We saw a lot of changes in our daily lives in 2023, especially in terms of getting out of the house and traveling, which had been minimized after the COVID-19 pandemic. Offices recommenced to a fuller extent, with which came the return of the office commute. We resumed traveling for product launch events and trade shows. However, one thing remained pretty much unchanged since the COVID-19 lockdowns – online video calls with teams, clients and prospects. For these calls, headphones or TWS earbuds have become even more crucial to ensure better audio quality and these devices have seen some extensive advancements in specs over time.
Sony launched its WF-1000XM5 (XM5) TWS earbuds in H2 2023, and we have been using a pair extensively for more than four months now. These earbuds feature a more compact and lightweight design, improved ANC, and a better battery life than the previous iteration, the WF-1000XM4 (XM4). Incorporating these upgrades, the new Sony XM5 is priced at $299, a $20 increase compared to its predecessor.
Commenting on Sony’s TWS sales, Senior Analyst Minsoo Kang said, “Sony, especially in the >$150 segment, has shown steady growth, driven by robust ANC, impressive audio quality, and a loyal customer base. With a focus on products priced at $100 and above, Sony has consistently increased its sales in the premium segment. The XM5 does not feature a significant design change compared to the XM4, but Sony has made notable improvements to the Bluetooth version and weight.”
We have reviewed the predecessor XM4 in the past. How does the new XM5 fare in comparison? Read our usage experience and detailed analysis below.
More Compact Design, Better Comfort
Generation over generation, Sony has worked towards making its earbuds smaller, lighter, and more comfortable. The XM4 earbuds were 10% smaller and the case was 40% more compact than the XM3. The latest Sony XM5 is 25% smaller and about 20% lighter compared to the XM4. Each earbud now weighs 5.9g. In comparison, the XM4 earbud weighs 7.3g each.
The reduced footprint offers a more comfortable fit without hitting the ear fold, thus ensuring less fatigue, unlike what we experienced in the XM3 and XM4 when wearing for long hours. Sony is bundling four ear tips this time – extra small, small, medium, and large – so you can choose the optimal size to fit your ears. These are foam ear tips and not silicone ones like what you typically see in other earbuds.
The Sony XM5 earbuds are less chunky compared to the XM4, thanks to the reduced footprint.
As most of us are not used to foam ear tips, wearing them may feel a little strange initially but with time they feel more comfortable and help greatly in improving wearability and reducing pressure on the ears.
In terms of design, Sony has retained the gold accent on the microphone mesh cover for each earbud, which gives it a distinct look. The case and the touch-sensitive outer edge of the earbuds have a matte finish. However, most of the exterior is made of glossy plastic, which makes the earbuds a bit slippery when removing from the case, especially if you have sweaty or oily fingers. Overall, the aesthetics of the XM5 look nice and premium.
New Head Tracking Gestures, More Stable Connection
The Sony XM5 is packed with a host of features; some new, some improved over the predecessor:
- Adaptive Sound Control to automatically switch between ANC and ambient modes.
- Automatic firmware updates, without needing any manual intervention.
- Head gestures to accept and decline calls by simply nodding your head.
- Multi-point control for simultaneous connections.
- Wireless charging and quick charge (up to one hour of music payback in a three-minute charge).
- LDAC with Hi-Res Wireless support.
- Six mics and dual processors for better audio quality and noise cancellation.
- Google Fast Pair for Android, and Swift Pair for Windows.
- Find Your Equalizer feature lets you choose the sound settings that suit your music listening preferences.
Adaptive Sound Control is an interesting feature that allows you to customize the EQ and noise canceling level depending on your activity or location. For instance, in the office, you might want to keep ambient mode on so you can listen to your colleagues sitting next to you. In a gym, you may want to turn the ANC on, and the bass turned up to pump that extra adrenaline as you work out.
The activity-based adaptive mode can have ANC turned on when you are sitting in one place, allowing you to enjoy an immersive listening experience. Similarly, the moment you start walking or running, it can automatically turn on the ambient mode to ensure you can hear your surroundings more clearly. Though the mode switching is not instant, it takes about five to eight seconds to detect the activity and then switch.
Adaptive Sound Control works perfectly to switch through optimal EQ, ANC, and ambient modes depending on your location and activity.
The head gesture feature to accept and decline calls is neat and works as expected. When you get an incoming call, simply nod your head up and down to accept the call. If you want to decline a call, you can move your head sideways.
The multi-point connection feature allows you to simultaneously connect the earbuds to two devices at the same time. It can intelligently switch between devices. For instance, if you are watching a video or listening to music on the laptop/tablet, and you get a call on the phone, the playback will stop, and after the call has ended, the playback on the laptop will resume. With a new chipset, Sony is also offering this feature in LE (Low Energy) mode, though it is in beta as of now.
Support for Google Fast Pair is a good addition. This makes it easier to pair by just opening the lid of the case and placing it closer to an Android smartphone. Bluetooth needs to be turned on though. It takes away the hassle of finding the device and manually pairing it. Similarly, Swift Pair for Windows 10/Windows 11 laptops makes it easier to pair with a laptop by putting the earbuds in pairing mode. The pairing button is present at the back of the case, just beside the USB-C port.
Automatic firmware update is another good addition. Once new firmware is available, it will be automatically downloaded and installed, so you need not manually check and install the updates.
Lastly, there is also a new Find My Equalizer feature that lets you find the right sound balance to suit your listening preferences. Simply play a song, and it will present some numbered bubbles, each having a different subtle effect. You need to tap on the numbers, hear the difference, and choose the optimal setting that sounds the best to you.
Based on those inputs, it will create a custom equalizer (EQ) for you, which will be saved in the earbud profile, and that EQ will be consistent across all devices, music, and movies that you watch. It worked well for me, adding slightly more bass while keeping the five-band EQ flat.
Find My Equalizer is a perfect tool for finding optimal sound tailored to your taste, without manually fiddling around with the EQ.
Performance: Stable Connectivity, Great Sound, Long Battery Life
The XM5 offers a more stable connection, thanks to the new Bluetooth 5.3 connectivity standard. We tested the earbuds across multiple devices – MacBook Pro 16 (M1 Pro), iPhone 15 (AAC codec), and Xiaomi 13 Pro (LDAC). However, most of the music listening was on the Xiaomi smartphone as it supports LDAC codec for high bit-rate audio.
Sony is known for offering excellent sound quality on its headphones and TWS earbuds, and it has done the same in the new XM5. These earbuds come with 8.4mm dynamic drivers, up from 6mm on the XM4. Sony is also using two materials – one for low and the other for high-frequency sounds.
While listening to music with the equalizer flat, you can immediately hear that the emphasis is still on the lower frequencies a bit. It is perfect for workouts where most of us lean on the hip-hop genre, but when sitting in a home or office, the sound may get a little bass heavy. For most of the listening, we reduced the bass by two levels, and then it sounded well and balanced. Soundstaging in the XM5 is a bit wider compared to the XM4, and detecting different instruments in a sound is much easier.
However, the audio on XM5 is not as rich and full as in the Samsung Galaxy Buds2 Pro. Otherwise, these are an excellent pair of earbuds to enjoy immersive music and video-watching experience.
Noise Cancellation and Call Quality:
Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) and Ambient features have always been one of the highlights of the 1000XM series, and Sony has improved this further with every new generation. The new XM5 earbuds come with a total of six mics (three on each earbud), that can catch more ambient noise to filter, thus offering a slightly noticeable difference in ANC. We found it most effective on airplanes, trains, and even places like malls and airports. It also reduces wind noise considerably.
Noise Cancellation and Ambient modes have been improved over the XM4, thanks to the six-mic system.
But it is not just the mics, this time Sony has used two chips – the Integrated Processor V2 for better noise canceling, improved sound quality, low power consumption, and also for better connectivity, and the HD Noise Cancelling Processor QN2e, which is also used to further improve noise canceling and sound quality. Sony says the two processors work together in offering around 20% more noise cancellation compared to the XM4.
The mics also enable crisp and clear ambient mode, to let you hear things clearly when using the Speak-to-Chat feature, without having to remove the earbuds. On calls, it uses a bone conduction sensor to capture voice vibrations and AI-driven noise reduction algorithms to isolate your voice from ambient noise. We used the earbuds for phone calls, and also for Microsoft Teams calls, and the receiver was able to hear the voice clearly, whether we were in the office or commuting in a cab or metro.
The XM5 offers crisp and clear call quality in most of the ambient noise scenarios we tested.
In terms of battery life, Sony claims up to eight hours of continuous music playback on a single charge with ANC on, and up to 12 hours with ANC off. The case offers two additional charges, meaning you can get up to 36 hours of music playback. During our testing, we found the claims to be accurate, and in fact, surpassing even the said claims. On a long-haul 10 flight from London to Mumbai, we got around nine hours and 20 minutes of total playback time with ANC on, before the battery on the earbuds completely drained and needed charging again.
Better battery life and quick charging offer long listening time.
The quick charge feature is also faster now. A quick three-minute charge can offer up to one hour of battery life. In our test, a quick five-minute charge offered roughly an hour and 35 minutes of music playback, lasting and entire Mumbai-Delhi flight from take-off to landing.
The Sony WF-1000XM5 is an excellent pair of TWS earbuds loaded with a lot of features not found in the competition. They sound great, offer crisp ambient noise that allow you to stay aware of your surroundings, and great noise cancellation when you want to cut off and be in your zone. Features like head tracking for accepting and declining calls, multi-point connection, and adaptive sound control set them apart.
However, there are some areas where Sony can make further improvements. These earbuds support head tracking and 360 reality audio, but unlike the Apple AirPods Pro and Samsung Galaxy Buds2 Pro, the compatibility is very limited. The ‘Speak-to-chat’ with bone conduction is a great feature, but similar to the previous generation, it is very sensitive and gets activated even when humming to music. Audio tuning can be slightly improved to enhance the richness and fullness of the audio.