PHOTO: Jacob Krol/CNN
(CNN) —  

Sony’s WH-1000XM3s are a tough act to follow, as the tech giant’s class-leading headphones were our top pick for over-ear headphones. Well, their successor, the WH-1000XM4 headphones, comfortably fill those large shoes.

While we don’t get a shorter name, the WH-1000XM4s do deliver core enhancements and features while keeping the $349.99 price tag. They’re up for preorder right now, with shipments planned to start rolling out in the middle of August.

The WH-1000XM4s may look similar to the pair they’re succeeding, but under the hood, there are big improvements. Bluetooth is stronger and supports two connections at once, there’s a new chip that upscales audio and there are more microphones, which means better voice pickup.

And that’s just the start. We’ve spent more than a week with the WH-1000XM4s and found them to be another class-leading pair of over-ear headphones from Sony. Let’s dive into why these continue the heritage and legacy of the Sony over-ear brand.

Subtle design changes focus on comfort

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The WH-1000XM4s keep a similar design to the WH-1000XM3s, offered in the same black or silver. These are slightly lighter compared to the XM3s and come packed in an included hard-shell carrying case. A charging cable, a headphone jack adapter and an audio cable are all included. Both earcups swivel 180 degrees so you can comfortably wear these around your neck when not in use.

The padding on the earcups is more plentiful compared to the XM3s and proved to be quite soft. It’s not a memory foam material; rather, they feature a soft foam that takes in air pretty well. When wearing the WH-1000XM4s, these act as a buffer to ensure that they sit properly on your head. They also don’t press too hard on your head and feel comfortable around your ear — and don’t apply an obscene amount of pressure.

Complementing this enhanced padding is a firm headband padding. It’s more spongy than memory foam but relieves pressure on your head. It will also let you have longer listening sessions without a pain on the top of your head like other over-ear headphones can cause.

Though the mostly plastic build helps keep them light, for $349.99, we’d like to see a higher-end build. You’ll charge the WH-1000XM4s via the USB-C port on the right side. The left side features a headphone jack, the power button and a custom button, which you can use to call upon the Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa, but you can also set it to turn active noise cancellation (ANC) on or off. All of these customization options live in the Sony Headphones companion app for Android and iOS.

It’s a minimal amount of buttons, and volume and playback controls live as touch sensors on the earcups. On the right earcup, you can swipe up or down to adjust volume or double-tap to play and pause music.

There are five microphones on the WH-1000XM4s, including two hidden in an oval vent on the earcups. The bottom half of the left earcup also features three more microphones. All of these work together for better voice pickup and to improve on noise cancellation capabilities.

Let’s talk about noise cancellation

PHOTO: Jacob Krol/CNN

The WH-1000XM4s offer passive noise cancellation once you put them on your head, which will block out some of the world, but they don’t have any technology to help you in this scenario.

The real star here is active noise cancellation. Essentially, the XM4s use a combination of microphones and an internal processor to block out the world around you and reduce noise. What puts the active in active noise cancellation? Well, that’s the fact that it’s listening in real time to reduce the noise around you.

And inside the WH-1000XM4s there’s an upgraded system on a chip, or SoC, that’s basically an all-in-one processor: A Bluetooth Audio SoC and Sony’s QN1 processor work in combination. Using the chips and microphones, it senses for sound at 700 times per second. The QN1 processor takes that data in real time and works to cancel noise.

And the results in our testing are quite impressive. They block out the world just as well as the WH-1000XM3s. With Ambient Sound Control engaged and set to Noise Cancellation, it reduced the hum of our central AC unit to a soft hum, coming across more as white noise. We could still make out loud trucks passing on the road in front of our window, but it definitely toned things down. Adding music to the equation at just around 25% volume effectively removed the hum and other noises. An emergency vehicle siren passing directly outside could be heard, though.

The real area the WH-1000XM4s have improved upon is with higher-frequency noises, which include (at least at the lower end) people talking, birds chirping and sirens. Hopefully you’re not experiencing too many sirens, but as we’ve made the adjustment to working from home, it can be harder to get in the zone, especially as we’re at home with other family members who like to make phone calls or just chat. Even if you’re in a different room, those voices can still come through, but the XM4s effectively block those out at a much higher rate than the XM3s.

We plan to put this to the test at a coffee shop and other outdoor locations once we get back to normal, but we’re excited about the advancements made with the noise cancellation and think it will be perfect for working around others.

And you still have control over the noise-canceling levels within the app. Sony houses all these controls under “Ambient Sound Control,” which will default to noise canceling, which is the classic experience. You can manually adjust the level via a simple bar in the app that has 20 adjustments for ambient sound. The closer you get to 20, the more environmental sounds are evident.

But like the XM3s, you can have the XM4s personalize the noise-canceling level. Simply hold in the custom button on the left earcup (it’s the slightly longer one) and you’ll hear tones along with the phrase “optimizer start.” This adjusts the noise canceling to your specific environment and will even work to reduce pressure.

If you need to quickly stop playback and end noise cancellation, you can just start talking. The WH-1000XM4s will hold this for about 30 seconds after they hear your last word, or you can quickly resume with a double tap on the right earcup. It’s much easier than having to manually pause playback and turn off ANC. And it’s arguably easier than having to remove the headphones. But if you’re prone to singing along, we recommend turning off this option. If you don’t, you engage Speak to Chat every time the chorus comes around.

Sound and your jam sessions

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The WH-1000XM3s represent our top pick for best over-ear headphones and have received many other accolades. Rest assured, after over a week of testing, the WH-1000XM4s are better. Audio is just as crisp, clear and vibrant. Better yet, we didn’t experience any added tin or crackling with tracks from various resources. We also experienced the same three-dimensional effect, which places you in the center of the music.

With “Daisies” by Katy Perry, you can hear the opening tones circle from left to right as a drum beat, guitar riff and vocals are mixed over the track. Perry’s vocals range from mid to high and sounded quite good on the XM4s, even at higher listening volumes. As the bass beat kicks in, the XM4s produce it with a force, but not an overpowering one. With the equalizer set to a blanched zero, the track was mixed quite nice. You can, of course, engage the equalizer with a preset (Bright, Excited, Mellow, Relaxed, Vocal, Treble Boost, Bass Boost, Speech) or use manual to mix the EQ. There’s even an option to save two custom EQ mixes.

Ed Sheeran’s “Sing” offers an array of traditional instruments along with electronic beats and a strong, raw single vocal across low, mid and high tones. It’s a separated track, with his high tones arriving with just a guitar riff, before a mix of his voice comes across at different tones. Safe to say, the XM4s didn’t create a muddied mix. The siren effect before the set of verses had a unique echo to it.

Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” offers a rich experience that lets you clearly make out individual tracks. Of course, you’re still blasted with a powerful wall of sound in the beginning, but the XM4s don’t introduce crackling as cheaper over-ear cans do.

The WH-1000XM4s sound good, and we especially like the built-in equalizer in the companion app. It really lets you mix the experience on a track-by-track basis for whatever you’re feeling. If you want a focus on vocals or a really powerful bass, you can make that happen.

The overall richness and clarity of the tracks didn’t happen by random luck. Remember those processors? Well, they also handle upscaling, notably with Sony’s DSEE Extreme, which is an audio upscaling technology. It works in real time to deliver a closer to hi-res-quality experience. A different version of this — DSEE HX — was on the XM3s, but Sony notes there have been improvements with high tone. We noticed more clarity with vocals at the higher end of the spectrum.

And for when it’s time to remove the headphones, we’re super thankful that WH-1000XM4s are intelligent enough to stop playback. By the time they’re off your head, the music will be paused. It’s neat and was a much-wanted feature. Placing them back on your head will resume playback. Super cool.

The WH-1000XM3s lasted a whopping 30 hours, and the WH-1000XM4s match that. Would we have liked to see even longer battery life? Yes, but do you really need a pair of headphones that lasts for 35 hours?

We ran the WH-1000XM4s twice through a full battery on a long playlist that consisted of multiple genres with active noise cancellation turned on. We were close to 30 hours both times, falling slightly short at about 29 hours, 40 minutes. Still, nothing to fault, as they very easily last a full workday, eight to 10 hours, with noise canceling on. We’re also big fans of the USB-C charging, and fast charging is still here — 10 minutes gives you about five hours.

Two more things

PHOTO: Jacob Krol/CNN

Call quality and voice pickup on the WH-1000XM4s is surprisingly good. The five-microphone setup definitely delivers your voice better and more fully than the previous generation. We tried taking multiple meetings across a variety of services — Skype, Microsoft Teams, Webex and Slack, among others — and our voice was reported clear, especially when inside.

Taking calls outside resulted in wind and environmental backing sounds, but it did a better job of focusing on your voice than the XM3s. Similarly, when taking voice memos, your voice can be more quiet at times and it picks up background noise, but you can still clearly make out what you’re saying.

The WH-1000XM4s can have two Bluetooth connections at once. Not everyone will need to use this, but it’s handy in some circumstances. We’re always connected to our phone via the WH-1000XM4s, but we also like to pair with a laptop for video meetings.

Essentially, once you’re connected to your phone, you can see that you have the option to connect a second device within the companion app. It will enter pairing mode, allowing you to connect from a second device.

Bottom line

Sony’s WH-1000XM4s are an outstanding pair of over-ear ANC headphones. They don’t strip away any of our favorite features of their predecessor (WH-1000XM3) while also making nice leaps forward.

It’s a more comfortable design as a whole with the same class-leading 30-hour battery life. Additionally, sound is still clear and rich with upscaling improvements — but noise canceling is arguably the feature you’ll love. These are smaller improvements from the XM3s, but die-hard users will definitely appreciate them, especially in our new working conditions. We certainly appreciate the ability to block out more human voices while not sacrificing hums.

At $349.99, these are on the high end, but that’s the price to pay for the best of the best. We know we’ll upgrade to the XM4s permanently and are finishing off a few more tests before we can crown these the new champ.

But for now, these are an excellent pair of over-ear ANC headphones and are a must-buy. Sony did not disappoint.

Note: The prices above reflect the retailer’s listed prices at the time of publication.