An Uncomfortable Design Kneecaps the Innovation of Sony’s LinkBuds

An Uncomfortable Design Kneecaps the Innovation of Sony’s LinkBuds
Image: Chris Neill/Gizmodo Australia

Design innovation walks a fine line between success and failure. On the one hand, this change could be the thing that revolutionises the industry’s standard. I’m sure the first person to add Bluetooth compatibility feels pretty chuffed about it. But on the other hand, this innovation could be the ingredient that spoils the broth.

For Sony’s WF-L900 LinkBuds, these in-ear headphones definitely fit into the latter category. They’re an unfortunate example of the old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Sony WF-L900 LinkBuds

WHAT IS IT?

Sony's new innovative earbuds.

PRICE

$319

LIKE

Sound good, responsive touch controls, made from recycled plastic.

NO LIKE

Uncomfortable, awkward to wear, high price point, the open design means you're constantly fighting against ambient sounds.

Doughnut time

sony linkbud review 004
Image: Chris Neill/Gizmodo Australia

The first thing you’ll notice about the LinkBuds is their unique design. The traditional earplug has been replaced by a flat doughnut shape, complete with a hole. It’s a more open design, which allows you to hear ambient sounds while wearing them.

Because if there’s one thing you want to hear when listening to music or taking a phone call it’s the sound of everything else around you bleeding in. I was constantly fighting with the volume to drown out everything around me while wearing these on public transport or in the office.

The idea behind the LinkBuds is that you can wear them all day long. The combination of this open design and a few other features (which we’ll get to in a moment) means you can go about your day with these sitting in your ears, even if you aren’t listening to anything. Unfortunately, the non-traditional earplugs are incredibly uncomfortable.

Since the earbuds don’t use silicone moulds, it’s just plastic rubbing up against your skin. For the most part, the left LinkBud would sit fine in my ear, although it’d start to ache a lot quicker than the extended use of other earbuds. But the right LinkBud was a constant pain. I tried everything I could to get this thing to sit comfortably, but it just didn’t feel possible.

While I finally did get both earbuds to sit comfortably in my ear, it felt like a struggle to get there. The hit to miss ratio skewed closer to the latter. The right earbud also never felt secure. I could feel it slowly working its way out of position and would frequently fall out. The LinkBuds use silicone rings that act as anchors under your ear flaps, but none of them seemed to help me, unfortunately.

But how do the LinkBuds sound?

The tragedy of all of this is that the LinkBuds sound great. Despite the change in the design, the audio quality is still to the level you’d expect from Sony. While testing out the LinkBuds by listening to a few of my favourite albums, I was impressed by how crisp and clear everything sounds. You’re also able to customise your sound profile through the Sony Headphones companion app, with preset settings or a manual equaliser. The only real issue I had is that the bass feels a bit flat, even when I fiddled with the EQ.

It’s just a shame that depending on the environment you’re in, the open design kneecaps the full impact of its sound. What use is good audio if you can’t hear it properly, or can’t stand the feeling of the earbuds in your ears?

What do the LinkBuds get right?

An Uncomfortable Design Kneecaps the Innovation of Sony’s LinkBuds
Compare the pairs; Sony, Jabra and Bose earbud cases (Image: Chris Neill/Gizmodo Australia)

There are some interesting features contained within the LinkBuds. Sony’s true wireless connectivity is as strong as it ever was, and the earbuds would instantly sync to my phone the moment I popped them out of the charging case.

It uses a Speak-to-Chat function that automatically pauses your music when you start speaking to someone. Sounds good, right? No more fiddling around with a pause button when a co-worker asks you a question or you have a stop-and-chat with a friend. For the most part, I found this function was pretty accurate when picking up when I was speaking. Although there were a few times when it took a bit longer to register and shut off my music.

The headphones are made from recycled plastics, with no plastic included in the packaging. This is the kind of eco-friendly design that I can get behind, and it looks like using these recycled materials is something Sony plans on doing with its future products and packaging.

I found the touch controls incredibly responsive. Thankfully, these controls are only triggered by double-taps, so it was rare that I accidentally turned off or skipped what I was playing while fiddling with them. And I fiddled with them a lot. It also uses a Wide Area Tap feature, so tapping around your earbuds will give you the same result as hitting them directly. It’s a fantastically innovative feature that I’d love to see used in future Sony earbud designs.

The earbuds have a 5.5-hour playtime, which is on the lower end of the battery life spectrum, with an extra 12 in the case. You can also get 90 minutes of playtime from a 10-minute charge, which is pretty handy if you’re the kind of person who forgets to plug them in until you’re meant to be heading out the door.

The LinkBuds are incredibly light with a small charging case (which explains the battery life). As someone who carries around a massive charging case for the Bose QuietComfort, it’s nice to have one that feels unintrusive when inside my pants pocket.

Should you buy the Sony WF-L900 LinkBuds?

sony linkbud review 004
Image: Chris Neill/Gizmodo Australia

The Sony LinkBuds are the most uncomfortable pair of headphones that I have ever worn. It feels like someone has jammed their thumb into my ear and refused to remove it. Now, I’m willing to accept that I have awful earholes that have skewed my results. But in my experience, I think its doughnut design is both flawed from an ergonomic perspective and one of functionality.

When I put in my earbuds, I do it so I can focus my attention on whatever I’m listening to or whoever I’m speaking with. The LinkBuds’ open design upsets that balance. I don’t want to hear the conversation that the people sitting next to me on the bus are having, I want to hear Prince tell me what it sounds like when doves cry.

If the LinkBuds were cheaper, I might’ve been a bit more forgiving of these shortcomings. Because there are some very cool features inside that doughnut design and I hope to see them used in Sony’s future earbuds.

But at $319, the LinkBuds are Sony’s third most expensive pair of truly wireless earbuds, after the WF-SP900 Sports ($499.95) and the WF-1000XM4 ($388). For the sake of comparison, a pair of WF-1000XM3 will set you back $178, and those come with noise-cancelling and an ear-friendly design. If you want to save yourself a few bucks or are willing to shell out some extra cash, I think you’re better off buying either of these earbuds instead.

Where can you buy the Sony WF-L900 LinkBuds?

JB Hi-Fi ($319) | Sony ($319)