The five-star Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones are some of the best noise-cancelling headphones we've ever tested. But, they launched in 2018 and were replaced by the WH-1000XM4 in 2021. The XM4 has even been superseded by the brilliant WH-1000XM5 but they do cost significantly more. This leaves us with the question is there much mileage in the older, cheaper models and if so, which one gets our vote?
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.
Sony WH-1000XM3 vs Sony WH-1000XM4: price
The WH-1000XM3 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. Despite being quite long in the tooth, in December 2022 we've seen pairs with significant savings, but it does appear as though stock is quite limited.
The WH-1000XM4 launched in August 2020. They might look similar to the XM3 but they contain a host of high-tech upgrades, and debuted at the slightly higher price of £350 ($350, AU$380). Now that the WH-1000XM5 are on sale, there are plenty of discounts to be had.
By contrast, the most recent Sony model on the market is the WH-1000XM5 which launched in May 2022 for £380 / $399 / AU$649
**Winner** Sony WH-1000XM3 (if you can find them)
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Sony WH-1000XM3 vs Sony WH-1000XM4: battery life
It's a dead heat when it comes to overall battery life. Both the XM3 and XM4 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 XM3 or XM4.
So there's nothing to separate them, then? Not quite. The XM4 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.
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Sony WH-1000XM3 vs Sony WH-1000XM4: design and comfort
You might think the newer pair of Sony noise-cancelling headphones would sport a revolutionary design but that's not the case here. The XM4 look almost identical to their predecessors, though they're one gram lighter than the XM3 (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
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Sony WH-1000XM3 vs Sony WH-1000XM4: features
Despite noting the subtle upgrades, you're probably still asking yourself why you'd pay extra for the XM4. Well, here's one reason: they feature Sony's very latest audio processor – the DSEE Extreme.
The older XM3 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 XM4 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 XM3, detects your activity and adjusts the ambient sound settings to suit. However, the XM4 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 XM3 only connect to one device at a time, the XM4 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 XM4 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 XM4 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
So both headphones offer sensational noise-cancelling, and both feature 40mm drivers – but what about serious audio ability? Are the XM4 worth the extra money? In word, yes, and here's why...
Like the XM3, the XM4 feature an analogue amplifier combined with a DAC, which delivers a rich, natural sound. Indeed, the XM3 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 XM4 take sound quality to another level, producing a wider soundstage and uncovering even more layers of detail than the XM3.
Both the XM3 and XM4 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 for the WH-1000XM4 headphones or go with the older model? As we've mentioned before, both models can be had with large discounts but the fact of the matter is there seems to be more stock around of the WH-1000XM4.
When Sony created the XM3, 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 XM4 are a clear improvement over the XM3 across the board and although no longer the best noise-cancelling headphones (thanks, in the main to the WH-1000XM5) there still seems to be plenty of life left in the model.
Read our Sony WH-1000XM4 review
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