Just when you think Sony had one of, if not, the best noise-cancelling headphones in the market, they had to go and do it again. Yet somehow better. If you’ve ever used a set of Sony over-ear headphones, it’s unlikely surprising to you that I find their latest WH-1000XM5s to be heavenly.
Sony sure is consistent with its XM line.
Sony WH-1000XM5 Noise-Cancelling Headphones
The XM5s were officially announced in May. Pre-order has been open for a little while. If there’s one word that sums up Sony’s flagship wireless headphones year over year, it’s consistency. The WH-1000XM line has seen only subtle design updates since the original WH-1000XM1, but four iterations later, the new WH-1000XM5 bring some big changes. We’ll touch on a few in this review, but head over here to learn more about the big changes that Sony has made to the XM series with the WH-1000XM5s.
Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones
WHAT IS IT?
The latest noise-cancelling over-ear headphones from Sony
Kick-ass sound, incredible noise-cancelling capabilities, they're very pretty.
I miss the foldable arms of the XM4 (and that's about it!)
Setup & the app
To maximise your experience, you should download the Sony Headphones Connect app – as you’d expect, set up was quite straightforward.
You’ll find the usual settings to fiddle around with under ‘status’, ‘sound’, ‘system’ and ‘services’. I’m not going to waste your time going over what you can do in the app, but if you don’t mess around settings like the equaliser, set what actions the buttons on the headphones do or even maximise the other features, you won’t have the best experience.
Look & feel
Side by side, the differences between the XM4s and the XM5s are pretty distinct.
The XM5s are only 4 grams lighter, but they actually don’t fold up on themselves like the XM4s do. The shape is completely fixed, but this means the case is thinner, which works well in the handbag I take to and from the office. I prefer the folding element of the XM4s but I understand the reason: I couldn’t hear any sounds from the actual headphones themselves while I was running, which I can with the XM4s (given they click and clack a little on the hinges where they fold up for storage).
The ‘leather’ isn’t leather, leather, they’re cruelty free. Thank god. The earpads are larger and softer, making them super comfy to wear. Upon placing the headphones over your ears, it almost feels like nothing is there. Particularly when you compare it to the in-ear buds that make you feel like you’ve shoved a Q-tip too far in. They’re very comfortable and the only discomfort is taking them off after an irresponsible amount of time listening to loud and heavy music.
Not very makeup friendly
I discussed this issue when I was reviewing the Bose QuietComfort 45 headphones (and the Dell XPS 15 laptop). Although the QC 45s I reviewed were white, the same problem exists with the black XM5s. In 0.5 seconds I ruined the headphones because I wear makeup and the pads touch the edge of my cheek. I also got makeup smudge marks on the headband itself that makeup wipes simply cannot get rid of. Rihanna makes good makeup, there’s no chance I’m getting that stain out.
Great battery life
A three minute charge will give you up to three hours of music playback (depending on the cable you use), but my experience was on par. I got around 29 hours of play back on full charge before I had to top them up. Sony says you’ll get 30, and I did play with them a lot. This is a big deal for me when using anything. Keeping on top of everything I need to charge isn’t my forte. Worth mentioning, though, is you’ll get another 10 hours if you turn off noise-cancelling (but you will get a poorer sounding music experience).
How do they sound?
Thought you’d never ask.
One thing I need to highlight is the driver upgrade. Sony has gone from a 40mm driver to a 30mm one with the XM5s. To the naked ear, both sound good, but the XM5s sound fabulous. I run into this problem every time I review a speaker or a pair of headphones: how to convey just how good the sound is. But honestly, they sound p h e n o m e n a l. The sound quality over the XM4s is noticeable.
The first song I like to test on any speaker/headphones is Hallelujah by Jeff Buckley. This song requires the kit to do well across low, mid and high frequency, all thanks to his voice. His upper register is known for his androgynous, agile falsetto and a powerful and expansive (yet not screamy) range. We also get singing as soft as a whisper and the strumming of a sometimes overpowering acoustic guitar. On max volume, I only flinched once. Playing that same snippet again, but swapping the equaliser to Bass Boost, the problem was fixed. Metal blast beats were at times too much for Bass Boost, but turning it off made the entire song sound a little flat. The best option here is probably to not have the volume up so high. The XM5s otherwise love some bass.
The instruments don’t bleed and the vocals are clear and crisp – no matter what genre is thrown at them.
Changing the tempo to a vocalist with a super poppy backing track, I have to admit, it sounded even better – the high-pitch notes translated beautifully and the backing sound (this always just sounds like a metronome to me) didn’t cause a throbbing sensation in my eyes. Kicking it over to EDM, it sounded fully-immersive. Bass Boost wasn’t the best for this, but the app allows you to customise the equaliser.
Listening to a podcast is best done with the Sony WH-1000XM5s set to Vocal.
Talking noise-cancellation, the XM5s have eight mics (the XM4s had four) that pick up the sound around you to block it out better. The more mics = the more data to cancel the sound. Sony reckons this picks up sounds in the mid- to high-frequency that are generally harder to cancel. The XM5s are fantastic at cancelling the sounds around you.
They even stood up during the plane test. With noise-cancelling headphones pitched as perfect while flying, it’s been very hard to test this over the last few years. In the short(ish) trip from Sydney to Launceston, I have to say, the Sony WH-1000XM5s were still clear and provided a perfect flying soundtrack, unphased by the roaring plane beneath me.
Some extra Sony features
Speak-to-Chat: Speak to Chat was actually launched in 2020 with the XM4 headphones. It’s basically meant to do what it says on the tin – once you begin to talk, it’ll pause your music and let in the outside world in. Once you’ve had a chat, and the headphones don’t notice a conversation continuing, the music will kick back in. Speak to Chat can be customised within the app, allowing you to change the sensitivity and preset how long it will take for the music to resume. This feature came in handy more often than I thought it would, mostly in the office where people are coming up to you more frequently. It did feel weird talking over the music as I was always unsure how loud I actually was speaking. You probably won’t get used to this feature, but it’s a handy one to have enabled.
Adaptive Sound Control: The proposition with Adaptive Sound Control is that it will change the noise-cancelling or ambient sound to suit your location or your activity. One example is when you move from work to the gym to Woolies to home, it knows where you are, and what you would like your headphones to do. For me, I had noise-cancelling on at the gym so I could drown out their music and walking home, I switched to ambient so I could still pay attention to my surrounds. This feature is optional and is toggled on/set via the Sony Headphones Connect app.
360 Reality Audio: I got very excited to set up 360 Reality Audio, which Sony bills as “So immersive, so real”. Another instance of a Sony feature doing what it says on the tin: provide a 360-degree audio experience. You can get this on the Sony WH-1000XM5s, as long as you use 360 by Deezer, Artist Connection, nugs.net or TIDAL. Suffice to say I don’t use any of those.
Wearing sensor: in the left cup is a sensor that determines if your ear is actually inside. When it notices it’s not, the music pauses. Putting the headphones back on properly, the music will kick back in. If you put your hand over the cup, they’ll lower the volume so you can have a conversation.
Call quality: I of course tested the call quality on the XM5s, although over-ear headphones aren’t the best for calls (if for no other reason than they make me feel supremely awkward). Sony has added extra mics in this gen of headphones that are specifically for calls and the XM5s are actually using a new type of AI that has been trained using 500 million voice samples in a bid to completely isolate you from the sounds around you while on a call. My dad said I was clear down the line, that the sounds around me were minimal and that it was actually like I was talking on a podcast mic, not just a pair of headphones. I could hear him perfectly fine, too, but I’m still going to swap the headphones out for something less obnoxious while taking a call.
The elephant in the room
It might be easy for me to sit here and tell you the Sony XM5s are the best headphones to come out so far this year, but what if you use the XM4s? Is it worth the upgrade? Sony would tell you the WH-1000XM5 are meant to sit alongside the XM4s, not replace them.
The sound out of the Sony WH-1000XM5 over-ear headphones is rivalled only by the Bose QuietComforts. Both are kicking ass when it comes to noise-cancelling headphones that deliver near-perfect sound across any genre. I’m not sure I’d tell you to upgrade if you still use the Sony XM4s, because replacing tech for the sake of it every 12 months isn’t something we’d recommend. But if you’re using a very old pair of headphones, you’ll be blown away by the quality of the XM5s. Similarly, if you’re considering the move from in-ear buds now offices are opening up and that international flight is no longer a dream, you’d be silly to not consider the Sony XM5s. They sound amazing.