The true wireless earbuds market is hotting up. The Sony WF-1000XM4 have arrived, packed with useful tech and boasting excellent sound quality. It's difficult to look past them as the kings of the current crop.
Of course, Sony isn't the only game in town when it comes to this type of product and we know of one rival pair that brings quite a lot to the party too. Apple might not have invented the category, but its AirPods brought it into the mainstream. And its top of the range earbuds, the AirPods Pro, have a lot going for them.
So which is the better buy – the Sony WF-1000XM4 or AirPods Pro? Let's run down the specifications, talk about performance and see which are the best wireless earbuds.
Sony WF-1000XM4 vs Apple AirPods Pro: price
Apple's AirPods Pro cost £249 ($249, AU$399). They've been around for more than 18 months now, so there are a few deals around. Check out our round-up of the best AirPods deals to see if you can bag a bargain.
The WF-1000XM4 come in at a near identical £250 ($280, AU$500, €280), but don't hold your breath for any deals. These are brand new, so no one's going to be discounting them any time soon. You might get lucky during a big sale like Black Friday or Cyber Monday but even then you're far more likely to pick up a deal on an older pair of headphones.
**Winner* Apple AirPods Pro
Sony WF-1000XM4 vs Apple AirPods Pro: battery life
You don't need to be out for long periods to appreciate decent battery life. Lots of small trips will still drain your earbuds' battery, and getting stuck without tunes even for half an hour can be a bugbear.
The AirPods Pro last five hours before needing juicing up, while the case will give you just shy of four full charges, making for a total battery life of 24 hours. That's matched by the Sony WF-1000XM4 – but the Sonys have a crucial advantage: they last eight hours before needing a recharge. Which could make all the difference.
Charge the AirPods Pro in the case for just five minutes and you'll get an hour's use – a figure that's again matched by the XM4. It's close then, but the XM4 just edge it.
**Winner** Sony WF-1000XM4
Sony WF-1000XM4 vs Apple AirPods Pro: design
The first thing that strikes you about the WF-1000XM4 is the look. Gone is the distinctive 'squashed pill' look of the XM3, replaced by a more conventional, more rounded design.
It's not exactly original, as we've seen it on many true wireless earbuds before, including the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2, Panasonic RZ-S500W and recently announced Google Pixel Buds A-Series, to name but three. But it obviously works, and it means the XM4 can be small and unobtrusive.
The AirPods Pro retain the signature Apple look, complete with stems, which people either love or hate. They come only in white, which isn't as attractive as the two colour options offered by Sony. But they are comfortable to wear and stay in place well thanks to the interchangeable eartips.
Sony WF-1000XM4 vs Apple AirPods Pro: features
Now we get to the heart of the matter. What can the earbuds actually do?
Quite a lot, in both cases. The Sony WF-1000XM4 are primarily noise-cancelling earbuds, powered by Sony's new Integrated Processor V1 chip. But you also have a lot of other features and listening modes to explore. Ambient Sound allows in a bit more outside noise to make you more aware of your surroundings, while Quick Attention lets you hold a conversation without having to pause your music or take the earbuds out.
If you do take an earbud out, your music automatically pauses. Pop it back in, and it restarts. Touch controls on the outer surface of each bud allow for volume/playback control, voice assistant activation, and switching between different listening modes.
The V1 also supports Sony's LDAC codec, which means you can listen to hi-res music up to 32-bit/96kHz over Bluetooth at up to 990kbps. The V1 also includes Sony's DSEE Extreme processing which upscales music files to near hi-res quality.
The eartips are designed to maximise noise isolation, and the earbuds are IPX4 water-resistant so they can survive splashes and sweat. The accompanying Sony Headphones Connect app even includes a tutorial to get the best fit. To improve call quality, Sony's Automatic Wind Noise Reduction helps maintain clarity in tough conditions. This, combined with Precise Voice Pickup technology makes hands-free calls sound good on the WF-1000XM4.
The Sonys also boast a speak-to-chat feature where the earbuds recognise when you're speaking, pause your music and let in outside sounds, so you can have a conversation. Stop talking, and the buds will resume playback.
Adaptive Sound Control detects what you're doing – walking or running, for example – and adjusts the sound accordingly. It can also learn to recognise the ambience of places you frequent regularly, such as a gym or cafe, and tailor the sound to fit the situation.
The WF-1000XM4 include wireless charging, and you can also charge up the carry case by touching it against the back of a compatible smartphone, such as the Sony Xperia 1 III when the battery share feature is activated.
They are compatible with Google's Fast Pair feature for fuss-free pairing with an Android device, too. More of a Microsoft fan? Its Swift Pair feature is also supported, for quick pairing to Windows 10 devices.
That's quite the feature set. But the AirPods Pro are no slouch, either.
They too have noise cancelling, and will help you find the perfect fit using the Ear Tip Fit Test on your iPhone. There's also a Transparency mode for letting in outside sounds, and the whole experience is powered by the same H1 chip as the second-gen AirPods. This means a rock-solid wireless connection with no drop-outs, as well as super-easy pairing with a mobile device.
They can automatically switch between your Apple devices, and they support Apple's Spatial Audio, which adds virtualisation of Dolby Digital 5.1, 7.1 and Dolby Atmos soundtracks. Through the AirPods Pro, this feature doesn't hit the same, cinematic heights as it does via the AirPods Max, and app support is patchy (Apple TV and Disney+ do; Netflix and Amazon Prime Video do not), but it's impressive with the right content (try the opening of Gravity if you want to give it a go).
The H1 chip also allows Apple's voice assistant to be invoked by the 'Hey Siri' command, although it can also be activated by a pinch of one of the stems. One disappointment is that Siri is the only method for adjusting volume without reaching into your pocket for your phone's controls. Thankfully, you don't have this problem with the Sonys.
An impressive showing from both sides, then. But because the AirPods Pro will reach their full potential only for users of Apple devices, this round goes to Sony.
**Winner** Sony WF-1000XM4
Sony WF-1000XM4 vs Apple AirPods Pro: noise-cancelling
At the heart of the Sony WF-1000XM4's noise-cancelling is the Integrated Processor V1. The 6mm driver unit also helps – its large magnet-volume means improved performance when it comes to producing and cancelling out in low frequencies.
The earbud tips are made from a unique polyurethane foam material that compresses to fit in your ear and then expands to fill any gaps. Not only does it make for great noise isolation, but it also ensures a secure fit too.
The XM4's noise-cancelling is among the best at this price, which makes it among the best available from any true wireless earbuds. In fact, you'll struggle to find better noise-cancelling for the money.
The AirPods Pro's noise-cancelling is mighty impressive, too. Each Pro has two microphones: one on the outside to detect incoming noise that can be cancelled by anti-noise, and one on the inside that detects any noise that makes it through the seal and also analyses how your music is responding to the individual geometry of your ear.
What’s most impressive is that the noise-cancelling is continuously adjusted 200 times per second. Apple claimed at launch that these were the only headphones to take this approach, but that's now been matched by Apple's own AirPods Max on-ears.
The good news is that the noise-cancelling is effective. Constant noises such as the racket on a train are more or less eradicated, while less predictable sounds such as office chatter are reduced to a whisper. And, as promised, there’s no sense of the air being sucked out of your ears when you engage the noise-cancelling.
**Winner** Sony WF-1000XM4
Sony WF-1000XM4 vs Apple AirPods Pro: sound
So how do the Sony and Apple pairs compare in the sound department?
First, you'll be blown away by the quality of bass on offer from the Sonys. There's so much detail, and notes sound so clear that it makes rival headphones sound congested in comparison. They are a big step up from their predecessors (the WF-1000XM3) in this department, and that's saying something.
But it's not all about the bass. The Sonys sound beautifully balanced and natural in their approach to any music you care to send their way. The sense of refinement through the frequency range is something to behold.
The Apple AirPods Pro also favour clarity and a neutral tonal balance rather than lots of weighty bass. Every note is carefully considered and nicely controlled. They also serve up a good sense of spaciousness that's rare to get in in-ear headphones.
We did notice, though, that the performance does alter slightly when noise-cancelling is switched on. We notice that, with it off, you get a slightly tonally richer and rhythmically crisper sound, which some might prefer.
But the bottom line is that the AirPods Pro can't match the performance of the Sony WF-1000XM4, which perform at a whole other level, especially when it comes to detail and musicality.
**Winner** Sony WF-1000XM4
Sony WF-1000XM4 vs Apple AirPods Pro: verdict
At the end of the day, it's a comfortable victory for the Sony WF-1000XM4. We already preferred the XM3 over the AirPods Pro in terms of all-round ability, and the XM4 make improvements across the board. So really, it's a no-brainer.
The AirPods Pro are still a good bet, especially if you're a fan of the Apple ecosystem. But even then, the Sonys WF-1000XM4 still offer more than enough handy features, class-leading noise-cancelling, and better battery life from a single charge. They are the true wireless earbuds to beat, and could be for quite a while...
Read our full Google Pixel Buds A-Series review
Another true wireless showdown: Apple AirPods Pro vs Sony WF-1000XM3: which are better?