After releasing its doughnut-shaped LinkBuds, Sony's back with a new lightweight pair of buds with ear tips and active noise cancellation.
David CarnoyExecutive Editor / Reviews
Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Nook e-books and audiobooks.
ExpertiseMobile accessories and portable audio, including headphones, earbuds and speakersCredentials
Maggie Award for Best Regularly Featured Web Column/Consumer
Very good sound and good noise canceling (with ambient mode)
Support Sony's LDAC audio codec
No multipoint Bluetooth pairing
No wireless charging
Not great for making calls from noisy areas
Not too long ago Sony released the doughnut-shaped LinkBuds -- earbuds that received a lot of attention for their intriguing open design and unique look. I figured Sony would let that model represent the LinkBuds brand for a while. But no, Sony wasn't done and now we get the LinkBuds S, a more traditional set of noise-isolating -- and noise-canceling -- earbuds that have a premium $200 (£180, AU$350) price tag but sit below Sony's flagship WF-1000XM4 buds ($280). While it's unclear whether they can beat competitors in this price range, which include the Beats Fit Pro, they're appealing in a lot of ways.
So, what does the S stand for? It doesn't exactly stand for one thing -- or at least that's what a Sony rep told me. It seems to represent a bunch of S words including Smartness, Sound, Silence and a Seamless connection to your online and offline worlds. That's Sony-speak meaning they're designed to be worn all the time.
They're basically the Sony equivalent of Apple's AirPods Pro. The first thing you notice about them is that they're lightweight (4.8 grams) and smaller than Sony's WF-1000XM4 buds (7.3 grams). In fact, Sony's calling them the "smallest and lightest noise-canceling hi-res true-wireless earbuds" because they do support Sony's so-called near lossless LDAC audio codec for Bluetooth streaming. But more on that in a minute. Let me go through some of the other key design highlights first.
Like the standard LinkBuds, these are made of recycled plastic -- or at least partially -- and come in black and white, with a third color ("ecru" that's sort of a yellowish beige) available exclusively at Best Buy. It's interesting to note that the black version has more of a textured finish while the white model is completely smooth. Sony wouldn't tell me whether that's because the black version is made up of more recycled plastic, but I'm pointing it out because I don't want anyone to be surprised that the finishes aren't the same.
The case is nice and compact -- just slightly bigger than the AirPods Pro's case. But unlike the WF-1000XM4's case, it doesn't have wireless charging, just USB-C charging. A lot of the buds in this price range have wireless charging but some, like the Beats Fit Pro, are also missing the wireless feature.
The earbuds fit my ears well and are comfortable. They also don't stick out of your ears too far -- they sit flush and should fit a variety of ear types, even small ears. Naturally, there will be some exceptions, so I can't promise they'll fit everybody's ears, but I can guarantee they'll fit more ears than the standard LinkBuds, which definitely don't work for some people. And on another positive note, I was able to get a tight seal with the included ear tips, which wasn't exactly the case for me with Sony's WF-1000XM4 buds. (I actually use Sennheiser tips with those buds.)
As I've said many times, that tight seal is crucial for both optimal sound quality and noise cancellation. To that end, similar to what Apple offers with the AirPods Pro, you can do an ear tip test in the app to make sure you have a tight seal with whatever tips you're using.
Similar features to the WF-1000XM4 -- but not quite the same
These earbuds use Sony's V1 chip like the WF-1000XM4 but don't have the same drivers or microphone configuration, so you're not going to get quite the same sound quality and noise cancellation as the WF-1000XM4. But both the sound and noise canceling are really solid overall and while the noise canceling is a slight step behind that of the WF-1000XM4, it's not a big step. it felt like it was about 90% as effective as the WF-1000XM4's noise canceling.
There's also an ambient mode with adjustable levels that allow you tweak how much sound you want to let in from the outside world. It may not be quite as good as Apple' transparency mode in terms of how natural the sound is, but it does sound neutral so long as you don't crank it up to the highest level. Somewhere around the 70% mark seems to sound most natural.
Ear detection sensors automatically pause your music when you take a bud or both buds out of your ears and resume it when you put them back in. You can use a single bud -- left or right -- and leave the other bud charging in the case if you want. (Some people like to wear only one bud at a time, especially when listening to podcasts.)
Like the WF-1000XM4, the LinkBuds S have Sony's Quick Attention mode that allows you to tap and hold the left bud to muffle the music you're listening to and enter ambient mode so you can hear what's going on around you and have a conversation. There's also the Speak-to-Chat feature that's essentially hands-free quick attention. If someone comes up to you and wants to chat, you can simply start talking -- Hey, how you doing? -- and your audio pauses and the earbuds go into ambient mode. The audio then resumes after a short period of time -- anywhere from 5 seconds to 30 seconds, depending on your preference. Or you can manually resume it by tapping either bud.
You can't tap your face to control playback like you can with the standard LinkBuds -- it's a cool feature -- but the touch controls work well, so no problems there. And I didn't have any issues with dropouts: The Bluetooth 5.2 connection was rock solid. Alas, there don't seem to be any volume controls on the buds themselves, but that doesn't really bother me too much.
The earbuds have an IPX4 splashproof rating, so you can use them for sporting activities. They also stayed in my ears securely even though they don't have any fins. While they may not stay in everybody's ears equally well, I had no trouble running with them and used them for a few days at the gym. That said, serious runners will probably be better off with the Beats Fit Pro or even the standard LinkBuds, with their open design that lets sound in, for safety reasons. (If the standard LinkBuds are a good match for your ears, they're great for running and biking.)
Battery life is rated at 6 hours with an extra 14 hours in the charging case. That may not be great, but it's not bad considering the compact size of the buds. By comparison, the standard LinkBuds offer 5.5 hours, while the WF-1000XM4 deliver closer to 8 hours.
Sony throws in several extra features, including an adaptive sound control mode that adjusts the sound and noise canceling on the fly based on your environment and plenty of EQ settings in the app to tweak the sound a bit if you want. Naturally, these have support for Sony's 360 Audio virtual surround music format for the select few music services that offer tracks in 360 audio. And Sony is also introducing some new features including AutoPlay, which automatically launches a custom Spotify playlist based on your activity. Finally, there are new partnerships with Endel and Microsoft Soundscape in the services section of the app. I find all that stuff a little gimmicky, but you can have fun checking it all out if you want.
Impressive sound for their size
As I said, the LinkBuds S sound good, with nicely detailed sound. The treble's got some sparkle to it and the bass is well-defined and has plenty of punch. They're tonally well-balanced and sound natural and accurate. They have relatively open, exciting sound and are more forward-sounding than the WF-1000XM4, which offer a bit more depth and richer sound quality overall with more girth. I prefer the WF-1000XM4's sound, but the margin isn't that big.
That said, for their size and weight, you'll be hard-pressed to find a better sounding set of earbuds (with smaller earbuds, the bass response often isn't quite what it should, but the LinkBuds S aren't bass-challenged). And if you have an Android device or dedicated music player that supports LDAC Bluetooth streaming, you can get a touch better sound when streaming with a music service like Qobuz or Tidal, which offers high-resolution tracks.
As for voice quality for calls, Sony says these have special mesh-covered microphones that are supposed to help with reducing wind noise and and it's developed some sophisticated software algorithms to help reduce background noise in general while also picking out your voice.
I found that overall the voice calling experience was good but not quite what I hoped it would. Callers said the buds actually did a really good job eliminating background noise but with a lot of noise -- I tested them in the noisy streets of New York (see companion video) -- my voice warbled and sometimes became hard to hear. I heard callers just fine and there's some sidetone that allows you to hear your voice in the buds as you talk.
Watch this: Sony LinkBuds: Small Audio Dynamite
By contrast, the standard LinkBuds didn't do quite as good a job reducing background noise but people said they could hear my voice more clearly. While I had a harder time hearing people in noisier environments with the standard LinkBuds (because they're open and let sound in), callers said they preferred what they heard when I was on the standard LinkBuds. I was torture testing the LinkBuds S in a harsh calling environment, to be clear, and they should do quite well in less noisy spots. But Sony's new WH-1000XM5 full-size noise-canceling headphones were stellar in the same test environment.
It'll be interesting to see whether we get a firmware upgrade that tweaks the voice calling AI. Sony typically does deliver firmware upgrades every few months and it wouldn't surprise me if these buds improve over time.
Like I said at the beginning, the Link Buds S are really appealing in a lot of ways. They're lightweight and compact yet don't skimp on the features and performance. They're kind of a cross between Sony's entry-level C500 ($100) and its flagship WF-1000XM4 buds.
I think they sound fuller and better than the Jabra Elite 7 Pro, which sell for around the same price but are also pretty lightweight and compact. But it's a tougher call when you compare them to the Beats Fit Pro, which also retail for $200. The Beats sound good and -- for Apple users, anyway -- they have extra features including spatial audio and always-on Siri and automatic pairing with all the Apple devices in your iCloud account. Unfortunately, like the WF-1000XM4 and the standard LinkBuds, the LinksBuds S don't offer multipoint Bluetooth pairing, which would allow you to pair them to two devices (like a computer and smartphone) simultaneously.
The Beats Fit Pro aren't as discreet-looking as these Sony buds, but they do have integrated sport fins that lock the buds in your ears. Some people like that, some don't. They'd definitely be better for runners.
If you're an Android user who can take advantage of the LDAC support, the LinkBuds S have enough appealing traits to make you strongly consider dropping $200 on them. They're the Sony buds for people who can deal with larger buds like WF-1000XM4 but want 80 to 85% of those buds' features and performance for $80 less.
They'll become an easier sell once they get discounted because -- to me anyway -- they feel more like $150 earbuds than $200 earbuds. You can say that about the Beats Fit Pro as well, but that's what my gut says, so I gotta say it. And perhaps we'll see both the LinkBuds S and Beats Fit Pro somewhere near that price by the holiday buying season, if not a little sooner.