Review: Sony’s WH-1000XM5 Headphones Are Their Best Yet

Intuitive controls and adaptive noise cancellation are worth the high price

The black Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones lying on a table
While aesthetically minimal, the The Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones offer exceptional sound

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I’ve been touting Sony’s over-ear headphones for years — the WH-1000XM3 headsets (released back in August of 2018) still offer some of the best sound we’ve ever experienced from a noise-canceling headphone that’s under $500.

I liked ‘em so much that I skipped over the XM4, which followed a few years later. But earlier this spring, Sony released WH-1000XM5 headphones, and I was curious to see what nearly four years of progress would offer.

One thing to note: Sony is putting a lot of effort into its 360 Reality Audio program, which certainly offers a more immersive experience but only works with certain apps (many of which would require extra payment). While I was able to test the 360 Reality Audio — on a Sony audio device with the headphones — I also used the XM5 headphones plugged into my computer and wirelessly with my iPhone sans the 360 experience.

I also tested the headphones in a variety of situations, including at my office desk, at home, walking on the street, and, interestingly enough, in the air on a loud, private plane for 40 minutes during a Sony music event at New York’s JFK airport (shout out to Tate McRae, that night’s performer; her album was also the one I listened to on the plane with the 360 experience). 

Early conclusion? These might be the best-sounding headphones we’ve ever used…in certain conditions. 

The white Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones in white and in packaging
The packaging for the white Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones

The specs:

  • Available in black or silver
  • Up to 30-hour battery life with quick charging (3 min charge for 3 hours of playback)
  • Noise cancellation and ambient mode
  • Google or Alexa voice controls (and touch controls)
  • 8.85 x 3.03 x 10.36 inches
  • 0.55 lbs
  • 8 microphones
  • Bluetooth 5.2

What works:

  • Set up was relatively painless — I was able to get my device connected to my phone in under two minutes with only one issue.
  • It’s eco-friendly: There’s no plastic in the WH-1000XM5 headphones packaging, as the product box is made with recycled and sustainable materials the headphones themselves use recycled plastic materials from automobile parts.
  • While not quite on the level of Bose, noise-canceling easily quieted the sound of a chatty office and drowned out a very noisy plane ride. 
  • While I usually hate touch panels for controls, I was able to learn the intuitive movements (e.g.swipe forward and release to move to the next song) quickly. Plus, if you cup the right earpad with your palm, the headphones switch from noise-canceling to ambient mode immediately — and go back when you remove your hand.
  • There’s a Speak to Chat option that pauses/mutes music when you start talking to someone, making these a rather ideal office headphone
  • Take the headphones off and the music stops. A lot of headphones claim this, but these actually work 100% of the time (so far).

What kind of works:

  • Quick Access allows you to customize the NC/AMB button so you get a different operation if you press it two or three times (pressing it once switches you manually between Noise Cancellation and Ambient modes). I programmed a double press to immediately bring me to Spotify, and it worked — but it was also the only customization option I was allowed. I hope there’s a way to tie in more apps to allow for more actions.
  • The custom sound profiles varied wildly, but you’ll probably find a setting you like for podcasts vs music
  • You can actually get sound pressure data recorded by your headphones with the guidance of the World Health Organization (WHO). Through the app, you get instant notifications when listening levels are too high — which thankfully hasn’t happened to me yet.
  • Adaptive Sound Control, when on, switches your ambient background and noise cancellation levels depending on where you are and can even be adjusted based on your preferences for different locations. I found it occasionally a bit disruptive, as I sometimes thought my sound levels were dropping or increasing for little reason. It works, but it may not be a setting you want to keep on. (I also got way too many “Adaptive Sound Control is on” notifications on my phone).
  • Paired with a Sony audio device and utilizing 360 Reality Audio? Amazing sound. Without using 360, which is only available on a limited number of apps? Solid, but a definite crashing back to earth. The headphones almost seemed to design to get you to upgrade your audio apps.

What needs work:

  • Every time I went to manually update the software (via the app), the app crashed. I switched to automatic updates and the download began … only to crash after 15 minutes when I slightly moved the headphones.
  • The design is fine if rather boring. It’s not as comfy as other over-ear headphones or as cool as, say, the Master & Dynamic line. And the color option of only black or silver seems rather archaic. Even Sonos is adding flair, guys.

Final thoughts:

Outside of the price, the blah aesthetics and a frequent software crash, the XM5 headphones are a top-tier option for anyone who wants noise-canceling, wireless headphones for the office, commute, plane ride or home. If you’re an audiophile, utilizing 360 Reality Audio is probably worth the extra cost and limited app options. 

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