It’s easy to forget that, not too long ago, the noise-cancelling headphone market was entirely dominated by Bose. Not so anymore. Now, every audio brand worth its salt is in on the action, and there’s no more sought after pair than the Sony WH-1000XM3s (pictured above).
Their popularity is understandable: the WH-1000XM3 headphones are so good, they’ve won back-to-back What Hi-Fi? Awards since their launch in 2018. They’re still great headphones now, but with the likes of Sennheiser and B&W also now carving out slices of the premium noise-cancelling headphone pie, it’s inevitable that Sony will release a new version very soon - and we can’t wait to see what they do with them.
Thanks to an FCC filing in December (thanks, The Verge) and a more recent image and instruction manual leak courtesy of Everton Favretto (also via The Verge), we know the WH-1000XM4 headphones are on the way and even now have a few possible details.
So, when can we expect them, how much will they cost and what improvements will they offer? Here we’ve rounded up all of the rumours, news and some of our own theories so you can get up to speed in no time at all.
Sony WH-1000XM4: price and release date
It seems likely that Sony will officially announce the WH-1000XM4 headphones during this year’s IFA show in September (assuming it doesn't succumb to Coronavirus), as this is the event that was used to launch all previous versions - the MDR-1000X, WH-1000XM2 and WH-1000XM3. If previous form is followed, the new model should be available to order practically as soon as it's announced.
If we were the betting sorts, we’d put our money on Sony’s IFA press conference taking place on Friday 4th September 2020 and the WH-1000XM4 headphones being announced on stage.
We’d also wager that the Sony WH-1000XM4 price will be £330 ($350), as that’s exactly how much each one of the three previous pairs in the series has cost at launch.
Of course, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the WH-1000XM4s will be announced at a special event (MWC is no longer an option) before IFA 2020 (FCC filings do tend to appear quite close to product launches) and that they’ll cost a lot more or less than £330, but Sony’s extreme consistency with the series so far gives us a fair amount of confidence in our predictions.
Sony WH-1000XM4: name
But are we even correct in assuming that the Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones will be called ‘WH-1000XM4’? We believe so, yes. Not only has each model in the series followed the format, with the ‘M’ being short for ‘Mark’ and the number representing the entry in the series (so ‘M4’ is ‘Mark 4’), the FCC filing dug up by The Verge in January has an ID code of ‘AK8WH1000XM4’.
What's more, the more recently leaked instruction manual also features the WH-1000XM4 model number.
While said instruction manual is very much an incomplete draft, we do think it makes the use of the expected name likely. Of course, it’s not impossible that Sony could still relegate that to the small print and use a more catchy name in its marketing, but we think that’s unlikely - the previous models hardly appear to have been held back by the naming convention.
Sony WH-1000XM4: design
We would have been surprised if the WH-1000XM4 headphones had differed wildly in design from the WH-1000XM3s, but if the recently leaked images (one of which is above) are to be believed, they look practically identical.
Looking closely, we think these new headphones look just a little rounder and more bulbous in the earcups, but it's hard to be sure given the the low quality of the photos.
Sony WH-1000XM4: features and specs
So what can we expect from the Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones in terms of specs and features? Thanks to the leaked manual, we do now have some possible details, although it's worth reiterating the incomplete, draft nature of the document does mean these details need to be taken with a pinch of salt.
These will, of course, be on-ear (some will prefer the term ‘over-ear’ as the cups do surround the ears), wireless headphones with active noise-cancelling. We expect Sony to continue to offer a number of different noise-cancelling modes as well as allowing the user to customise the degree of noise-cancelling through a companion app.
While there's nothing in the manual about this, we’d expect the noise-cancelling to be even better that before, simply because that’s the direction things are moving and the increased competition will push Sony to stretch and stay ahead. We might find that one of the focus points is the noise-cancelling of the microphones used to pick up your voice during calls, making you sound clearer to the person on the other end.
The Apple AirPods Pro in-ears also introduced some new noise-cancelling tech when they launched last year. The microphones on the outside partner with microphones on the inside to analyse and assist in the cancellation of any noise that makes it through the physical barrier of the headphones. They also listen to how your music is behaving within your ears.
The AirPods Pros analyse and adjust to this information at a rate of 200 times per second. While we’re not necessarily expecting Sony to go quite this far, this kind of real-time analysis and adjustment seems to be the way the industry is going and is likely to appear in some form in the WH-1000XM4 headphones.
What really set the WH-1000XM3s apart from the competition was the sound quality, which was boosted no end by a move to analogue amplification. Sony worked tirelessly to produce a chip that combined noise-cancelling, a DAC and an analogue amplifier in a form small and light enough for a pair of headphones. With the QN1 chip it managed the feat.
Could we see a second-generation version of that chip launch with the WH-1000XM4 headphones? Called ‘QN2’, perhaps? It seems likely to us. Sony has to be careful here, though, as the WH-1000XM3s are exceptionally balanced in their delivery, combining a little bit of analogue-style warmth and richness with oodles of digital detail. We wouldn’t want to see the WH-1000XM4s go too far either way.
The WH-1000XM3s used Bluetooth 4.2 with support for the advanced aptX, aptX HD and LDAC formats. The leaked manual suggests that the WH-1000XM4 headphones will go further and offer Bluetooth 5.0, and we wouldn't be surprised if support for aptX Adaptive, which offers improved sound quality with lower latency, is also added.
We don’t expect this to have a transformative effect on the audio or user-experience, but you might find that battery life is slightly improved (particularly when combined with the leaked manual's suggestion of a power consumption reduction from 8W to 2W), lip-sync issues are reduced and that mobile gaming is more responsive.
The leaked manual also makes mention of a 'speak to chat' feature, which suggests that voice control might be completely hands-free on the WH-1000XM4s. The XM3s require that you press a button to activate your voice assistant.
Sony WH-1000XM4 vs WH-1000XM3: which is better?
With Sony having not yet even acknowledged that the WH-1000XM4 headphones exist, let alone the specs and features they’ll offer, it’s impossible to know how good they’ll be. What we do know is that developments in the noise-cancelling headphone arena are currently fairly iterative. In other words, while the WH-1000XM4s will, in all likelihood, improve on their predecessors, they’re unlikely to blow them out of the water.
And let’s not forget that the WH-1000XM3 headphones are still brilliant in their own right and can currently be bought for a lot less than their launch price. That price is likely to get even lower as we get closer to the launch of the new model. So, you can wait and pay full price for the WH-1000XM4 headphones, or you can pick up the previous model with a hefty discount - the choice is yours.
And we will, of course, update this page with all of the news and rumours concerning the Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones as and when.