Sony Launches New WH-1000XM4 Headphones with Next Generation Adaptive Noise Canceling

August 7 2020, 01:35
Sony Electronics announced the WH-1000XM4 – the fourth-generation noise-canceling headphones from Sony's 1000X family. The popular wireless over-ear model shows a similar design to the previous WH-1000XM3, with subtle but effective changes in materials providing longer comfort and lighter weight. But the main improvement relies on Sony's latest processing, sensors and a new Bluetooth 5 SoC, providing the WH-1000XM4 with additional smart features that personalize music, improve noise cancelation and adjust ambient sound automatically.

What do you do when you have the industry's best-selling product in a certain category and the competition is constantly catching up to your efforts? You consistently launch a new model before competitors are able to match your existing design. This is something straight out of Apple's playbook, but not easily achievable unless a company understands how to fully focus on their core competencies and implements a closely managed product development process. In Sony's case, the company's recognized ability to develop cutting-edge technologies was not always matched in the final product design, which is highly advanced in certain areas, and lacking in many others. With noise canceling headphones, Sony has apparently found the right product management strategy, enough to combine its core technology to develop a wining model, and create a reference design (even if still named in a typically Japanese, unpronounceable product reference such as WH-1000XM4).

Physically, the WH-1000XM4 headphones are very similar to the M3 model, but that can be deceiving. Sony's engineers completely revisited the mechanical design and material choices in the new model, improving the comfort for long hours of use. The focus in the choice of materials made the WH-1000XM4 headphones slightly lighter, while the combination of improved headband tension and new earpads allow for a better distribution of the pressure around the ears, a critical aspect in circumaural designs. Designed for those who travel frequently, the new super-soft, pressure relieving earpads evenly distribute pressure and increase ear/pad contact for a stable fit. Inside the closed earcups, the driver design remains unchanged, with the same dynamic, neodymium 1.57" dome driver with CCAW voice coil and aluminum coated LCP diaphragm.

"Our industry-leading noise canceling has continued to wow the world, and this new model takes that incredible technology even further," says Mike Fasulo, president and chief operating officer of Sony Electronics North America. "Sony was the pioneer behind noise canceling technology back in 1995, and that 25 years of experience has helped us drive the industry forward and offer best-in-class audio products."

For the new WH-1000XM4 model, Sony once again focused on expanding its leadership in noise canceling performance. Using two microphones on each earcup coupled with Dual Noise Sensor technology, Sony says the new WH-1000XM4 design captures ambient noise and passes the data to the trusted HD Noise Canceling Processor QN1 - introduced earlier in the WH-1000XM3 and other 2019 models. Then a new Bluetooth Audio System on Chip (SoC) senses music and noise at over 700 times per second. Using a new algorithm, the HD Noise Canceling Processor QN1 applies noise canceling processing in real time, adjusting it to the environmental noise, and much more. 

As Sony describes, the WH-1000XM4 headphones use an array of technologies to create an improved, hands-free listening experience, with smart features like user voice profiling. When the user speaks, the WH-1000XM4 automatically pauses the music in Speak-to-Chat mode. This automatically stops the music and lets in ambient sound so the user can conduct a conversation. Based on Precise Voice Pickup Technology, this smart feature uses all five microphones built into the headphones and advanced audio signal processing to recognize and react to the user's voice. Once the conversation is over, the music starts playing again automatically. 

Additionally, there is the 'Quick Attention' mode that was designed for situations when the user needs to quickly tune in for an announcement or say something briefly. By simply placing the right hand over the earcup, the user can decrease the volume and let in ambient sound. And the adaptive playback on the WH-1000XM4 also leverages the proximity sensor and two acceleration sensors to detect whether the headphones are being worn or not, allowing the user to focus more on the music or entertainment and blur out the chaos of the outside world. The Adaptive Sound Control function senses the environment and user activity, adjusting ambient sound settings automatically for the ideal listening experience. 

"Over time, Adaptive Sound Control learns to recognize frequently visited locations such as the workplace, gym or favorite café, and tailors sound to suit the situation," explains Sony. Location learning features remain in the device, and are not sent to a server, Sony also adds. This type of environmental awareness processing allows user to still be aware of the surroundings in a busy street, without needing to turn off the music. Users can also setup their frequently visited locations and preferred settings manually via the Sony Headphones Connect app.

The fact that the headphones detect whether they are being worn helps save battery power. And talking about battery, the USB-C design also leverages the quick charging process, allowing the WH-1000XM4 to be fully charged in approximately 3 hours (5 hours in the previous M3 model), enabling up to 30 hours of music playback with noise cancelling on, or up to 38 hours with noise cancelling off. Additionally, the quick charging function can provide up to 5 hours of wireless playback from just 10 minutes of charging (depending on the USB charger used). This makes the M4 update a perfect companion for long flights.

For music reproduction, the Sony WH-1000XM4 uses edge-AI processing and what Sony calls DSEE Extreme, to restore audio information affected by digital compression. According to Sony, this process analyzes music in real time and recognizes instruments, music genres and individual elements of each song to restore the high range sounds for a richer listening experience. More important for those users who prefer to listen to uncompressed or even high-resolution audio sources, the new M4 model supports Sony's LDAC transmission, enabling approximately three times more data (at the maximum transfer rate of 990 kbps) when using wireless audio streaming.
For those users who still prefer to carry additional gear with audio output jacks, the Sony WH-1000XM4 still offers the same cabled options and the headphones still ship with a single-sided, detachable headphone cable with a gold-plated, L-shaped stereo mini connector.

And of course, the new Sony WH-1000XM4 model also supports Sony's 360 Reality Audio immersive audio format - based on MPEG-H Audio technology - enabling users to enjoy binaural renders of the available material mixed for object-based spatial audio experiences, and streamed through Tidal, Deezer and subscription-based services. The Sony Headphones Connect app is what enables the required personalization profiles, including loading generic HRTFs for ear shape types, also bringing Ambient Sound Control to adjust the volume of background sound and adding an option to filter only voices, and an equalizer for those who enjoy tweaking each music to taste.

For communications, the Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones combine the new five microphones with new Precise Voice Pickup technology to perform advanced audio signal processing to pick up voice clearly and precisely for hands-free calls and the described Speak-to-Chat features. This combination also helps when using the headphones to activate and interact with voice assistants, via connected devices.

For total convenience, the WH-1000XM4 can be paired with two Bluetooth devices at the same time. So, when a call comes in, the headphones know which device is ringing and connect to the right one automatically. Users can also quickly switch the headphones to either of the two devices at the touch of a button. And the WH-1000XM4 also support Google's Fast Pair feature and headphone location features, available on Android devices.

Pricing for the new WH-1000XM4 model remains unchanged, with a suggested retail price of $349.99 (of course, the M3 model can now be snatched for around $200 USD while they remain available). Colors remain the same black and silver options.
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