MX4 is a highly flawed headphone in passive mode. It would get one of the worst scores in my book in that mode. It simply is not listenable. Noise Cancellation thankfully improves on that so much that you could use it without further EQ. Unfortunately you are then limited by the power ability of the internal headphone amp so know that it won't get ear bleeding loud. Equalization cleaned up the response of passive mode substantially so if you have that available, then you are in good shape.

Overall, I am going to recommend the Sony WH-1000MX4 if you apply equalization. Without it, the active mode would barely get a nod from me as well.

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As always, questions, comments, recommendations, etc. are welcome.

Any donations are much appreciated using: https://www.audiosciencereview.com/forum/index.php?threads/how-to-support-audio-science-review.8150/
 

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sweetchaos

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#2
For Equalizer APO users:
Preamp: -3.0 dB
Filter 1: ON PK Fc 170 Hz Gain -3.0 dB Q 1.0
Filter 2: ON PK Fc 803 Hz Gain -3.8 dB Q 3.0
Filter 3: ON PK Fc 2200 Hz Gain 3.0 dB Q 2.0
Filter 4: ON HS Fc 5300 Hz Gain -2.0 dB Q 1.0
For more info, see List of Amir's Headphone PEQ filters.
 

Doodski

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#4
Note that the active mode had no effect on non-repetitive noise sources such as my wife working downstairs, doing dishes, etc.
Do all noise cancelling headphones work this way or do some cancel everything including non-repetitive noises?
 
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amirm

amirm

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Thread Starter #5
Do all noise cancelling headphones work this way or do some cancel everything including non-repetitive noises?
They should all work this way.
 

typericey

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#6
Sigh, too bad as the WH-1000MX are one of the best if not SOTA for ANC. What other choices do we have for ANC headphones?

FWIW, I liked my version 2's. I knew they were colored but at least back then they gave me peace and quiet in airports and planes and they didn't sound "bad."
 
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amirm

amirm

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Thread Starter #7
I need to test the Bose and Beats to see how bad they are. Hopefully someone will send them in.
 

Billy Budapest

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#10
Sigh, too bad as the WH-1000MX are one of the best if not SOTA for ANC. What other choices do we have for ANC headphones?
If you want to spend the dough, there is the new AirPod Max which is said to be as good as the Sony at ANC. And if you check the iFixit teardown, you can see all the engineering that went into them, perhaps justifying the price. The hinges are as over engineered as Cold War military hardware.
 
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#11
Why sony ALWAYS tend to twist the sound of prodoucts, though every one knows the problem doesn't lie in research and development capability.
 

fieldcar

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#13
Hmmm. The FR looks kind of horrific. I think I'll just avoid anything noise cancelling for a few years and stick to my etymotics with their 35-40dB of noise isolation.
 

sweetchaos

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#14
For Canadians...

Well, that wasn't easy...but I went through my list of 100+ headphone resellers/dealers and found 49 Canadian links.
Normally CDN$500, but it now on sale for CDN$430 (14% drop) on swiftronics.ca
But was CDN$350 on amazon.ca btw Nov22,2020-Jan7,2021.
Updated my post. :)

Also, it's currently US$278, which is CDN$353, but Canadians are paying CDN$500 (+42% markup)? :oops:
 
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Gatordaddy

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#15
They should all work this way.
FWIW that hasn't been my experience at all with the newer noise cancelling headphones. The Sonys work well enough that i can't wear them if i'm on radio because i'll never hear evidence of chatter.

Sony's app doesn't have that granular of an EQ but I really like that it saves the settings on the headphone's dsp which then applies the same eq for all sources. It gives enough shaping options that i find their sound to be pretty serviceable.

AKG's N700NC noise cancelling headphones sound a lot better out of the box but are heavier and less comfortable. They're quite a deal at current street prices though.
 

Doodski

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#16
Why sony ALWAYS tend to twist the sound of prodoucts, though every one knows the problem doesn't lie in research and development capability.
I can remember the better cassette Walkman headphones that had the over-head-arch and they sounded pretty good compared to anything Sony offers now for cel tels and Walkmans. Sony is a different company in consumer electronics. Sony sets the markup for retailers at about 27-32% which is low comparatively speaking and as we know Sony has hoarded proprietary formats that could have been world best sellers but never came to fruition. Sony is a profit driven corporation/franchise in Canada and delivers product accordingly. Not sure about now but up to ~the early 2000's Sony was a gold standard in service.
 

RickSanchez

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#17
I think Sony and other manufacturers are taking ANC headphones the way of AVRs: sound is important but the focus is on features + compatibility. I own a pair of the older, less capable Sony's -- the WH-H900N. Similar to the WH-1000XM4's reviewed here the marketing push is centered around the feature set:
  • Voice assistant
  • Bluetooth codec support
  • Battery life
  • Simplicity of controls. Amir mentioned how these pause when you take them off your head. You can also place one hand over the right ear cup and it will drop the sound and allow more ambient noise in. Nice feature when you're at an airport and need to hear an announcement.
  • The Sony mobile app for EQ. (You can do presets or custom.)
 

Alice of Old Vincennes

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#19
If you want to spend the dough, there is the new AirPod Max which is said to be as good as the Sony at ANC. And if you check the iFixit teardown, you can see all the engineering that went into them, perhaps justifying the price. The hinges are as over engineered as Cold War military hardware.
Apple Fan Boy. Apple should sell over engineered to military. They won't even have to raise the price.
 
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