It has been a couple of years since the Sony WF-1000XM3 entered the marketplace, and we liked it for its sound quality and intuitive design. With the newly released Sony WF-1000XM4 test results in, we asked: is it worth upgrading, or should you take advantage of the WF-1000XM3 price drop?
Editor’s note: this post was updated on November 29, 2021, to update the frequency response charts and sound quality, as well as add mic poll results, and add a section on alternatives.
Sibling rivalry with the Sony WF-1000XM3 and WF-1000XM4
There is a clear generation gap between the Sony WF-1000XM3 and its younger sibling, the WF-1000XM4, but the resemblance is obvious. On paper, both earphones have a lot in common, but the WF-1000XM4 basically takes all the features of the XM3 and improves upon them, albeit at a premium cost.
The WF-1000XM4 is smaller and fits better. The WF-1000XM3 is no slouch, and the touch controls competently work, but the aesthetic design is comparably dated. The older earbuds are also significantly larger, with a sort of exaggerated pill shape. This design is typical of other noise cancelling true wireless earphones, like the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds.
Related: What makes a good set of in-ears?
In a gesture of environmental tokenism, Sony ships the WF-1000XM4 in recycled packaging. The Bluetooth 5.2 support and newly added LDAC codec to the roster ought to please those looking for high-bitrate streaming. The buds come in a slick capsule-like charging case providing around 24 hours of charge between the earphones and the case charges.
The WF-1000XM3 (can we please get better names, Sony?) arrives in a white glossy box that looks par for the course in the earphones market. You can recycle it. You get the older (but still good) Bluetooth 5.0 connection and only AAC and SBC codecs. The case is bigger, but not large, and it’s easy to scratch.
Most of the controls are on the right earbud of the WF-1000XM4, with the left dedicated to ANC modes. Both models work very well, but the newer WF-1000XM4 is less clunky, without costing any functionality.
A case for better cases
Much like the race of flip phones to get smaller in the 2000s, true wireless earphone cases seem to get easier and easier to lose. Unless you have those trousers with fake pockets, both the WF-1000XM3 and XM4 cases will fit in your pocket. The case for the WF-1000XM3 is a bit of scratch-magnet, and while the copper lid is attractive, stash it away in a bag or pocket and it’ll accrue scars. Sony switched to the decidedly more stealthy, single-color matte plastic case for the WF-1000XM4. It’s pretty resistant to fingerprints and scratches—a thoughtful improvement.
Related: The best true wireless earbuds
Take the WF-1000XM4 to the gym
This one is simple: if you plan on sweating or live somewhere humid, the WF-1000XM4 is your best bet. Because the WF-1000XM3 has no IP rating, we can’t recommend it for activity involving moisture. The IPX4 rating on the WF-1000XM4 is an improvement on no rating, but it’s still just sweat-resistant—you can’t submerge any of these earbuds in water. With that said, it’s nice to know you’re not going to destroy your premium earbuds just because it’s a hot day or you had an intense workout. Just make sure you’ve sorted out your fit prior to going for a run, because they’re little enough to lose if they fall out.
Does the Sony WF-1000XM4 or WF-1000XM3 have better noise cancelling?
Noise cancelling technology is best at combating low, droning frequencies, and the WF-1000XM3 was pretty good at that when it was released in 2019, but the WF-1000XM4 is better across the board. In lower registers, the WF-1000XM4 comprehensively attenuates approximately between 5-25dB of noise. The older iteration meanwhile struggles to attenuate more than 5dB in the bass frequencies.
On the WF-1000XM4 you can cycle through the ANC modes, including ambient sound, by tapping the left earbud. The Speak to Chat feature is particularly useful when someone needs to ask a quick question, automatically turning on audio passthrough when someone starts talking, so you can have a conversation without having to hit pause or remove the earbuds. That said, we all know you’re polite and will remove the earphones for long conversations, right? It’s no contest, and the WF-1000XM4 is the clear winner here.
Remember that noise cancellation and isolation are two sides of the same coin. A good, isolating fit that seals to your ear canal is the easiest way to reduce how much external noise you hear. The included foam ear tips with the WF-1000XM4 are great for this—if you compress them and then let them reinflate to fit the shape of your ear, you’ll get a super secure fit.
The Sony WF-1000XM3’s large selection of ear tips offers a different flavor of the same principle, in silicone and a less conforming foam. This improved isolation makes a difference before even testing out the active noise cancelling (ANC) between the models, as isolation is better at reducing the volume of high pitched and incidental clangs than ANC.
Does the Sony WF-1000XM4 or Sony WF-1000XM3 have better Bluetooth codec support?
While Apple devices still use the AAC codec for wireless audio, an area where it’s a tie between both Sony earbuds, Android users get to access Sony’s high-bitrate LDAC codec with the WF-1000XM4. The lossy SBC codec is the best option with the WF-1000XM3 for Android due to the unreliable ways different devices handle AAC. In the battle for superior audio quality, this one goes to the new guy in town.
What is Sony 360 Reality Audio and DSEE?
There’s more to the story, however. Both sets of earphones provide Sony’s 360 Reality Audio and some form of digital sound enhancement engine (DSEE). This makes them both better than your average earphones because 360 Reality Audio creates a greater spatial surround sound experience—mind you, it’s limited to Tidal, Deezer, and Amazon Music HD.
Learn more: Understanding Bluetooth codecs
DSEE is Sony’s workaround to upscale lossy audio to high resolution. The WF-1000xm3 has DSEE HX and the WF-1000XM4 has the upgraded, DSEE Extreme. The difference is hard to notice for most people, but DSEE is helpful for lossy streaming in either case. It uses an algorithm to contextually predict and add missing frequencies to lossy audio files.
Will you get more battery out of the Sony WF-1000XM4 or WF-1000XM3?
The Achilles’ heel of any true wireless earphone is its battery life. Batteries have come a long way, but constant recharging is always going to reduce lifespan, which is why besides convenience it’s good to have a long-lasting battery onboard. The WF-1000XM3 works for 4 hours, 46 minutes in our testing, and the new WF-1000XM4 manages 7 hours, 43 minutes.
The WF-1000XM4 case provides at least two extra charges, totaling about 24 hours of power. It charges via USB-C, as does the WF-1000XM3. The WF-1000XM4 can also charge wirelessly with a Qi pad. The case for the WF-1000XM3 provides three additional charges, but remember the XM3 has a significantly shorter battery life overall, yielding around 19 hours total including the buds.
Powering features line ANC and DSEE takes a lot of juice. Part of the improved battery life on the WF-1000XM4 is Sony’s implementation of Bluetooth 5.2, which is kinder to batteries than previous Bluetooth versions, and the Sony V1 processor, which uses less energy for basic functions. Bluetooth 5.2 also has the potential to support LE Audio down the line, perhaps in a firmware update, though Sony has yet to confirm this.
Does the Sony WF-1000XM4 or Sony WF-1000XM3 sound better?
At a glance, the frequency responses of the Sony WF-1000XM3 and XM4 are somewhat similar, with a bass boost and mids that are relatively quiet compared to the bass. The Sony WF-1000XM4 more drastically tapers down in volume in the upper registers than the XM3. This under-emphasized treble response can make it difficult for you to hear higher-pitched harmonics.
The Sony WF-1000XM3, however, has a different problem in that the amplified bass notes can mask the more under-emphasized 400-2000Hz range. Again, making it hard to hear vocals and popular string instruments like the acoustic guitar. Otherwise, the highs more closely follow our target curve. Though imperfect, these are generally consumer-friendly frequency responses, but they’re also not set in stone.
Using the Sony Headphones Connect you can adjust your EQ to suit your tastes. On the WF-1000XM4 you can even use our house frequency response curve as a guide: turn down the lower mids and bass a touch so they don’t mask treble notes. If you’re spending the money, you might as well use the app’s feature to improve on the template.
Both earbuds are compatible with the Headphones Connect app, available on iOS and Android, and you’ll need to download it to get the best sound out of either.
Which pair of earbuds is best for phone calls?
Sony added a feature to detect and boost the frequencies your voice is in when you’re speaking into the mic on the WF-1000XM4. However, as of November 19, 2021, 74% of respondents prefer the WF-1000XM3 microphone. Both models have useable microphones, but it’s a weak spot in both generations, especially compared to a company like Jabra, for instance. What do you think?
Sony WF-1000XM4 microphone demo
Sony WF-1000XM3 microphone demo
Sony WF-1000XM4 vs Sony WF-1000XM3: Which is the best?
In virtually every category the Sony WF-1000XM4 beats out the WF-1000XM3, except price and microphone. If you don’t need excellent ANC and you’re using an Apple iPhone (so you don’t have a use for the LDAC codec), save money and buy the WF-1000XM3, which can be found for as much as 50% less money. It offers a lot at that price point.
On the other hand, here you are reading about premium true wireless earphones, and the Sony WF-1000XM4 is superb. You get some very good ANC, improved battery life, a more durable case, and an overall better product that renders high-bitrate audio. Price aside, without hesitation, the Sony WF-1000XM4 is the best.
What should you get instead?
If you own an Apple iPhone the noise cancelling AirPods Pro is an obvious, but warranted, choice. It gives access to Spatial Audio and has the H1 chip for fast and consistent connection. These AirPods, unlike the unsealed AirPods (3rd gen), comes equipped with ear tips to ensure you get a good fit.
For Android users, you can try something like the Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro which competes with Sony with its own ANC and its own surround sound. Specifically, the Samsung Scalable Codec works similarly to the LDAC for folks in the Samsung ecosystem. It also offers automatic device switching between other Samsung devices. Keep in mind that Sony is decidedly more device agnostic, should you decide to trade allegiances. However, the price of the Galaxy Buds Pro is very competitive, especially compared to the WF-1000XM4.