this thing's incredible

I Have a New Favorite Pair of Earbuds, and for Once They’re Not AirPods

Photo: Jordan Bowman

For me, earbuds have always been a trade-off. I love the seamlessness of the AirPod Pros I use most days, but I wish they had a better battery. When I tested more than a dozen options last year, the Sony WF-1000XM3 almost convinced me to switch — but not quite. The XM3s have wonderful noise-canceling capabilities and a long-lasting battery, but I couldn’t get over the immense size of the buds and their case. Sony must have taken a note from Google and listened to my thoughts, because the new WF-1000XM4 earbuds have the same great battery life and NC technology, and both the earbuds and their case have been shrunk to actually usable proportions.

Thanks to their new V1 chip, the XM4s block an even higher range of frequencies. They’re the Dikembe Mutombo of noise canceling, blocking out sounds so efficiently I had a hard time hearing my own breathing. On a recent flight, the low hum of the plane’s engine didn’t even make it through. The technology is so good that it feels like these tiny earbuds are now competing with their (Strat-beloved) big brother, the over-ear Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones — one of the best over-ear headphones I tested. After a month of reviewing the XM4 earbuds, I think they’re the best noise-canceling earbuds available right now. (Our friends at the Verge agree.)

Unlike the cumbersome XM3s, which constantly shifted in my ears and fell out if I moved my head too quickly, the XM4s are small and lightweight (41 grams compared to the XM3s’$2 79). Plus, they’re water resistant with an IPX4 rating, which means they can withstand sweat from your most intense workouts and even light rain. I would never have considered working out in the XM3s, but the XM4s were not a problem. In my own tests, I ran down NYC blocks under a musky cloud of humidity and extreme heat, and they didn’t even shift in my ears. That stability comes from Sony’s new form-fitting memory foam, which expands for a perfect seal, adapting to every contour of your ears. (You can even test the fit with the app to confirm you’re wearing the right size tips for your ears.)

During my testing, I barely even thought about charging the XM4s. They have a powerful battery that can last up to eight hours with noise canceling enabled. (To put that into perspective, Apple AirPods can last only up to five hours with noise canceling on.) And if you don’t want noise canceling on, the XM4s will last for a stunning 12 hours. Sony isn’t just beating the competition; it’s running laps around them. After hours of daily usage listening to music and podcasts, I kept expecting to hear a warning about the battery (every time you put the buds in, they announce the remaining battery), but the lowest it ever got was 60 percent.

The sound is also incredible. It came alive when I listened with noise canceling activated. The buzzy and vibrant guitar in Lou Reed’s “Vicious” came center stage, while Reed’s low monotone vocals slid smoothly into the midrange. The drums added a light swing but never overpowered the vocals. The vibrancy was especially noticeable on songs like “Love Is Strange,” by Paul McCartney and Wings. The consistent hi-hat fused perfectly with the backup vocals and infectious chorus. Even the boombastic ’80s synth influence on Bo Burnham’s Inside felt powerful and intimate. No matter what I played, the voices and instruments were always clear and discrete, even at high volume.

As much as I love these earbuds, they do have one flaw that makes them not for everyone: They’re bigger than many other options. (The AirPods Pro manage to be smaller by hiding some of the noise-canceling tech in the stem, which XM4s don’t have.) If the most important thing to you is finding something lightweight for your workouts, I’d suggest the Jaybird Vista. And if simplicity is your goal and you don’t want to mess around with an app (and you’re an iPhone user), you’re better off with AirPods. But if you’re looking for the best noise-canceling earbuds on the market right now, your choice is simple. The Sony WF-1000XM4 is a master class in how to improve a good pair of earbuds and make them great.

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For Once, My New Favorite Earbuds Aren’t AirPods