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Sony WH-1000XM3 vs Sony WH-1000XM4: which over-ear headphones are best?

a woman wearing the Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones in white in a train station and a man wearing the Sony WH-1000XM3 in black against a brown background
(Image credit: Sony)

Should you buy the Sony WH-1000XM3 vs Sony WH-1000XM4 if you're looking for the top noise-cancelling headphones? 

The Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones are the clear winners. They're the best all-round  choice and our top pick for the best headphones you can buy today. They're also a significant step up from their predecessors, the Sony WH-1000XM3. 

This could all change when Sony releases a new pair of noise-cancelling headphones. At the time of writing, they're yet to be launched. But details about the upcoming Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones have recently leaked.

The WH-1000XM4 headphones deliver class-leading noise cancellation thanks to an upgraded algorithm. They also boast improved call quality and music upscaling thanks to DSEE Extreme. 

The newer Sony headphones also have Bluetooth 5.0, multi-point Bluetooth pairing and a built-in sensor that can automatically pause music when you take the headphones off. These are all practical features you should look for when buying your next pair of wireless headphones.

What’s more, the Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones aren’t cheap, but they are good value for money. They cost as much as the Sony WH-1000XM3 model did at launch and you can often find good discounts during the sales, too.

Although the scales tip heavily in favor of the WH-1000XM4 model, there’s still a lot to love about the WH-1000XM3. After all, they were the best noise-cancelling headphones for more than a year before the WH-1000XM4 headphones came out, and you can find them up to £80/$80 cheaper in some places. 

For an in-depth look at both products, check out our full Sony WH-1000XM3 review and Sony WH-1000XM4 review. But if you can't make up your mind between the two, this guide will help you to break down the key differences.

What’s better about the Sony WH-1000XM4?  

Someone wearing the Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones outside on a sunny day

(Image credit: Future)

The obvious difference between the two is that the Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones are newer. They were released in August 2020 while the Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones came out in 2018. 

Beyond that, the Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones do have a number of new features that you won’t find on the previous generation WH-1000XM3 or WH-1000XM2 headphones.

In short, here’s why you’d pick up the Sony WH-1000XM4:

Better noise cancellation: If you’re buying a pair of noise-cancelling headphones you want something that really blocks out everything, right? Well, the Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones do that very well. That’s because Sony retooled the noise-cancelling algorithm and now offers a new Bluetooth SoC to block more noise in the mid-range and higher frequencies. The benefit? Say goodbye to air conditioning noise, barking dogs and constantly ringing doorbells.

Edge AI audio upscaling: This one’s a bit harder to hear, but Sony says it’s put a lot of work into implementing an audio upscaling system called DSEE Extreme that takes compressed audio formats like MP3/MP4 and fills in the gaps. The benefit there is that you can have a whole library of MP4s that don’t take up much space on your phone and they’ll sound like a library full of lossless FLACs. If you don’t store music at all, songs played off YouTube that were compressed should sound better, too.

Precise Voice Pick Up: One of the biggest complaints about the Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones is that they weren’t the best for business calls. Sony is hoping to change that stigma with the Sony WH-1000XM4, which use a new technology called Precise Voice Pick Up to help your voice come through loud and clear. It works by using the four microphones on each earcup to hone in your voice while talking and reduce the amount of ambient noise that it picks up. 

Wearing detection for auto-play/pause: If you’re someone who constantly leaves their headphones on playing music only to find them out of juice a few hours later, the Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones could have a killer feature for you: auto-play/pause. Sony has embedded a sensor that can determine when the headphones are on or off and will automatically pause/resume the music. Take them off and leave them off for 15 minutes and the headphones will automatically turn off, preserving battery life.

What’s better about the Sony WH-1000XM3? 

Someone wearing the Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones outside on a sunny day

(Image credit: Future)

Admittedly, Sony has improved every aspect of its flagship headphones – even making small tweaks like the trimmed down padding on the bridge and additional padding around the earcups to reduce pressure. That said, a lot of them are small tweaks instead of massive overhauls. 

Here’s why you might still want to pick up the Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones instead:

Cheaper, especially if you buy them used: When we asked Sony what would happen to the Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones after the new 1000XM4 model hit shelves, the answer was that they’d pretty much go into retirement by disappearing completely. 

That said, there are loads of these headphones sitting on store shelves all over the world, which means you’re bound to see a few sales pop up over the next few months. At the time of writing, you can still find them in most major retailers, as well as on the Sony website. 

You’ll also find a slew of sellers getting rid of their old 1000XM3 headphones at half-price, which could be a great way to snag a pair without breaking the bank.

Equivalent battery life: The battery life isn’t better on the Sony WH-1000XM3 but it isn’t any worse, either. Both headphones are rated for around 30 hours of playback, so you won’t see any big changes in battery life by shelling out more for the 1000XM4.

Winner: Sony WH-1000XM4 

There's no surprises here. The Sony WH-1000XM4 are the better pair of headphones. They don’t improve in every single area, but they have enough differences over their predecessors that they’re worth the extra cost if this is your first pair and you're looking for some of the best noise-cancelling headphones you can get your hands on today.

Now, if you already have a pair of the WH-1000XM3 that you like and work well, don't feel like you need to upgrade. What's more, if you find a pair of the XM3 headphones for a discount, or you have a small budget and can't justify the newer model, they're still a solid choice.

Nick Pino is the Senior Editor of Home Entertainment at TechRadar and covers TVs, headphones, speakers, video games, VR and streaming devices. He's written for TechRadar, GamesRadar, Official Xbox Magazine, PC Gamer and other outlets over the last decade, and he has a degree in computer science he's not using if anyone wants it.