Sony WF-1000XM5 Earbuds Review: Smaller and Better

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Sony WF-1000XM5 Earbuds Review: Smaller and Better

When Sony released the WF-1000XM4 earbuds in 2021, we awarded them the CNET Editor’s Choice. Although they were impressive, there were some controversies—they were somewhat large and not suitable for certain ear shapes. Clearly, Sony took note of these concerns when designing the next-generation WF-1000XM5 flagship noise-canceling earbuds. The XM5 not only boasts a smaller size but also delivers significantly improved performance, featuring enhanced noise cancellation, sound quality, and voice call capabilities. Are the Mark 5s perfect? Not entirely. And with a price tag of $300 (£260)—$20 more than their predecessor—they come at a premium. However, overall, they are undeniably impressive, easily ranking among the top earbuds in the market.

Design of Sony WF-1000XM5

According to Sony, the XM5 is available in black or silver, 25% smaller than the XM4, and weighs 20% less, with each earbud weighing 6 grams (compared to XM4’s 7.3 grams per earbud). In comparison, Apple’s AirPods Pro 2 weighs 5.3 grams per earbud. The charging case of the XM5 is also smaller than the XM4’s, about 15% smaller, and features wireless charging.

As mentioned, the XM4 was somewhat large. While they fit well in my ears, they might not suit those with smaller ears. One of the key focuses of this redesign was to ensure a better fit for a wider range of ears. As anticipated, the new XM5 fits my ears perfectly, but I do encourage individuals with smaller ears to try both the XM4 and XM5 to share their thoughts. You can watch my companion video review, where my colleague Tara tries out the earbuds, and the smaller XM5 appears to provide a better fit for her.

The XM4 had a matte finish that I liked. In contrast, the XM5 combines smooth surfaces. Initially, I had some concerns, but the outer part of the bud where the touch controls are located has a matte surface, preventing fingerprints. The black version of the buds also resists smudges well. I also appreciate that the earbuds don’t protrude as much from the ears as their predecessors.

The XM5 includes a fourth set of ear tips (extra small), while the XM4 had only three. Although they should fit most ears, they still retain the shortcomings of the earlier model—they didn’t provide the snug seal necessary for optimal sound quality and noise cancellation performance.

The ear tips are made of high-tech polyurethane foam designed to conform to your ear canal and provide additional grip to keep the earbuds securely in place. However, their shape didn’t suit my ears well—I needed wider, rounder ear tips. I had to switch to a set of my favorite silicone ear tips to achieve a better seal. Sony could improve by offering more varieties of ear tips. However, as I mentioned, most of you shouldn’t have any issues with the provided tips, and many should be able to achieve a secure fit for activities like running. Like the XM4, the XM5 is equipped with IPX4 splash and sweat resistance.

Features of Sony WF-1000XM5

Sony’s flagship earbuds have always been feature-rich. The XM5 earbuds add some new upgrades to complement existing favorite features. For instance, the “Speak-to-Chat” mode automatically pauses music and activates ambient mode when you start talking to someone. Ambient mode, similar to Apple’s transparency mode, allows you to adjust the level of ambient sounds you want to let in.

I won’t delve into all the features of the earbuds here, but I’ll highlight some standout features for me. Firstly, you get multi-point Bluetooth pairing, allowing you to pair the earbuds with two devices simultaneously and easily switch audio between them. There are also plenty of EQ settings to help fine-tune the sound, adaptive sound modes, and support for hands-free Alexa and Google Assistant (according to my early review sample, I could only get Alexa to work, but Sony states that hands-free Google Assistant is available). This feature allows you to use Amazon’s voice assistant without pressing anything on the earbuds. Additionally, there’s a new test setting called “Find Balance,” letting you choose between various EQ settings to find your preferred sound and create a custom EQ setting. I find this to be a nice addition.

Similar to the XM4, these earbuds have ear detection sensors that automatically pause music when you take the earbuds out—yes, you can use a single earbud—and resume playback when you put them back in. However, the new feature is spatial audio with head tracking. Sony claims it currently works for Android users, and it’s unclear if Apple users will get it. In my tests, it seemed to work similarly to Apple’s spatial audio used for watching videos.

One new feature I almost missed is the new gesture controls for answering and ending calls. You can choose whether to activate it, but it allows you to nod to answer or end calls. There’s currently nothing to let you skip forward or backward in music tracks by shaking your head left or right, but it seems like gesture controls could be added.

According to Sony, these also support the new LE audio standard, so in the future, you should be able to access features like AuraCast broadcast audio, which allows you to tune into audio streams from specific TV broadcasts while on the treadmill at the gym.

Finally, the XM5 supports Sony’s LDAC audio codec, compatible with devices that support it. If you’re streaming high-resolution tracks from services like Qobuz, Tidal, and Amazon Music, using LDAC can provide slightly better audio quality. iPhone users get the AAC audio codec, but many Android phones support LDAC, though sometimes you may have to activate the support in the developer settings.

If anything is missing, it’s some kind of “Find My Earbuds” feature built into the Sony headphones app. The AirPods Pro 2 have a precise Find My feature that can come in handy at times.

Noise-Canceling Performance of Sony WF-1000XM5

In terms of performance, these feel like an improvement over the XM4, although it’s not a massive leap. They are equipped with new 8.2mm speaker driver units and three microphones in each earbud, supported by two new proprietary Sony chips with enhanced processing power—the V2 integrated processor and QN2e noise-canceling processor.

Sony has been competing with Bose for the best noise-canceling effects, claiming that these earbuds have the best noise-canceling performance based on their tests. While not a huge upgrade compared to the noise-canceling offered by the XM4, it’s more effective overall and leaves an impressive impression.

Like Bose’s QuietComfort Earbuds 2, these earbuds are expected to better suppress a broader range of frequencies. From my anecdotal testing, they have comparable noise-canceling capabilities to Bose earbuds, but declaring an outright winner is challenging—Bose also boasts excellent noise cancellation. Apple’s AirPods Pro 2 is in the same league.

All three earbuds have adaptive noise-canceling features, but you can adjust the amount of noise-canceling with various modes on Bose. All of these use increasingly powerful processors and software algorithms to interpret and eliminate the sounds around you. The reason it’s challenging to declare a winner is that sometimes one set of earbuds may perform better in certain conditions than another, and vice versa. Perhaps the fit of the AirPods Pro 2 may be snugger than Sony’s. Or wearing Bose earbuds that suit you well might provide a better seal. Alas, even when it comes to noise-canceling supremacy, it’s not as set in stone as a company may claim. Software algorithms do get updates and adjustments.

Sound Quality of Sony WF-1000XM5

Thanks to the new drivers and upgraded processors, the sound quality has also improved, although there’s no major leap compared to the already impressive sound quality of the XM4. That being said, I find the XM5 to sound cleaner—highs are a bit more refined, mids (where vocals reside) are clearer, and there’s slightly better clarity in the lows. Everything is tightened up a bit, making the earbuds sound more accurate, which is the goal from an audiophile perspective. I’m not sure if the soundstage has expanded, but the earbuds can deliver expansive, voluminous sound with good depth and nuances (you can clearly hear individual instruments in more complex tracks).

Some of my test tracks include Spoon’s “Knock Knock Knock,” Athletes of God’s “Don’t Wanna Be Normal,” The Doors’ “Touch Me (Take 3),” Orbital’s “Dirty Rat,” Taylor Swift’s “Vigilante Shit,” Jvke’s “Golden Hour,” and Drake’s “Passionfruit.” I used Qobuz on both the iPhone 14 Pro and Pixel 7 Pro.

In terms of tone, their sound is warmer than that of the AirPods Pro 2, and while the size of the AirPods Pro 2 is also impressive, the Sony XM5s arguably have a slight advantage in overall tonal balance. They are a very pleasing set of earbuds and are among the best in terms of sound quality.

With Spoon’s “Knock Knock Knock” track, the sound on the AirPods Pro 2 is more piercing or sibilant—when I streamed music from Qobuz between the two earbuds by switching on my iPhone 14 Pro, I had to slightly lower the volume for the AirPods Pro 2 to avoid the music sounding too harsh. Particularly, vocals on the Sony sounded a bit more natural, and the overall sound of the XM5s was slightly more refined. However, sound quality is subjective, and some may prefer the sound of the AirPods Pro 2.

Voice Call Performance of Sony WF-1000XM5

As for voice calls, Sony claims you’ll get the “best call quality ever.” These earbuds feature bone conduction sensors, picking up vibrations directly from the skull to help isolate your voice from ambient sounds and background noise, ensuring clear calls even in noisy environments.

Overall, the call quality and noise-canceling effects left a profound impression on me—there seems to be a significant improvement compared to the XM4 (the new processors are undoubtedly a factor). In more adverse conditions, some callers did mention that my voice sounded a bit shaky, but we conducted tests in fairly harsh conditions on the bustling streets of New York (I demonstrate a test call in my companion video, giving you an idea of call quality).

Battery Life of Sony WF-1000XM5

The battery life of the WF-1000XM5 is the same as the XM4: approximately 8 hours on a single charge with noise-canceling on at moderate volume levels and up to 12 hours with noise-canceling off. The case provides two additional charges. This surpasses the battery life of the AirPods Pro 2 by several hours, resulting in an overall impressive battery life.