Saturday, July 2, 2022

Sony WH-1000XM5 review: new design, new sound, new price

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Sony has a brand new flagship set of noise canceling headphones: the WH-1000XM5. And as much as we’ve complained about Sony’s awful product names before, I think people at least get it with the 1000X series: these have always been some of the very best noise-cancelling headphones you can buy. For years, Sony has battled Bose, and more recently Apple, to win over frequent flyers, commuters, home workers, and anyone else who can’t live without noise cancellation. As more tasks shift to a hybrid work model, noise-cancelling headphones have only become more essential for peace and quiet, both in the real office and in your home office.

The 1000XM5s have a fresh design, cleaner sound and even better ANC than before. But they don’t really do anything new ones† Now priced at $399, they’re also $50 more expensive than the M4s, which Sony keeps in its lineup. Are they worth the upgrade? Potentially, but it’s not exactly a slam dunk.

For the first time in years, Sony has overhauled the entire design of the headphones. The 1000XM5s look completely different from their predecessors. The headband is slightly thinner, and instead of arms that cradle the earcups on either side, there’s a single stem running down the middle. If you look at some of Sony’s competitors, such as Bose’s Noise Canceling Headphones 700 or Apple’s AirPods Max, you can see where Sony may have found some inspiration.

This style looks more sophisticated and cleaner with less obvious seams and the like. The microphone inputs that looked like USB-C ports on the previous model are gone, are now located around the perimeter of the headphones and are positioned deeper to reduce wind noise. The ear pads are slightly wider and more memory foam-y, resulting in improved overall comfort. Even with the redesigned design, the M5s weigh 250 grams, much the same as the 254 gram M4s. Sony continues to offer them in black or off-white, and the latter has a subtle textured finish that hides finger oils and smudges better than the black model.

The headphones are available in black or off-white.

But I’m not convinced that these headphones look bad premium† The 1000XM4s had at least some visible metal on their rattling ear cups, but everything you can see or touch on the 1000XM5s is all plastic. I wouldn’t worry about durability: I totally screwed these headphones up and they held up just fine. It’s more about fit and finish. For $400, I would have appreciated some nicer materials — or ear cushions that are easier to replace a la the AirPods Max. My Sennheiser Momentum 3s have a more impressive build quality appropriate for their price. That said, it’s also possible to go too far in the other direction. You can bet the AirPods Max are too heavy, and Sony clearly prioritizes extended comfort over lavish design.

The new headphones don’t fold down like Sony’s previous models could.

The ear cups still twist and turn as before. But one thing that Sony’s new headphones can no longer do is: crease† This is one of my biggest disappointments with the 1000XM5s. Instead of folding down for easy portability, these headphones simply lie flat in their bag. And as a result, that case is significantly larger than before. The 1000XM4 case is easy to throw in my bag, but the 1000XM5s don’t fit in the usual compartment, so I had to clumsily tuck them into the main body of the bag. You can always leave the case at home, but then you have to think about what else is in your bag when you push the headphones.

The case is considerably larger than before.

It takes up more space in my bag than I’d like.

Although foldable without the headphones in, this case is too bulky and I think Sony could have done a better job. Bose’s case for the Noise Canceling Headphones 700, which also cannot be folded, is smaller and makes efficient use of space. People are constantly traveling with these headphones and I think Sony’s oversized case will cause frustration. But at least it’s a functional case – hello Apple – with storage space for the USB-C and aux cables. Sony no longer carries a dual-prong airline adapter in the box. That seems stingy for $400, but it is what it is.

As for how the 1000XM5s sound, there are bigger changes than I expected. Sony has moved from 40 millimeter drivers in the 1000XM4s to 30 millimeter drivers in these new headphones. Driver size isn’t everything, but I can’t remember the last time Sony headphones sounded so different from their predecessors. The 1000XM5s are tighter, more detailed and clean up the sometimes muddy bass of the 1000XM4s. “The new 30mm driver unit, with a light and rigid dome, uses a carbon fiber composite material that improves the sensitivity of high frequencies for a more natural sound quality,” said Sony spokesperson Chloe Canta. The edge

More natural, yes, but they also have less charisma. They are less in your face and generally less powerful. I made direct comparisons to the same tracks on both headphones, and the M5s won out in most cases. They are noticeably more refined, detailed and spacious. But in some cases, especially when listening to thumping hip-hop or EDM tracks, I leaned towards the M4s.

With a new design, the 1000XM5s look sleeker and more streamlined.

There will inevitably be those who prefer the more energetic sound of the 1000XM4s. And maybe that’s partly why Sony keeps them around; Selling two headphones that are otherwise so similar wouldn’t make much sense. You can use the EQ controls in Sony’s Headphones Connect app on Android or iOS to bring the sound from these headphones closer together, but it’s best to try them both yourself if possible. You can look at all the frequency curve diagrams you want, but this is fundamentally subjective.

Sony stuck with the same QN1 noise canceling processor for the new headphones, but now it has also been added in a second processor to dial in ANC even further. As a result, the company says noise cancellation performs similarly to the M4s on an airplane, but should be better at dealing with street noise and reducing nearby voices. That has been true in my experience. It’s still not enough to completely silence the world when you’re in a busy coffee shop, but it’s an improvement over what was already fantastic noise cancellation.

One small hardware thing to note: Sony previously had an “optimize” button on the headphones that would adjust the ANC for factors like air pressure and fit – haircut, whether you’re wearing glasses, etc. But now the button is gone and Sony says the same optimization is all done automatically in the background. I miss the button a bit; it was a neat trick that only lasted a few seconds, but I can see why Sony ditched it for the sake of simplicity.

The 1000XM5s follow up on competitors like Bose’s Noise Canceling Headphones 700 and Apple’s AirPods Max.

When it comes to voice calls, Sony is going broke. The 1000XM5s have: eight microphones in total, and four of them are used for speech. Add that together with improvements to the AI ​​algorithm for noise cancellation on calls, and the M5s deliver a noticeable upgrade over the M4s in this department. They’re no match for the standout LinkBuds, but for over-ear headphones they hold up just fine at home. Things get a little dodgier when you’re in a loud environment, but all headphones struggle in that scenario.

The 1000XM5s still support LDAC, Sony’s codec for higher quality wireless audio. And if you can’t connect, LDAC is best for listening to high-resolution music on Apple Music, Amazon Music and others. This only applies to Android, mind you; iPhone owners are still limited to the lower bit rate AAC codec. These headphones also support multipoint, which means you can connect to two devices at the same time. But unfortunately Sony still lets you choose one or the other advanced feature: you can enable LDAC or multipoint, but not both at the same time. The 1000XM4s had the same limitation, which makes me think it has to do with Bluetooth bandwidth.

The ear pads are slightly wider and roomier.

Controls and buttons remain largely unchanged.

Some of the basics of the 1000XM5’s remain unchanged. You operate them with taps and swipes on the right earcup. The old Sony hallmarks – like holding your hand over the right earcup to lower your music for a moment and boost the outside world – are still there. The same goes for features of the 1000XM4s, such as “speak to chat”, where the headphones can detect when you’re talking and automatically stop music and enter transparency mode. You can also lift the left earcup (or remove the headphones completely) to automatically pause your music. The battery life is the same 30 hours as before if you use noise cancellation. If you turn off all the extra bells and whistles, you can go much further than that.

Now I want to discuss some missed opportunities: the things I hoped Sony could add this time, but still haven’t. First, it’s crazy that these expensive headphones can’t work wirelessly with the PlayStation 5. They’re both top-of-the-line products from Sony, but you still have to plug into the PS5 controller with a cable. Second is the USB-C port: still only for charging, while a number of other headphones allow you to use it for audio as well. And finally, the 1000XM5s aren’t even remotely water or sweat resistant: there’s a little piece of paper in the box urging you not to get them wet. I don’t get the impression that these are fitness headphones, but some progress and resistance to the elements would be great to see in the year 2022. Perhaps some of these points will be addressed by the time the 1000XM6s appear in yet. once two years.

Sony’s WH-1000XM5 (left) compared to the earlier generation WH-1000XM4 (right).

The WH-1000XM5s have a very comfortable new design that looks more modern, but doesn’t quite live up to their $400 price tag. The already best-in-class noise cancellation has been ramped up even further. These headphones sound clearer and more natural, but also very different from their predecessors, which could be divisive.

If you have a few 1000XM4s and are happy with them, there is no need to run out and upgrade. Those headphones can do everything they can. But if you have an older pair of Sony cans – say the 1000XM2s or M3s and your battery is running low, these are a much better buy. You get multipoint and the best ANC Sony has achieved to date.

I don’t like that the price has gone up, and the case is a miss. For those reasons, make your own comparisons to the M4s and potentially save some money. It seems Sony got confused with what it wanted the 1000XM5s to be: They’re an odd half-step between the 1000XM4s and luxury headphones like the AirPods Max. There is no big new feature or big headliner about them. But they are still damn good noise canceling headphones.

Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge

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