When it comes to noise-canceling headphones, the general narrative has been that Sony took the lead from Bose years ago, and has stayed ahead since. With that in mind, the company could have played it safe with the Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones. Sony could have done that, yes, but it didn’t.
Instead of adding a few touches here and there, as it has with the past few iterations of its flagship noise-canceling headphones, Sony went with a radical redesign. The WH-1000XM5 not only have a new look and feel, but they even replaced the drivers with newer, smaller drivers. That’s not all, as Sony also raised the price by $50.
Was this a mistake? Or, was Sony so confident in its new design that the company knew it could get away with it?
Build Quality and Design
- Dimensions: 246 x 218 71mm (9.7 x 8.6 x 2.9in)
- Weight: 250g (8.81oz)
For previous iterations of this series, like the WH-1000XM4, Sony kept the look mostly the same, with minor, incremental updates. For the WH-1000XM5, Sony threw the old design out the window entirely.
Sony calls this new design “noiseless,” and it certainly looks smoother and more aerodynamic than the previous design. You have minimal branding and even fewer joints and moving pieces. This is where you run into one snag: the headphones no longer fold the way they did.
Now, the ear cups simply fold down flat, rather than the headband collapsing as on previous models. This means you’ll need to make more use of the included carrying case, as the headphones do feel somewhat more fragile now that they’re no longer foldable.
Sony has made significant steps toward being more environmentally friendly with the WH-1000XM5. Not only is the box entirely made from recycled cardboard, but the headphones themselves are made from recycled material.
Sony uses a material known as ABS, made mostly from recycled car plastics, in the build of the XM5s. This material has useful acoustic properties, but it’s also both strong and light. The headphones feel light to the point that you may mistake them for flimsy, though I have a feeling they’re tougher than they feel.
That said, they’re far from indestructible. There is no IP rating here, and Sony includes a pictograph warning users not to take the headphones out into the rain or wear the XM5s when they’re sweating.
Sony has the best noise-canceling capabilities, while managing to sound great with stellar battery life.
While Sony might have moved away from foldability, they didn’t take any steps backward in the comfort department. The WH-1000XM5s feature plush memory foam for both the ear cups and the headband, with both covered in a comfortable synthetic leather material.
The redesigned headband isn’t just more comfortable, either. This is now built with ABS instead of metal, which sacrifices some rigidity, but offers more adjustability. Unlike the previous model, the adjustable headband isn’t stepped, but fully adjustable, letting you find a more perfect fit.
One thing I noticed about the memory foam and synthetic leather, especially with the ear cups, is that I felt significant heat buildup over time. I was testing the XM5s in the middle of an unseasonably cool spell, so this wasn’t much of a problem, but in the height of summer, you could overheat.
This isn’t much of an issue, but with the manual warning against sweat, you probably don’t want to wear them on your morning run.
- Bluetooth version: 5.2
- Bluetooth audio codecs: LDAC, AAC, SBC
- Bluetooth profiles: A2DP, AVRCP, HFP, HSP
Bluetooth has had a slight upgrade in the WH-1000XM5, bumping up to version 5.2 over Bluetooth version 5 in the XM4s. This doesn’t affect the sound quality, as the XM5s use the same three Bluetooth codecs that the previous version did.
Those codecs are Sony’s own LDAC, as well as Apple’s AAC and the standard Bluetooth SBC codec. LDAC makes for higher-resolution audio, but it’s not supported everywhere. Most Android devices don’t support LDAC, nor do Apple devices.
There is no aptX support either, which may leave some Android users feeling left out in the cold. Fortunately, Sony makes SBC sound much better than it does on cheaper headphones. That said, if you have a device that supports LDAC, that offers the best sound quality.
Like the XM4s, the WH-1000XM5 headphones feature support for multipoint Bluetooth. This lets you connect the XM5s to multiple devices and switch between them. For example, you can switch from watching a YouTube video on your PC to answering calls on your phone in an instant.
Controls and the Sony Headphones Connect App
Unlike many modern headphones, which either opt for a mostly buttonless design or cram each ear cup full of buttons, Sony has opted for a hybrid approach. The left ear cup holds two buttons: one is the power and pairing button, while the other toggles between noise cancellation and Ambient Sound mode.
The right ear cup has a capacitive touch surface. Various taps and swipes let you pause and resume music, answer and end calls, switch tracks, and control your volume. These are all easy gestures, and these capacitive controls felt easier to use than many capacitive touch setups.
Many of the WH-1000XM5’s features don’t require you to do much at all to enable them. For example, the Speak to Chat feature simply enables Ambient Sound mode and pauses your music whenever it senses you talking. In my testing, this worked impeccably, with the only snag being that it only focuses on your voice, so it won’t activate when someone starts talking to you.
For that, you can opt for the Quick Attention feature. Simply cup your hand over the right ear cup and, once again, the headphones automatically enable Ambient Sound mode. To help you better hear your surrounding, the headphones also lower the volume of your music.
On pairing, I was immediately prompted to install Sony’s Headphones Connect app (available for iPhone and Android). Not that searching the App Store or Google Play is that difficult, but this is still a nice touch.
The app has numerous useful features, some of which let you customize how the ANC works. For example, you can set up Sony’s 360 Reality Audio, which guides you through taking photos of your ears and customizing the app’s sound signature. You can then use the spatial audio features of apps like Tidal.
The Headphones Connect app also updates the headphones’ firmware and lets you set custom EQ. One of the more interesting aspects of this feature is that the settings are saved to the headphones themselves, so you’ll keep your settings even as you pair with other devices.
- Driver: 30mm composite dome driver
- Impedance: 48 Ohm (powered on), 16 Ohm (powered off)
- Frequency response: 20 Hz to 40,000 Hz
Previous models in the WH-1000 series have used 40mm drivers, but this was another aspect of previous models Sony left behind for the XM5s. Instead, the company opted for 30mm carbon fiber composite dome drivers. Typically, smaller drivers don’t make for better sound, at least in over-ear headphones.
This had me worried, but the moment I slipped the XM5s over my ears, my worries melted away. These don’t sound like smaller drivers, as the low end still has all the impact of previous models. If anything, the bass is more under control, with plenty of weight, but with all the emphasis in the right places.
Overall, the sound signature is more neutral than you’d expect in a set of noise-canceling headphones. The lows are certainly boosted, and the highs are a little sweeter and more exciting sounding than I’d expect with my everyday drivers, the Sennheiser HD650.
Considering the various connectivity options, I tested the XM5s in a few ways. I listened to Apple Music on my iPhone, streaming via AAC. I also paired the WH-1000XM5 with my Sony NW-A35 Walkman to listen via LDAC streaming. Finally, I listened in wired mode, both plugged straight into my MacBook Pro’s headphone jack and through a Schiit Modi DAC into the Schiit Valhalla headphone amp.
Testing between AAC and LDAC, I selected Be Cool Cowboy’s “Hideout”, a track I’m well familiar with. I first listened on Apple Music, then switched to my lossless copy of the song on my Walkman over LDAC. I noticed a difference, but it wasn’t so much audible as there was more of a sense of space around the song listening to the lossless version via LDAC.
Listening back both ways, the WH-1000XM5s represent the thump of the kick drum very well without it blending into the low frequencies of the bass guitar. Up the frequency range, the high-end detail on the vocals is clear without any excessive sibilance.
Moving to something to more aggressively test the sound of the XM5s, I switched to Machine Girl’s “Vainglorious Chorus” from the Neon White soundtrack. The XM5s handle the sizable low end of the song very well. There is a sense of up and down movement in the layers of percussion and melodic instruments, not just stereo left to right.
Finally, I wanted to test the XM5s with a dense rock track, so I chose Rocket from the Crypt’s “I’m Not Invisible”. The song’s horns can be buried in the wall guitars on some headphones. That wasn’t the case with the XM5s. Here, everything was audible, but still sounded like a cohesive whole.
While you probably aren’t going to spend much time listening in wired mode, it’s nice to know that this mode is entirely passive, meaning it won’t drain your battery. Even better, the headphones are easy to drive, so a separate headphone amplifier is far from necessary.
For my testing, I listened with the in-app EQ set to neutral. That said, if you’re someone who prefers to EQ their favorite songs to taste, the in-app EQ can fairly dramatically shape the music.
Noise Cancellation and Call Quality
When Sony introduced the WH-1000XM4 headphones, the company focused on improving the active noise cancellation (ANC) when it came to lower frequencies, which was a major step forward. Following up on that work, Sony focused on improving noise cancellation in the high frequencies, which is where some of the most annoying background sounds live.
As part of that, the XM5s feature eight mics for noise cancellation, up from four in the previous model. As a result, the noise cancellation is better than ever, and yes, that still means that Sony is well ahead of most of its competitors, especially in the same price range.
Sony chose a great way to describe its design in calling it “noiseless,” as I was shocked at how well the XM5s handled wind noise outside on a particularly windy day. Even as a ducked and kept my head down to avoid the buffeting wind, the headphones made it sound as if I were standing outside on a perfectly calm day.
Considering this, I was somewhat surprised at some of the sounds the XM5s didn’t cancel out, like the sound of someone placing cans of seltzer inside the fridge. That said, transients—short, sharp sounds like claps and snaps—are always tricky for noise cancellation to handle.
Call quality is also excellent, thanks to onboard DSP and an array of beam-forming microphones. You can expect the same sort of clarity in your voice that you can expect from the noise cancellation, except here it’s applied to your voice.
On that same windy day, I recorded a voice sample, almost certain that it would be near unusable. That sample is below for you to listen to with your own ears. Since you weren’t there, you’re probably not going to readily believe how windy it was when I recorded the clip.
Microphone Audio Sample: Inside, Quiet Room
Microphone Audio Sample: Outside, Wind and Traffic
- Playtime: 30 Hours (BT+ANC), 40 Hours (BT)
One area where the WH-1000XM5 headphones stay fairly close to their predecessors is battery life. With all the ANC bells and whistles enabled, you can expect around 30 hours of playback time, depending on volume. Turn off ANC and that number rises to around 40 hours, ever-so-slightly longer than the WH-1000XM4.
Recharging isn’t especially quick, at least if you’re using a standard USB wall charger. Charging from completely spent to full will take somewhere around 3.5 hours, with a 10-minute charge getting you around five hours of music time.
The WH-1000XM5 also support USB-PD, though they don’t ship with a charger. If you have your own USB-PD charger, you can charge the headphones much faster, with a three-minute charge supplying around three hours of playback time.
As mentioned above, the XM5s are completely passive in wired mode, so if you do run out of battery, you can always plug in the included 3.5mm cable.
Should You Buy the Sony WH-1000XM5?
After spending a fair amount of time with the Sony WH-1000XM5, it’s easy to say that these are the best version of these headphones so far. So much so that the price increase makes sense, especially in the context of rising prices across the rest of the world. The noise cancellation is better than ever, and the sound is improved, even with smaller drivers.
The WH-1000XM5 aren’t quite flawless, with the main issue being weather and sweat resistance. You can’t always control the weather, which means that even if you have the carrying case with you, you may not always be able to keep the headphones from encountering moisture. Some sort of rain and sweat resistance still would have been nice.
Whether you’re considering upgrading from a few generations back or you’re looking at Sony’s flagship headphones for the first time, they’re well worth the asking price. You get the best ANC in the price range, and the sound is far better than the nearest competition.
- Best in class ANC
- Superb sound quality for music
- LDAC support for high-quality wireless audio
- Excellent call quality
- Very comfortable
- Environmentally friendly
- No IP rating or water resistance
- Can hold heat over time