It's 2022, and the reality is, there are quite a few wireless noise-canceling headphones to choose from. In fact, there are a heck of a lot. But since their release in August 2020, the Sony WH-1000XM4 (nicknamed the "Sony M4s" by their fans) have been our go-to pick for people who want the best combination of sound, noise-cancellation, features, comfort and price.
But every king's reign comes to an end at some point. Sony has just officially announced the new WH-1000XM5 — let's call them the "Sony M5s" — and, while they share quite a bit in common with the Sony M4s, the new cans are improved in some key areas. Sony has given the M5s a fresh redesign that prioritizes comfort; they have twice the number of microphones to improve its call clarity; plus, Sony gave the them an extra processor, bringing the total to two — which the M5s promise to have the most powerful active noise-cancellation of any Sony headphones. (And, on the less appealing side, Sony has made the M5s $50 more expensive than the M4's $350 price tag.)
I've spend the last week testing out the Sony M5s, and have been able to compare them directly the Sony M4s that I already own. Here are my thoughts.
The M5s are Sony's new noise-canceling king.
Sony has raised the bar with the new noise-canceling abilities of the M5s — a difficult thing to do, considering the M4s were already elite. The secret is, Sony has integrated the M5s with two processors to control its eight microphones (the M4s only have four). These mics pick up various ambient frequencies in the air around you, and then create opposing sound frequencies — called antiphases — that cancel them out.
Noise-cancellation in headphones is admittedly a difficult thing to casually test, especially when comparing the Sony M5s and Sony M4s — both of their noise-canceling abilities are among of the industry's best. However, according to Sony, the M5's new processing power combined with the increased microphones allow it to do a significantly better job at canceling out mid-to-high-range frequencies; essentially, it's better at canceling people's voices in crowded environments. As for low frequencies, which you typically experience when traveling in a car, train or plane, the Sony M5s and the Sony M4s are pretty equal.
Like the M4s, the Sony M5s also are equipped with a feature called Adaptive Sound Control, which allows the headphones to detect what kind of environment you're in and then adjusts its noise-cancellation accordingly. I'm not the biggest fan of this, admittedly, as I prefer to have full control of the noise-canceling power of my headphones at all times (plus I'm not typically in jumping in and out of noisy environments these days), but it's a feature that you can turn on and off in Sony's companion app. So hey, you do you.
The Sony M5s are made for comfort.
It's not as if the Sony M4s were uncomfortable to wear, but Sony has made a big effort to improve the comfort of the M5s. The Sony M5s have larger and wider earcups, to give them the best possible chance of fitting around your entire ear. The goal of this was to make them less likely to rest on part of your ear, which could cause listening fatigue and make you less likely to wear them for prolonged sessions. Sony also made the M5s slightly lighter than the M4s — 250 grams, versus 254.
In terms of comfort, all this makes a difference. After testing the M5s over the last week, I never had an inkling of discomfort when wearing them while walking the dog, shopping for groceries, commuting to the city and talking on video calls.
The one design change that some people may not like: the Sony M5s don't have the same foldable design as their predecessors. The new models fold flat, similar to the Bose Headphones 700, rather than folding in on themselves — in other words, they aren't collapsible. This is ideal for slipping into a bag's sleeves or pouches, but they don't shrink down quite as compact as some other travel headphones.
The Sony M5s sound just as good as the Sony M4s.
Aside from Apple's expensive AirPods Max, the Sony M4s have been our pick for the best-sounding noise-canceling headphones you can buy. They deliver crisp mids and highs, bass that bumps, and a soundstage that's wonderfully wide — it really feels like you're experiencing the music you're listening to live. Luckily, the Sony Sony M5s sound just as excellent. They boast the same 30mm drivers as the M4s, and they support Sony's high-resolution LDAC codec (although these files aren't supported when streaming from iPhone) as well as its 360 Reality Audio tracks.
The bottom line is that, in my experience, the Sony M5s sound excellent just like the Sony M4s — not necessarily better or worse. This means if you have a pair of Sony M4s and you're thinking about upgrading to the Sony M5s, sound quality shouldn't really be the driving reason.
The Sony M5s are superb for phone calls.
Aside from improved active noise-cancellation, the other big benefit of having dual processors and twice the microphones is that the Sony M5s sound really good on calls — and make you sound really good to others.
Sony uses beam-forming technology to isolate your voice on calls, while also using AI technology to pick up ambients sounds (like wind or people talking in the background) and cancel them out. And it works great. I've had no problems with coworkers hearing me on video calls, as well as other people when talking normal calls from my iPhone.
The Sony M5s have similar battery life to the M4s, but support faster charging.
Sony hasn't really improved the battery life of the Sony M5s — they can go roughly 30 hours between charges, according to Sony, which is exactly the same as the Sony M4s — which is a little disappointing. However, Sony has given the M5s the ability to fast charge. They charge via USB-C still, but a three-minute charge using a USB-C wall adapter that supports power delivery (or PD) will give you an impressive three hours of listening time. It's nice but admittedly small improvement over the Sony M4s, which need a 10-minute charge which will get them five hours of playback.)
There's a catch, however. Like many tech companies these days, Sony isn't including the necessary USB-C PD charger to fast charge the M4s. In fact, it's not including any wall adapter, just the charging cables. So if you want this fast-charging ability, you'll have to have your own USB-C wall adapter that supports PD (you can buy one for around $30).
The Sony M5s are just as feature-packed as the Sony M4s.
One of the things that has separated Sony's flagship noise-canceling headphones from pretty much every other pair of wireless noise-canceling headphones is the amount of features and customization options that are packed into them. And the Sony M5s have pretty much the same feature set as the Sony M4s.
You can use the Sony Headphones app to customize the EQ of the sound as well as adjust noise-cancellation settings. You can toggle various smart settings on or off. Admittedly, I prefer to toggle some of these settings off — such wearing detection, which automatically starts and stops music when put on and take off your headphones, and "Speak to Chat," which automatically stops your music and switches to transparency mode when the headphones detect that you're talking — to give myself more control over the headphones. Luckily, it's all easily done in the app.
Note, however: the Sony M4s aren't going anywhere.
Now that the Sony M5s are here, you'd think that Sony is likely to phase out its two-year-old Sony M4s. Well, not quite. In fact, Sony is going to continue selling the M4s — and they will be keep on being $50 cheaper. The choice you have to make if whether you want to the new comfort and noise-canceling power of the Sony M5s, and if that justifies a $50 bump.
Of course, price is a strange thing when it comes to Sony headphones, as Amazon and other third-party sellers discount them almost immediately after their release. You can usually pick up a pair of the Sony M4s for around $279, and I'm guessing you'll see the new Sony M5s discounted to between $330 or $350 in the pretty near future.