Review: Sony’s WF-1000XM5 Earbuds Are a Flawed But Sound Investment

Even at $300, sound quality triumphs over a few design concerns

August 8, 2023 9:57 am
The black WF-1000XM5 earbuds, just released by Sony
The black WF-1000XM5 earbuds, just released by Sony

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While I love Sony’s XM over-ear headphones, I’ve never quite had the same audio experience with the company’s earbuds. I liked the XM3 ‘buds but never really used them after a trial run — I found other earbuds that fit better and offered superior noise cancellation and controls, even if the sound quality wasn’t quite up to par. I was hoping Sony’s new WF-1000XM5 earbuds, released in late July, would make up for a few of the quibbles I had with previous models.

The brand was hyping its specially designed driver, Dynamic Driver X, along with improved proprietary processors; this, along with recalibrated earbud tips and dual feedback microphones was supposed to offer ideal noise cancellation to pair with ideal audio. The buds and case are also noticeably smaller than the XM predecessors.

Did Sony achieve its goals? Do I have a new favorite pair of earbuds? I tested out the buds for three weeks — in my home office, commuting to work, exercising in our building’s gym and during a flight.

Review: Sony’s WH-1000XM5 Headphones Are Their Best Yet
Intuitive controls and adaptive noise cancellation are worth the high price

The specs:

  • IPX4
  • 8 hours of power/24 hours with charging case 
  • Wireless charging
  • Built-in voice assistant
  • Comes with a wireless charging case, USB-C charging cable and four earbuds tip sizes
  • Bluetooth 5.3

What works:

  • The sound. It’s bright, rich and full of detail. And with 360 Reality Audio (see below), that excellent audio is transformed into a surround sound experience. The best audio I’ve ever heard on earbuds, easily.
  • Power was never an issue. The company claims eight hours of playtime per charge and up to 24 hours with the charging case, as well as an hour-long playtime with just a three-minute power-up. I charged them once in two weeks and that was simply to get the case back to 100% (the earbuds never fell more than a few percentage points).
  • You can connect to two devices simultaneously. In my limited testing, this worked flawlessly, as I switched between my MacBook and my phone. 
  • The buds were partially crafted from recycled plastic materials and the packaging is 100% paper.
  • Setup with the app was quick and relatively painless. 
The silver WF-1000XM5 earbuds, as seen on recording artist Miguel
The silver WF-1000XM5 earbuds, as seen on recording artist Miguel

What sort of works:

  • It’s a personal thing for me, but I hate touch controls. It’s probably why I’ve been sticking with Master & Dynamic’s MW08 earbuds because they have tiny, tactile buttons. But the XM5 never gave me issues — the touch controls were intuitive and the single/double taps worked as advertised.
  • The buds are about 25% smaller than the XM4 and a bit lighter. The case is approximately 15% smaller, too. Still, the buds are rather bulbous in the ear; I’d have preferred a flatter design.
  • If you turn it on, Speak-to-Chat pauses music when you chat. Since I didn’t want to keep doing this inadvertently, I kept it off.
  • The app offers preset and customizable equalizer settings, touch sensor customization and 360 Reality Audio Setup, which greatly improves the already excellent sound quality but only works with a few apps (, PeerTracks, TIDAL, etc.), which require separate subscription fees. 

What needs work:

  • The fit: The earbuds come with XS, S, L and XL ear tips. The latter two were uncomfortable and frequently fell out, even under minimal duress (like walking; forget exercise). The second-smallest tips fit in modestly but still made me nervous when I did anything more than walk fast. 
  • While Sony touts “the best noise cancelling” I noticed very little difference between NC and a controllable ambient mode, with a modest change if I turned it off. 
  • If you have silver buds, the silver (well, more like white) case is prone to smudging.
  • Adaptive Sound Control, where the app detects your actions and switches how ambient sound is filtered, couldn’t ever figure out what I was doing. It changed settings three times in one empty, quiet room when I was lightly riding an exercise bike. I eventually switched it off.

Final thoughts:

Superior sound but also a lot of critiquing here. The big question: Are these earbuds worth $300?

Sony’s WF-1000XM5 earbuds have a lot of bells and whistles (mainly in the app) that deliver modest and sometimes frustrating results; the customizable equalizer is pretty good, Adaptive Sound Control needs work and ambient sound levels don’t seem to change much no matter what level you pick.

It might be my strange ear canals, but the earbud fit is loose (though not uncomfortable) and the buds themselves aren’t particularly handsome. 

That said, the sound here is ideal. If you subscribe to a streaming service compatible to the company’s 360 Reality Audio program, I couldn’t see you ever going back to another pair of earbuds. Even without the 360 (I was only able to test it, as I use and plan to stick with Spotify), this is excellent audio for earbuds — once you find your ideal equalizer setting (there’s a test on the app) you’ll probably be smitten.

As for me? I’ll still need something with a more secure fit for workouts — or even for rushing through subways. But at home? On days when I’m not up for the discomfort of over-ear headphones, I’ll happily keep my XM5 earbuds plugged in. 

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