Review: Sony’s New LinkBuds Make for an Unusual Sound Experience

They’re a good fit for some — literally — but may frustrate listeners used to noise cancellation and in-ear design

May 11, 2022 12:08 pm
A pair of Sony LinkBuds, an unusually-shaped new pair of "open" earbuds
A pair of Sony LinkBuds, an unusually-shaped new pair of "open" earbuds

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Sony puts out some of our favorite headphones and earbuds — the WH-1000XM4 (and its follow-up XM5, reportedly out next week) and WF-1000XM4, respectively — but their newest audio creation is both unique and forward-thinking…and a bit of a throwback to how headphones used to be shaped.

The company’s new LinkBuds offer up an “open ear” design, which is to say neither headphones that cover your ears nor earbuds with silicone tips that go into your ear canal. Sony calls these figure-eight ‘buds an open ring, and coupled with the included fitting supporters they offer a fit that’s purposely less intrusive and immersive, but also snug enough not to fall out. They essentially rest “on” the inside of your ear, somewhat akin to Apple’s original earbuds, but with a much more secure fit.

Sony’s press release suggests some lofty goals for the LinkBuds: “Stay connected and aware at all times with the help of an open ring design with audio transparency, ultra-small super fit, and crystal-clear sound and call quality. By leveraging LinkBuds’ unique design, sensors, and spatial sound technologies, Sony will create new sound experiences with our partners, with a focus on AR gaming, sound AR navigation, new work-from-home experiences, and quick access to music.”

That’s quite a set of goals for some funky-looking earbuds that arrive in a small plastic case. We spent over a week testing out the LinkBuds in various settings and configurations, and we came away intrigued, somewhat frustrated and, finally, somewhat able to see what Sony was trying to achieve. These might be the earbuds you’ve always wanted — or the ones you’ll want to replace immediately.

The specs:

  • Integrated V1 Processor 
  • Up to 5.5 hours of battery and a total of up to 17.5 hours with the charging case
  • IPX4 splash-proof and sweat-proof design
  • Control audio by tapping in front of your ears
  • Adaptive Volume Control optimizes sound to your environment
  • Comes with five sizes of fitting supporters and a USB-C charging cable

What works:

  • I’ve had issues with earbuds that fall out, even if I’m not working out or doing anything strenuous. Not the LinkBuds — thanks to the open-ring design and five sizes of fitting supporters, I’ve never had a pair of earbuds fit so snugly.
  • These are really, really light (4 grams). 
  • You have to adjust this in the app, but if you turn on Wide Area Tap, you can stop/start music and adjust the sound by tapping the cheek area near your ears. It’s pretty cool (and it works).
  • You’ll want to use this guide, but setting up a voice assistant on your earbuds is pretty painless. 

What kind of works:

  • You’re either going to like the “open” earbuds design or not. On the plus side, you’re not sticking anything in your ear canals (so, uh, less gross) and the open design allows in more ambient, outside noise. So it’s good for offices or other spaces where you need to know what’s going on around you.
  • These are not the prettiest earbuds I’ve ever used — they lack the cool factor of Master & Dynamic or the retro stylings of my Marshall ‘buds — but since these are made, in part, via recycled plastic materials from automobile parts, I’m not going to quibble. Plus, it arrives in a tiny box with no plastic packaging, so bonus points for eco-friendliness. And once they’re in your ears, who cares?
  • It’ll take a few times to get used to putting in the earbuds correctly; there’s even a short video they want you to watch. I got a bit frustrated readjusting the LinkBuds to get a better sound, but they remained secure no matter what I did. 
  • I never had an issue with the earbuds themselves getting low on power. The case (not wireless) seemed to lose power more quickly than other earbud holders I’ve used in the past. The app was good at keeping me up to date on where I was with my charging needs. 
  • The app offers various sound settings (cool), the battery percentage remaining (necessary) and a bunch of other optional features that either cost money or require a compatible service (like utilizing 360 Reality Audio) or seem rather unnecessary (I don’t need badges for listening activity).

What needs work:

  • The sound. It’s ok if you’re in a quiet room and you can play around with the app settings, but everything (particularly podcasts) comes out slightly muffled. And forget wearing these in a loud area, like near a subway; the Adaptive Volume Control setting in the app helped a bit, but overall, there were times I couldn’t hear anything (if, say, a train was arriving). For Sony, this might be a feature and not a flaw — you really gotta protect your ears —  but it made walking outside with these not ideal.
  • The pairing wasn’t ideal, at least at first. I eventually had to take one bud out of the case and put it in my ear (not both of them), then use the app and my phone’s Bluetooth settings to successfully pair with my iPhone. After that initial frustration, it was fine.
  • I never got “Spatial Sound Optimization” to work — you have to slowly move your head up and down while facing the phone to unlock this feature. The app never seemed to like how I was moving my neck. 
Sony LinkBuds on a table with a lot of plastic pellets
The packaging for the Sony LinkBuds (even the case) is purposely minimalist and eco-friendly

What others are saying:

“Sony’s answer to Apple’s standard AirPods. 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 and very good voice-calling performance.” — CNET

“The Sony LinkBuds makes a play for the teens-who-walk-around-with-one-Airpod-in market, to varying degrees of success.” – Soundguys

“I closely followed the instructions in Sony’s video guide, too. I wasn’t able to get them to stay secure for more than 10 minutes, and even then, I had to move very carefully. The slightest bit of sweat or repetitive motion loosened the earphones and made them extremely vulnerable to falling out of my ears.” — PC Mag

Final thoughts:

I was admittedly frustrated the first few days wearing the LinkBuds. As I got used to the unusual design, I could see the use case scenarios — namely, people who need to be somewhat aware of their surroundings but who like to have an earbud or two in at all times in case of calls. The LinkBuds were also good for my workouts in an empty, quiet apartment building gym, as they fit perfectly. But living in New York, I found the LinkBuds unable to cope with the city’s inherent loudness. That’s probably good for my ears, but frustrating when almost any other non-open earbud (particularly the noise-canceling ones) provides a respite from the city’s everyday cacophony. 

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