Sony ULT Wear vs Sony WH-1000XM5: what are the differences between the two headphones?

Sony has recently announced a brand new ULT range of products geared towards a younger generation with a focus on delivering big on bass. The highlight of this range is the Sony ULT Wear over-ear wireless headphones, a mid-range pair of noise-cancelling cans that aim to offer a more affordable alternative to the flagship Award-winning Sony WH-1000XM5

Naturally, there are key differences between the ULT Wear and the XM5, not least because they're aiming for different sonic signatures and audiences with different price points. But we're here to run through the differences and similarities between the two Sony models, to help you make an informed decision in case you are on the hunt for a new pair of headphones. With Sony's excellent track record and reputation with wireless headphones recently, it's only sensible to find out what you could be getting from the new bass-focused young guns when placed side-by-side with the established grandmasters.

Price & availability 

Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones on a red bag

The Sony WH-1000XM5 are still setting the benchmark for wireless headphones at this level. (Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

The new Sony ULT Wear sit within the market's mid-range, priced at £180 / $200 / AU$440. The ULT Wear do push well beyond Sony's most budget ANC offering, the five-star WH-CH720N at £99 / $129 / AU$259, but they're nowhere near the premium outlay that you'll have to fork out for the flagship WH-1000XM5, which launched for a considerable £380 / $399 / AU$550.

We'd caveat the above by stating that, while the figures above represent the XM5's official launch price tag, the price has since fallen down to around the £299 / $300 mark currently, while you might see even lower price discounts during the Black Friday sales. The ULT Wear are clearly the cheaper model here, but a hefty discount on the XM5 makes them even more fantastic value than at full price.

**Winner: Sony ULT Wear**

Build & design 

Sony ULT Wear held in front of a bar

Sony's new ULT Wear look pretty similar to the XM5, and they might be just as comfy, too. (Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

Place the Sony ULT Wear headphones side-by-side with their more premium counterparts and you'd at least have to look for more than a few seconds before you could confidently distinguish between the two samples. Visually, both pairs sport similar, if not identical DNA, with both showcasing that smooth, oval earcup shape, well-adorned padded headband and lightweight but sturdy construction that go into making Sony's headphones such a delight to live with. 

There are differences, of course. The WH-1000XM5 are a little sleeker and more up-market in their overall design, even if the ULT Wear don't appear to lag particularly far behind. The newer bass-focused headphones distinguish themselves via their large button on the left earcup which lets you toggle your preferred bass profile, something with which we'll go into detail later. There's also a moderately large Sony text logo on the upper corner of the headband which gleams thanks to its shiny lenticular font; you'll either find that to be a nice touch of visual flair or an unnecessary adornment that gives the ULT Wear cans a touch of unwanted gaudiness. It's a matter of taste, naturally.  

Both pairs of headphones feel satisfying in hand, but it's the XM5's "noiseless design" that sets the standard, with a lightweight yet firm, flexible construction that hasn't let us down so far even beyond our extensive testing period. With ABS sliders, swivelling earcups and comfortable memory foam in the centre of the headband, there aren't many finer-built over-ears at this level. 

Happily, the ULT Wear have taken a leaf out of the XM5's pleasing playbook. The newer cans' headband is similarly plush and adorned with a decent amount of soft padding (as are the earpads), and they certainly felt secure and comfortable during our testing time. Similarly, the ULT Wear's headband extends easily via a sliding mechanism, while the smoothly swivelling hinges at the summit of each earcup ape the XM5 in all the best ways. 

One distinguishing feature is that the XM5 don't fold up, but the ULT Wear do, making them more portable friendly. On a day-to-day basis, both sets of over-ears are a pleasure to live with, although we did experience a little bit of on-ear heat from the ULT Wear over extended periods. We delved into the specs and found out that the ULT Wear are 5g heavier than the XM5 – it might seem like a tiny difference, but that extra weight can be significant if wearing the cans for longer periods. 

**Winner: Sony WH-1000XM5**

Features 

Sony ULT Wear on a wooden bar counter

The ULT Wear go far beyond their focus on customisable bass. (Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

The premium Sony WH-1000XM5 are positively packed with high-performing features. Sony's DSEE Extreme engine upscales compressed music, while the cans' useful 'Speak to Chat' functionality allows for quick conversations as the headphones simply detect when you start talking, pause the music that's playing and drop you into ambient mode automatically. Other semi-exclusive features, such as on-head wear detection and Bluetooth Multipoint, serve to make the XM5 a well-rounded choice for any feature-hungry user.

Then there's the big stuff. Active noise cancelling is excellent, delivering what we described at the time as "the best in the business", and while the Bose QC Ultra Headphones are staking their claim for the crown, there's no denying how well Sony's Integrated V1 Processor works to block out noise in a natural, consistent manner. 30 hours of playback with ANC on or 40 with it off are solid numbers for battery life, with a ten-minute quick charge adding five hours of additional playback. Call quality is excellent thanks to the headphones' built-in beamforming mic, LDAC codec support for streaming hi-res files is a big plus, while the on-cup touch controls work as smoothly and naturally as you'd hope from the established brand.

The ULT Wear may be more affordable, but they're doing exceptionally well feature-wise for a pair of cans at this price point. Battery life is the big standout, with a potential 50 hours from the cans if you've turned ANC off and a decent 30 hours if you decide to switch it on. Our time spent within the ULT's cocooning ANC was impressively serene, something that you'd expect considering that they share the same V1 Processor as the XM5 for handling the ANC technology capabilities.

Bluetooth Multipoint is on board for switching between devices on the fly, while Fast Pair lets you connect to a compatible source quickly if you have an Android or Google device. Sony's LDAC Bluetooth codec is also on the menu here, again a nice bonus considering the ULT Wear's mid-price point. Both the ULT Wear and the XM5 support Sony's 360 Reality Dolby Atmos tracks, and you can adjust the EQ (and many more settings) for both sets of headphones via Sony's Headphone Connect app. 

The big distinguishing factor comes in the shape of that shiny on-cup button, the one which allows you to toggle between the ULT Wear's three audio modes on the fly: a standard non-boosted profile; the "power bass" mode for more bass attack; and "deep bass" for greater resonance from the lower frequencies. While it's fun to play with for a while, we really would advise against going near it if you can, as both modes, especially "deep bass", tend to make your music sound ridiculously rumbly and unwieldy at the lower end. That, as it happens, leads us to the most important aspect of this head-to-head...

**Winner: Draw**

Sound 

Sony WH-1000XM5 on a yellow background

Sonically, the XM5 lead the pack for over-ear headphones of this type.  (Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

Sound quality is what made us truly fall in love with the Sony WH-1000XM5. Detailed, musical and transparent enough to have a decent crack at practically any track or genre you care to dig out, the Sony XM5 fully deserved their 2023 What Hi-Fi? Award for their stellar audio performance. They're rhythmically superb, not to mention much more detailed and nuanced than the previous WH-1000XM4, with an entertaining character that walks the line between sparky fun and genuine insight with the ease of a seasoned trapeze artist.

As we stated in our review, "there’s a real sense of drive and weight" to percussive hits when played through the XM5, but the five-star cans "also manage to keep edges clean and pristine which makes their rise and fall even more dynamic". From Billie Eilish to John Williams' Duel Of The Fates, Sony's premium performers have it covered.

How do the ULT Wear sound in comparison to the WH-1000XM5? While these are two distinct pairs of headphones with different aims, audiences and price points, if you want a well-rounded, supremely balanced and wonderfully musical pair of headphones, we'd urge you to pick the latter. While the ULT Wear are energetic, robust and weighty, they're no match for the best that Sony has to offer when it comes to producing truly excellent audio.   

As we stated in our review, the ULT Wear have a sonic personality that "opts for a palette of a few bright colours at the expense of any of those bothersome shades or hues", something that "can lead to an invigorating (and overwhelming) listening experience... that wallops you around the ears with their relentless, full-bodied personality". 

The more affordable Sonys tend to bulldoze their way through music with their insistent, one-note style. Rock tracks naturally need to punch through with sufficient weight, but guitar-centric offerings from, say, Nirvana or Deftones suffer from an overbearing sense of overload that becomes utterly wearing after a time.  

Yes, they can be entertaining, but there's just not enough subtlety, depth or insight here for the more affordable cans to even come close to challenging the XM5. If you like oomph and weight you'll probably be satisfied on a more superficial level, but a lack of rhythmic insight or dynamic contrast makes for a less multi-dimensional listen overall. Anyone who prioritises sound from their Bluetooth headphones should drop to the cheaper (but more balanced and insightful) Sony WH-CH720N or else save up and nab a pair of the premium WH-1000XM5 instead. 

**Winner: Sony WH-1000XM5**

Verdict 

Sony ULT Wear held in the hand

We're excited to get more hands-on time with the Sony ULT Wear. (Image credit: Sony)

The WH-1000XM5 flagship headphones are musically adept, wonderfully made and feature-laden Award-winners, setting the standard at their premium level and laying down a marker to which all similar products at their level should aspire. 

The ULT Wear, meanwhile, are a bit of an oddity. On the surface, they are offering a premium-level Sony design, excellent build quality and a massive feature set that is hugely appealing, especially for their more affordable price point.

However, if sound quality is your main priority (and it should be for any headphones), you may find the bass-heavy cans just don't do your music justice when it comes to filling in those all-important details, nuances and textural hues. They go big on bass and sonic oomph, but a lack of refinement and insight prevents the ULT Wear from becoming a viable, afforable alternative to the excellence of the XM5. If you really care about sound, the Sony XM5 are easily the better choice.

MORE:

Read our Sony ULT Wear review

And then our original Sony WH-1000XM5 review

Here are the best over-ear headphones on the market 

Try out our 29 of the best tracks for testing bass

Harry McKerrell
Staff writer

Harry McKerrell is a staff writer at What Hi-Fi?. He studied law and history at university before working as a freelance journalist covering TV and gaming for numerous platforms both online and in print. When not at work he can be found playing hockey, practising the piano or forcing himself to go long-distance running.