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Sony WH-1000XM5 Review: Raising the bar for ANC, ambient noise & sound quality

The TWS earbuds segment has seen immense growth over the last two years, and they are a popular choice when it comes to personal audio products. But there is still an audience for over-the-ear headphones as they offer more comfort and long-lasting battery life on a single charge. For the past few years, Sony has struck a winning formula with its flagship 1000X-series over-the-ear headphones that deliver great sound quality and superb noise cancellation.

First introduced in 2016 as MDR-1000X, Sony changed the naming scheme with its successor, WH-1000XM2. The fifth-generation headphones in the series, the WH-1000XM5, were recently launched at INR 34,990 (around $425). They feature new materials, refreshed design, eight mics, and an additional processor for ANC. But how does one take the already best and make it even better? This isn’t more like “if it isn’t broken, why fix it?”, but more like “if we can improve it even further, why not?”

We have been testing the Sony WH-1000XM5 for a little over a month and below is our analysis.

♻️Sustainability efforts: Plastic-free packaging & use of recycled materials

Sony, as a brand has been vocal about its sustainability efforts, and the same continues with the WH-1000XM5 too. The packaging does not include any plastic, and the box is made from what Sony calls “Original Blended Material.” It is basically a sustainable paper material made from “bamboo, sugarcane fibres, and post-consumer recycled paper,” Sony explains.

counterpoint sony wh-1000xm5 sustainability

But it is not just the packaging, the body of the headphones is also made from recycled plastic materials using automobile parts. In the box, you get a collapsible carrying case made from premium fabric, a 3.5mm to 3.5mm aux cable (if you want to listen in passive mode), and a USB Type-C cable for charging.

Sony’s sustainability efforts toward the elimination of plastic in packaging are commendable.

Lightweight design with new soft leather for all-day comfort

The Sony WH-1000XM5 sees a major redesign, the first time for the series since its initial launch. The changes are visible right from the flat dome-shaped earcups that feature touch-sensitive gesture controls. While the left earcup has a 3.5mm socket, physical power, and ANC/Ambient Mode toggle buttons, the right earcup has a USB Type-C port for charging.

counterpoint sony wh-1000xm5 lightweight design

The earcups are now suspended freely from the hinge, but unlike the previous generation, they can only fold down flat, but cannot rotate inwards. The only drawback of this is that they are not as compact when folded, which means you need to carry a larger case (bundled) when traveling.

Lastly, there is also one more change with the headband. It can now be adjusted freely using the slider and it does not have steps and grooves for adjustment. This also means that you may not be able to set an even length on both sides at all times. But that should not be a major problem.

counterpoint sony wh-1000xm5 earcups design

Talking about comfort, Sony is using new “soft fit leather” padding material for the earcups. It is actually very soft and comfortable to wear for hours. Even for someone like me who wears glasses, I did not feel any pressure or even the slightest discomfort even after wearing the headphones at a stretch for over four hours.

Key specifications: Bluetooth 5.2, LDAC codec, and more

• The 1000XM5 features Bluetooth 5.2 connectivity with an operating range of 10m.
• It supports Google’s Fast Pair feature to quickly pair with a supported smartphone.
• With 30mm dynamic drivers, the headphones have a frequency response range of 20Hz–20,000Hz, and 20Hz–40,000Hz (when switched to LDAC codec, with a sampling of 990kbps).
• It supports SBC, AAC, and LDAC Bluetooth codecs.
• The 1000XM5 leverages the integrated V1 processor, eight microphones (up from four in XM4), and a new QN1 processor for offering impressive noise cancellation.
• Sony has also included multi-point connectivity, allowing you to simultaneously connect the headphones to two devices, such as your smartphone and laptop.
• The multi-point connectivity is a great feature allowing you to seamlessly switch between devices, but it has one downside, it disables LDAC codec, meaning you will not be able to listen to high-res music.
• You can enable/disable features using the “Headphones” app, which is available on both Android and iOS platforms.

counterpoint sony wh-1000xm5 multipoint connectivity

Key Features: Speak-to-chat, native assistant, and more

Speak-to-Chat:

• The speak-to-chat feature pauses music playback when it hears you speaking and turns on the ambient sound mode.
• Once you are done talking, the playback is resumed.
• It uses AI algorithms and beamforming mics to detect voice and switch modes.
• While this is a good feature, it does not work 100% accurately and gets triggered when you are humming music, or even when someone in the room sitting close to you starts talking.
• Thankfully, you can disable this in the app.

Adaptive Sound Control:

• This smart function automatically switches between ANC and ambient sound mode depending on your location and surrounding.
• It does this by learning from your daily routine to recognize the location and your preferences.
• For instance, it can detect when you are sitting, walking, running, or commuting, and accordingly switch to ANC or increase the strength of ambient sound when outdoors.
• In our test, this feature worked flawlessly.
counterpoint sony wh-1000xm5 adaptive sound control

Other features:

• The WH-1000XM5 comes with a quick attention mode – resting your palm on the right earcup quickly activates the ambient sound mode and deactivates it as soon as you remove the palm.
• While it works well, it would have been great if it paused the music playback, rather than just muting it.
• There is Spotify Tap feature, double pressing the ANC/AMB button, you can quickly start Spotify music playback, and toggle between playlists. (Spotify app needs to be installed for this to work).
• The proximity sensor can detect when you are wearing the headphones and can instantly pause/start playback when you remove and wear the headphones.
• If you do not wear the headphones for a few minutes, they will automatically be turned off.
• Lastly, there is also Sony’s DSEE Extreme which uses Edge-AI to upscale compressed music in real-time to restore sound lost in compression.
• With DSEE Extreme turned on, the audio sounded slightly detailed, irrespective of the source.

counterpoint sony wh-1000xm5 spotify tap

Performance: Sound quality, ANC & mic

We tested the Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones using multiple devices. This includes iPhone 12 (for AAC codec) & MacBook Pro 16 (M1 Pro) as daily drivers. For the LDAC codec, we tested the sound quality using the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip4. For music, we used two sources – Spotify, and Apple Music (with music streaming in High-res Lossless format).

counterpoint sony wh-1000xm5 headphones

Detailed and entertaining sound quality

Sony has once again managed to offer excellent sound quality that can be enjoyed by both casual music listeners and audiophiles. The WH-1000XM5 has a sonic signature tuned with slightly more emphasis on the bass while also ensuring that it’s not too aggressive. Otherwise, the sound quality is detailed and offers a spacious sound staging. The audio separation is good, and you can easily distinguish between each instrument.

The Sony WH-1000XM5 delivers sound quality that is both detailed and enjoyable.

The good part about the XM5’s audio is that you don’t need to turn the volume all the way up to be able to enjoy whatever you are listening to. When at home, I never went beyond the 50% volume mark, whereas outdoors, even 80% volume was more than enough. ANC has a big role to play here, which we will discuss briefly.

counterpoint sony wh-1000xm5 ldac

Audio with LDAC sounded marginally better and the connection was stable too. But even with AAC, there is not a big drop in quality, and the music experience is also as enjoyable.

Great noise cancellation, vastly improved mic

With a total of eight mics (four on each earcup), HD Noise Cancelling Processor QN1, and features like Auto NC Optimizer the Sony WH-1000XM5 offers very effective noise cancellation. I was impressed with the results, both indoors and outdoors. I tested under multiple scenarios – inside my room, out in the gallery close to a busy road, traveling in a local train, and also in an airplane.

When indoors, the ANC works great in cutting down the fan and AC noise to a great extent. It does not completely silence everything; you can still hear some noise if the music isn’t playing. But the moment you start playing music, even with 30% volume, all the ambient noises are cut off, letting you enjoy your music.

counterpoint sony wh-1000xm5 gesture control

Outdoors, the eight mics and AI algorithms work great in cutting out the wind noise, allowing you to enjoy your music listening. Even when in an airplane, the headphones cut off drone noise effectively.

The Sony WH-1000XM5 offers improved ANC & mic quality over its predecessor.

The beamforming mics and AI-based voice reduction algorithms accurately separate your voice from wind and other ambient disturbances. Whether you are talking from inside or out on a busy road, the recipient can hear your voice clearly, without even knowing that you are talking from outdoors.

The ambient sound mode also sees big improvement with more mics where outdoor noises now sound more natural and clearer. This helps you to remain more aware of the surroundings when outdoors.

Battery life: Fast charging with improved efficiency

The battery life on the Sony WH-1000XM5 is great. On a full charge, it easily lasts around 29 hours with ANC, which is pretty close to Sony’s claim of 30 hours. It’s great for those long-haul 16-hour flights, as the battery will last you through the journey – from your home to the destination, including layovers.

Sony has included a fast charging feature which is a great addition. During the briefing, a Sony executive told me that even three mins of charge can offer over three hours of music listening time with ANC. I went ahead to test the claim and was pleased with the result. In just four mins, using a 66W USB PD fast charger, the battery went from empty to 21%, and it lasted a little over four hours with continuous music playback at 60% volume.

The WH-1000XM5 can be your perfect companion on long-haul flights.

Key Takeaways:

• The WH-1000XM5 is a perfect example of how even small, iterative improvements can improve an already good product.
• Sony’s sustainability efforts of using recycled materials to build the headphones and no plastic packaging are commendable.
• The headphones are comfortable to wear for many hours without causing fatigue.
• Sony delivers crisp and detailed audio, great noise cancellation, and natural-sounding ambient noise.
• Mic quality on calls has also been improved and thanks to wind-noise reduction, the audio during calls doesn’t sound muffled.
• Battery life is one area where Sony can improve with the WH-1000XM5 successor, especially where competitors like Sennheiser Momentum 4 promise twice the battery life up to 60 hours.
• IPXX rating for sweat and drizzling rains could be another good addition in the next iteration.
• A lot of tap-and-gesture features are pre-defined in the Headphones app, and the ability to customize them as per individual liking is another area where Sony can still improve.

ALSO READ: Other Strategic Reviews on Smartphones, Smartwatches, TWS & More

Ritesh is a Global Content Manager with Counterpoint Technology Market Research. With over 10 years of experience, he is joining Counterpoint from BGR India where he was the Head of Features. At BGR, Ritesh also used to cover tech news, product launches, and review consumer tech. Ritesh is a science graduate from Mumbai University, with major in Physics. He followed his passion for tech, took up writing as a career and is also a well-known tech journalist in the industry.

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