Have you been paying attention? We’re approaching a sea change moment for noise-canceling earbuds. Any flagship pair you buy today from Sony, Bose, Apple, Samsung, or other reputable brands can accomplish the core task — eliminating distractions and background commotion around you — perfectly fine. They’re all more than competent at that. So now, tech companies are angling for new ways to differentiate by making the experience smarter and more, well, adaptive through the integration of AI and machine learning.
Against that inevitable tide, Sony is releasing its latest flagship ANC earbuds, the WF-1000XM5. Priced at $299.99, the 1000XM5s build upon their popular (and slightly less expensive) predecessor with a smaller, more comfortable design, larger drivers for improved sound quality, and yes, more effective noise cancellation. There’s no single tentpole feature that makes these a must-have upgrade, but Sony is strategically tackling the main downsides of the prior model and hoping that’ll be enough to make these another hit. You’re still getting the company’s higher-fidelity LDAC Bluetooth codec, more flexible onboard controls, and clearer voice calls than any of Sony’s past flagship buds. But there are also reasons to wait a beat and give it more thought before hitting “buy” this time around.
Before we go any further, I need to address something. This is going to sound like one of the more pedantic complaints I’ve ever made, but I promise I’m not nitpicking, and it’s grown to be a legitimate frustration: the glossy finish on these earbuds makes it objectively harder to get them out of the case than it was with the all-matte 1000XM4s. On multiple occasions, I’ve gone to pluck the M5s from their magnetic cradles, and my fingers have feebly slid right over the glossy sides, providing me no grip to get a good hold on them. If your fingers are greasy or sweaty for any reason, forget about it.
This glossy / matte combo unquestionably makes the new earbuds look classier and more stylish than their predecessors. (“They’re really pretty,” The Verge editor-in-chief Nilay Patel said when handling the 1000XM5s at our office.) But I’m telling you, I never struggled with the fundamental action of removing the 1000XM4s — or even the M3s — from their case in the same way. When I miss, I feel like a total nitwit. I’m not trying to paint this as some crisis or major deal-breaker, but taking your earbuds out of the case should be an effortless step. With these, I find myself thinking about it each time I make the attempt. We haven’t quite reached the dog days of summer, and I’m already annoyed by this. My best workaround so far has been pushing each earbud out of its cradle with my thumb instead of trying to pluck them out with two fingers.
When you do get the 1000XM5s into your ears, it’s a much more comfortable and ergonomic fit than the bulky M4s could ever offer. These earbuds are 25 percent smaller and 20 percent lighter than their predecessors, but the improvement feels more significant than that when you’re actually wearing them. Maybe that’s more to do with the fact that the M4s were already a little too oversized and weighty for their time, but Sony has (finally) struck the right balance. The case has also been downsized by 15 percent. The AirPods Pro case is still a bit thinner, but the Sony’s is perfectly pocketable and includes wireless charging.
The company has also managed to upgrade its proprietary foam ear tips. For starters, there’s now a fourth extra-small pair included (joining small, medium, and large). And Sony reduced the amount of firm plastic beneath the foam, making the newer tips more flexible and easier to squeeze down before you slide the M5s into your ears. I was a fan of the foam tips that came with the M4s, and these are a step up. Sony says the material helps to “reduce noise in the high-frequency range,” so the tips serve their own purpose in the grand noise cancellation scheme.
And that noise cancellation framework is even more powerful than before. The M5s contain six microphones and two separate processors that work in tandem to monitor ambient sound and lower the volume knob on the outside world. In particular, Sony says these earbuds do a better job analyzing and blocking lower-frequency noise — think airplane cabins, buses, etc. — and are more adept at cutting down on everyday street noise (cars, construction, and so forth). The M5s chart better than the M4s at lowering human speech, but the difference there is less pronounced. You’ll also notice (as I have) less wind noise while wearing these earbuds; Sony relocated the microphone inlets to make them less susceptible to distortion from the elements.
Throwing more silicon and upgraded mics at the problem has worked well; in my admittedly subjective tests, the 1000XM5s are right up there with Bose’s QuietComfort Earbuds II and the second-generation AirPods Pro. Picking a winner among them is sort of like flipping a coin. Sony bests Bose in other departments like audio quality, but it’s still a smidge behind the other two in how natural and convincing its transparency mode sounds. It’s more than adequate for the intended purpose but a tick or two off from the very best. Overall, it’s by no means a generational leap over the M4s, so you shouldn’t upgrade for ANC alone. But combined with the vastly better comfort, there’s been noticeable progress.
The same can be said for sound quality: it’s not a leap, but Sony has made some strides. The M5s include an 8.4mm driver in each earbud compared to the 6mm unit that was in the M4s. I don’t like to get too caught up in driver size — especially when other manufacturers like Samsung are now using two of them per bud — but Sony claims the swap makes for improved tonal accuracy and better reproduction of the lower bass range. The M5 earbuds also feature a superior DAC and lower harmonic distortion, according to the company.
This is stuff you’re unlikely to notice unless you’ve got a sharp ear, have activated the LDAC codec, and are consistently listening to higher-bitrate audio from Amazon Music, Apple Music, Tidal, Qobuz, and other services. By default, most Android phones don’t make the most of LDAC, favoring lower bitrates and a more stable Bluetooth connection over pure fidelity. If desired, you can dig into developer settings or use third-party utilities to force maximum performance. Taking a step back, I think the sound signature between the two pairs of Sony buds is quite similar. If you hated the M4s, these aren’t going to magically flip your opinion. But they do feel more dynamic and detailed — standing toe to toe with the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 3s and the Technics EAH-AZ80 earbuds I’ve been testing lately.
If you’re looking for a real standout improvement compared to the M4s, it’s gotta be voice calls. Sony says it used over 500 million voice samples to train the AI algorithm in the M5s so that it can recognize and extract your voice from all sorts of environment noise. There’s also now a bone conduction sensor that monitors vibrations for yet another cue that it’s you doing the talking and not someone nearby.
During Google Meet calls with my co-workers (with Meet’s noise-reduction options turned off), my colleagues said I came through clearly. There was a small amount of echo, but they could make out everything I was saying against a fan behind me without any trouble. I’ve done test phone calls from my local coffee shop and heard similarly positive feedback. Many wireless earbuds are often a last resort for me compared to a wired set with an inline mic, but Sony is really establishing itself as a winner in this category between the LinkBuds, LinkBuds S, and now, the 1000XM5s.
Falling behind the ecosystem heavyweights
Sony has never found any measurable success with its Xperia smartphones, and that reality is beginning to put the company at a distinct disadvantage against Apple, Samsung, and to some extent, Google for its earbuds. Those three have enough momentum (and market share) to develop a unique togetherness between their respective phones and earbuds — and to do it natively at the operating system level. The best Sony can do is shoehorn a ton of extra functionality into its companion app, Sony Headphones Connect, for Android and iOS.
But there’s inherently more friction that comes along with this strategy, plus some noticeable limitations. Apple’s upcoming Adaptive Audio feature for the second-gen AirPods Pro will intelligently blend noise cancellation and transparency modes in real time based on your surroundings and activity. There’s nothing to do besides just flipping a toggle and turning it on. Meanwhile, Sony has long had a feature called Adaptive Sound Control that detects different activities — sitting still, walking, running, commuting, etc. — and lets you customize your preferred earbud settings for each scenario. But you’ve got to grant numerous permissions for the system to work, and it can behave a little erratically. Plus, Sony makes you register for an account if you want the app to “learn how you use your headphones while Adaptive Sound Control is enabled, and switch settings at the optimal time.”
Then there’s spatial audio. For Android users, the 1000XM5s have added support for head tracking, something the M4s lacked, with compatible video apps including Netflix and YouTube. Enabling this feature takes a few steps: you’ve got to toggle on head tracking in the earbuds’ Bluetooth settings, and then there’s a brief optimization process in Sony’s app that uses your phone’s camera to make sure spatial audio sounds as it should. It’s easy to completely miss the latter step, which I did until I went poking around. Even after all that, on a Pixel Fold, I couldn’t get head tracking working with Netflix while watching Bullet Train — despite the movie having a spatial audio logo on its details page. Nothing worked in YouTube, either. Again, this is friction that isn’t present with the approaches of Samsung or Apple. I’ve asked Sony what the issue could be.
Sony has thrown the kitchen sink into the Headphones Connect app. There’s a whole damn online manual for the thing. It can track your activity (total listening time, volume preferences, etc.). You can optionally enable silly head gestures for answering calls or activating an autoplay feature. But the app is also loaded with awkward translations and an overwhelming gauntlet of settings / preferences. The 1000XM5s are a fantastic set of noise-canceling headphones, but I get the impression that Sony is flailing to keep up elsewhere. If you don’t care about any of the bonus capabilities or adaptive tricks, none of this will matter. But these features are growing more important as the years pass. Should we be in a world where smartphone heavyweights are gaining a clear advantage with their earbuds and headphones? You could argue not, but that’s the situation we’re in. Sony’s going to have to come up with something.
An important note on battery life
The 1000XM5s promise the same eight hours of continuous playback (and 24 hours counting the case) as the M4s. The only new tidbit here is that they’re faster at quick charging in a pinch; plug them into an outlet for just three minutes, and that’ll net you a full hour of battery life.
But here’s the thing: a lot of people have reported battery reliability issues with the 1000XM4s over time. Take, for example, this giant, well-maintained Reddit thread. This is the kind of issue that only surfaces over extended use and would’ve gone unnoticed in most initial reviews (mine included), so I’m glad to see it being documented and that people are holding Sony to account.
I’ve asked the company for a thorough statement on what it has learned regarding the M4 battery drain problems and whether everything’s been squared away for the M5s. As of publication time, there has been no response. From what I’ve seen, Sony has been good about sending affected customers replacement units, so the predicament hasn’t been bad enough for me to stop recommending the M4s in our best earbuds buying guide. But it’s worth being aware of as the M5s come to market, and it serves as another reminder that the tiny batteries in wireless earbuds are consumable and might not last as long as expected considering the price you’re paying. Sony does not directly offer any kind of extended warranty for its headphones and earbuds, so you might want to consider what’s available from whatever retailer you’re buying them from.
Rounding out the 1000XM5s are other carryover features like IPX4 water resistance and multipoint connectivity. You can still pair to two devices at the same time, but unlike with the M4s, you no longer have to lose LDAC audio on your Android phone while doing so. The controls are slightly more comprehensive with the addition of volume: tap four times on the right earbud and then hold, and the loudness goes up. Do the same on the left, and the volume goes down. That’s a lot of tapping away at your ears, but I can at least say that it has worked consistently in my tests.
Sony’s WF-1000XM5s feel like a natural evolution of the company’s flagship line. Crucially, they’re more comfortable than any previous version in your ears — even if the new glossy coating is testing my patience. The active noise cancellation and sound quality have each been amped up a discernible amount — even if the results aren’t game-changing. And I can confidently take calls while using them without any dread of sounding like a muffled jerk. These are the most well-rounded execution of Sony’s vision yet. But I’ll be keeping an eye on battery longevity.
Beyond that, I’m left wondering whether they’ll be able to hold the same appeal as their predecessors over the next year or two as Apple, Samsung, and Google continue to wield their ecosystem advantage and release software features and new audio experiences that are only possible with deep ties between phone and earbud. Sony is trying its best to keep up, but the execution is falling flat.
If all you’re after is a great pair of noise-canceling buds that sound rich, immersive, and full-bodied, the $300 1000XM5s won’t leave you wanting for more. But if you’re Sony, the real dilemma is that there might be nowhere left to go from here.
Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge