Surprise! While we where everyone (understandably) worried about the latest addition to Sony’s excellent on-ear headphones, the LinkBuds S managed to fly under the radar. This likely happened for a number of reasons, one of which is the company’s confusing naming scheme. It’s not clear where the new headphones fit in at first glance.
The short answer is: smack dab in the middle of Sony’s growing lineup of fully wireless headphones. Standard LinkBuds sit on the low end at $180 (still not cheap). At the high end are the excellent, but pricey, WF1000XM4s, which retail for exactly $100 more. The breakdown, so far, is pretty straightforward. The M4s are a truly premium set of headphones at a truly premium price. The LinkBuds, meanwhile, have a giant hole in the center that’s designed to improve situational awareness.
The “S” apparently stands for “sound”. That doesn’t really clear things up. Sure, the LinkBuds S sound better than their counterparts with the giant hole in the center, but they’re ultimately less good (mainly due to the inclusion of smaller drivers) than the M4s. For the sake of clarity, the company offers the following tagline: “The world’s smallest and lightest true wireless high-resolution noise-canceling headphones.” It really rolls off the tongue, right?
That’s how I would describe them: a pair of everyday headphones with really great sound. Given the company’s existing lineup, I’m not convinced LinkBuds S should exist. But having used them as a daily driver for the past few weeks, I’m glad they do. As someone who tests a lot of earbuds over the course of a year, the LinkBuds S are among the best sounding and most comfortable I’ve ever had in my ears. It’s an awesome combo.
At $200, they are closer to the LinkBuds than the M4s. They’re not cheap, by most measures, but at least they compare favorably to the AirPods Pro’s $250 MSRP. However, it’s the comfort that really won me over. I had (and still have) a lot of good things to say about the M4s. And while their size was a huge improvement over their predecessor, I’ve always thought of them as more of a home headset. When it comes to listening to music in the comfort of your own home, they’re hard to beat.
If you’re an active person looking for something “on the go,” they’re harder to recommend. They would not be, for example, the first couple of buds I would grab on the way out the door. And they are not in the top ten when it comes to my morning runs. They are too bulky. They are large, a bit heavy and stick out from the ear. The LinkBuds S, on the other hand, are a great walking companion.
I recognize that comfort is highly subjective and depends on the idiosyncrasies of your own hearing. For my money, though, the LinkBuds S are an ideal size, along with a soft silicone tip that sits comfortably in your ear for long periods. However, I would still be hesitant to recommend them specifically for workouts. The latest Beats fit much better with a built-in wing to keep them in place. The side touchpads can also be difficult to navigate in that configuration, especially when sweating.
Sound quality is a step down from the M4s for the reasons highlighted above. Still, they’re a really great-sounding pair of headphones for music and podcasts. Honestly, the main reasons my ears have left since I picked up the pair were (1) to rest the new Sony headphones, and (2) to sleep.
The “always-on” approach is reportedly at the epicenter of Sony’s attempt to primarily target a Gen Z audience (“shoots built for the next generation,” according to press materials). I’m really not convinced how these buttons could be more suitable for the TikTok generation, but the company points to features like “AutoPlay,” which starts playing music based on different activities. With the Sony Headphones app, you can automatically play music based on various functions, such as putting on the LinkBuds, ending a call, or going for a walk.
Currently, these features only work with a couple of music services: Spotify (of course) and Endel. I wasn’t familiar with the latter, but it’s been an interesting experience, so far. It’s less of a standard streaming service like Spotify and Apple Music, and more of an algorithmically generated mood enhancer. You can choose different scenarios like “Relax” or “Move”. I have also been playing with it for meditation and sleep. I’m listening to “Focus” as I try to finish this review on a Friday afternoon.
I prefer more manual control over my listening music than Auto Play provides. So who knows, maybe it’s a generational issue.
The noise cancellation of the LinkBuds is pretty good too, though again a step down from the M4s. A quick tap on the right button toggles between that and ambient mode. I’ve also been getting calls from new friends, and the clarity of the voice has gotten high marks from people on the other end. The small grille on the outside is a mesh windshield. It does a decent job of eliminating bad wind noise, although some will invariably still get through.
Battery life is rated at six hours with ANC on, nine without. The case, meanwhile, will bump things up to 20. The charging case is a bit narrower than the M4s (which are rated at eight hours and 24 with the case), as you’d expect. However, it takes wireless charging out of the equations. Also, it’s kind of small, but I quite like the textured feel that Sony has given to the buttons this time around.
The price of the M4s always kept them from being mainstream, and the arrival of the LinkBuds S really drives that idea home. For most people in most cases, these smaller, more comfortable, cheaper buttons fit the bill.