Some companies, such as Sony, need no introduction. And some companies’ expertise where particular product types are concerned, such as Sony's with true wireless earbuds, doesn’t even need an introduction explaining how it needs no introduction. Just look at the winner of our wireless headphones category for the last few years to see what we mean.
With these WF-C500 headphones, though, Sony is attempting to bring some of its true wireless in-ear magic down to an altogether more aggressive price than it tends to compete at. It’s never an easy trick to pull off, even for a company as accomplished as this. Can it move down the market without seeming to move, you know... downmarket?
The Sony WF-C500 arrived with a price tag of £89 in the UK, $99 in the US, and AU$149 in Australia – but these days they can be picked up with big discounts in each of those territories, certainly around big sales events such as Black Friday, Cyber Monday and Amazon Prime Day.
In Sony's own line-up, the C500 sit below the innovative LinkBuds, the teeny-tiny LinkBuds S, and the lauded, premium WF-1000XM4 in terms of price.
Sony’s not short of brand allure, of course, and some of the dazzle of its pricier true wireless earbuds trickles down – but nevertheless, the WF-C500 find themselves competing against some very capable rivals indeed. Panasonic, Google, JBL and Cambridge Audio, to name just four, will all sell you an impressive pair of budget alternatives to the WF-C500 – and some have definite on-paper advantages over the Sonys.
Naturally enough, the WF-C500 aren’t the most lavishly specified of Sony’s extensive range of headphones – but where the essentials are concerned, there’s very little here to complain too seriously about.
The WF-C500 use Bluetooth 5.0 for wireless connectivity, and it’s compatible with SBC and AAC codecs. Once your digital audio information is on board, it’s delivered to your ears by a pair of 5.8mm neodymium full-range dynamic drivers.
The WF-C500 hold a full ten hour’s-worth of power in the earbuds themselves, which isn’t bad at all. The charging case holds another full charge for an all-in, best-case total of 20 hours – which is a staunchly ordinary figure. Certainly it’s dwarfed by the 45 hours or so that the Cambridge Audio Melomania 1 Plus will last between visits to mains power.
Plug the Sonys in for just 10 minutes, though – there’s a USB-C to USB-A cable in the fully recyclable packaging – and the WF-C500 should be good for another hour or so. Naturally enough, there’s no wireless charging capability here.
It’s possible to control the WF-C500 in a few different ways. Sony’s consummate ‘Headphones Connect’ app is as impressive here as it is in every other application, and as well as the broad strokes of performance it has quite a lot of second-tier functionality too. It’s here, for example, that you can switch Sony’s proprietary ‘DSEE’ circuitry on or off – this Digital Sound Enhancement Engine claims to be able to upscale standard audio files to something approaching ‘hi-res’ quality. Happily, you’re able to make your own comparisons to establish its effectiveness.
Bluetooth 5.0 (AAC, SBC)
Battery life 10hrs (20hrs with charging case)
Waterproof rating IPX4
Dimensions 80 x 34.9 x 30.9mm (charging case)
Weight 5.4g (each earbud); 35g (charging case)
The app is also compatible with Sony’s 360 Reality Audio spatial audio algorithm – all you need to do to access this feature is let the app take a picture of your ears. The less adventurous among us can limit themselves to adjusting the EQ settings, establishing their Bluetooth priorities (sound quality versus connection stability), and so on.
It’s also possible to use Google Assistant or Siri to control the Sonys – both are available, although neither is built in so you’ll need to use the big ‘push/push’ control buttons on the earbuds themselves to wake your assistant up. These controls also cover off ‘play/pause’, ‘volume up/down’, ‘skip forwards/backwards’ and ‘answer/end/reject call’.
Add in an IPX4 rating for moisture- and splash-resistance, plus ‘fast pair’ connectivity with Android devices and ‘swift pair’ with Windows 10 PCs, and it’s hard to suggest Sony has omitted anything obvious when you keep price uppermost in your mind.
No one in their right mind gets carried away where the design of in-ear headphones is concerned – and, sure enough, the Sony WF-C500 are reassuringly ordinary lookers (unless you choose the lively green or orange finishes rather than the black or white options). As usual, the company’s gone for the ‘lozenge/bean’ shape rather than the ‘dangly stem’ alternative.
At 5.4g per earbud, the WF-C500 aren’t any kind of burden to wear – and thanks to the supplied choice of eartips and the compact nature of their design, the Sonys are simple to get into position and will stay comfortable for hours once they’re there.
Just like the earbuds themselves, the charging case doesn’t look or feel anything special. Like the earbuds themselves, though, it is perfectly well made and feels built to last.
Some headphones sound unremarkable at first and then just continue to sound unremarkable. Others don’t sound anything particularly special to begin with, but over a little time reveal themselves to be so nicely balanced and even-handed that it’s initially quite easy to underestimate them. The Sony WF-C500 fall into that second category, and quite heavily.
They undeniably play it just a little safe at the bottom of the frequency range, mind you. The low end is just slightly short of what we'd describe as 'deep', but the bass the Sonys generate is properly shaped and controlled, and carries plenty of detail regarding texture and timbre. And at the opposite end, too, there’s a suggestion of reticence – but treble sounds are nevertheless just as detailed and informative, and they have just enough bite and crunch to remain a spirited listen.
In between, the midrange is deft and, yes, loaded with detail. A singer with the sort of vocal character of Robert Wyatt, for example, is made to sound plaintive and immediate during At Last I Am Free – and even though his voice exists with space all around it, the Sonys are cohesive and musical enough to deliver the entire recording in a unified and convincing manner.
They do pretty good work with the dynamics of a recording, too. The simple ‘quiet/LOUD/quiet’ of John Grant’s Queen Of Denmark is given plenty of expression, as are the rather more nuanced harmonic dynamics of PJ Harvey’s When Under Ether. And the latter recording also demonstrates the ability of the WF-C500 to pay proper attention to spaces and silences as well as actual sounds.
It’s a well-defined and easy-to-follow presentation the Sonys deliver. Not the most expansive in terms of scale but convincing nevertheless. And they do decent work where rhythms and tempos are concerned, too – the WF-C500 manage to flow and undulate where other, less rhythm-expressive alternatives can sound a little lumpy.
Overall, the balance Sony has hit on here is understandable, sensible and enjoyable. Between their impressively neutral tonality, front-foot sonic attitude, and fine levels of detail and insight, they’re well worth the investment.
Building affordable true wireless earbuds is a different discipline from building expensive ones, but it’s no less tricky. In the WF-C500 Sony has managed to bring a lot of what makes its expensive true wireless in-ears such a success without cutting too many corners too obviously – and in the process it’s made your job of choosing a great budget pair that little bit harder.
Yes, the WF-C500 can be bettered (and by quite a margin) for battery life, but you’ll be hard-pushed to find a more comfortable pair. Yes, you can buy greater outright scale of sound but you won’t encounter a more complete control app. Some alternatives are a punchier and more ‘exciting’ listen, but very few strike a more convincing sonic balance.
As an overall package, then, the newly Award-winning Sony WF-C500 are genuine contenders.
- Sound 5
- Features 4
- Build 5
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