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. The Good Smaller, more comfortable design Upgrades to ANC and sound quality Much better voice call performance The Bad Glossy texture can make them harder to remove from case Sony’s bonus features aren’t as seamless as those of its competitors Potential battery longevity concerns How we rate and review products 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 case is even more pocketable than before. 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. Those glossy sides can make the 1000XM5s tricky to remove from their case. 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 when it comes to launch promotions and deals. Apple and Samsung are more than happy to bundle their new earbuds with high-end phones or offer major subsidies, while Sony is left looking desperate for sales and market share. The 1000XM5s are sleek and capable, but the “halo” effect of owning an iPhone or Galaxy phone — that intangible allure over the competition — simply doesn’t exist for Sony. I have to image there are many people out there who would love to own the best ANC earbuds, but they’re unwilling or unable to spend nearly 300 bucks to obtain them. So they opt for the AirPods Pro or Galaxy Buds Pro instead, often without any firsthand knowledge of how they compare against the Sony or Bose alternatives. They might not really need to know; brand and ecosystem are often significant deciding factors. Sony has eliminated a couple of standout downsides from prior models with the 1000XM5s, and that alone makes this model feel timely and relevant in 2021. I like the improvements in comfort and call quality a lot; they’re areas where Sony was trailing the pack. The disappointing battery life compared to the M4s, however, is a bit of a monkey’s paw. And the same can be said for some of Sony’s “extra” features like Speak-to-Chat and wearing detection; they’re occasionally more intrusive than helpful and could benefit from further refinement. These are small strikes against an otherwise excellent pair of ANC earbuds. If you’ve been feeling dissatisfied with the state of noise-canceling earbuds over the past year, especially for calls, you’ll find a lot to like in the WF-1000XM5. They’re not a revolutionary leap forward, but they represent an important leap for Sony.