Sony LinkBuds S: one minute review
The Sony LinkBuds S aren’t visually startling in the same way as the first Sony LinkBuds. Those didn’t even fit inside your ear, but were designed to let outside sound through a loop over the ear canal. Strange, but pretty cool.
But actually, the Sony LinkBuds S are surprising in their own way when you get up close to them, and you realise they’re smaller and lighter than any alternative design you’ve encountered. They’re designed like all the other best true wireless earbuds, except they pack Sony’s noise-cancellation tech into an amazing discreet design.
Build quality is unarguable, specification is impressive, battery life is more than acceptable, and there are quite a few very well implemented control options too. The LinkBuds S even have better eco-credentials than the majority of competitors, as well as being incredibly comfortable. So on paper at least, then, they’re ready to dominate.
And during this Sony LinkBuds S review, we found that they make good on that promise to a great extent. Detail levels, soundstaging and tonality all impress, and the way the frequency range is balanced from top to bottom is formidable too. But where dynamic headroom is concerned, the LinkBuds S are a little lacking – they can’t muster the sonic energy and drive to bring a recording fully to life.
This is in rather stark contrast to the Sony WF-1000XM4, which have long been acknowledged as one of the very best noise cancelling earbuds around. Now they’ve been out for a little while, the asking price is often very close to LinkBuds S levels – so unless the size and the weight of these new earbuds is a big factor in your purchasing decision (and it really might be – it makes a big difference for those with small ears), the WF-1000XM4 make more sense to us as a purchase overall.
Sony LinkBuds S review: price and release date
- Release date: 20th May 2022
- Price: $199 / £179 / AU$349
The Sony LinkBud S true wireless in-ear headphones launched towards the end of May 2022, and currently they’re priced at $199 / £179 / AU$349.
You don’t have to look long or hard to realise there’s plenty of competition available at this sort of money – not least from Sony itself, whose all-conquering WF-1000XM4 are now routinely available for $229 / £199 or thereabouts.
There’s also Sennheiser’s Momentum True Wireless 3, the Grell Audio TWS/1 and the inevitable Apple AirPods Pro all cost very similar money, and all have plenty to recommend them. From within and without, then, the LinkBuds S have some rivals to face down.
Sony LinkBuds S review: features
- Active noise-cancelling with adjustable ambient sound
- Bluetooth 5.2 with SBC, AAC and LDAC support
- 27hr battery life (at a push)
The LinkBuds S may be small, but their specification is big. With the exception of multi-point pairing, if there’s a feature these Sony true wireless in-ears don’t have, it’s probably not really worth having.
Wireless connectivity is via Bluetooth 5.2, compatible with SBC, AAC and LDAC codecs but – as is established Sony practice – no aptX functionality. Still, equip yourself with an appropriately LDAC-specified smartphone and the LinkBuds S are comfortably high-resolution headphones.
They use the same V1 processor that combines noise cancellation and audio processing in one as in the Sony WF-1000XM4, but it feeds a new 5mm full-range dynamic driver, which is smaller than the XM4. The earbuds themselves will hold anywhere between 6 and 9 hours of power (depending on whether active noise-cancellation is switched on or not), while the little charging case holds up to a couple of further full charges. Which makes the battery life very competitive. It’s not class-leading, but the buds that do better are much bigger and heavier. The similarly light AirPods Pro, for comparison, manage 4.5 hours per charge with ANC on, so Sony’s got a big lead there.
Noise-cancellation can be turned on or off in the control app or the capacitive touch surface on each earbud, but there’s also the ‘Ambient sound’ option, which offers 20 different options, meaning the Sony’s will let in anything from ‘a hint’ to ‘a torrent’ of external sound if you so desire.
The ‘Headphones’ control app is also home to EQ adjustment, selection between ‘sound quality’ or ‘connection stability’ where Bluetooth is concerned, the ability to rearrange the touch controls, and plenty more besides. It’s the same app as Sony’s premium headphones use, and it’s just as effective and stable here as anywhere else.
The touch-controls are equally reliable and well-implemented, and the LinkBuds have Alexa built in, along with Google Assistant compatibility. The external mics that look after voice-control, as well as telephony, are visible on the outside of each earbud behind a little circle of mesh.
Sony LinkBuds S review: design
- 4.8g per earbud and correspondingly small
- 35g charging case with USB-C socket
- IPX4 rating
When a product is as small and light as this (Sony says LinkBuds S are 40 percent smaller and over 30 percent lighter than its own WF-1000XM4), there’s not a lot that can happen in terms of ‘design’.
So the LinkBuds S are perfectly well made and finished in the same species of textured recycled-plastic-plus-stone the company builds its top-end headphones from. Choose between black, white or ‘ecru’ finishes. That last color makes the Sony look a bit prosthetic, to be honest.
Charging is via USB-C – there’s no wireless charging compatibility here, and from ‘flat’ to ‘full’ you’ll need to wait a couple of hours. Still, once that’s done you can (within reason) go anywhere with your LinkBuds: their IPX4 rating makes them capable of handling the sweat generated by a session in the gym or the splashes generated from lounging around by the pool.
Sony LinkBuds S review: sound quality
- Detailed, organized and controlled sound
- Lack dynamic potency
- Good noise cancellation
It doesn’t take much more than a pass through an MQA-powered TIDAL Masters stream of Love and Hate in a Different Time by Gabriels for the Sony LinkBuds S to reveal an awful lot about the way they go about reproducing music. There are no secrets of performance to be teased out of these earbuds – they’re upfront about their relative strengths and weaknesses right from the off.
Type: true wireless in-ear
Weight: 4.8g (earbud); 35g (case)
Drivers: 5mm dynamic
Battery life: 6 hours (ANC on), 9 hours (ANC off) (earbuds); two full charges (case)
Control: App; touch; voice
Bluetooth: 5.2; SBC, AAC, LDAC
On the plus side, they’re an open, distinct and quite impressively detailed listen. Low frequencies are chunky and well-controlled, so they don’t drag at tempos or make rhythms sound unnatural. They carry plenty of detail regarding tone and texture, too. It’s a similarly informative sound at the top of the frequency range: treble sounds are just about bright enough, plenty substantial enough, and share the same detailed attitude.
In between, the amount of detail the LinkBuds S deliver stands singers of all kinds in good stead. The way the Sony lay out a soundstage allows vocalists to be front and center while still being nicely integrated into the performance as whole – and from there, they communicate well. If there’s character in a singer’s delivery, the LinkBuds S will highlight it.
The overall balance is good, rhythmic expression is very agreeable too, and the Sony fit every element of a recording together with real positivity.
What’s lacking in the sound quality department, though, is any real sense of drive or urgency. Dynamic headroom is curtailed here, and as a result everything that happens in a recording tends to happen at one unchanging level. They’re a peculiarly unenthusiastic, almost dispassionate listen, the LinkBuds S – certainly any number of similarly priced rivals sound a deal more engaged and, consequently, engaging.
The way the Sony deploys noise-cancelling doesn’t need excuses made for it, mind you. The LinkBuds S deal with external sounds decisively, and manage to do so without leaving an aftertaste. Call quality, too, is very acceptable – intelligibility is good, and Sony’s wind-noise reduction ‘Precise Voice Pick-Up’ technology works well.
Sony LinkBuds S review: value
- Predictable standard of build and finish
- Worthwhile eco-credentials
- Pound-for-pound sound quality slightly lacking
When you consider the standard of build and finish here, it’s like the LinkBuds S haven’t so much been miniaturized as condensed. The finish is flawless, and the earbuds give every impression of being built to last for the long haul. The same is true of the charging case, which closes with a brisk and reassuring ‘snap’.
Sony’s been making good progress in reducing the environmental impact of its products lately, and the LinkBuds S are no different. They arrive in unbleached, unprinted and plastic-free packaging, and the earbuds and charging case are built from a material that combines recycled plastic car parts with stone. It can itself be recycled at the end of the product’s life.
In the end, though, in-ear headphones live or die by their sound quality – and here the Sony LinkBuds S just aren’t quite a knockout. They get far more right than they get wrong, of course, but where they’re deficient – fundamentally where dynamics and drive are concerned – they suck more than a bit of excitement from recordings.
Should I buy Sony LinkBuds S?
|Features||Very hard to fault – Sony’s app gives you so much control.||5/5|
|Design||So comfortable, so small, so light.||4.5/5|
|Sound quality||The detail and balance is there, but they lack a bit of energy and excitement.||4/5|
|Value||They’re a good buy, but you can get better sound around the same money.||4/5|