Sony Pulse Explore Earbuds Hands-On: Absurdly Good Sound
While designed to be used with Sony's PlayStation 5 gaming console, they're among the best wireless earbuds for music listening.
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.
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Sony Pulse Explore Earbuds Hands-On: Absurdly Good Sound
Sony's upcoming Pulse Explore wireless earbuds are weird -- but in a surprisingly good way.
Due to ship Dec. 6 and available for preorder now for $200, the buds are ostensibly low-latency gaming earbuds. Somewhat bulky and a little bit strange looking in your ears, they're designed to be used with Sony's PS5 gaming console and its new PlayStation Portal remote player, as well as Windows and Mac computers. (The included PlayStation Link USB adapter is required for PS5 and Nintendo Switch use.) Like most other wireless gaming earbuds I've encountered, the Pulse Explore can also be paired with your smartphone via Bluetooth.
That they're very good gaming earbuds isn't surprising. However, that they're as good as they are for music listening is a revelation. In fact, after trying an early review sample in advance of the launch, I found that they sound clearer and more articulate than Sony's flagship WF-1000XM5 earbuds, with tight, powerful bass. That doesn't necessarily mean they sound better than XM5s, which sound a little fuller. But I wasn't expecting them to compete at all with the XM5s for music listening.
The reason for that sound seems largely due to the buds' planar magnetic drivers, which are typically found in high-end over-ear audiophile headphones and rarely in earbuds. Sony recently acquired Audeze, which is known for its planar magnetic drivers and in 2021 made a pair of $1,299 wired planar magnetic earbuds called the Euclid that are currently listed as "sold out." Planar magnetic drivers are prized for their sonic accuracy and being less prone to distortion. They're typically larger than standard dynamic drivers found in the majority of headphones and harder to drive.
Watch this: Sony Pulse Explore Earbuds: Setup and Hands-On
Normally, I'd say that $200 for a pair of gaming earbuds, especially ones like the Pulse Explore that don't exactly have a premium look and feel, is pretty pricey. (They're an all-plastic affair and are relatively lightweight for their size.) But that Sony and presumably Audeze have brought this driver technology to a pair of $200 earbuds is kind of wild. And Sony's upcoming $150 Pulse Elite headset, due to ship on Feb. 21, also features planar magnetic drivers.
To get to that price point, Sony has stripped out some features that you'd find in today's premium true-wireless earbuds, including its WF-1000XM5 buds. The Pulse Explore have no active noise canceling (aka ANC), no ear-detection sensors that automatically pause your music when you take the earbuds out of your ears, and no companion app with an equalizer or other features (that I'm aware of). These are truly bare-bones earbuds. In fact, the volume control buttons only worked when I was using the buds with my PS5, and there were no controls for skipping tracks forward or back when I was using the buds with an iPhone 15 and Google Pixel 7.
Truth be told, I generally use full-size headphones for gaming and so do my teenage kids, who I usually ask for feedback when testing gaming headsets. As I said, from my limited testing time, they sounded very good and performed well as gaming earbuds. They're compatible with Sony's 3D Audio supported games. (I played Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater.) Sony says they'll "enhance your perception in 3D Audio supported PS5 games as audio cues are positioned with an incredible degree of accuracy across all three dimensions." And microphone performance seemed quite good for multiplayer games.
It was simple to connect the earbuds to the PS5. You plug in the PlayStation Link USB adapter to the USB-A port on the PS5, then press the link button on the case while the earbuds are in the case, and you're quickly connected to the PS5. What's also nice is that you can simultaneously be connected to your phone via Bluetooth and take a call if it comes in while you're gaming. While you could pair to a PC via Bluetooth, you'll likely want to use the PlayStation Link USB adapter with your Mac or Windows PC because it creates a lossless low-latency connection with the buds. With the Nintendo Switch, you'll need a USB-C to USB-A adapter to plug in the dongle, but no dongle is required for the PlayStation Portal remote player. (It's a shame you need a dongle for the PS5, as it's unclear why the technology can't be built into the unit like it is with the Portal.)
As far as comfort goes, the buds come with four sets of ear tips, so you should find a set that fits your ears well. Overall, I found them comfortable to wear over long periods. (The earbuds are rated for five hours of battery life at moderate volume levels with two extra charges in their fairly larger charging case.) While I was able to get a tight seal with the largest set of ear tips, I ended up switching to another set with a more conical shape that fit my ears even better. (Since I test a lot of earbuds I have a lot of extra ear tips to choose from.)
I spent more time listening to music than gaming with them because I was surprised how good they sound. I asked Sony whether they supported its LDAC audio codec for Bluetooth streaming, but I never got a response. However, it appears they don't as my Pixel 7 showed that the AAC audio codec was supported for HD audio in the settings for the buds, not LDAC.
While they may not offer the same sound quality as high-end over-ear planar magnetic headphones, they exhibit some of the same sound traits: well-balanced audio that's clear, accurate and open (wide sound stage), with bass that goes deep but is well defined. These are earbuds that will make you want to do a deep dive into your music library to hear how they sound with various tracks. While they may be a little harder to drive, I didn't have any issue with how loud they play using my iPhone 15. (The volume was slightly lower with the Pixel 7.) But the WF-1000XM5 buds do play louder, and, as I said, sound a bit fuller with bigger bass.
I was also impressed with their voice-calling capabilities. Callers told me they did a very good job suppressing background noise while my voice came through relatively clearly -- even on the noisy streets of New York. They're in the upper echelon of earbuds for voice calling.
As noted, they're pretty lacking in the features department when it comes to what people have come to expect from premium earbuds that cost $200, the street price of Apple's AirPods Pro 2. But if you get a tight seal, the passive noise isolation is good (a decent amount of ambient noise is muffled) and the earbuds sound great and work well for making calls, which is all that a lot of people are looking for.
I'll post a full review once I've spent more time with the Pulse Explore earbuds, but for now I'll say they've exceeded my expectations. Sure, plenty of people use their gaming headset as everyday headphones, particularly while working at their desk. But the Pulse Explore also make a strong case to be your everyday earbuds despite their decided lack of features.