It makes complete sense that some people prefer “open” earbuds like Apple’s AirPods or Samsung’s Galaxy Buds Live instead of the countless others that snugly wedge into their ear canal with silicone tips. I’ve heard a range of reasons: sometimes, it’s as simple as not enjoying the plugged-up feeling that a good earbud seal creates. (As a result, we’re seeing more and more buds with micro-vents to mitigate that ear pressure.)
But in other cases, people view the increased awareness of their surroundings — whether riding a bike, out for a solo run, or exploring a busy city — as a big draw. Earbud makers have increasingly turned to transparency mode, which pipes environmental sound into your earbuds using microphones, to solve for this. But it’s never quite the same as a direct, unobstructed sense of the outside world.
So after releasing the phenomenal, noise-canceling WF-1000XM4 earbuds that remain our favorite overall pick in 2022, Sony has turned its attention to creating an open-style earbud of its own. The new $179.99 LinkBuds were designed from the ground up to attract those customers who have no interest in the premium 1000XM4s — or even Sony’s much cheaper WF-C500 buds.
First, I must briefly celebrate Sony opting for a sensible product name. Instead of marketing its newest earbuds with their boring, meaningless model number, they’re just the “LinkBuds.” They still follow Sony’s traditional model number system (and are technically known as WF-L900), but on the box and in Sony’s ads, they’re going with a name that contains normal words. Progress. As for why they’re called LinkBuds, Sony’s thinking is that they “link” your online and offline worlds. Sure. Whatever. It’s a name I can repeat without sighing. I’ll take it.
Sony itself has been down this path of “open-style” earbuds before. Back in 2018, I reviewed (and maligned) the Xperia Ear Duo, which were uncomfortable and looked like something out of a low-budget sci-fi flick. Concept aside, there’s not much of a thread between these two products: their designs are wildly different, and Sony has learned a lot about true wireless earbuds since its early forays into the space.
The LinkBuds come in either dark gray or white, so Sony isn’t taking any bold chances on color options. But it definitely is on style. These earbuds have a very unconventional look, with a donut-style hole cut right into the middle of the section that rests in your ear. That’s the key differentiator that keeps you in touch with everything happening around you. There are no ear tips on the LinkBuds: their custom, ring-shaped 12-millimeter drivers route audio into your ears with minimal sound bleed that’s audible to others. Sony says it’s using recycled materials in the LinkBuds, and I think that’s partly why they have a speckled appearance. What your eye might initially perceive as dust or debris on the earbuds is actually how they came out of the factory.
Weighing around four grams each, the LinkBuds are barely lighter than Apple’s third-generation AirPods, but the difference is more pronounced when compared to the bean-shaped, 5.6-gram Galaxy Buds Live. In my time testing them, both earbuds have sat comfortably in my ears and stayed put, aided by flexible silicone “supporter” arcs that extend from the back of the earbud and can be tucked into the folds of your ear.
Depending on your ear shape and how the LinkBuds fit, their signature circular cutout might not be plainly visible to other people. Sony includes four sizes of supporters in the box, with the XS one a barely-there nub and the XL jutting out quite a bit.
These arcs are fully removable and have more give than dense, integrated wing tips, so they never became uncomfortable, even after several straight hours of wearing. I ran a couple miles with the LinkBuds, and they didn’t come tumbling out of my ears; they also passed the chewing and talking tests, which is where some earbuds can slowly jostle loose.
Listening to music with the LinkBuds is a mixed bag. Whenever you’re dealing with open-style earbuds, you need to lower your bass expectations. There’s inherently less oomph and bottom end with a form factor like this — and it’s noticeable whenever you use them. In overall fidelity, the 1000XM4 earbuds unsurprisingly run circles around the LinkBuds. Their foam-like ear tips create a tight seal that maximizes bass response (along with other frequencies), and you’re just not going to get that from ring-shaped drivers that gently sit in your ears.
Sony has tuned the LinkBuds in such a way that you can still hear and perceive the bass; it just isn’t going to move you since you can’t feel it thumping in your ears. The overall sound signature is balanced enough that highs and mids aren’t lopsidedly overpowering the bass in unpleasant ways. One nice thing about open earbuds is that they often make the soundstage seem wider with more distinct channel separation, and that’s true of the LinkBuds. Sony’s earbuds always have excellent clarity and are the opposite of muffled or dull, and the LinkBuds make good on that part of the reputation.
By the same token, there are instances where the LinkBuds aren’t going to be the right fit. The coffee shop on my block tends to play its own music, so if I wear open-style buds there, I end up in a volume war to keep my tunes louder than what’s coming out of the speakers. Even sans house music, the LinkBuds can be overwhelmed by nearby chatter in a crowded space. Any regular set of earbuds with the slightest degree of noise isolation will fare better in those situations, and noise-canceling buds go even further to keep me in my own private music bubble no matter the cacophony around me. The LinkBuds aren’t cut out for some aspects of New York City life like the subway, nor would I ever consider using them when flying.
One area where the LinkBuds genuinely impressed me was voice call quality. Sony claims it designed an updated noise-suppression algorithm using 500 million voice samples to give your voice extra clarity. Compared to the much pricier 1000XM4s, the LinkBuds were soundly and consistently rated as superior on Zoom calls and standard voice calls alike. My colleagues rated them as better than “most” earbuds I test out on work calls and said I came through clearly even in a noisy coffee shop.
Here’s a sample of how the LinkBuds microphone performs. First clip is recorded on an iPhone with a Shure MV88. Second clip is all LinkBuds audio. They really do a great job at cutting out loud background noise.
(Yes, I chipped my tooth a couple days ago. Be nice.) pic.twitter.com/hChMpRomZb
— Chris Welch (@chriswelch) February 15, 2022
Beyond their sound and voice performance, I’d grade the LinkBuds’ specs as… passable. They get just 5.5 hours of battery life on a single charge, which is rather low for earbuds that don’t offer noise cancellation. Case recharges will get you an additional 12 hours for a total of 17.5 hours. I’ll cut Sony some slack here for the LinkBuds compact, light form factor, but it still would’ve been better to see longer endurance for earbuds that the company expects people to wear all day. The LinkBuds are rated IPX4 water-resistant, which means they should be able to withstand normal exercise. The carrying case is a little on the tall side, but still what I’d consider compact. Unfortunately, it lacks wireless charging.
Similar to Google’s Pixel Buds, Sony includes an optional auto-volume feature on the LinkBuds that can adjust their loudness on the fly based on your surroundings. This can cut back on the annoyance of constantly reaching for your phone (or asking Siri or Google Assistant by voice) to get the volume where you like it. I’m forever a manual man when it comes to the volume slider, but Sony’s solution worked as advertised without random, jarring fluctuations in volume. The LinkBuds also come with Sony’s “speak to chat” trick — previously seen on the 1000XM4 series — which can automatically pause your music for a short interval whenever the earbuds detect that you’re talking. After a few seconds of no speech, the audio resumes.
Add Fast Pair for Android and Swift Pair on Windows, and that’s about where the extras end. The LinkBuds support Sony’s 360 Reality Audio, but all earbuds work with spatial audio music, so this isn’t much of a selling point anymore. They don’t include multipoint, unfortunately, which is a feature that Sony has yet to bring to its earbuds, so you’re still limited to one Bluetooth connection at a time. Again, for a product that Sony imagines people wearing constantly, it’s a convenience I’d like to see.
Controlling them is quite a trip, though. Sony recognizes that the LinkBuds are small, so instead of making you interact with the earbuds directly, you can alternatively tap the skin in front of your ears to pause music, skip tracks, adjust volume, and so on. There’s no single tap gesture: by default, you tap twice to pause and three times to advance to the next song.
You can switch this so that a double tap goes back to the previous track — leaving you without a pause option — or assign volume controls to the taps. But the customization isn’t quite as extensive as I’d like: a single-tap pause/resume option would’ve been really clutch, and I’m not sure why Sony left it out. Tapping that cheek area near my ear felt odd at first, but I got used to it. And more importantly, the earbuds responded as intended to the skin vibrations without missed gestures.
Though I wouldn’t call the LinkBuds a slam dunk, they’re radically improved from Sony’s previous attempts at this category of earbuds. For $180, you’re getting a very comfortable pair of buds that certainly have a look all their own, audio quality that lands right where I expected, and truly excellent voice call performance. Hopefully, the next iteration can up battery life and add multipoint.
I’m not necessarily the person that the LinkBuds are for; I’d choose regular old ear tips and noise cancellation any day over this constant blend of my music and the outside world. But if you want that extra alertness at all times, I’d sooner choose these over a pair of bone conduction earbuds. Sony isn’t about to steal anyone in Apple’s ecosystem away from the AirPods, but with the LinkBuds, Android owners are getting another solid option for open-style earbuds — and I’m glad Sony took a chance on them.
Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge
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