Sony WF-1000XM5 vs WF-1000XM4: which noise-cancelling earbuds are best?

It looks as though we have a new contender for the best wireless earbuds. The Sony WF-1000XM5 are here, and as the successor to the Award-winning WF-1000XM4, they are laden with the weight of expectation. But, with better sound quality, improved active noise cancellation (ANC) and a better fit all on the cards, they appear to be a definite improvement.

Which is no mean feat. The XM4 were our favourite wireless earbuds when they launched in 2021; sure, newer rivals might offer slightly better ANC or a more impressive feature set, but the XM4 are still competitive. 

Are their successors the better buy? Or should you stick with the WF-1000XM4 if you can find a pair on the cheap?

Sony WF-1000XM5 vs WF-1000XM4: price

Sony WF-1000xM5 charging case and WF-1000XM4 charging case stacked together

(Image credit: Future)

The Sony WF-1000XM4 launched in 2021 for £250 / $280 / AU$450, but over time they dropped to around £170 / $220 / AU$290, before bottoming out at £155 / $178 / AU$284. However, now they have been succeeded by the XM5 stock has dried up in most retailers so they're becoming very difficult to track down.

The WF-1000XM5 cost £259 / $299 / AU$TBC at launch. That is more than the XM4 launch price, but then that's just the way of things at the moment – everything is getting more expensive, headphones included. The good news is that we've seen prices come down, particularly over sales events such as Amazon Prime Day and Black Friday. We've seen them hit the £209 / $248 / AU$293 and expect them to return to these prices during this year. They might even go lower.

** Winner: (due to lack of XM4 availability) Sony WF-1000XM5 **

Sony WF-1000XM5 vs WF-1000XM4: design and fit

Sony XM5 vs XM4: design and fit

(Image credit: Future)

If you have frequented the What Hi-Fi? website or read the magazine over the past couple of years, you will be familiar with the WF-1000XM4. We like them. A lot. And a big part of that appeal comes from the design.

The earbuds are rounder than their XM3 predecessors, and sit more inside the ear opening. The eartips are different too – they are made from polyurethane (the same as the new WF-1000XM5's), which feels like a cross between silicone and foam, and helps secure a tighter, more stable fit. You get a pair each of small, medium and large tips – whereas the XM5 add a new 'SS' extra small size. 

Struggling for fit? You can pinch the eartips, slide them in and let them expand to fill your ear cavity. An air-tightness test is available through the Sony Headphones Connect app for both pairs of earbuds.

The XM4 have a matt finish compared with the XM5's new glossy look, and both feature small accents of colour around the microphone and sensor holes. Both pairs come in black or silver finishes and both are rated IPX4 splash-resistant.

As well as the new glossy finish (which can make it a bit tricky to get out of the charging case), the WF-1000XM5 are around 25 per cent smaller and 20 per cent lighter than their predecessors. This is hugely welcome, as it not only gives them a less protruding profile, it also makes them more comfortable to wear, especially over longer periods.

** Winner: Sony WF-1000XM5 **

Sony WF-1000XM5 vs WF-1000XM4: features

Sony WF-1000XM5 vs WF-1000XM4: features

(Image credit: Future)

In terms of features, the WF-1000XM5 and WF-1000XM4 have a lot in common.

They both support Sony's 'hi-res' LDAC codec, DSEE Extreme upscaling tech and 360 Reality Audio virtual surround sound. Other features common to both are Adaptive Sound Control (which changes the sound settings based on whether you are walking, sitting, running or travelling by transport), Speak-to-Chat (which detects when you are speaking and pauses playback as well as letting in outside sound so you can have a chat), and Multipoint Connect that lets you pair two Bluetooth devices and switch between them seamlessly. Fast Pair, Swift Pair and voice assistants are also all present and correct.

Battery life remains unchanged (at eight hours on a single charge, plus another 16 hours from the charging case) and both models support Qi wireless charging.

But the WF-1000XM5 bring some extras to play. The new Integrated Processor V2 follows the V1 found in the XM4, and works in lockstep with the HD Noise Cancelling Processor QN2e. This promises "unprecedented" noise-cancellation that adapts to your environment.

The new Dynamic Driver X, provides "wider frequency reproduction, deep bass and clear vocals," says Sony. The brand is particularly keen to stress the improvement in bass frequencies, which was already a strong suit for the XM4.

The Dynamic Driver X's diaphragm structure combines several different materials for the dome and the edge, which helps reduce distortion. The driver size is bigger too: 8.4mm in the XM5 vs the XM4's 6.4mm.

Noise-cancellation has come on a step too, thanks to more microphones. The WF-1000XM5 have three mics on each earbud (compared with the WF-1000XM4's two on each). These six mics promise better noise-cancellation of lower frequencies. In fact, Sony claims this is the firm's "biggest ever step forward in noise cancelling" – check the next section to see if this claim stacks up.

Dynamic head tracking is also new (though it is limited to Sony 360 Reality Audio tracks and only on Android). This automatically adjusts sound fields to compensate for your head movement, just like Apple Spatial Audio. So if you are watching something on your smartphone and you turn away to look out of the window, say, the sound will stay anchored to your phone. This should be especially effective during mobile games that use augmented reality.

And Sony promises the brand's "best ever call quality" thanks to an AI-based noise-reduction algorithm based on Deep Neutral Network (DNN) processing and bone conduction sensors. As on the XM4, the wind-noise reduction structure minimises any noise from a blustery gale. That smaller, slimmer profile of the XM5 catches less wind in practice too, which also helps reduce interfering noise - voices came through clear and detailed when we used them.

** Winner: Sony WF-1000XM5 **

Sony WF-1000XM5 vs WF-1000XM4: noise cancelling

The WF-1000XM4 are excellent noise-cancellers, especially for earbuds. The 'vacuum' feeling isn't for everyone, but you can't deny that it works – it cuts through all kinds of background noise, leaving you isolated to enjoy your music in peace.

But as with most areas, it has come on significantly for the WF-1000XM5. Sony claims the new model cancels 20 per cent more noise than the XM4, and from using them, we can believe it. The addition of an extra mic on each earbud really makes for more effective ANC, especially in the midrange. The effect is more subtle than the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II's ANC too, though if you want hands-down the most world-silencing earbud tech around, opt for the Bose.

** Winner: Sony WF-1000XM5 **

Sony WF-1000XM5 vs WF-1000XM4: sound

Sony WF-1000XM5 vs WF-1000XM4: sound

(Image credit: Future)

All this is great, but headphones live or die by their sound quality. And this is one area where Sony excels.

The WF-1000XM4 used to be top of our best wireless earbuds list for a very good reason: they sound superb. Bass quality and clarity is stunning, while there's loads of detail to feast on.

This clarity might be most impressive with the low end, but it is still in evidence across the frequency range, along with a sense of rhythmic precision that allows the XM4 to switch pace effortlessly.

The WF-1000XM5 sound different. Sony seems to have tweaked the existing sound profile with a bit more focus on analytics. The result is a slightly different beast from the XM4 – a little less fun, maybe, but certainly more hi-fi. (It's worth noting here, that the XM5's sound improves even more once they're fully run in.)

The WF-1000XM5's timing is spot on, as is the bass balance of quantity and quality – there's enough weight to the low-end, but it is wonderfully controlled. Detail levels have been taken up a level, with more texture and definition, and Sony has found a new degree of openness.

Their sound lacks a little richness compared with the XM4, and the lower frequencies aren't quite as full, but the extra detail and control more than make up for it.

** Winner: Sony WF-1000XM5 **

Sony WF-1000XM5 vs WF-1000XM4: verdict

Hats off to Sony – it isn't afraid to tamper with a success story. First it was the over-ear WH-1000XM5, which had a radical redesign after the Award-winning WH-1000XM4. Now the firm has tweaked not only the WF-1000XM5 design but also, seemingly, its sound profile. And it's another win – the WF-1000XM5 sound more analytical and balanced than the WF-1000XM4, with detail levels that put most rivals in the shade.

We also love the XM5's new design and fit, their improved noise-cancellation and new features such as head tracking.

The XM4 are still an awesome pair of wireless earbuds – they are two-time What Hi-Fi? Award winners, after all, but it looks like they've reached the end of their shelf life so it could be tricky to track a pair down. At this point, you might want to consider looking at the Apple AirPods Pro 2 or the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds, which are two of the biggest current rivals for the XM5.


Read the full Sony WF-1000XM5 review

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds vs Sony WF-1000XM5: which are better?

5 sound settings you shouldn't ignore on the Sony WF-1000XM5

Sony WF-1000XM5 vs Apple AirPods Pro 2: which premium earbuds are better?

See what else is available: best true wireless earbuds

Joe Svetlik

Joe has been writing about tech for 17 years, first on staff at T3 magazine, then in a freelance capacity for Stuff, The Sunday Times Travel Magazine, Men's Health, GQ, The Mirror, Trusted Reviews, TechRadar and many more (including What Hi-Fi?). His specialities include all things mobile, headphones and speakers that he can't justifying spending money on.