Sony WH-1000XM3 vs Sony WH-1000XM4: which are better?

Sony WH-1000XM3 vs Sony WH-1000XM4: which is better?
(Image credit: Sony)

The five-star Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones are some of the best noise-cancelling headphones we've ever tested. But, they are now a few years old and have been replaced by the WH-1000XM4 model launched last year. The obvious question here is should you grab the older pair at a discount or splash out on the fresher model? 

We've run the rule over both pairs of five-star wireless headphones to see how they compare in terms of sound quality, battery life, features, price and overall performance. That way, you can make the right choice at the checkout.

Right, let's get down to business and assess the strengths and weaknesses of the Sony WH-1000XM3 vs WH-1000XM4...

Sony WH-1000XM3 vs Sony WH-1000XM4: price

Sony WH-1000XM3 vs Sony WH-1000XM4: which is better?

(Image credit: sony)

The WH-1000XM3s launched in May 2018, replacing the XM2s. Their premium features and high-quality design saw them debut at £330 ($350, AU$500) but prices have since dropped considerably. You should be able to pick up a pair for under £250 (we've listed the best XM3 deals below). 

The brand new WH-1000XM4s launched in August 2020. They might look similar to the XM3s but they contain a host of high-tech upgrades, and debuted at the slightly higher price of £350 ($350, AU$380). With a bit of luck, you might be able to score a discount below.

Given that the XM3s have stood the test of time, they're now a bit of a bargain. But should you splash out the extra £100 for the new XM4s? Read on and we'll help you figure that out.

**Winner** Sony WH-1000XM3

Sony WH-1000XM3 vs Sony WH-1000XM4: battery life

Sony WH-1000XM3 vs Sony WH-1000XM4: which is better?

(Image credit: Sony)

It's a dead heat when it comes to overall battery life. Both the XM3s and XM4s last around 30 hours with noise-cancelling switched on, or around 38 hours with the tech switched off. Both have USB-C charging too.

Stepping out in a hurry? A 10-minute quick-charge will give you five hours of playtime, whether you opt for the XM3s or XM4s. 

So there's nothing to separate them, then? Not quite. The XM4s feature Wearing Detection, which automatically pauses the music when you take them off. It's a feature we've seen on some rival noise-cancellers and could help prolong battery life.

**Winner** Draw

Sony WH-1000XM3 vs Sony WH-1000XM4: design and comfort

Sony WH-1000XM3 vs Sony WH-1000XM4: which is better?

(Image credit: Sony)

You might think that a brand new pair of Sony noise-cancelling headphones would sport a revolutionary design but that's not the case here. The XM4s look almost identical to their predecessors, though they're one gram lighter than the XM3s (255g vs 254g). Some of the gapping around certain sections of the headphones has shrunk to improve comfort and reduce sound leakage.

You might also spot that the XM4's earpads are 10% larger than the XM3's, although both models offer suitably thick, soft cushioning that makes for a high level of comfort. In fact, we'd consider both headphones some of the comfiest noise-cancellers around.

Both are available in black or silver finishes.

*Winner** Sony WH-1000XM4

Sony WH-1000XM3 vs Sony WH-1000XM4: features

Sony WH-1000XM3 vs Sony WH-1000XM4: which is better?

(Image credit: Sony)

Despite noting the subtle upgrades, you're probably still asking yourself why you'd pay extra for the XM4s. Well, here's one reason: they feature Sony's very latest audio processor – the DSEE Extreme. 

The older XM3s feature the DSEE HX chip, which upscales compressed audio files such as MP3 to hi-res quality in real-time. The newer DSEE Extreme does that too, but it adds Sony's Edge-AI artificial intelligence to the mix, which claims to allow for a more accurate sound from these files too.

Both headphones feature Sony's excellent noise-cancelling, which shuts out the world with impressive efficiency, but the XM4s go the extra mile. They use a new algorithm and new Bluetooth System on Chip to analyse outside noise in even greater detail.

Adaptive Sound Control, a feature on XM3s, detects your activity and adjusts the ambient sound settings to suit. However, the XM4s have a more intelligent version of the tech that can learn to recognise locations you frequently visit and tweak the sound accordingly.  

The XM4 are more convenient to use, too. While the XM3s only connect to one device at a time, the XM4s can connect to two devices – such as your laptop and phone – simultaneously. It may sound like a subtle difference but it can make your life a whole lot easier.

Both headphones use the same control systems – a touch-sensitive panel on the ear cup and your chosen voice assistant (Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant). You can also hold your hand over the cup to activate Quick Attention mode, which lowers the music volume so you can have a conversation without removing your headphones. Handy when ordering a coffee or speaking to a flight attendant.

But, again, the XM4s have a few more tricks up their sleeve. You get a new Speak to Chat feature that recognises your voice and automatically lowers the volume, plus improved call quality thanks to Precise Voice Pick-Up technology.

All in all, both headphones offer an exceptional package of features and great all-round noise-cancelling performance, making them perfect for office, commutes and long-haul jaunts. But the XM4s serve up some fantastic improvements that boost their sonic ability beyond what the older model is capable of.  

**Winner** Sony WH-1000XM4

Sony WH-1000XM3 vs Sony WH-1000XM4: sound quality

Sony WH-1000XM3 vs Sony WH-1000XM4: sound quality

(Image credit: Sony)

So both headphones offer sensational noise-cancelling, and both feature 40mm drivers – but what about serious audio ability? Are the XM4s worth the extra money? In word, yes, and here's why... 

Like the XM3s, the XM4s feature an analogue amplifier combined with a DAC, which delivers a rich, natural sound. Indeed, the XM3s have picked up back-to-back What Hi-Fi Awards since their launch in 2018. They're a fabulously engaging and emotive listen.

However, the XM4s take sound quality to a new level, producing a wider soundstage and uncovering even more layers of detail than the XM3s.

Both the XM3s and XM4s are five-star performers but in our WH-1000XM4 review, we noted that their "power, punch and sense of poise" make their forebears sound a touch unrefined in comparison.

**Winner** Sony WH-1000XM4

Sony WH-1000XM3 vs Sony WH-1000XM4: verdict

So, should you pay full price for the WH-1000XM4 headphones when you could pick up the old model at a hefty discount? The choice is yours and it really comes down to your budget.

When Sony created the XM3s, it got the recipe spot on. At the time, they were as close to a perfect pair of noise-cancellers as one could find. Today, they're still great all-rounders and a superb buy for the money.

That being said, the XM4s are a clear improvement over the XM3s across the board and are arguably the best noise-cancelling headphones you can buy right now. If you can afford to increase that budget, you won't be disappointed.


Read our Sony WH-1000XM4 review

Check out our list of the best wireless headphones

Then score the best headphones deals

What Hi-Fi?, founded in 1976, is the world's leading independent guide to buying and owning hi-fi and home entertainment products. Our comprehensive tests help you buy the very best for your money, with our advice sections giving you step-by-step information on how to get even more from your music and movies. Everything is tested by our dedicated team of in-house reviewers in our custom-built test rooms in London, Reading and Bath. Our coveted five-star rating and Awards are recognised all over the world as the ultimate seal of approval, so you can buy with absolute confidence.

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