Paradoxically enough, a piece of audio tech has become a must-have during the pandemic: noise cancelling.
Sometimes you just have to shut out the din created by your bubble or the neighbour's mower, and focus on work or actually listen to what people say in that Zoom call. Sony's WH-1000XM4 set is pretty much perfect for that purpose, and music as well.
The WH-1000XM4 is the successor set to the well-received but equally awkwardly named WH-1000XM3s, and has great noise-cancelling. Put them on and aural peace ensues. The earphones can measure atmospheric pressure and learn your most frequent locations to optimise the noise cancelling.
To accommodate people who can't take a hint even though you wear earphones, there's Speak-to-Chat that mutes audio and pauses the noise cancelling. Post natter, it turns them on again. Luckily, Speak-to-Chat can be left disabled.
The XM4s cost a shade less at $424 (from Sony direct) than Apple AirPods Pro ($449) and are of course a different kettle of fish, being larger, over-ear headphones as opposed to earbuds.
They are comfortable, and the bigger size means the battery lasts a long time — Sony promises up to 30 hours. I didn't listen to the XM4s for that long in one sitting, but using them on and off for music and video calls they easily lasted more than a week between charges.
There's a power and noise cancelling on and off buttons, touch sensors on the side of the phones for volume and stopping/starting playback, and near-field communication (NFC) tapping for pairing devices. No fewer than five microphones listen out for noise and people speaking; I'm not sure how many are active simultaneously, but they picked up my voice quite clearly for calls and recordings.
By default the XM4s use a female English robo-voice that's needlessly simpering, unfortunately. There are no other English voices to choose from. I fixed that by installing a normal-sounding Finnish voice for the XM4s but that might not be an option for everyone.
As you'd expect, the XM4s have fantastic sound for music with great detail in the mids and highs and thumping bass, and the equaliser in the Headphone Connect smartphone app lets you tweak the sound to your liking.
There are other cool technical tricks too which unfortunately highlight the tangle that is Bluetooth audio.
The XM4s support the latest Bluetooth 5 tech, and so does the iPhone 12 Pro Max and Oppo Find X2 Pro that I tested with. Bluetooth uses encoders/decoders to transmit audio with compression to fit it into relatively limited bandwidth.
I was keen to try out Sony's LDAC audio encoder which supports high speeds (up to 990 kilobits per second), audiophile high resolution for those FLAC files, and low-ish latency but ... that's for some Android phones, like the Oppo, only.
Apple users don't get LDAC, but the AAC codec kicks in which sounds fine, but is limited to 250 kbps. Then there's Sony's spatial sound tech which is called 360 Reality Audio. It aims to provide a more realistic three-dimensional environment than two-channel stereo allows.
It's subtle and music gets more detail as it lets you pick out where vocalists and instruments are placed. Some streaming services like Deezer support it, but it's not mainstream tech.
I'm not sure that the ear-shape analyser for 360 Reality Audio does anything in particular, but I hope Sony keeps the lughole pics safe as they can be used like fingerprints to identify people.
Sony also incorporated its Digital Sound Enhancement Engine Extreme which restores audio munged by MP3s and low-quality YouTube, apparently by using artificial intelligence. DSEE Extreme works, but again it's subtle.
The above features are for smartphones only. There's no macOS or Windows 10 Headphones Connect app from Sony; nor is there a native iPad version of the iPhone app, so it's small and in vertical orientation on the tablet.
I dug out a Lightning to 3.5mm jack Apple adapter to see if FLAC audio files sounded better with a wired connection on the iPhone. Sony's specs suggest the XM4s manage 4 to 40,000Hz frequency response when plugged in, although I'm sure my ears don't.
Wired audio sounds excellent and noise cancellation remains on with the XM4s plugged in, but Bluetooth is switched off so forget about the nice features in the smartphone app.
The XM4s are great headphones, but my noise-cancelled mellow vibe with them was roughed up a bit by Bluetooth which is well overdue for replacement with a more user-friendly and capable technology.