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Sony LinkBuds S review: A big step up from the original

Our Rating :
£119.00 from
Price when reviewed : £119
inc VAT

The Sony LinkBuds S are a cost-effective alternative to the WF-1000XM4 but don’t hit the same levels of ANC and audio performance


  • Lightweight and comfortable
  • Decent noise cancellation
  • Adaptive Sound Control


  • Touch controls limitations
  • Average battery life

While the Sony LinkBuds were a novel idea, the environmental awareness they provided came with a crucial caveat – the inability to actually hear your music in loud environments. Sony has gone back to the drawing board with the Sony LinkBuds S and the result is a pair of true wireless earbuds far better suited to a wider range of situations.

The redesign leaves the LinkBuds S looking more generic than their predecessors but, thanks to effective noise cancellation, decent sound quality and Sony’s super-smart Adaptive Sound Control technology, the Japanese manufacturer has a capable, more affordable alternative to its flagship Sony WF-1000XM4.

Sony LinkBuds S review: What you need to know

The LinkBuds S are less a sequel to, and more a complete reworking of, the original LinkBuds. The circular openings that defined the first model are gone and they’ve been replaced by more run-of-the-mill earbud housings, with the result that they’re far less interesting to look at.

They’re well-specified, however, with Bluetooth 5.2 connectivity and support for LE Audio in addition to Sony’s high-resolution LDAC codec, SBC and AAC. They also support Bluetooth multipoint (thanks to a recent firmware update), which allows you to connect to two devices simultaneously.

The LinkBuds S are powered by the same Integrated Processor V1 found in the Sony WF-1000XM4 and this delivers most of the same features, including active noise cancellation (ANC), an ambient sound mode and Adaptive Sound Control – the ace up Sony’s sleeve. While active, it can automatically adjust your settings based on where you are and what you’re doing, and it’s extremely useful.

The Sony LinkBuds S also benefit from all of the features tucked away in the Sony Headphones Connect app. Among its many other options, the app lets you turn on or off features like Speak-to-Chat and wear detection, choose whether to prioritise sound quality or connection stability, tweak the touch controls, select from a series of preset EQs, and create your own via a five-band equaliser.

Sony LinkBuds S review: Price and competition

The Sony LinkBuds S launched at £180 but are currently available for £119. That’s an appealing price for true wireless earbuds from a premium brand with noise cancellation among a host of other convenience features.

At the time of writing, however, you can pick up a pair of the Sony WF-1000XM4 – our favourite earbuds – for just £159. These offer a more satisfying audio experience and superior ANC, so it’s well worth paying the extra money if sound quality is important to you.

The LinkBuds S face stiff competition elsewhere, too. The House of Marley Redemption ANC 2 and 1MORE EVO can be picked up for similar money and both received a five-star rating and our Recommended award when we reviewed them earlier this year. The stylish Audio-Technica ATH-CKS50TW are another pair of mid-range buds worth considering thanks to their exceptional battery life, although they aren’t the strongest performers when it comes to noise cancellation.

If you’re willing to spend a little more, the Beats Fit Pro are an attractive option that play particularly nicely with Apple smartphones, offering access to features like audio sharing and Spatial Audio. They cost £199 when we reviewed them in March but are available for around £160 in the wake of Black Friday.

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Sony LinkBuds S review: Design

The most obvious difference between the first LinkBuds and the model reviewed here is their design. The originals have a unique form factor characterised by ring-shaped drivers with circular openings that actively let sound in from your external surroundings. Sony has scrapped that design entirely for the LinkBuds S, choosing instead to go down the far more familiar route of closed earbud housings with flat, touch-sensitive exteriors.

It’s a more sensible design for modern living. You’re not constantly aware of what’s going on around you but can choose when you want to let in the outside world.

The design change also affects the way in which touch controls are handled. The LinkBuds S take the traditional approach of having you tap on the outside of the buds to execute commands – their predecessors offered the same option but also incorporated what Sony called a “wide tap area” where a sensor picked up taps on your skull in close proximity to your ears. This had the practical advantage of allowing you to activate controls when wearing a beanie, which was useful for follically challenged individuals such as myself.

That’s a loss but the controls here work well and the wide tap area functionality is unlikely to be missed by many. You can assign particular groups of functions to single taps, double taps, triple taps and long presses on both the right and left earbuds, with those three groups covering ambient sound, playback and volume controls.

Because you have to choose two out of the three, you’re locked out of the third, which is a shame as it’s always nice to have full control of your headphones without having to reach into your pocket. The sensitivity of the touch panels is well-judged, however. My taps were picked up consistently and accurately and the option to quickly access Spotify or Endel (an app offering personalised soundscapes to help you relax) with a double tap is a nice touch. Should you wish to avoid touch controls entirely, hands-free support is available for both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant.

The LinkBuds S are around 40% smaller than Sony’s WF-1000XM4 earbuds, and come with the same IPX4 rating, while weighing significantly less at 4.8g apiece compared with the 7.3g per earbud of their more expensive stablemates.

I didn’t notice a huge difference with them in my ears but had no complaints about their comfort levels. In fact, I found their shape slightly better suited to the contours of my ears, so they required less fiddling to lodge them securely in place. The in-ear seal isn’t quite as good at effective passive noise isolation, however, as the LinkBuds S use silicone tips instead of the foam tips that the WF-1000XM4 do.

Sony LinkBuds S review: Features

When it comes to features, the LinkBuds S borrow heavily from the WF-1000XM4 and are some of the more impressively equipped earbuds in their price range.

There’s Speak-to-Chat, which when toggled on immediately pauses your audio to allow you to hold a conversation, Quick Attention mode, which allows you to pipe in external sound by holding your finger on the outside of one bud, while wear detection sensors pick up on either of the buds being removed and automatically pause your audio. All three are very welcome, although Speak-to-Chat remained off a lot of the time during testing as I found it was triggered accidentally a little too often for my liking.

As is the case with all of Sony’s more recent headphones, however, the star of the show is Adaptive Sound Control. This can work in two ways: either the buds detect your actions (sitting or standing still, walking, running or on transport) and adjust your noise-cancelling setting and sound profile accordingly, or change your settings based on your location.

The latter relies on GPS positioning and you can either have the buds learn about the places you frequent regularly or add locations manually. I’ll discuss the efficacy of the system in more detail below but it works as well here as it does on the WF-1000XM4 and over-ear WH-1000XM5.

Unlike the WF-1000XM4, the case of the LinkBuds S can’t be charged up wirelessly, so you will need to make use of the included USB-C cable once you’ve burned through the roughly 20 hours of use the earbuds and case provide. With ANC on, Sony says the buds should last you around six hours, although I actually found I got closer to five hours out of them with various battery-draining features switched on. That’s a little disappointing but not short enough to be a dealbreaker.

Sony LinkBuds S review: Sound quality

The LinkBuds S are smaller in stature than the WF-1000XM4 and the drivers housed inside them are smaller, too. There isn’t much in it, mind you, with the 5mm drivers in the LinkBuds S just one millimetre smaller than their class-leading counterparts.

While the size difference may be minute, the resulting disparity in audio quality is more significant. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to like about the way the LinkBuds S deliver audio, but they lack the razor-sharp dynamic astuteness of their stablemates.

Shifts in volume are handled with less subtlety, which can be somewhat jarring if what you’re listening to rapidly and regularly fluctuates from quiet to loud and vice versa. The jumps from the soft, almost whispered sections of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” to the raucous hook were rather severe when compared with how smooth similar transitions were with the WH1000-XM4.

The level of mid-range detail they describe is impressive, however. Vocals are cleanly communicated, there’s a decent width to their presentation, and they’re tonally on point, too. The guitars on the 2013 remaster of The Eagles’ “Heartache Tonight” were delivered with a pleasing energy and were nicely balanced with the vocals and drums as well.

One area in which the LinkBuds S are a sizeable step up from the original LinkBuds is bass reproduction. This is primarily due to the fact they don’t have a gaping hole in the middle of their housings affecting their ability to isolate sound. Consequently, there’s greater depth to the sound, which is a major boost to overall audio quality.

Elsewhere, Sony’s 360 Reality Audio adds a degree of spatialised immersion to tracks that support it, assuming you also have a streaming subscription that supports the format, while another piece of proprietary Sony tech – DSEE (Digital Sound Enhancement Engine) Extreme – makes a good fist of upscaling lower-resolution audio files.

While Sony doesn’t offer the most customisable sound options in its companion app, those looking to tweak the EQ can do so, and there is a reasonable selection of presets available, as well.

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Sony LinkBuds S review: Noise cancellation

The noise cancellation of Sony’s WF-1000XM4 is very good but it isn’t quite at the same level as the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds or Apple AirPods Pro 2, so it should come as no surprise that the cheaper LinkBuds S also fall a little short in that department. Considering how reasonably priced they are, however, it’s hard to complain too much.

The noise cancellation mode dampens low-frequency rumbles well (although the XM4 are slightly better in this regard), and you’ll find yourself able to zone out to whatever you’re listening to relatively easily in most situations. You also have 20 levels of ambient sound to play around with, giving you plenty of flexibility as to how much external noise is piped in.

Both modes are neatly tied in with Sony’s Adaptive Sound Control, the main gist of which I described above and in combination they provide a huge range of optimisation, allowing you to save specific settings for the four main actions and as many locations as you wish. The LinkBuds S pick up on where you are and what you’re doing quickly and accurately and change your settings accordingly, reducing the need for manual adjustments considerably.

Sony LinkBuds S review: Verdict

Sony is already in a very strong position when it comes to in-ear headphones, with its WF-1000XM4 offering just about everything you could want from a pair of true wireless earbuds. Their noise cancellation is better than the LinkBuds S and their audio quality is superior as well, meaning the WF-1000M4 are still the top choice if you’re after Sony earbuds.

That said, the Sony LinkBuds S offer many of the same features at a lower price, and their lighter, more compact design will be appealing to those who find the XM4 a bit too bulky. They’re money well spent at their current price of £119 and a big improvement on the curate’s egg that was the original LinkBuds.

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