The Sony WF-1000XM5 are excellent all-rounders but, attractive new design aside, aren’t a huge improvement on their predecessors
- Improved design
- Adaptive Sound Control remains superb
- Impressive features and app
- Better ANC available elsewhere
- Only minor audio improvements
- Slightly dearer than the XM4
I’m going to say this right off the bat: I’ve not been as bowled over by the Sony WF-1000XM5 as I expected to be. Don’t get me wrong, they’re great true wireless earbuds, but the upgrade from the WF-1000XM4 doesn’t feel as big a leap forward as those buds were from the WF-1000XM3.
Their improved noise cancellation closes the gap on Bose but fails to knock it off its perch, and, when it comes to audio quality, the Sony WF-1000XM5 aren’t light years ahead of their predecessor. You could make a case that they don’t need to be considering how good the WF-1000XM4 sound, but this is an update two years in the making, so one might reasonably expect slightly more in that department.
The new design is a winner, however, and the Sony WF-1000XM5 deliver all of the features found on the generations before them, plus a couple of extra bells and whistles. Adaptive Sound Control remains supremely useful and no other app can match Sony Headphones Connect for features and ease of use.
Sony WF-1000XM5 review: What you need to know
The WF-1000XM5 are the fifth entry in Sony’s flagship true wireless earbuds series, one that has brought the Japanese manufacturer an immense amount of success over the past five years. Both the WF-1000XM3 and XM4 received our Best Buy award and the latter have been a mainstay on many of our headphones roundups since their release.
Sony hasn’t tried to reinvent the wheel with the WF-1000XM5, but there’s plenty to differentiate them from the WF-1000XM4. The design is a lot more compact, the Integrated Processor V2 has replaced the Integrated Processor V1 and it’s joined in a dual-processor setup by the HD Noise Cancelling Processor QN2e. An additional feedback microphone has been added inside both buds, meaning there’s now a total of six mics handling noise cancellation.
Elsewhere, the 6mm drivers found in the WF-1000XM4 make way for the new “Dynamic Driver X” drivers, which are larger at 8.4mm and specifically designed for the WF-1000XM5. Codec compatibility remains unchanged, with SBC, AAC and LDAC all supported over Bluetooth 5.3. Sony’s Digital Sound Enhancement Engine (DSEE) Extreme makes a return to upscale lower-resolution content, while head tracking is now supported if you’re making use of the company’s 360 Reality Audio technology.
Other upgrades see Spotify Tap added to the list of smart listening features, multipoint pairing available from the outset (the XM4 received this as an over-the-air update post-launch) and a new AI-powered noise reduction engine working in conjunction with a wind noise reduction structure to boost call quality.
Sony WF-1000XM5 review: Price and competition
The Sony WF-1000XM5 have seen a minor price increase from the last-generation model and cost £259 at launch. Price hikes are an inescapable reality but this one means the XM5 cost more than their biggest competitor, the Apple AirPods Pro 2. Those buds have a huge market share and for good reason: their noise cancellation is superb, they’re comfortable, and integration into the iOS ecosystem is seamless.
Bose’s QuietComfort Earbuds II are another of the XM5’s chief rivals and are unmatched where noise cancellation is concerned. They launched at £280 but are currently available for £230. Those with deep pockets willing to trade super-effective ANC for a more luxurious aesthetic and a neutral, highly detailed sound signature may wish to consider the Bowers & Wilkins PI7 S2 (£349), while the Samsung Galaxy Buds2 Pro (£219) have a whole host of ecosystem-specific features that make them an appealing choice for Galaxy smartphone owners.
There are a couple of more affordable options worth taking a look at, too. The Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 3 are strong sonic performers and can be picked up for around £190, while Huawei’s FreeBuds Pro 2 offer excellent ANC and engaging sound and can often be found significantly cheaper than their list price of £170.
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Sony WF-1000XM5 review: Design
My main complaint about the Sony WF-1000XM4 was their fiddly fit and, while those buds weren’t as chunky as the WF-1000XM3, they were still rather bulbous. Sony has gone to great lengths to improve the design and fit this time around and has done so to great effect.
The earbuds are 25% smaller and 20% lighter than their predecessor, and the main housings are sculpted in such a way that they sit in your outer ears more ergonomically. Like their predecessors, the WF-1000XM5 come with polyurethane foam eartips to help secure them in your ear canals, but there’s an additional extra small size option this year.
The thickness of the foam used has been decreased slightly, too – your mileage will vary as to how this affects comfort and passive sound isolation. I found the WF-1000XM5 extremely comfortable when using the largest eartips, although my left and right ear canals are slightly different sizes, so I did have to switch out the new tip on the left ear for one of the XM4’s to create an optimal seal in both ears.
Passive noise cancellation proved excellent with this setup and, once they were in my ears, I didn’t need to adjust the buds at any point. They sat there securely during exercise and never felt in danger of coming loose or shifting position.
There are two colourways available at launch – black and beige – and the overall aesthetic has been elevated. The slightly odd-looking, protruding gold microphone vents have been done away with in favour of flat gold grilles, and the buds look a lot sleeker as a result. There’s still plenty of surface area available to house the capacitive sensors used for touch controls and the contrast between the matte coating on these sections and the glossy finish of the rest of the buds works nicely.
The earbuds are IPX4 rated and held up perfectly well in rainy conditions, although that water resistance doesn’t extend to the charging case, so you’ll want to avoid digging it out in a downpour or leaving it somewhere it’s liable to have liquid spilt on it.
Sony WF-1000XM5 review: Features
The charging case can be topped up wirelessly using a Qi pad or via the USB-C cable included in the box and provides two full charges of the buds, which themselves offer around eight hours of audio playback. Total battery life of around 24 hours is the same as the WF-1000XM4 and QC Earbuds II, superior to that of the PI7 S2 and FreeBuds Pro 2, but a few hours shy of the Momentum True Wireless 3 and AirPods Pro 2.
All of the features found on the 2021 model make a return here and can be accessed via the Sony Headphones Connect app. There’s Speak-to-Chat, which successfully pauses audio when your voice is picked up to allow you to hold a conversation, wear detection to pause audio when one or both of the buds are removed, and support for head gestures, which let you answer or reject calls by nodding or shaking your head.
Touch controls are handled in a very similar manner to how they were on the WF-1000XM4, with specific functions assigned to the left and right buds within the Headphones Connect app.
By default, the right earbud handles playback control, with a single tap playing and pausing audio, a double tap skipping to the next song, a triple tap taking you back a track and a long press launching your voice assistant. New this year is the ability to increase or decrease volume by repeatedly tapping the right or left bud respectively. Previously, you had to assign volume controls to just one of the buds and drop Ambient Sound Control or Playback commands entirely. This is a sensible change and one I appreciate greatly.
The left earbud governs Ambient Sound Control and Quick Access options: a single tap switches between the noise cancellation and ambient sound modes, while holding your finger against the bud activates the “Quick Attention” mode. This immediately drops the volume of what you’re listening to right down and filters in environmental sound to provide increased awareness of what’s going on around you.
Double and triple taps don’t have functions assigned to them as standard but are, instead, reserved for “Quick Access” to two apps: Spotify Tap and Endel. Assuming you have both downloaded on your device, they can be speedily launched using either two or three taps on the buds, depending on which way round you choose to have them.
I really like Spotify Tap so am pleased to see it included here – being able to discover new music based on what you’ve listened to before throws up some interesting results, especially if you expose your account to playlists as eclectic as those created by the crackpots at Expert Reviews. It even works with the free version of Spotify, which is good news for those that don’t mind adverts sprinkled in with their music.
Endel is an app offering soundscapes to help you focus, relax and sleep and is a paid service, although there’s a free trial that comes with the WF-1000XM5. It’s not something I found myself using much but it could come in handy for people wanting to escape the world around them.
When not escaping from the world, you’ll likely be making and taking a lot of calls with the WF-1000XM5 in your ears. They’re satisfactory for this purpose but the combination of a new AI-powered noise-reduction engine, wind noise-reduction structure and bone-conduction sensor wasn’t as effective as I’d hoped.
Those I spoke to reported that I sounded a little fuzzy around the edges and were able to pick up on quite a lot of what was going on around me. This tallied with my experience when making recordings: household distractions seeped in, occasionally detracting from the intelligibility of my voice. They’ll do the job but compared with the Technics EAH-AZ80, which are sensational where microphone clarity is concerned, the WF-1000XM5 are a little off the pace.
Sony WF-1000XM5 review: Noise cancellation
As was the case with the previous generation, the WF-1000XM5 offer two “Ambient Sound Control” modes: Noise Cancelling and Ambient Sound.
The former applies maximum attenuation when engaged while the latter works on a 20-point scale, allowing you to adjust how much external sound is kept out and piped in. With noise cancellation active, the WF-1000XM5 did a very good job in most circumstances. The low thrum of traffic was reduced by an impressive amount and journeys on London’s various Tube lines weren’t nearly as distracting with the XM5 in my ears.
But a side-by-side comparison with the most effective noise-cancelling buds in the business – Bose’s QuietComfort Earbuds II – wasn’t favourable for the WF-1000XM5. The Bose got closer to completely drowning out what was going on around me, dampening low-end frequencies more effectively and handling the attenuation of harder-to-cancel mid-range frequencies more adeptly.
The XM5 are still the smartest noise cancellers around, however, and this is thanks to Sony’s Adaptive Sound Control feature. With this engaged, the buds can detect what you’re doing – and where you are – and switch noise-cancelling and sound settings on the fly as your situation changes.
There are two components to this: “Ambient Sound Control Based on Actions” and “Automatic Switching at My Places”. The first applies a specific level of noise cancellation or transparency while you’re “Staying”, “Walking”, “Running” or “Riding a Vehicle”. You can adjust the level you want applied to each of these within the app and the XM5 continue their predecessor’s tradition of being extremely good at judging your actions.
It took them a matter of seconds to detect me transitioning from sitting at my desk to walking around the office and were similarly snappy detecting me breaking into a run on the treadmill at the gym. They took rather longer to return to “Staying” when I sat back down but, presumably, they’re just allowing a bit of leeway in case you’ve momentarily paused moving.
The second component is more involved and requires locations (“My Places”) to be registered within the app. This can be done manually using a map or automatically based on places you visit frequently (both require you to enable location services for the Headphones Connect app).
Having used this extensively while testing other Sony headphones, I already had a few locations saved and found the WF-1000XM5 switched settings correctly whenever I entered or exited the defined zones. In addition to switching between noise-cancelling levels, you can program the software to engage a particular equaliser setting or turn on Speak-to-Chat in these areas, too, which is neat. Sennheiser incorporated a similar system called “Sound Zones” into the Momentum True Wireless 3, but those buds can’t add locations automatically.
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Sony WF-1000XM5 review: Sound quality
First-rate sound quality has been par for the course for Sony flagship headphones in recent times and the WF-1000XM5 are an engaging listen. As I mentioned in my introduction, however, the improvements here feel incremental rather than game-changing.
The new Dynamic Driver X drivers add a bit of extra weight to bass reproduction and this was apparent when listening to the Master Quality version of Pitbull and Ke$ha’s “Timber” on Tidal. As Pitbull launched into his first verse, he was joined by a hard-hitting bassline that didn’t detract from the rest of the piece, with the rhythmic clapping, harmonica melody and male and female vocals remaining distinct and well defined.
Electronic and dance tracks benefit most from this additional impact and I had no complaints with how the XM5 handled the Chris Lake remix of Calvin Harris’ “How Deep is Your Love”. The track is brimming with energy and the earbuds set about their task of delivering the throbbing bassline with enthusiasm and no shortage of skill.
That extra welly towards the bottom of the frequency spectrum aside, the tuning is one that will sound pretty familiar to owners of the WF-1000XM4. That’s not innately a bad thing; the XM4 are detail-rich, dynamically astute, articulate and confident in their presentation.
But if, like me, you were hoping for a sizeable step up in performance, you may find yourself a little underwhelmed. To be clear, the WF-1000XM5’s sound quality itself is not underwhelming – to my ears they possess all of the appealing attributes of their predecessor – but they don’t do a huge amount to push the true wireless envelope. It’s plausible that we’ve reached a point where, barring a seismic shift in true wireless technology, small gains are the best we can hope for, but others may be less generous and suggest Sony is resting on its laurels.
Even if that were the case, there’s little to dislike about how the WF-1000XM5 actually sound. They’re able to deliver an impressive level of detail when handling high-resolution content over LDAC, a codec that gives them an advantage over the AirPods Pro 2 and Bose QC Earbuds II, both of which are limited to SBC and AAC.
The difference between those codecs was immediately noticeable when listening to Lady Gaga’s “Applause”. The XM5 sounded cleaner around the edges and a little bit crisper in the mid-range. The added oomph in the lower registers was welcome here too and really helped drive the track forward.
For out-and-out audio quality, however, I rate the Bowers & Wilkins PI7 S2, which support aptX Adaptive, slightly higher. They’re supremely accurate and possess high-frequency sparkle that the XM5 can’t quite match. They’re not as in-your-face where bass is concerned, which makes the Sonys a better choice if you primarily listen to mainstream pop music, but are better suited to analytical listening across a broader range of genres. Classical arrangements, such as The Philadelphia Orchestra’s rendition of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No.3, were reproduced with greater authority and precision and shone brighter thanks to the PI7 S2’s use of balanced armature drivers.
Sony’s buds do have a couple of tricks up their sleeve, however, with support for the company’s spatial audio format, 360 Reality Audio, and another of its proprietary technologies, DSEE Extreme.
360 Reality Audio must be set up in the Headphones Connect app. You’ll need to take a few snaps of your ears to get it working but, once you do, it works pretty well, creating something akin to an audio bubble around your head, positioning sounds in such a way that they feel like they’re coming from somewhere other than the buds you have in your ears. New to the WF-1000XM5 is support for head tracking when listening to 360 Reality Audio content, although this either wasn’t working on my pair or the effect is extremely subtle, as I didn’t notice a difference when turning or moving my head.
DSEE Extreme is an upscaling technology that uses artificial intelligence to help bring lower-resolution content closer to high-resolution quality. It’s an effective and useful inclusion if you don’t have a premium streaming service subscription or listen to a lot of compressed files stored locally on your phone.
Sony WF-1000XM5 review: Verdict
Turkish billionaire Husnu Ozyegin once said, “getting to the top is not so easy; staying there is more difficult”, and that’s something Sony has achieved in recent years in the world of true wireless headphones.
But that position at the top isn’t as clear-cut with the arrival of the WF-1000XM5. I’d still class them as Sony’s best noise-cancelling earbuds yet. They attenuate slightly more external sound than their predecessors and with Adaptive Sound Control on board, they remain the cleverest ANC earbuds around.
They fall short of the Bose QC Earbuds II when it comes to creating a near-silent listening environment, however, their call quality is bested by the Technics EAH-AZ80, and the Bowers & Wilkins PI7 S2 are a more informative, though less “fun”, listen.
All things considered, the Sony WF-1000XM5 just about manage to cling onto their mantle of the best all-rounders in the true wireless space. However, it seems unlikely they’ll hold that title by the time the WF1000-XM6 arrive and, depending on your priorities, there may also be a better option out there for you in the meantime.