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The Silence of the Jams: Sony's new WH-1000XM4 over-ears stop me from singing

(Image credit: Future)

Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti… NO. That’s what the best new feature on the otherwise-excellent Sony WH-1000XM4 noise-cancelling headphones seem to be implying every time I burst into song wearing them. 

Quite unexpectedly, and surely accidentally, Sony’s headphones don’t seem to enjoy my singing all that much.

They’re the best noise cancelling headphones in the world – that much is now certain, having just posted our 5-star awarding Sony WH-1000XM4 review. Packed full of smart feature additions, with excellent audio performance and improved noise-cancelling techniques over their predecessors (the Sony WH-1000XM3) they’ve been awarded a very rare perfect score from TechRadar.

But the most useful feature that’s been added to the Sony WH-1000XM4s brings with it an unintentional side effect. ‘Speak-to-Chat’ is a new, optional, intelligent mode that can be activated on the headphones that uses the microphone to recognise and react when you’re having a conversation. Start having a chat and the headphones will pause your music, activating ambient audio pass through so that you can have a chinwag with someone nearby without having to take the headphones off your head, or manually adjusting the audio or pausing the track.

(Image credit: Sony)

It works phenomenally well. Get a few words in and the Sony headphones know what’s going on and enter into their conversation mode. I’ve even tried to trick them by sitting close to my flatmate and getting them to talk in an attempt to trigger Speak-to-Chat, but Sony is up to that game.

The problem is, it almost works too well, in that if I make any prolonged sound outside of a conversation, the headphones pause. And that includes singing along to my favourite tunes.

Hear, say

I can’t speak for everyone, but I believe the true joy of noise cancelling headphones  is in allowing me to belt out a lung-lacerating rendition of a solid-gold-absolute-banger, and not being able to hear the damage being wrought. With the WH-1000XM4s, I get a bar in and then am rudely interrupted by the sound of silence from the cans, and my own caterwauling. 

It may be a small mercy for my flatmate and neighbours, but it feels like a real tease from Sony to have made such a useful feature, only to have overlooked this likely very common potential interruption. 

Yes, the Speak-to-Chat feature is optional, but it’s one of the key upgrades over the previous model, and genuinely useful when working in its intended scenario. And so I’m left in limbo – to sing or not to sing? To be acoustically available, or supersonic-socially distanced?

There’s an interesting anthropological side effect here too. With most of our music living on personal devices, and being played through personal headphones, the actual act of listening to music is becoming increasingly insular. 

(Image credit: Sony)

It’s part of the appeal of noise cancelling headphones – keeping the outside world outside, and your personal auditorium personal. But with that comes the loss of collective, shared sonic euphoria – all the more keenly felt now that live music events are struggling through the pandemic like the rest of us. 

I think back to the last time I saw a busker in London’s Underground subway system – just seeing him, and not hearing him thanks to the noise-cancelling headphones I was wearing at the time, and how disheartening that must have been for him, let alone the reduced loose change likely coming his way these days as a result of these technological enhancements.

So back to the WH-1000XM4 catch-22 – a product that wants me to be both immersed and available at the same time, a somewhat contradictory position. If I can’t sing with my friends in public any more, and can’t sing with my headphones without being seen as switched-off and distant (as the apparent need for the Speak-to-Chat feature implies), all that’s left is to sing in my head. And that’s a very lonely sound indeed.