Sony LinkBuds Review: Open Earbuds with an Innovative Design


David Carnoy/CNET

When I first got my hands on Sony’s new LinkBuds, I was a bit surprised. For starters, they had an actual name you can easily remember and not some funky model number. But the bigger shock was the design: Each earbud literally has a hole punched through it so you can hear the outside world in addition to your music. Think of it as a built-in version of transparency mode, but without any need for electronic intervention. Kinda weird, right? How does that fit — and feel — in your ear?

Better than you might think. And in some sense, the LinkBuds ($180, £149, AU$300) are Sony’s answer to Apple’s standard AirPods, now on their third generation. While they don’t sound as good as Sony’s flagship WF-1000XM4 noise-isolating earbuds, they offer a discreet, innovative design and a more secure fit than the AirPods, as well as good sound. In short, I’m impressed with what Sony has done with the LinkBuds, although they do have some downsides.

Like

  • Fit comfortably and securely with a lightweight, innovative design
  • Good sound for open earbuds
  • Open design allows you to hear outside world
  • Excellent voice calling performance
  • IPX4 splashproof
  • Some notable extra features, including Speak to Chat and Wide Area Tap

Don’t Like

  • May not play loud enough for some people, particularly in noisier environments
  • Open design allows ambient sound to leak in
  • No multipoint Bluetooth pairing


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Sony LinkBuds Review: Next-Level Open Earbuds



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Built to play all day

Sony says the concept behind the LinkBuds was to make “an always-on product to link your online and offline worlds.” I’m not exactly sure what that means, but the idea is that these buds are supposed to be comfortable to wear around all the time without shutting you off from the outside world.

That’s where the ring comes in. As I said, these are open earbuds like the standard AirPods, so they allow ambient noise in. But in some ways they’re more akin to Samsung’s Galaxy Buds Live earbuds, also known as The Beans, because they have a stemless design. And although they’re not exactly kidney-shaped, they are elongated. 

They come in two colors, white and dark gray, and Sony says both the case and buds are made out of recycled plastic *that gives them a speckled look,” which may be a first for earbuds. I’ll get into whether I think they’re a good value at $180, but they’re basically in line with what the third-gen AirPods and Galaxy Buds Live cost when they first launched.

Read moreThe 22 best wireless earbuds for 2022

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The ring houses a 12mm speaker driver, according to Sony.


David Carnoy/CNET

I’d say the one big advantage these have over both the third-gen AirPods and the Galaxy Buds Live is that they’re designed to stay in your ears more securely. I was able to get a good fit with the Buds Live and a decent fit with the AirPods 3, but I’ve heard from plenty of people who couldn’t get the Buds Live to stay in their ears. Not everybody can get a secure fit with the AirPods either, even the latest model, which is why you see all those AirPods wing accessories on Amazon. “I had to get the AirPods Pro because the AirPods didn’t really stay in my ears,” is a comment I’ve encountered more than a few times.

The LinkBuds come with five different sizes of fins or Arc Supporters, as Sony calls them. Medium is the default size but there’s also extra small, small, large and extra large. The large and extra large worked well for me and the fin wedges under that top ridge on your ear and helps lock the bud in place. I wouldn’t say these lock in quite as well as the Beats Fit Pro, but they’re arguably more comfortable, particularly if you don’t like having an ear tip jammed in your ear.

It’s pretty self-explanatory how the buds fit in your ears, but the app does have a tutorial that shows you how they’re supposed to fit. What’s interesting is the way the ring sits in your ear: It’s partially hidden so people can’t see it. From the outside, it just looks like you’re wearing regular buds.

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The buds in gray.


David Carnoy/CNET

They may not fit everybody’s ears perfectly, but I found them comfortable to wear and when I wasn’t playing audio I’d occasionally forgot I was wearing them. From time to time, I made little adjustments to how they sat in my ears and the rings’s position in your ear can impact sound quality slightly (getting it right over your canal and firing the speaker directly into it helps). You can tweak the sound a bit in the companion app for iOS and Android but changing the EQ settings doesn’t dramatically change the sound profile. Engaging bass boost, for example, only gets you a touch more bass.

These use Sony’s V1 integrated processor, which is its version of a Bluetooth system on a chip, or SoC. It’s Bluetooth 5.2 and like the Sony WF-1000XM4, the LinksBuds unfortunately do not support multipoint Bluetooth pairing. That means you can’t connect the buds to two devices at the same time — like your phone and your computer — or take an incoming call on your phone while the buds are paired to your computer. 

You get a total of 5 different sizes of fins or Arc Supporters, as Sony calls them. 


David Carnoy/CNET

Sony says the buds have 12mm drivers and are IPX4 splashproof. I got some shots of them in the rain and was a little worried I might have let them get a little too wet. But after I dried them off, they worked fine, so you can use them for workouts and runs — and they did stay in my ears when I ran with them.  

These aren’t noise-canceling earbuds and they don’t have a transparency mode because they’re naturally transparent. If you pause your music, it basically sounds as if you’re not wearing earbuds.

Cool extra features

The LinkBuds do have a few extra features and a couple of them are impressive. In terms of more standard features for buds in this price range, they have ear-detection sensors. That means when you take a bud out of your ear, your music automatically pauses and then resumes when you put the bud back in your ear. And yes, podcast fans, you can use a single bud for audio listening and leave the other one charging in the case.

The buds have touch controls and they work just fine. But what’s cool is that if you want, instead of tapping on a bud, you can tap on your face, just in front of your ear. Sony calls the feature Wide Area Tap and you can turn it on or off in the companion app. It’s two taps to pause your music and three taps to advance a track. And you can also set taps for volume controls. 

The LinkBuds also carry over Sony’s Speak To Chat feature found in its WF-1000XM4 buds and WH-1000XM4 over-ear headphones. That’s the feature where if you start talking to someone your music automatically pauses so you can have a conversation. Your music resumes about 15 seconds after you stop talking.

sony-linkbuds-wet

David Carnoy/CNET

If you talk to yourself or your pets a lot, you might want to turn the feature off in the app. It uses up a touch more battery life when you have it on. Battery life is rated at up to 5.5 hours at moderate volume levels, so it’s not stellar, but the case does provide a couple of extra charges and has a quick charge feature that gives you 90 minutes of playback time after just 10 minutes.

The third-gen AirPods have Apple’s spatial audio virtual surround sound feature, which works with movies and TV content along with music. Like the WF-1000XM4 and WH-1000XM4, the LinkBuds support Sony’s surround sound music format, 360 Reality Audio. A handful of streaming services — Tidal, Amazon Music, Deezer and Nugs.net — have libraries of tracks recorded in the new format. 

Lastly, the LinkBuds have Google Fast Pair, so connecting them to an Android phone is a cinch.

Quality sound for open buds

How do these sound? They’re good, but not as good as the WF-1000XM4. They also fall short of the third-gen AirPods, which offer better sound than their second-gen predecessors. They have a nice, open natural sound, well-balanced with good detail and just enough bass. But like a lot of open earbuds, they just don’t deliver the same kind of bass response as a set of noise-isolating buds. For instance, a track like Spoon’s Knock Knock Knock, which has a deep bass line, just doesn’t have the same visceral impact as it does if you’re listening over the WF-1000XM4 buds or even the 2021 AirPods. While there’s enough bass, it just doesn’t go that deep (even with Bass Boost engaged) or pack a big punch. Some people won’t mind that, but if you’re into bass, these may not quite cut it for you.

And while they have Sony’s DSEE digital sound enhancing feature — which makes your music sound a little fuller — there’s no support for Sony’s near-lossless LDAC codec like the WF-1000XM4 offers.  

They also have the same issue that all open earbuds have in noisier environments. They let sound in, so whatever you’re listening to competes with whatever ambient sound you encounter. 

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Don’t look at the sun through your LinkBuds.


David Carnoy/CNET

For a lot of people that’s a feature not a bug. For safety reasons, you often want to hear the outside world. But you should be aware that despite having an adaptive volume control feature that automatically adjusts the volume to your environment, some folks may have an issue with how loud they play.

I paired these with an iPhone 13 Pro and a Google Pixel 4 XL and streamed music from Apple Music, Spotify and Qobuz. There was some variation in volume levels across devices and streaming services. And I do think the shape of your ear and how the speaker ring sits in it can affect volume levels: Some people may think they play plenty loud while others may not, which could make a big difference outdoors when you’re dealing with competing sounds, including wind noise. 

Sony is aiming the LinkBuds at Gen Z and I guess it doesn’t want to kill younger people’s ears, which I appreciate. In my ears, the AirPods 3 played louder and had a bigger soundstage overall. So did the Galaxy Buds Live — but those can distort at higher volumes, while the LinkBuds don’t. Ultimately, the LinkBuds have clearer and more accurate sound than both the Buds Live and AirPods 3.  

Top-notch for voice calling

While Sony’s WF-1000XM4 buds have these beat for sound quality, the LinkBuds are better for making voice calls. Sony won’t say how many microphones the Link Buds have — I see only one external mic on each bud — but the company says it’s improved the noise-reduction algorithm and callers told me my voice sounded clear with minimal background noise in the noisy streets of New York. 

There’s one issue: Unlike noise-isolating earbuds, you won’t be able to hear the person you’re calling as well as they may be able to hear you if there’s a lot of noise around you. On the other hand, you can hear your voice as you’re speaking, so you won’t end up talking too loudly. 

So these earbuds are, surprisingly, at the upper echelon for voice-calling performance. I just hope Sony brings that same new algorithm to the WF-1000XM4 with a firmware upgrade.

Sony LinkBuds: Final thoughts

As I said, I’m generally impressed with what Sony’s done with the LinkBuds. And that’s not just because the marketing team gave them a real name. Open earbuds are difficult to do well and these have an innovative design. Not only are they comfortable to wear, they also stay in my ears well. And even if they don’t play quite as loud as I’d like in noisier environments, they sound good for open buds. I’m also a fan of the Speak To Talk and Wide Area tap features.

The LinkBuds are an excellent alternative to AirPods, particularly for those who have trouble keeping Apple’s earbuds in their ears and Android users who can’t use Apple-only features such as spatial audio.

The LinkBuds are a little expensive at $180 but I do think there’s room for some discounting. While they feel premium enough, they’re missing features like wireless charging and both the case and buds don’t feel quite as solid and substantial compared to what you get with the WF-1000XM4. Like the Galaxy Buds Live, I think you’ll see the street price on these come down quickly. They’re well worth checking out if you are looking for open earbuds.

https://www.cnet.com/tech/mobile/sony-linkbuds-review-open-earbuds-with-an-innovative-design/

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