Sony LinkBuds S review

The Sony LinkBuds S might be the world’s smallest wireless earbuds, but size isn’t everything Tested at £180 / $199 / AU$350

In-ear headphones: Sony LinkBuds S
(Image: © Future)

What Hi-Fi? Verdict

Sony’s built a reputation for great wireless earbuds and the LinkBuds S aren’t short of positives, but neither are they a runaway sonic success.

Pros

  • +

    Balanced sound

  • +

    Solid bass

  • +

    Good noise-cancelling

Cons

  • -

    Dynamics can be bettered

  • -

    Lack of drive to the sound

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Sony’s wasted no time launching a new member of its LinkBuds family of wireless earbuds. The originals launched in March, complete with their innovative ring driver design which offered something a little different to the norm, both in terms of fit and sound quality. They weren’t perfect, but they did more than enough to pique our interest and gain a four-star review. 

The new LinkBuds are called the Sony LinkBuds S, but looking at the design of this pair, you wouldn’t necessarily guess they were from the same family.

Price

In-ear headphones: Sony LinkBuds S

(Image credit: Future)

Priced at £180 / $199 / AU$350, the LinkBuds S come in just above the original LinkBuds (£150 / $180 / AU$300). Given they bring active noise-cancelling to the party it’s hardly surprising they cost a premium.

Compared to the ‘tested at’ price of the premium Sony WF-1000XM4 model - they launched at £250 / $280 / AU$450 - you can see a natural progression to the more expensive pair, but you can now find the XM4 for around £199 / $230 / AU$299 if you shop around. Not exactly a massive leap.

You’ve also got the five-star Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 3 (£219 / $249.95 / AU$399.95) if your budget can stretch a little further and the JBL Reflect Flow Pro (£160 / $180 / AU$299) if you want something with a sportier edge. Of course, you can also bring the Apple AirPods Pro (£249 / $249 / AU$399) into the equation, given they’ve been out for a while and their price regularly drops to around the £200 / $200 / AU$319 mark.

Design

In-ear headphones: Sony LinkBuds S

(Image credit: Future)

While the original LinkBuds were all about that open ring driver and deliberately letting outside noise in, Sony has gone back to a more traditional wireless earbuds design with a new five millimetre driver for the LinkBuds S. This means eartubes and silicone eartips that sit inside the ear and Sony's also added active noise cancellation (ANC) to help keep the outside world out.

Despite changing the design and implementing this extra tech, Sony’s still managed to keep the earpieces small. Very small. At the time of writing Sony claims they’re the world’s smallest noise-cancelling wireless earbuds. Sony says they’re 41 per cent smaller than the WF-1000XM4 and 33 per cent lighter.

And they do feel it both in hand and in your ear. They’re easy to slide and twist into place and get a good seal (four different sizes of tips are provided in the box). They’re also IPX4 water resistant which means the Sonys can handle a gym workout and a normal commute to the office.

The LinkBuds S come in three finishes: white, black and a brand new beige(ish) colour, Ecru.

Features

In-ear headphones: Sony LinkBuds S

(Image credit: Future)

Besides active noise-cancellation, the LinkBuds S do still offer an ambient sound or transparency mode which lets you hear more of what’s going on around you. In fact there are 20 levels of adjustment if you go through Sony’s Headphones app which is a more than generous amount of flexibility.

They come packing the same Integrated Processor V1 found in the LinkBuds and the WF-1000XM4 and the same DSEE Extreme processor which can upscale digital music files to near hi-res quality.

Speak-to-Chat is present on the LinkBuds S which allows you to kick off a conversation with the headphones still in place. They automatically cut out when you start and resume music playback after you’ve stopped talking. You can customise the sensitivity of the feature so it’s not triggered by coughing, and also how long they’ll wait before feeding music back into your ears.

Another way to converse is by tapping and pressing on an earbud to enable Quick Attention, which immediately drops the audio level so you can have a quick chat. Remove your finger and music levels return to normal.

Sony LinkBuds S tech specs

In-ear headphones: Sony LinkBuds S

(Image credit: Future)

Bluetooth SBC, AAC, LDAC

Battery life 6hrs (+14hrs from case)

Charging USB-C

Transparency mode Yes

Built-in mic and controls Yes

Finishes Black, White, Ecru

Weight 4.8g (per bud)

The surface of each earbud provides touch controls and they’re assignable. Out of the box the right earbud handles playback, while the surface of the left earbud switches between noise cancellation and the transparency mode. They’re responsive and easy to use although these LinkBuds don’t get the Wide Area Tap feature of the originals, which allows you to control them by touching the surface of your skin just in front of your ear.

As tends to be the case with Sony wireless earbuds there’s no aptX HD support, but they can handle tracks in Sony’s LDAC format which, streamed over Bluetooth from a compatible source (such as a Sony Xperia 1 III smartphone), allows hi-res audio files up to 24-bit/96kHz to be transmitted at data rates of up to 990kbps.

Battery life comes in at six hours per charge with ANC activated. This can be stretched out to nine hours with noise-cancelling turned off. The supplied charging case provides an additional 14 hours. During testing we found the Sonys to be pretty much on the mark, almost surviving a solid day of use at our desks without having to be dropped back in their case.

Pairing starts as soon as the case is open and the Sonys are also compatible with Google Fast Pair (for Android devices) and Swift Pair for Windows 11 or Windows 10 devices. A button on the back of the unit (next to the USB-C charging socket) is there to help you pair to other devices should you wish. We’re still disappointed to report there’s no ‘Multipoint’ connection feature like there is on Sony’s premium wireless over-ears. This would allow you to connect to two devices simultaneously, say your computer and phone.

Packaged with the noise-cancelling is wind noise reduction which helps when it comes to making phone calls. Sony’s really upped its game in the call quality department in recent years and, while the LinkBuds S aren’t quite as clear and accomplished as the WF-1000XM4, Sony’s Precise Voice Pickup Technology still does a good job of letting your voice be heard and keeping interference down – the noise-cancelling dispatches traffic noise and train rumbles without fuss too. Look closely at the side of each bud and you can actually see the mesh structure which covers the exterior mics.

Sound

In-ear headphones: Sony LinkBuds S

(Image credit: Future)

We know where the LinkBuds S fit in Sony’s current range of wireless earbuds on the price front, but where do they sit on the sound quality front? Well, there’s nothing wrong with the overall balance. Sonys tend to hover over the middle ground and it’s another evenhanded performance that you’re treated to here.

There’s no spikiness to the treble, nor does the bass sound tubby or fat. Lows are solid and tightly controlled and they have no problem giving weight to the bass notes that holepunch the pages of Luniz’s I Got 5 On It. There’s texture there and you get a good sense of depth to the individual notes too. At the other end, percussion sounds crisp and detailed. Sandwiched between the two is an attitude-enriched vocal.

Switch over to an orchestral version of Royal Blood’s Limbo and the Sonys paint a clear enough picture. They’re good at painting in broad strokes and they deliver plenty of detail from the rock-cum-classical ensemble. They don’t sound as open and spacious as the ordinary Linkbuds, which is something that we do miss.

We’re a bit more disappointed by the apparent lack of drive and dynamic thrust to the sound. All the elements are present and correct, but the drum thwacks don’t hit home as hard as they should and timing doesn’t feel as nailed-on. They also don’t quite deliver the dynamic clout of key rivals. Everything just sounds a little flat.

As the track builds to a crescendo, the best wireless earbuds at the money really ride the drums, strings and vocal home, but the Sonys seem to lack the energy needed to really propel the track forward. All the various instrumental textures sound a little samey with the earbuds struggling for clarity and separation.

Verdict

In-ear headphones: Sony LinkBuds S

(Image credit: Future)

We’ve been quite spoiled by Sony’s recent adventures in wireless earbuds. The WF-1000XM4 set a new standard for premium wireless in-ears and the original LinkBuds brought something fresh to the party too.

In isolation, the LinkBuds S do sound good, the noise-cancelling is decent, they boast some useful features and they’re lightweight and comfortable to wear. But they are disappointing on the audio front. They lack the fun factor and rhythmic drive that Sony’s wireless headphones usually have in spades. Solid, but not Sony’s best work.

SCORES

  • Sound 4
  • Comfort 5
  • Build 5

MORE:

Read our review of the Apple AirPods Pro

Also consider the Sony Linkbuds

Read our Sony WF-1000XM4 review

These are the best noise-cancelling earbuds

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