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“It’s a Sony” – that was Sony Corporation’s catchphrase back in the day, and it might make a comeback as the success of its flagship Wireless Headphones (WH) and Wireless Free (WF) series has made them the gold standard for Bluetooth headphones with active noise cancellation. The WF earbuds are now in their XM5 version, featuring a more compact design, new 8.4mm Dynamic Driver X drivers with better low-frequency reproduction, and claims of superior active noise cancellation compared to the two-year-old Sony WF-1000XM4, which we loved. As you would expect, these flagship Sony earbuds don’t come cheap, retailing for around $300/€300/€260. So, are they worth the price when their predecessors are now being offered at a significant discount? We have been using the WF-1000XM5s for almost two weeks now, and we hope to answer these questions and more in the following lines.
The previous WF-1000XM buttons were larger than most of their direct competitors, but Sony has now significantly slimmed them down. The XM5s are 25% smaller and 20% lighter than their predecessors. Each earbud now weighs 5.9 grams, while the case weighs 39 grams, bringing the combined total weight to just over 50 grams – a far cry from the bulky XM3s we reviewed in 2020. The design of the XM5s is still unmistakably Sony, with gold accents for the Sony logos and microphone mesh surround, as well as the lid cover on the drawer. The knobs themselves have a predominantly glossy finish with a matte texture on the outside where we have the touch controls. The case is quite compact and boasts a pairing button, USB-C port, and support for Qi wireless charging. Our review pair comes in silver, which handles stains quite well, and the only other color you can currently get is classic black. Last year’s XM4 knobs ushered in the new polyurethane foam tips that carry over to the XM5s. The knobs are pre-installed with size M tips, while the packaging offers replacement XS, S, and L size tips. Sony’s foam tips offer excellent sound isolation compared to their silicone counterparts, although they also tend to expand in your ears, which can be a problem for some users. In my case, the default size M tips fit my ears a bit too tight, so I switched to the size XS tips, which fit better. I also tried switching to some regular silicone tips from another pair of headphones, and they were more comfortable in my book. The XM5s carry an IPX4 splash and sweat resistance rating, which is pretty standard for earbuds in 2023. The case has no ingress protection, so you’ll need to keep it away from any liquids.
Sony has spared no expense when it comes to the WF-1000XM5’s specifications. There’s the new integrated processor V2, which features 24-bit audio processing and analog audio amplification, as well as the QN2e HD Noise Canceling processor that powers the ANC system and Bluetooth SoC. One new addition here is the Quick Attention feature, which turns on transparency mode when you long press the left ear button for when you need to hear someone talking to you and then automatically switches back to ANC. Sony claims that the new 8.4mm Dynamic Driver X units offer improved reproduction of lower frequencies while covering a wider 20 – 40,000 Hz audio frequency with less distortion. The buds support the latest Bluetooth 5.3 standard, with the new addition of support for the LC3 codec that promises lower latency and less power consumption compared to the SBC and AAC legacy codecs. If your device and media application support the LDAC codec, you can stream higher bitrate audio at up to 990 kbps at 96kHz sampling. You also get 360 Reality Audio spatial audio with head tracking and multi-point pairing with two devices simultaneously out of the box. Each earbud now boasts three microphones, and Sony has added an AI machine learning noise reduction engine and bone conduction sensors that should do a much better job of picking up your voice during calls. You also get Google Fast Pair on Android as well as Swift Pair for Windows 10 and 11 devices for effortless pairing with your devices. Hands-free Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa allow you to control all aspects of the earbuds, as well as all the other neat tricks offered by both virtual assistants. The XM5s bring standard touch controls on their outer shells, but they are not remappable, so you are stuck with what Sony has deemed optimal – four taps for volume adjustment is a bit of a hassle. Sony has also added a Find Your Equalizer feature that guides you to create a custom EQ tuned to your listening preferences. The adaptive sound control feature automatically switches between the noise canceling and ambient modes based on your environment and activity. Running and walking will have Ambient mode on, while Transport and Stay modes will turn on Noise Canceling mode. Talk to talk is another familiar Sony feature that instantly activates ambient mode so you can have a conversation without stopping your music. Sony’s Headphones Connect app for Android and iOS is your one-stop-shop for managing the wealth of features offered by the XM5s, including the EQ and ANC modes.
Performance and sound quality
We tested the WF-1000XM5s back and forth with an iPhone 13, Sony Xperia 5 V (for the LDAC support), and a 14” MacBook Pro. The multi-point pairing works flawlessly and is a welcome addition out of the box without having to wait months for a software update like on the XM4s. The XM5s offer a balanced sound profile out of the box with just the right amount of bass without overpowering the rest of the audio spectrum. Like their predecessor, these earbuds lean towards a warm soundstage with a smooth transition between the lower, mid, and higher frequencies. The sound coming out of the XM5s feels more mature compared to other popular in-ear offerings we’ve tested recently, and we can confidently say it’s a step up from the XM4s as well. Mids are faithfully reproduced, with vocals and instruments offering nuanced details that are harder to spot on more affordable in-ear buds. The treble response is also improved, with more clarity in the higher range. With this in mind, Sony’s headphone app allows you to adjust all aspects of the EQ to your specific taste. The XM5s pack a punch in terms of loudness thanks to their updated 8.4mm drivers. Listening in LDAC mode seems to provide a slightly better experience, although, like my previous experience with the high bitrate codec, it does impact battery life and is only noticeable in specific occasions with higher bass and stringed instruments. And then we come to noise cancellation – the main feature of the WF-1000XM series. The updated ANC system on the XM5s is by far the best implementation we’ve tested on a pair of in-ear buds. Part of this is likely due to the foam ear tips, which provide excellent passive sound isolation. Air conditioners, water coolers, and other mid-frequency noises are blocked as soon as you turn on the XM5s. More impressively, the XM5s handle busier environments just as well, blocking out a large range of sound frequencies. While the ANC is not at the level of WH-1000XM5, we can consider the WF-1000XM5 as the benchmark for in-ear noise cancellation. Ambient mode is executed to perfection so you can naturally hear your surroundings and voices,…