A familiar criticism of our esteemed 47-year-old publication has reared its ugly head over the past few months and years. In case you hadn’t noticed, one brand above all others has been dominating the realm of wireless headphones and earbuds, leading a few cynically minded internet dwellers to speculate that we may be guilty of showing disproportionate bias to this new class pet.
If the name that has already popped into your head is 'Sony', feel free to award yourself a metaphorical gold star. If you have been following our reviews this year or paid a visit to the What Hi-Fi? 2023 Awards site, you might have noticed a rather extraordinary phenomenon occurring in this year's best wireless headphones winners. Of the five products named in this ultra-competitive category, every single one was produced by the renowned Japanese audio manufacturer. No Bose, no Sennheiser, no JBL, not even an Earfun in sight. Sony, Sony, Sony, Sony and Sony again. A clean sweep. Such brand dominance is almost unheard of – not just in the wireless earbuds and headphones category, but in any.
While exceptional, a single company dominating one corner of the market actually makes a degree of sense. We are speculating a little here, but when you have a talented, forward-thinking group of engineers who are working in perfect harmony with one another and consequently create a winning formula, that formula is usually transferred to multiple models across various price points. Just look at JBL in the Bluetooth speaker market if you want a parallel example. Get good people working in a productive, creative culture and, whether you're making Swiss watches or Swiss cheese, the products are going to benefit.
What we also often observe in the broader hi-fi world is a pretty predictable pattern of peaks and troughs, of companies riding high on a cresting wave, falling off the metaphorical surfboard (if only temporarily) and then clambering up once again and scaling the same heights as before. Sony, clearly, is riding a pretty mighty wave right now thanks to its clear creative cohesion; but we wouldn’t be surprised if, this time next year, we are gushing over the might of Bose or the sonic mastery of Sennheiser as rival companies rediscover their mojo. After all, these competitors are bringing the competition; they just aren't quite at Sony's level right now.
What, though, are the sonic chefs cooking up in the semi-metaphorical Sony kitchen that makes their particular recipes (this is quite the tortured metaphor) so delicious? And what can rivals learn from the success of a company that has come to dominate this corner of the market with such striking consistency?
Without making ourselves candidates for the award for 'stating the blazingly obvious', sound quality is key to this Sony success story. Across the company's range, be it the cheap WF-C500 wireless earbuds or the premium Sony WH-1000XM5 over-ears, the dynamism and sonic 'understanding' of the music they present is unmatched. What strikes us time and again is the inescapable feeling that these headphones, be they big or small, cheap or premium, convey their sonic cargo with nuance, texture and genuine musical feeling. For bringing out the musicality of music, Sony offerings, at the moment, are doing it better than others.
It’s a theme that recurs consistently across our reviews landscape. We dubbed the budget WF-C700N noise-cancelling earbuds as having a “detailed, dynamic and musical presentation”, whereas the flagship WH-1000XM5 over-ears wowed us with their “sensational sonic clarity” fused with “punchy delivery” and “musical, entertaining sound”. Even the premium WF-1000XM5 noise-cancelling earbuds, which we initially felt were a smidge clinical and analytical, revealed layer upon layer of musical expression the more we listened to them. Across the price spectrum, words such as “punch”, “dynamism”, “musicality”, and “drama” – the key ingredients to Sony's sonic success – come up time and time again.
And it isn't just in the sound department where Sony consistently impresses, with sacrifices in other key design and feature areas minimal. If anything, the Japanese mega-brand is leading the way in ensuring that users get as much headphone, or indeed earbud, for their money as possible – stuffing them full of features that, rather than merely ticking a box in a specification sheet, actually work the way you want them to. Active noise-cancellation, in particular, is consistently excellent across the board, with cheaper models such as the WH-CH720N and the WF-C700N offering particularly decent performance for the money. Much like many Apple products, they 'just work'. In terms of value, Sony is very hard to beat right now.
Maybe that’s part of the Sony secret, in that it often sacrifices glamour and gimmickry for reliability and genuine quality. We have certainly had conversations in our office in which we have speculated as to why Sony isn’t considered to be a true audio titan at the moment, and part of that likely stems from the fact that, while it is undoubtedly a quality operator, it's hardly the sexiest company on the market right now, certainly not in comparison to a glamorous brand like Apple. Sony isn't always a "desirable" name, but it's incredibly tough to beat for consumer value.
Sony branding is often anonymous and banal, its packaging is fiddly and a little soulless, and even the products themselves are often plainly coloured and a little drab to look at (a pair of sage green WF-C700N aside!). Hold a pair of Sony WH-1000XM5 in one hand and Bowers & Wilkins Px8 alternatives in the other, and your gaze will almost certainly be drawn to the latter. Yet what they all offer in terms of actual build quality, usability and reliability is second to none, so much so that we can’t think of many brands that are as ergonomic, reliable or well-made. The budget Sony WH-CH720N over-ears, tested at £99 / $129 / AU$259, should have been naff and fragile, but they feel as robust and solid as you could hope for at this price point. The £100 / $120 C700N earbuds' design, meanwhile, feels like they could easily be priced much higher.
While understandably disappointing – a barrier, even – for some, that lack of visual flair and popular brand cachet isn’t the end of the world when you really think about it. If you’re planning on taking your new headphones out and about on the tube or in the big scary city, full of noise, traffic and roving ne’er do wells, having a pair of unassuming, innocuous-looking headphones is no bad thing. A pair of Apple AirPods Max advertise themselves to the world like neon-lit diamonds. Even the finest Sony models (as we've seen countless times on commuters) seem far more unpretentious, and thus anonymous, by comparison.
All of this combines to produce products which have their priorities exactly in order, with sound quality firmly at the top of the list. What Sony’s domination of the wireless headphone market really reveals, however, is an understanding of what it actually means to make good audio products, regardless of form, price or function.
To our minds at least, the point of a really decent pair of headphones isn’t merely to reveal detail or to provide a blank, neutral soundstage; rather, it is to reflect the soul and intention of the music itself. If music’s true lifeblood is to be expressive, dynamic and emotionally resonant, the finest headphones are the ones that reveal these timbres and emotions the most effectively. While we accept the fact that it can seem like undue bias when one brand sweeps a category clean, we are committed to giving plaudits to the best-value products in our industry.
With this in mind, Sony is currently in a class of its own.
What Hi-Fi? Awards 2023 winners revealed - check them out now!