Technology

Sony WH-1000XM5 review: Great ANC and audio, questionable design


Introduction, design, and features

It was around six years ago that Sony decided it should go after Bose and make a truly remarkable wireless ANC headphone. Back then, if you wanted a wireless noise-cancelling headphone to take with you on flights to cocoon you from the racket of the jet engines, you would buy a Bose QuietComfort – end of. That changed when Sony released the MDR-1000X. And over the next couple of years, the two would trade blows.

The latest retaliatory effort from Sony comes in the form of the WH-1000XM5. It’s the fifth iteration of Sony’s flagship wireless ANC headphone and it’s the most radical yet because it boasts an all-new design and new drivers. Can it beat Bose’s very excellent QuietComfort 45? Let’s find out.

Design & features

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For the first time in years, Sony has completely revamped the look and feel of its flagship wireless ANC headphone. The headband is thinner and it extends as a single piece all the way down to the earcups. And the earcups have a clean polygonal shape. Overall, it just looks sleeker and more minimalistic than previous versions.

Comfort is an important aspect of this headphone and so it has an all-plastic construction to keep weight down – just 250g. The leather used in the headband and earpads is also a newly developed “soft fit leather” material that Sony claims fits snugly while relieving pressure. 

Sony has definitely nailed down the comfort aspect of this headphone. I recently took these on my trip to WWDC 2022 and it never felt uncomfortable during the long flight to the US.

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However, my major gripe with the design of the WH-1000XM5 is that they don’t fold. This inability to fold for storage makes them a pain to carry because the carrying case is substantially bigger. Also, the way they swivel is not ideal. When you take them off and place them on your neck, the earcups don’t swivel and lay flat on your body. If you want them to be flat, you have to swivel the earcups so that they face upwards and away from you. Sure, you could say it’s a minor issue, but it’s also one that the WH-1000XM4 didn’t have. And to me, it shows a lack of attention to detail on Sony’s part insofar as the design is concerned.

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Fortunately, some other aspects of the WH-1000XM5 are improved. Like its predecessor, there are touch controls on the right earcups and they have never been more accurate or responsive. I could easily use it to skip tracks and adjust the volume. The quick aware mode is still present, so if you cover the right earcup, the headphone immediately lowers the volume of your content and goes into the ambient sound mode so you can hear what’s going on around you or have a quick conversation with somebody.

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Like any high-end wireless headphone, the WH-1000XM5 has an accompanying app. In this case, it’s Sony’s familiar Headphones app – the same app used to manage other Sony personal audio devices like the WF-1000XM4 and older WH-1000XM4. This app lets you manage almost all aspects of the headphone, including customising the touch controls, adjusting the level of noise-cancelling, tweaking the sound via the equaliser, choosing the kind of wireless connection, and more. The level of customisation is high and I have no complaints about the app.

Speaking of wireless connection, the WH-1000XM5 supports multipoint connection so it can pair with up to two devices simultaneously. It switches between source devices very quickly. As for codecs, there’s support for the usual AAC, SBC, and also LDAC – which should satisfy most iOS users and owners of newer Android devices. Battery life, according to Sony, is up to 30 hours with ANC on. On my recent trip to WWDC, it had 30 per cent charge remaining when I reached the hotel after the 20-plus hour trip.

Noise cancellation performance

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The WH-1000XM5 has Sony’s most advanced noise cancellation system yet. It uses two noise cancellation processors – the HD Noise Cancelling Processor QN1 and Integrated Processor V1 — as well as 8 microphones to intelligently measure and produce an opposing signal to cancel out unwanted noises. This system, according to Sony, is more effective at cancelling out mid and high-frequency sounds.

Furthermore, the Auto NC Optimiser function now works in the background all the time. In the past, you had to hold on to the noise-cancelling button to activate it. This means the headphone is constantly optimising the noise-cancelling feature based on how you are wearing the headphones and external factors such as noise and even atmospheric pressure.

Crucially, Sony’s claims appear to be mostly true. The WH-1000XM5 is uncannily good at cancelling out unwanted noise. On a plane, all I could hear was a low muted hum of the jet engines. And at home, even with a fan pointed at me at full blast, again, all I could hear was a soft hum. And at the airport lounge, it was quite effective at nullifying conversations and the constant clinks and clang of tableware too. It’s not completely silent, of course, but it’s good enough that you don’t think about it. Overall, it makes listening to music in a noisy place enjoyable and working in a challenging environment bearable.

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Is it better than Bose’s newest QuietComfort 45, the winner of the Best Noise Cancelling Headphones category in our last Tech Awards? Maybe, but only very slightly in extreme conditions. Generally speaking, the two offer very comparable ANC performance.

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What about against the WH-1000XM4? I’d say the WH-1000XM5 is better too. But again, the margins are small and it really depends on the environment. For some reason, on a plane, I think the WH-1000XM5’s ANC is more effective. At home, however, I find the two to be equally competent and there’s little to separate them.

What’s indisputable, however, is how much the ambient sound mode has improved. It’s still not as good as Apple’s implementation — one really has to wonder how the people at Cupertino managed to do ambient sound so well and to nail it on the first try — but it’s a whole lot better than previous Sony headphones. It now sounds more natural and less digitised, so it gives you greater confidence that you are hearing your environment in its entirety.

Mic and sound quality

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The WH-1000XM5 has eight microphones, which is double that of the WH-1000XM4. Sony says this headphone is better at isolating your voice and cancelling out unwanted noises. When I tested it, I found it to be true. In quiet environments, the WH-1000XM5 sounded noticeably more natural and realistic. And in noisy environments, the WH-1000XM5 is far better at separating your voice from the surrounding ruckus.

Driver size alone does not determine how a headphone sounds, but it’s notable and curious that the WH-1000XM5 uses smaller drivers than its predecessors — 30mm vs 40mm. Sony says the new drivers were specially developed to offer better noise cancellation while improving sound reproduction. It has soft TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane) edges that supposedly aid in producing the low frequency sounds necessary for cancelling out road noise and noise from engines. Additionally, the diaphragm is made from light and stiff carbon fibre composites that reduce distortion and improve high-frequency reproduction.

The end result is arguably the most refined Sony headphones I’ve heard yet. The old WH-1000XM4 was a rambunctious thing with thumping bass and a very edgy, incisive, slightly hot sound. The WH-1000XM5 is less so. It’s more restrained and, consequently, sounds more balanced. The bass isn’t as hard-hitting, but it’s still plentiful and satisfying. The mids are more forward in the mix and the highs are smoother and less choppy. The staging is wide and the separation and imaging are excellent. It might not hit as hard nor sound as exciting, but I consider the WH-1000XM5 a big step up insofar as audio performance is concerned. Its overall tuning is more in line with what I’d expect from a flagship-class audio product.

Almost perfect

The WH-1000XM5 is priced at $569 which is $20 more than the WH-1000XM4 when it first launched. Honestly, the price increase isn’t exorbitant, and the WH-1000XM5 makes up for it with its excellent ANC performance and sound characteristics. The older WH-1000XM4 remains in the lineup, and its price has been adjusted to $499. However, I don’t know if that’s low enough to make them attractive. I’d consider them if there were priced closer to $400 now that the WH-1000XM5 is here.

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From a technical standpoint, the WH-1000XM5 is a significant step-up from its predecessor and easily one of the best wireless ANC headphones you can buy. It’s a little comfier to wear. the ANC is class-leading, and it sounds more refined and balanced. The ambient sound mode and microphone voice quality are a lot better too.

The WH-1000XM5's excellent ANC ability and sound quality is letdown by its frustrating design.

However, its design is a letdown. One has to wonder if Sony intended for users to travel with this headphone because its inability to fold down for transport makes it burdensome to carry around. It doesn’t help that they don’t swivel the right way when resting on your neck. Surely these are things that Sony must have noticed during testing. Unless you have a large bag with space to spare, frequent travellers should consider the Bose QuietComfort 45 or the older WH-1000XM4.

Maybe these headphones were not designed for travel. Maybe the WH-1000XM5 was designed to be a high-end headphone for the home and office and to go up against headphones like the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 and Apple AirPods Max – which also don’t fold. But if that’s the case, then the WH-1000XM5 lacks the premium metal construction of Bose’s and Apple’s offerings.

It’s also curious that Sony’s flagship headphones continue not to be compatible with Sony’s PlayStation. If you want to use the two together, you need an audio cable. That seems ridiculous, given that these are flagship-class products made by the same company. You also cannot use the USB-C port for anything other than charging. Enabling digital input via the USB-C port would have given owners a great way to enjoy true lossless audio on streaming services that provide them like Apple Music and Tidal.

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And now, even after spending weeks and taking the WH-1000XM5 with me on an ultra-long-haul flight, I still can’t quite wrap my head around them. They are not bad by any means; in fact, the ANC and sound quality are spectacular. But it seems like if they just did a couple of things different, it could have been a home run. All in all, the WH-1000XM5 feels like a missed opportunity and a classic case of “so near yet so far.”

Sony, I hope you are taking notes for the WH-1000XM6.

ALSO READ: Sony readies for metaverse revolution with cross-platform push

This article was first published in HardwareZone.



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