I switched from the Sony WH-1000XM5 to the Sonos Ace and was surprised

Sonos Ace and Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones in their carry cases
(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

I might not have a house full of Sonos wireless speakers and soundbars (I have certainly considered it over the years), but I was excited when the Sonos Ace wireless headphones finally broke cover back in May.

They were originally rumoured back in 2021, and seeing the finished product for the first time had me wondering if the brand could just waltz into the wireless headphones market and bloody the noses of the likes of Bose and Sony at its first attempt.

I was also interested because my current dailies are the Sony WH-1000XM5, one of our long-time favourites and still, arguably, the premium wireless headphones to beat. So it's been out with the old and in with the new to see how Sonos's first-ever headphones shape up for everyday use...

I'm a fan of the fresh design

Sonos Ace and Sony WH-1000XM5 earcups next to each other

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

You have to hand it to the Ace: side by side, I think they are the fresher design. The Sony’s large earcups are fairly non-descript and certainly bulkier than their Sonos counterparts. I’m always conscious of how far the cups stick out from the sides of my head and the Sonos blend in much better thanks to their shallower profile. 

I do, however, like the more rounded headphone band on the Sonys. And, to me at least, it feels that there is a bit more cushioning with the Sony earpads. I also find my ears warming up slightly quicker when wearing the Sonos compared with the Sony – that could be due to the larger ear openings on the Sony allowing for a bit more breathing space. Having said that, the Sonos are comfortable enough to wear and the clamping pressure is well-judged.

And the content key is a major win

Sonos Ace content key up close

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

Another area where the Ace have the edge in my eyes is the on-headphone controls. The Sony’s right surface is touch sensitive – you swipe up and down to change volume, forward and back to skip track and tap the middle to play and pause.

On the Ace, all this is distilled into the single content key, a shiny chrome button on the edge of the right earcup which you can slide and press. It’s more precise than the Sony’s touchpad which is vague in comparison.

I also like the way the jumps in volume level are nicely judged when you slide it up (or down) and hold it there – it’s a very gradual shift with no sudden big jumps. My only slight criticism is I don’t think it looks or feels particularly premium given it’s your key point of contact with the headphones.

Sonos also nails multipoint Bluetooth just as well as Sony. I’m impressed with not just how quickly the Ace power up and pair to my two devices (an iPhone 14 Plus and MacBook Pro) but how quickly the headphones switch over when moving from listening to music on my iPhone to watching a YouTube video on my laptop. It’s a feature I find myself using more and more during the work day and when it isn’t quick and seamless, it can be quite jarring. Great job, Sonos.

The Sonos-centric features are neat but incomplete

Sonos Arc

(Image credit: Future)

I have spent some time using the Sonos with the Arc soundbar down in our test rooms,  to get a feel for the TV Swap feature and to listen to a couple of movie soundtracks in spatial audio via Dolby Atmos. And there is something neat about how straightforward and seamless it is switching from the soundbar to the headphones.

It’s just a shame that no other soundbars or wireless speakers are currently supported. There were also a couple of occasions when the headphones didn’t quite manage to lock on to the audio signal from the soundbar. This resulted in some distortion which took some repeated switching to shake off.

I find that listening to movies in spatial audio through the Ace does lift the audio more out of your head and gives more room for effects to move around. I enjoy the extra sense of spaciousness and think Sonos customers who want to do a lot of late-night listening will enjoy the extra feeling of immersion.

But once again, my experience wasn’t completely glitch-free. I had lip-sync issues a couple of times with varying degrees of severity. A soft reset seemed to sort them out, but I hope this and the signal issue will be ironed out through future firmware updates.

I am also keen to hear what TrueCinema will add to the mix when that hopefully arrives later in the year - if it can elevate the feeling of immersion off the back of the calibration of your Sonos Arc then it could make for quite the personalised home cinema experience. I'm just struggling to understand why this feature wasn't ready to roll when the headphones launched.

The Sonys are a cut above sonically

Sonos Ace and Sony WH-1000XM5 earpads

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

Where I’m surprised the most is when it comes to sound quality. As we mention in our Sonos Ace review, if you were to listen to these headphones in isolation, you would walk away happy enough.

As is the Sonos way, they produce a tonally balanced sound that never threatens to offend. Highs are crisp not harsh, and lows are weighty but not boomy.

However, I can’t quite get over just how much better the Sonys sound. They might be older and cheaper than the Sonos Ace, but even if the XM5 were back up at their launch price, it’s a no-brainer where my money would go. The difference is notable and immediate – I miss Sony’s superior sense of clarity and attention to detail after just a few seconds of a handful of different tracks.

The Sonos don't dig out as much information, and present things in a more condensed sound field. Another deal-breaker for me is that the Sonys also sound so much more rhythmically sure of themselves that they make the Sonos sound confused at times. The fact the WH-1000XM5 also inject more of a sense of life and dynamics into tracks just makes the Ace less enjoyable to listen to in the long term.

Noise-cancelling credentials are okay

Side view of Sonos Ace headphones being worn

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

In the same way that the sound quality seems perfectly good in isolation, I think the same applies to the Sonos’s noise-cancelling. Generally speaking, big, background rumblings are subdued nicely, but I think the Sonys do that and also cancel out a slightly wider range of frequencies to help deliver a cleaner canvas for you to listen to music on.

During my time with them, I even made a point of staying on the London Underground a few more stops than usual during my commute to switch between the Sonos and Sony in real time. Besides getting a few funny looks, I did leave the station thinking the Sonys cut out noise higher up the frequency range which lessens the impact of the screeching of brakes and the rattling of carriages.

I’ll be sticking with Sony, but for how long?

Side view of Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones being worn

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

Switching from the Sonys to the Sonos was surprising but it has also got me thinking.

If I had a house or apartment full of Sonos speakers I could certainly see myself entertaining the Ace for the soundbar switching and the spatial audio experience. When it works, it works well and if I wanted to do a lot of late-night listening then I would at least want to try before I buy.

But, the fact TV Swap works only with the Arc at launch is quite limiting. Where’s their excuse to rush out and buy? You could make more of a case of taking the plunge now if the sound quality was up there with the best, but in my opinion it just isn’t.

I would also really like to experience TrueCinema – it’s a feature which sounds really interesting, but customers can't experience it. I hope Sonos delivers this and support for the rest of its speakers and soundbars further down the line because it does seem very un-Sonos-like to bring a product to market with a handful of asterisks.

And, when you bring price into the equation, for me at least it doesn't quite add up. I think if you already own a pair of WH-1000XM5 or AirPods Max, say, I would hold on to your cash and see what the next few months hold both in terms of Sonos updates and potential new models from other brands.

Having said all that, spending time with the Sonos has also got me thinking about the Sonys and where they could be improved. The XM5 are great, but aren’t completely flawless – and as newer models come out they make you more aware of little tweaks here and there that Sony could make – e.g. the styling. Head over to our wish-list article for a potential new WH-1000XM6 model to read more about what we want from a new Sony model.

For now, though, the XM5s are going back in the bag.


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Andy Madden

Andy is Deputy Editor of What Hi-Fi? and a consumer electronics journalist with nearly 20 years of experience writing news, reviews and features. Over the years he's also contributed to a number of other outlets, including The Sunday Times, the BBC, Stuff, and BA High Life Magazine. Premium wireless earbuds are his passion but he's also keen on car tech and in-car audio systems and can often be found cruising the countryside testing the latest set-ups. In his spare time Andy is a keen golfer and gamer.

  • Omegaman
    Great review thank you, I read another review elsewhere that the Sonos headphones lacked spatial separation and fidelity so your review makes sense in that context. I've always found the Sonos gear to be convenient but boring in terms of sound quality and the opposite for the high end Sony products...could be my ears....again thanks for such an honest review...
  • R2D2
    Omegaman said:
    Great review thank you, I read another review elsewhere that the Sonos headphones lacked spatial separation and fidelity so your review makes sense in that context. I've always found the Sonos gear to be convenient but boring in terms of sound quality and the opposite for the high end Sony products...could be my ears....again thanks for such an honest review...
    If you think about it Sonos products are produced for the masses and won’t be great sound quality, their soundbars are prime examples of this.