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Sony WF-1000XM5 earbuds review: smaller is better

Sony WF-1000XM5 in silver, charging case with lid open, sitting next to plants and rocks.
Sony WF-1000XM5
MSRP $300.00
“Smaller, sleeker, and with awesome sound, the XM5 are Sony's best buds.”
  • Smaller and more comfortable
  • Top-notch sound
  • Excellent ANC and transparency
  • Great battery life
  • Bluetooth multipoint
  • Fit isn't super secure
  • Voice can be distorted on calls
  • Multipoint didn't work consistently

Sony’s latest flagship wireless earbuds, the WF-1000XM5, are 25% smaller than their predecessors. Why am I throwing that out there? Because it’s really hard to find any faults with the XM5 predecessor — the WF-1000XM4 — except their size and shape. For a lot of folks, the XM4 were just too big for a comfortable fit.

So right off the bat, the new XM5 have accomplished what might be their most important mission (assuming that their smaller size actually translates into better comfort).

Sony also claims the XM5 have incremental improvements to sound, noise cancellation, and call quality. Oh, and there’s also one more incremental change: At $300, the WF-1000XM5 are Sony’s most expensive wireless earbuds to date.

Are the WF-1000XM5 as good in real life as they look on paper? I spent a week with them to find out.

But first, a fairly major editor’s note:

Halfway through our time with the XM5, Sony notified us that it had sent prototypes to reviewers — not production versions that will go to those who buy them from Sony or other retailers. There are several areas in this review like call quality, Bluetooth connections, and noise cancellation where the XM5 did not perform as well as we expected. Sony claims these are the same areas where it also noted weaknesses in the prototype and it says they will all be addressed in the full production models.

We can’t take Sony’s word for it, so this review has been scored and described as if our units are the same as the ones you’ll buy — just like any other Digital Trends review. (We have, however, withheld any award designation.) If and when we receive a set of production XM5 to try out — and if they perform differently — we’ll update this review accordingly.

Sony WF-1000XM5: smaller, sleeker

Sony WF-1000XM5 and Sony WF-1000XM4 in silver.
Sony WF-1000XM5 (top) and the 2021 WF-1000XM4 in silver. Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

The WF-1000XM5 aren’t just smaller than the XM4, they’re 20% lighter and way more streamlined. That goes for the earbuds as well as the wirelessly-charging case, which has also been given a more rounded, lozenge-like shape which is a lot more pocket-friendly.

Looks are a subjective thing, but I don’t think anyone was especially taken with the XM4’s bulky, bulbous shape and gold-tone microphone ports, except to say they were a bit better looking than the XM3 model that came before them.

The XM5, on the other hand, are small, smooth, and elegant. The microphone port is still there, and it’s still gold-toned, but it now sits flush with the earbud body where it looks more like an inlaid gold accent than a functional part of the device. You could wear these things to a black-tie event and not look out of place.

Sony WF-1000XM5 in black, charging case with lid open.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Part of the appeal is the glossy piano black (or the beigy color that Sony insists on calling “silver”) finish of the main body, which blends seamlessly — there are literally no visible seams — into the matte finish of the touch surface.

However, as good as it looks, that glossy finish is so slippery that it’s easy to lose your grip while handling them.

Sony WF-1000XM5: comfort and fit

Are they more comfortable than the XM4? For me, the answer is yes. The combination of smooth plastic and smaller size makes for a less fatiguing fit. Sony has also redesigned the foam eartips to be more forgiving and there are four sizes to choose from instead of three — an extra small size has been added.

Sony WF-1000XM5 in black, with accessories.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

But the XM5 do not sit as securely as the XM4 or Sony’s LinkBuds S, which could limit the appeal of the XM5 for running or gym use, even though they have an IPX4 rating for water and sweat resistance. The glossy finish provides a lot less grip on the skin of your ear and the horn (the part that’s covered in the foam eartip) doesn’t stick out from the earbud body as far as it does on the XM4. This limits how deeply you can insert the earbuds and thus limits the amount of contact the foam sleeve has with your ear canal.

Let me caveat this by saying I have deeply set ear canals, and the XM5 aren’t the first earbuds I’ve worn that feel like I can’t get them into my ears as far as I’d like. If you’re in the opposite camp, and routinely have trouble getting earbuds to sit fully in your ears, this could be very good news.

It hasn’t been a deal-breaker for me. While I have had to nudge them in more than I’d like — even with the largest tips installed — overall I prefer the comfort of the XM5 over the secure fit of the XM4.

Man wearing Sony WF-1000XM5.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

New for the XM5 are built-in accelerometers, which enable the same kind of head-tracked spatial audio that Apple has added to select AirPods models. (More on that in a moment). Sony has taken advantage of the accelerometers to incorporate head movement control gestures. They’re rudimentary but work like a charm: you can nod your head to accept an incoming call or decline it by shaking your head. In theory, Sony could give you more gestures and more actions — Klipsch’s T5 II ANC uses dedicated software from Bragi to do this — but I wouldn’t hold my breath on that.

Sony WF-1000XM5: ANC and transparency

For the XM5, Sony has moved from a single processor (its V1 which was used on the XM4) to a dual processor platform made up of its new V2 Integrated Processor plus its latest dedicated chip for noise cancellation — the HD Noise Cancelling Processor QN2e. Sony says that by running these devices in tandem, along with the XM5’s six onboard microphones, and the XM5’s redesigned drivers, it can achieve better ANC performance across all but the highest frequencies when compared to the XM4.

Sony WF-1000XM5 two earbuds sitting in front of charging case.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

I found that to be true — the XM4 was no slouch in the ANC department, but the XM5 is better. Not radically better, however. If I had to put a number on it, I’d say 10% to 15% better, though you may find there are certain times and places when it’s more noticeable, especially if you’re battling with very low frequencies. Another area of strength is the XM5’s ability to deal with wind noise while in ANC mode. Wind can often undermine ANC performance — my recent experience with the Beats Studio Pro was a reminder of that. The XM5 seem utterly unaffected by wind.

For day-to-day situations, I found them to be just as capable as Apple’s AirPods Pro 2 ($249) and the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II ($299). However, even with the XM5’s ANC enhancements, there were still some instances where Bose and Apple had an edge. In my totally unscientific bathroom fan test — where I stand outside my bathroom and listen to how earbuds cancel the fan noise — both the AirPods Pro 2 and QuietComfort Earbuds II eradicated the sound entirely. The XM5 still let some of the higher frequencies through. Sitting 6 feet away, there was no appreciable difference between them.

Sony WF-1000XM5, LinkBuds S, and WF-1000XM4 earbuds side-by-side.
From left: Sony WF-1000XM5, LinkBuds S, WF-1000XM4. Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Similar things can be said of the XM5’s transparency mode. It offers a more natural sound when piping in the outside world than the XM4, but even with its optional voice-targeting mode, it can’t quite meet the exceptionally high bar set by the AirPods Pro 2. Sony has improved the transition time between ANC and transparency modes, although curiously, it’s faster at switching from transparency to ANC than vice versa.

As with the XM4, the XM5 can detect when you’re speaking and shift automatically from ANC to transparency. It takes a second to kick in, but it seemed to be very consistent in detecting my voice. When you enable this voice detection setting, it’s active in both ANC and transparency modes. Hopefully, this is yet another prototype bug, because hearing the voice detection chime as the earbuds attempt to switch to transparency — when you’re already in transparency mode — is super annoying.

I wish Sony had taken a page from Apple’s transparency playbook. The AirPods Pro 2 have a feature called Adaptive Transparency, which constantly monitors your environment for loud noises when you’re in Transparency mode. If a sound is judged to be dangerously loud, it kicks you into ANC mode instantly to protect your hearing. Given the additional processing power Sony has given the XM5, I’d like to think they could manage this trick, too.

Sony WF-1000XM5 one earbud sitting in front of charging case.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Sony WF-1000XM5: call and voice quality

Sony claims its new dual processor platform also gives the XM5 a leg up when it comes to call quality. Beyond the six mics, there’s also a bone conduction sensor in each bud that feeds your voice vibrations into an AI algorithm, which Sony says has been trained on 500 million voice samples — with the goal of separating your voice from background sounds.

With that level of tech, my expectations were very high, but the XM5 have proven to be uneven for calling. As promised, the earbuds do a better job than the XM4 of killing background sounds, but it also affects your voice, giving it a less natural sound. Fellow DT AV reporter Caleb Denison and I did a number of test calls using both the XM4 and XM5 and we came to a similar conclusion: the XM5 sound like the mics are too hot — as if the gain has been pushed too high, creating distortion. Sony says it’s a prototype problem and that the issue will be fixed.

Sony WF-1000XM5: sound quality

The XM5’s drivers have been significantly redesigned from the XM4 — they’re 40% bigger at 8.4mm (vs 6mm) and they sport a new shape. Sony calls it Dynamic Driver X — a dome-edge separation structure that combines different materials (though Sony hasn’t indicated what those materials are). It’s designed to reduce distortion while improving both vocal clarity and low-frequency response.

Sony WF-1000XM5 in black, charging case angled with lid open, next to an iPhone 14.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Sony has never disappointed us when it comes to sound quality, and the XM5 are superb, with a sound signature that can best be described as a small but still noticeable enhancement of the XM4’s performance. Bass response, which has always been a Sony strength, is deeply resonant and musical but now feels better balanced with the rest of the frequencies.

Through a variety of genres from hard rock to jazz, these earbuds kept individual elements distinct from each other. Even on a track like Zeal by Bill Laurance, where the many layers of synth, strings, and percussion, proved too complex for the Bowers & Wilkins Pi7 S2, the XM5 managed to keep things organized and intelligible. When using Sony’s LDAC Bluetooth codec (Android only), detail and dynamic range — especially with lossless hi-res audio sources — were further improved.

Vocals are crystal clear, but despite the presence of those new drivers, I’m not sure the XM5 deliver a better high-end than the XM4. On some tracks, like Camila Cabello’s Bam Bam, I actually preferred the XM4’s treatment, which sounded a little less processed. But I’m really splitting hairs here — they both sound great.

The soundstage has excellent detail and precision, but as we’ve noticed with both Sony headphones and earbuds, it’s a stage that doesn’t expand very far outside your head — most of the sound is concentrated within a small circle. That’s when listening to normal stereo. 3D formats, like Sony 360 Reality Audio (360RA) and Dolby Atmos offer a much wider performance, with 360RA benefitting the most.

Sony has also thrown in a beta version of its sound personalization system called Find Your Equalizer. You pick a song to listen to and the feature walks you through a series of three EQ modifications. With each step, you pick your favorite mod from among a few numbered options, and each of those choices leads to further refinements. In the end, the system saves your EQ settings as a custom preset within the Headphones app’s equalizer section, where you can modify it or turn it on and off. I wasn’t wild about the sound signature it created, which seemed to significantly de-emphasize the highest frequencies, but it’s a fun tool to mess around with if you’re not keen on moving individual EQ sliders around.

Sony WF-1000XM5: spatial audio

Sony WF-1000XM5 in silver.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Yes, the XM5 support head-tracked spatial audio, but for now it’s limited to just a few situations. I couldn’t get it working with any Dolby Atmos Music sources like Amazon Music or Apple Music, but it did work when watching Netflix on a Google Pixel 7 Pro. The key is that the phone itself has to support head-tracking, which ruled out my other two test phones, an iPhone 14 and a Xiaomi 12 Pro. Sony tells me that it will also work with immersive games like Niantic’s Ingress when the feature is added later this year.

While watching The Batman, I was able to move my head and some parts of the soundtrack remained anchored to the location of the phone. However, it’s not as smooth or convincing as Apple’s version of head-tracked spatial on the AirPods Pro Gen 2.

Sony WF-1000XM5: Bluetooth Multipoint

Bluetooth 5.3, connections on the WF-1000XM5 were solid. I easily paired two devices at once, like a MacBook Air and a Google Pixel 7 Pro, and unlike the Technics EAH-AZ80, you don’t need to choose between Multipoint and LDAC use. But some features didn’t work as expected. With Bluetooth Multipoint, you should be able to pause music on one connected device, then hit play on the second device and the earbuds should automatically switch their audio priority to the device that’s now playing. It didn’t work. I was able to switch using the Headphones app’s connected device menu manually, but no one should have to do that.

The XM5 also support one-tap pairing with Android phones via Google Fast Pair, but that also proved unsuccessful. Finally, I experienced several instances where the XM5 didn’t maintain their connection to the Mac when starting a Microsoft Teams call. The Mac said they were connected, but Teams simply refused to acknowledge them. Can these problems be once again chalked up to prototype woes? For Sony’s sake, I hope so.

Sony tells me the XM5 will support LE Audio, including Auracast and music sharing, but I wasn’t able to test these features.

Sony WF-1000XM5: controls

The WF-1000XM5, like many earbuds, use touch controls instead of physical buttons. They’re very accurate and easy to use, and Sony’s use of a short tone when you successfully tap gets rid of any doubt — if you don’t hear the tone, tap again. Sony has also made an effort to improve the availability of functions. On the XM4, you were forced to choose between different control groups, which meant that if you wanted to be able to adjust the volume (for example) you might have to live without voice assistant access.

Sony’s solution has been to add volume control access as an always-on feature. That makes a lot of sense. What doesn’t make much sense (to me, at least) is that volume changes are now accomplished by tapping each earbud four times — the right earbud raises the volume and the left lowers it. Four taps for a high-use feature like volume is excessive and kind of awkward.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to change any of the gestures. The only customization available within the Sony Headphones app is whether you want to assign ANC functions to the left or right earbud (or you can decide to ignore ANC entirely and use both earbuds for playback control). To be fair, neither Apple nor Bose offer much customization either, but I prefer the way those earbuds manage volume changes.

An extension of these controls is Sony’s auto-pause feature, which is enabled by the XM5’s wear sensors. Pop an earbud out to pause your tunes; pop it back in to resume. It works really well, but you also can disable it in the app if it bugs you. In the same vein is the auto-off feature, which will power down the earbuds if you’re not wearing them but forget to put them back in the case (this can also be disabled).

Sony WF-1000XM5: battery life

Sony WF-1000XM5 charging case rear view.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Battery life is unchanged from WF-1000XM4: Sony claims you’ll get eight hours of playtime per charge when ANC is turned on, and up to 12 hours when it’s off. With two full charges in the case, that means that if you keep volume no higher than 50%, you may be able to get up to 36 hours of total time before you need to charge up. But Sony has managed to improve the XM5’s quick-charge feature once again. You now only need to stick the earbuds in their case for three minutes to grab an extra hour of playtime — that’s one of the fastest quick-charge times we’ve seen so far.

It’s evident from the time I’ve spent with the WF-1000XM5 that Sony has developed a fantastic set of wireless earbuds. For anyone who wanted to buy the XM4, but couldn’t because they were just too big, the extra $20 for the XM5 might be well worth it.

Even with the performance problems with call quality and Bluetooth Multipoint — which could be the result of the prototype status of our review unit — the XM5 are comfortable, stylish, and great-sounding, with ANC and transparency that comes very close to rivaling the current king, Apple’s AirPods Pro 2.

However, since we haven’t actually been able to try the final product yet, for the moment, we’re going to stop short of handing the XM5 either our Recommended Product or Editors’ Choice award. I also recommend that you wait until we get a chance to hear the final version in action before making a purchase decision. Hopefully, that won’t be long from now.

Editors' Recommendations

Simon Cohen
Contributing Editor, A/V
Simon Cohen covers a variety of consumer technologies, but has a special interest in audio and video products, like…
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