The Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones are among the most popular and well-regarded wireless cans you can buy. With a lethal mix of high-quality sound, powerful noise canceling, and a litany of advanced features, the XM4 (the “M” stands for “mark”) have sat comfortably atop multiple best headphones lists (including ours) since their August 2020 debut.
But of course, Sony didn’t stop innovating with the XM4. The WH-1000XM5 have emerged as the latest challenger to the XM4’s reign—a usurper from within. While Sony says the XM4 aren’t going anywhere, the XM5 represent a premium upgrade at a more premium price, with new drivers, more advanced noise canceling, and an all-new design. But which pair is worth buying? We break it down, feature by feature, so you can find the perfect kingly cans for your investment.
The MSRP for these two pairs makes this category cut and dry: the XM4 retails for $350, while the Sony XM5 goes for a cool $400. The XM4’s longer tenure has also seen their traditionally inflated MSRP drop as low as $250-280 on sale, below most flagship rivals.
It’s perhaps no coincidence that, about a month ahead of the XM5 launch, the XM4’s price shot back up to retail pricing on Amazon and other sites. But, if you’re willing to wait for the right moment to strike, the XM4 is bursting with value compared to its newer rival and other competitors, too.
Our pick: WH-1000XM4
Features and controls
When it comes to features, there’s almost total parity across the board. Both of these premium pairs conjure the lion’s share of features from Sony’s excellent Headphones app, which will sync with the headphones even after you’ve changed devices. Options include convenience features like multipoint connection (to be able to easily swap from two source devices), a five-band EQ with multiple presets, and the brand’s DSEE Extreme upscaling for improved audio streaming.
The app also lets you tailor each pair in concert with how you want to use Sony’s sonic environmental control features, and even provides analysis of your ears for Sony’s 3D Reality Audio service. There’s even a feature designed to track your activities and tailor the sound to your ambient sound control to your environment and each pair offers the same 20 point scale for transparency mode control.
And there’s more to unlock on the headphones themselves. Quick Alert lets you touch the right earcup to dampen the music and turn on transparency mode, while engaging Speak to Chat will pause music whenever you raise your voice (including coughing and throat clearing, in my experience), again, shared by each pair.
There are some minor differences, based mainly around active noise canceling functionality; the XM5’s adaptive ANC is designed to automatically adjust to your environment, while the XM4 offers an optimizer that tailors your ANC via a series of test patterns. That said, the only major difference in features is the XM5’s Spotify Accessibility, which can be set up for quick access to the streaming service with a tap on the earcup.
Speaking of taps, the controls are virtually the same as well. Each pair offers easy control over playback, calling, and volume control via responsive touch sensors on the right ear cup. The only difference relates to the physical command key next to the power button on the left ear cup: the XM4’s key can be programmed to alert Alexa instead of cycling through ambient sound options (ANC, off, and transparency mode), whereas the XM5 is set only for ambient sound control—Alexa can instead be set as a default voice assistant from within the app.
While you could argue the XM5 have a slight advantage with quick access to Spotify, I’ve never found that feature all that useful anyway, and otherwise it’s too close to call. This one’s a draw.
Our Pick: Draw
Design and fit
The most obvious difference between these headphones is the physical design. Breaking the mold for the first time in generations, the XM5 look notably different from their predecessors. The most impressive upgrade is the padding, now cloaked in luxuriant synthetic leather that doesn’t look as natural as the XM4’s leatherette, but is both smoother and more comfortable. There’s also a bit more balance, and the XM5 are a few grams lighter, making them a tad more comfortable on my head after a few hours.
The XM5’s ear cups are also longer and more oval-shaped, set along thin arms that attach at the top, rather than gripping the cups around the middle. The cups retract and extend on a uniform piece, but no longer fold inward like the XM4. The snazzy new look is a welcome change for those eyeing Apple’s AirPods Max, but it also makes the XM5 harder to take along. The new case is impressively thin, but it’s also quite long and also harder to sneak into your luggage on a long journey.
While the XM5’s added comfort is a win, the larger size loses points—especially for headphones you’ll want to take on all your travels. This category is another tie.
Our pick: Draw
Both headphones offer excellent sound performance, but I did notice the XM5 serve a bit more clarity and definition, especially when it comes to dynamics. They do a brilliant job emphasizing both the quietest moments and the more bombastic ones, while also providing a more clear and vivid soundstage that lets you track each instrument from corner to corner with fantastic accuracy. I also find the XM5’s bass a bit tighter as I’ve listened more, and less boomy by default. Both pairs can get powerful when called upon, though, and Sony’s effective EQ lets you customize your sonic experience to great results.
The XM5’s impressive adaptive noise cancellation is my favorite new feature.
Call quality is another upgrade for the XM5, offering ultra-clear calling even in crowded or windy areas, thanks to excellent noise reduction.
It’s the XM5’s impressive adaptive noise cancellation that accounts for my favorite new feature, setting them above any noise-canceling headphones we’ve tested yet. Their ability to squash noise across frequencies rises just above the XM4, and about even with Bose’s QC45 in our testing, thanks to the addition of both Sony’s V1 and QN1 noise-canceling processors and a whopping eight microphones.
But it’s the sanguine silence while the headphones are at rest that really won my heart. Because the ANC only kicks in when called upon, you’ll hear virtually no discernable white noise with ANC on while going about your daily tasks. Though it takes a moment to kick in when airplanes buzz and voices chatter, the powerful reduction of all frequencies is worth the wait. Simply put, these are our the best noise-canceling headphones available right now.
Our pick: WH-1000XM5
The XM5 offer the exact same battery life as the XM4: 30 hours. Now, we’re not sure when you’d ever need more than 30 hours of charge time (Bose’s QC45 offer 25 hours) but it’s far from the best you can get on the market these days. It does mean you’ll need to charge them more often then some similarly priced options, such as Technics’ EAH-A800, which tout 50 hours of playtime per charge.
There is a caveat when it comes to rapid charging: the XM5 promise 3 hours of charge time on 3 minutes, while the XM4 claim 5 hours for 10 minutes of charge. My impressive math skills put the XM5 at 6 hours of playtime for 6 minutes charge—an hour more for 4 minutes less. Does any of this really matter? Can we really clock those 6 hours precisely for that exact amount of charging? Maybe, but my guess is it’d be somewhat inconsistent in any case. I’m not going to reward this nose hair of a win—it’s another tie.
Our pick: Draw
And the winner is …
Life isn’t black and white, and neither is this decision. I could pick a winner here, but like so much else in the world, much of it depends upon your perspective. I think the XM4 will be perfectly adequate for most folks, and especially when on sale, they’ll offer you the most value hands down. They’re also the easiest to take along, which arguably makes them a better pick for travelers.
On the other hand, the XM5 offer a more premium experience and improved performance, as long as you’re willing to pay for it. While some updates are nominal, there are notable advancements here that make them superior in key areas, namely calling and noise canceling. The choice is yours: the value-packed stalwart, or the premium upgrade. In either case, I have no doubt you’ll be satisfied with your purchase.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.