At their launch in June 2021, Sony’s premium true wireless in-ear headphones (the WF-1000XM4) represented the best pound-for-pound combination of features, functionality and performance you could buy. Remarkably, they occupied that position for almost their entire life, seeing off challenges from numerous products from brands both venerable and upstart.
If it was all-round excellence you were interested in, they were close to being a no-brainer.
Two years is an eternity where products like this are concerned, though, and anticipation for their replacement has been building for at least the last six months. And finally, the WF-1000XM5 are here. The on-paper specification has improved, the in-ear size and weight has reduced, the eco-credentials are extensive, and the company is bandying phrases like ‘best-ever call quality’, ‘best noise-cancelling performance on the market’ and, spicily, ‘ultimate music experience’ around with what sounds like supreme confidence
Sony’s not the only company to big itself up in a press release, of course. But where true wireless in-ear headphones are concerned, it’s by far and away the company most likely to be able to make good on its claims - which is why we (along with everyone else) are excited that the WF-1000XM5 are finally here…
There’s a lot to like about the way the Sony WF-1000XM5 sound.
The tonal balance, for example, is about as neutral as Switzerland - and consequently they get out of the way of a recording, allowing it to sound as it was intended to sound, more than pretty much any price-comparable alternative. Integration of the frequency range, from top to bottom, is smooth. Detail levels are high, sound-staging is authoritative, and the Sony communicate through the midrange in a way best described as ‘torrential’.
High frequencies have substance to augment their brilliance, and there’s real bite to treble sounds when a recording demands it. The midrange is poised as well as articulate, and the WF-1000XM5 pay impressive attention to the transient and/or fine details that do so much to give a vocalist proper character. The attention the earbuds give to harmonic variation across the board, in fact, is approaching fanatical. By way of contrast, the Sony sound just a little inhibited where the broader dynamics of a recording are concerned.
At the bottom of the frequency range there’s similar alacrity, similar attention to detail and similar tonal variation. What there isn’t, though, is quite as much substance (and, consequently, punch) to bass sounds as is ideal. The Sony have no problem motoring through even the most testing tempos, giving rhythms proper expression and keeping momentum high - but they don’t have as much low-end presence as a lot of listeners demand as their right. Finessing the EQ settings in the admirable Sony Headphones control app can make low frequencies louder relative to the rest of the frequency range, but it can’t give them any more body or heft.
As is the company’s established practice, Sony has gone to considerable lengths to ensure the WF-1000XM5 are specified to compete and are as extensive in their wider functionality as possible.
So as well as the ability to alter EQs (as previously referenced), the app has nine (count ‘em!) EQ presets for you to audition. But that’s not the half of it. The app lets you cycle through your active noise-cancellation options, to instruct music to pause on detection of your speaking voice, to answer calls when you nod your head (or decline them with a shake of the head). It allows you to rearrange the functions of the (responsive, reliable) capacitive touch controls on each earbud, or to summon your music player’s native voice assistant. It lets you prioritise either the sound quality or the connection stability of the Bluetooth 5.3 wireless connection. It lets you engage Sony’s DSEE Extreme algorithm, which intends to ‘upscale’ lossy or compressed digital audio files until they sound lossless. It does plenty more besides, but space, time and decorum prevent me from going into every single aspect of the control app’s functionality. Suffice to say you won’t find a more thorough, a more stable or a more usable control app, anywhere.
As far as active noise cancellation and call quality are concerned, the WF-1000XM5 wouldn’t be on such shaky ground if Sony hadn’t made such confident claims for them. The active noise-cancellation is pretty effective here, doing a decent job on the majority of external annoyances - but ‘the best noise-cancelling performance on the market’? Not a chance. And ‘best-ever call quality’ may be true if we’re talking purely about Sony true wireless in-ear headphones - but there are any number of alternative designs from alternative brands at similar money to the WF-1000XM5 that are more useful tools of telephony.
Where the WF-1000XM5 are easier to leave with than any Sony true wireless earbuds before them is in size and comfort. These are by far the smallest (20 percent smaller than the outgoing WF-1000XM4, in fact), lightest (5.5g per earbud, 37g for the case) true wireless earbuds Sony has ever created - and the choice of four differently-sized pairs of eartips only increases your chances of wearing them comfortably for hours at a time. Which is just as well, because you should be able to get anywhere between eight and 12 hours of action from the earbuds between charges, and there are a further two full charges held in the case.
It’s a bit like when Harry Kane misses a penalty - it happens so rarely that you’re absolutely taken aback when it does. And so when Sony serves up a pair of true wireless earbuds that are ‘really very good’ rather than ‘hands down the best thing on the market’, it’s a similar sort of shock. The WF-1000XM5, sure enough, are really very good - but they’re not what you’d call a no-brainer, and in Sony-land that almost certainly counts as a disappointment.
Bright Eyes Lua
Nylon acoustic guitar strings, and an extraordinarily close-mic’d vocal from a singer who’s inhabiting his lyrics obsessively, allow the WF-1000XM5 to demonstrate just how direct, intimate and articulate they’re capable of being. The midrange fidelity that’s on display here is as good as you’ll find at anything like this money
Rahsaan Roland Kirk Blacknuss
This hectic, multi-stranded exploration of the black notes of the piano is a stern test of soundstaging, rhythmic certainty, timing and tonal faithfulness - which the Sony earbuds pass, and without breaking apparent sweat. The dynamic aspects of the recording, though, cause them rather more aggravation…
Odetta Hit or Miss
The Sony are far from the weightest earbuds around when it comes to the lower frequencies, but they lack nothing where detail or tonal expression are concerned - and the frankly overwrought bassline here makes the point in fine style. And a vocalist as characterful and idiosyncratic as this can only benefit from the attention of the WF-1000XM5
You buy the Sony WF-1000XM5 because you want small, comfortable and great-sounding earbuds with competitive battery life and more functionality than you can shake a stick at. And because you’re not fussed about getting active noise-cancellation that’s any better than ‘pretty competitive’.