Although truly wireless earbuds can be used for many different purposes, I’ve always found that ambient audio is a fantastic fit for their compact, portable design. With the exception of Google’s Pixel Buds, most businesses have mostly ignored that objective. I’ve been waiting years for these, but the new Sony LinkBuds go all-in on fusing your music with the outside world.
WHAT MAKES SONY LINKBUDS DIFFERENT? Over the past few years, truly wireless earbuds have proliferated, with one design dominating the available options. Numerous earbuds concentrate on providing music with active noise reduction in order to isolate the audio experience from your surroundings. That’s always been a form factor vision I’ve mostly disagreed with, as it often contradicts the portability feature of true wireless earphones.
Google’s Pixel Buds and, more recently, the Pixel Buds A-Series are the only well-known earbuds to date that have focused on leaving the ambient environment around you readily available. Both of Google’s hearables feature a vent in the earbud in addition to the customary silicone eartip and driver enclosure. The vent relieves the blocked feeling that silicone eartips frequently cause in addition to allowing ambient sound to enter your ears. Even though Google’s earbuds made a lot of mistakes, I’ve always been a big fan of them. Compared to the transparency function featured on many ANC earbuds, it is a far more comfortable and natural experience.
The LinkBuds from Sony go a long way beyond this. LinkBuds adopt a completely new design as opposed to the conventional one with a little vent for ambient sounds (like the Pixel Buds). A hole in the centre of the eartips allows free-flowing natural external sounds, and speakers wrapped around the ring play your music instead of going directly into your ears.
In actuality, I’ve grown to actually appreciate it.
You can hear everything, which is generally good. You can hear sounds in the environment around you just about as clearly when wearing the LinkBuds as you can while not wearing them. The majority of sounds were entirely realistic when there was no music playing; they just felt very slightly muffled due to the narrower hole through which sounds could pass.
When music is playing, you essentially get the impression that two speakers are perched on your shoulders. Songs blend nicely with the environment rather than competing with it. It’s a sensation I haven’t had with earbuds before; it’s similar to donning a set of open-back over-ear headphones.
I’m enjoying the sounds of the outside world as I write this review. An acoustic rendition of Right Girl is playing as I hear the wind rustling the leaves. This allows me to quickly hear if my dogs start barking at the neighbors. The main benefit of this system is awareness. You’ll be just as aware of what’s happening in your house or the streets as you would be without anything in, unless you have the music blasting through the earbuds at full volume.
For me, speaking and moving around are this’s main selling points. I find most silicone-tipped earphones to be extremely uncomfortable due to the plugged sensation they generate in my ear canal. I’ve always preferred open earphones, like the AirPods and Google’s vented Pixel Buds, for this reason. This feeling is even more subdued with Sony LinkBuds. With these earphones in, speaking and moving around seem perfectly natural because you can hear your own voice as you normally would. Additionally, there is no voice amplification, which occasionally occurs with transparency modes dependent on microphones.
The negative? Of course, using these earbuds won’t allow you to mute audio. You will be able to hear everything, which can be bothersome if your neighbor suddenly starts up their lawnmower, someone close by is playing music loudly, or you simply wish to be isolated from the outside world. The ring’s audio leakage is yet another drawback. If you turn up your music past around 50% in a quiet environment, others nearby will hear it. My music was audible at these higher volumes, according to testing with a few friends and my wife, but it was hardly audible in other situations.
THESE ARE MUCH BETTER THUNDERED THAN THEY SHOULD I’m astonished by LinkBuds’ audio output quality. Songs play with a fair level of volume and are clear and crisp. The strength is undoubtedly in the mids and highs. These earbuds performed admirably on my favorite test song from Come to your Senses , without any shrill aspects during the high notes.
However, there is a dearth of bass and lows, as you might anticipate. Without an adequate seal, it would be hard to obtain truly deep bass or accurately reproduced lows, and the LinkBuds do have this issue. Yet neither range is completely absent. Although the bass is neither overt or forceful, LinkBuds do a decent job of simulating the thump without sounding artificial. I’m fine with that personally, and I believe I even prefer it for earphones. On normal headphones or a speaker, it would be a different story.
However, the open soundstage falls short of what I’ve heard from certain open-back headphones. It’s difficult to describe the depth of sound on open-back headphones until you’ve used a pair for yourself because it frequently exceeds what you’d hear on conventional headphones. Unfortunately, this does not help the LinkBuds. That is probably due to the fact that the speakers are still mostly enclosed in traditional housing as opposed to being exposed like a set of open-back headphones.
LDAC and other high-quality formats are not supported by Sony LinkBuds. While it won’t be a problem for most listeners, it’s unfortunate for those who like to get a little more lost in their music. On the other hand, that would be contrary to the whole point of this device, wouldn’t it?
CONTROLS FOR TAP THAT DO NOT INTERRUPTE FIT Sony LinkBuds’ unconventional design also makes touch controls less practical. I don’t mind that because it’s a feature that isn’t often done well. Every time you attempt to pause a track or skip, touch controls and buttons frequently wind up messing with the fit of the earpiece, or altering the fit leads in unintentionally triggering a gesture.
To circumvent this, the LinkBuds track touches to your actual skin using a sensor, providing a larger surface area for these movements and preventing fit issues, as shown below.
For me, this was the earphones’ surprise success since, once you figured out where to touch, the movements were surprisingly accurate. You can individually set gestures for either side when using the double-tap and triple-tap actions. Although it has some limitations in comparison to other earbuds, the benefits outweigh them. Going forward, I hope to see this system on more earbuds.
The drawback for me is that, sadly, comfort simply isn’t there on LinkBuds. LinkBuds rarely allowed me to wear them for longer than a few hours without experiencing significant discomfort, perhaps as a result of the eartip being made entirely of hard plastic and not being padded at all. Although it’s claimed to be universal, the one size only arrives in the portion of the ear where comfort is most individualized. I’m slowly getting used to it, but it feels drastically different than using regular earbuds.
A PLEASANTLY SMALL CASE The LinkBuds are crammed inside one of the tiniest charging cases I’ve ever seen by Sony. It’s slightly thicker than Apple’s conventional AirPods, which in my opinion set the bar for case size, but it’s smaller in every other way. This case doesn’t even fill up half of the coin pocket on my jeans, let alone fits inside of it. In addition, recycled plastic was used to make the casing, which is always a plus.
The negative? No wireless charging is available. With only a USB-C port for charging, that feature, which is essentially necessary in earphones in this price range, is completely absent. I feel conflicted about the choice. On the one side, it helps to create the extraordinarily compact case size, but on the other hand, it makes charging seem a little more awkward.
Thankfully, you won’t need to worry with charging on a frequent basis. Battery life has been exactly as claimed by Sony, which is 17.5 hours for the case and 5.5 hours for the earbuds themselves. I only had to charge the case twice throughout the two weeks of testing. I would want a slightly larger casing for more power storage, but the current condition is sufficient for me to not moan.
ASSISTANT FROM GOOGLE AND FAST PAIR Two qualities make the LinkBuds almost perfect for Android. First, there is Fast Pair, which enables quick and simple connection with Android phones such as Pixel, Sony Xperia, Samsung, and others. It also links to your account to enable Find My features and cross-device pairing. I always find it pleasing to observe.
LinkBuds also support Google Assistant on-device. This indicates that Google Assistant functions on the earbuds directly rather than simply transferring from your phone. Using the earbuds, you may ask Assistant to read out incoming notifications, respond to Hey Google requests, and reply to messages. With the exception of the tap-and-hold to chat feature of Google’s Pixel Buds, this integration is basically equivalent to that of those earbuds. Using the Hey Google voice command or by mapping the voice assistant to a double- or triple-tap on the touch screen, you can call up Assistant.
another amusing fact? Both Windows and Android can quickly pair with Sony LinkBuds. The OS alerted me to pair the earbuds without opening any menus one day as I attempted to pair them with my Razer PC. That’s awesome! The inability to simultaneously connect to both devices is not ideal.
The same Google Pixel Buds technology that adjusts the volume based on ambient noise levels is supported by Sony elsewhere in the software (I mostly left this turned off). Additionally, there is a speak-to-chat capability that works similarly to that of the Galaxy Buds and can cease music as soon as you begin conversing. Both of these things function, albeit not quite as well as where I initially used them. For rapid access to what you were previously listening to without opening the app, there is also Spotify connection.
I’VE BEEN EXPECTING THESE FOR YEARS. When I first learned about Sony LinkBuds, I was the first person in a long time to declare out loud that I needed them. They satisfy all the requirements on paper for me. They are the kind of ambient earbuds I have always desired. The case is quite small, which is something I greatly value. They also include the characteristics I wanted the most. My dream earbuds were actually made by Sony.
However, after using the product for a few weeks, I can now identify its shortcomings and the target audience for them. For me, the fit isn’t great, and there’s a strong likelihood that you’ll feel the same way. Another major issue is that these headphones aren’t the best options in every situation. In the future months, LinkBuds would be my very last option for grass mowing and would be the worst headphones possible for an airline.
The headphones Sony LinkBuds are not a go-to option. They are a specialized product for consumers that desire ambient sounds and can afford to own multiple pairs of earbuds. The LinkBuds are a terrific alternative if you also own a pair of over-ear noise-canceling headphones or another set of truly wireless earbuds. That’s a tall order, though, at $180. Ironically, Google’s Pixel Buds achieve a better compromise by maintaining part of that immersion while yet enabling audio to flow freely. Who knows, maybe subsequent versions will converge even more on a universal form factor.