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Sony WH-1000XM5 Headphones Review: Sound, Design & Price

Some long-time Sony fans may be turned off by the redesign and new sound profile of these latest noise-canceling headphones, but it’s ultimately a superior noise-canceling headphone. 

When you have a popular product, making a change can be dangerous. Such is the situation with Sony’s WH-1000XM5, the fifth version of the 1000X series headphones, which debuted in 2016 as the MDR-1000X Wireless and have grown in popularity as each generation has improved. Sony has tweaked the design throughout the years, but nothing as striking as what it’s done with the WH-1000XM5. Apart from the additional $400 (£380, AU$650) price tag, I think the modifications are positive — and the WH-1000XM5 has one major update that is truly amazing — but others may differ. 

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Changing In Design 

The first thing you’ll notice is that the XM5 — or Mark 5 as I call it — has a redesigned design, with significant alterations to the headband. The previous model’s dual-hinge has been replaced by a single hinge with a swivel and rocker. That is to say, this folds flat but not up. They also have a new carrying bag that appears to be around 20% larger than the prior model. 

That’s disappointing, but the good news is that the XM5 is 4 grams lighter than the XM4, weighing in at a trim 250 g. Additionally, they are more comfortable to wear. They snugly fit my skull but don’t seem overly restrictive. 

I was able to try these on a transatlantic flight because I had a vacation to France planned before I received a review sample. I wore them for 8 hours straight, taking them off just for restroom breaks. They offer the same battery life as the previous model: up to 30 hours, with a quick charge option that provides you 3 hours of power in just 3 minutes. However, as I already stated, they are comfier. 

They also have new synthetic leather ear pads that appear to be more durable than the XM4s. I could be wrong, but I believe they were breathing more freely. However, as with other over-ear headphones, if you use them outside while it’s hot, your ears will steam up. 

The headband does not appear to contain any metal, but the plastic appears to be of great quality, and I spent some time twisting and contorting it without it snapping. The headphones are available in two colors: black and silver, with the silver looking more like sand. Both have a great matte finish that resists fingerprints. Aside from the larger case, the new design of the XM5 appeals to me. However, I’m sure there will be others who like the XM4. 

Some Upgrades 

The MX5’s feature set is comparable to that of its predecessor. Sony’s Quick Attention mode was the 1000X’s signature added feature from the start. Holding your palm over the right ear cup pauses whatever audio you’re listening to and allows sound in, allowing you to quickly converse before returning to what you were listening to. Also, removing the headphones from your head causes the music to cease, then resume when you replace them. 

Sony’s Speak-To-Chat mode, which is essentially hands-free Quick Attention, is also included. If someone approaches you and wants to communicate, simply start chatting — “Hey, what’s up?” — and your music will pause and the headphones will switch to ambient mode. After a brief amount of time — anywhere from 5 to 30 seconds, depending on your preference — the audio resumes. You can also restart it manually by pressing the ear cup. 

The touch controls are excellent. To progress tracks forward, swipe forward across the ear cup, then swipe back to return to the previous track. Volume is increased by swiping up and decreased by swiping down. 

The Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones support Bluetooth 5.2 and are powered by both Sony’s QN1 and V1 chips, giving them two processors instead of the XM4’s single processor. According to Sony, this aids in noise cancellation and reduction during phone calls. These also have twice as many microphones for noise suppression, as well as what appear to be additional microphones for voice calls. Sony would not reveal how many beam-forming microphones the XM4 has, but the XM5 has four. The microphone arrangement is one of the most significant modifications. 

With the XM4, the noise-canceling capability was fantastic, and with the XM5, it’s much better. On the other hand, I didn’t notice much of a difference on my flight. Lower frequencies appear to be handled equally effectively by both models. However, Sony claims that these are better at muffling higher frequencies, and I did detect some minor variations while walking about New York’s streets. People’s voices, for example, appeared to be muffled. 

I should also mention that the “noise-canceling optimizer” option on the XM4 needs to be manually activated. The optimizer feature is enabled by default on this model, and the adaptive noise cancellation appears to be smoother and more seamless. Unlike the XM4, there is almost no audible hiss. 

You may manually switch between noise cancellation and an ambient mode that allows sound in, which Apple refers to as a transparency mode. While the noise-canceling levels aren’t manually changeable, you can control how much ambient sound is allowed in. It goes beyond transparency and actually augments noises from the outside world when you set it to the highest ambient sound setting. My key taps sound more obvious when I type this with an ambient sound set to 20, for example, than when I type without headphones. 

I won’t go over all of the features, but they include adaptive sound mode, an ear-shape analyzer, and support for Sony’s 360 Reality virtual surround audio format for music, which is available through certain music services. I’ve highlighted what I believe to be the most important points. 

Sound comparison 

When switching between the XM4 and the XM5, I observed that the XM4 is a touch louder on my phone at the same volume setting and sounds more forward and aggressive. It does boast 40mm drivers, and I can see why some people prefer its stronger, slightly more thrilling sound, especially if you listen to hip-hop and bass-heavy music. The XM5 does, however, create deep bass with lots of kicks. The XM4’s bass, on the other hand, has a little more weight to it. It’s not quite a case of quantity over quality, but the XM5’s bass is more reserved yet has a better definition, which I prefer. 

And while I preferred the XM5’s more refined sound — I think it’s an amazing sounding headset — I imagine some reviewers will believe the headphones should provide a greater perceived improvement in sound quality given their $400 price tag. That’s $50 higher than the XM4’s original price. However, that model is routinely available for $280 or less, and I expect to see some discounts on this new model in the not-too-distant future. 

While the XM5’s sound changes may not be to everyone’s taste, I appreciate that they sound different from the M4, and I like the direction Sony has taken the sound. In fact, if you didn’t have the M4 to compare them to, you’d think they sounded smooth and accurate, just like a good pair of headphones should. To truly appreciate them, you’ll need to listen to them with a variety of music. 

The extra clarity and depth are especially useful on tracks with multiple instruments performing at the same time (rock music, for instance). In comparison to the XM4, each instrument may be heard more clearly. The soundstages of the two headphones are similar — they’re both quite large — but the XM5 may require a higher volume for a more emotional listening experience. The XM5’s loudness, on the other hand, is perfect: these headphones are loud and don’t distort at higher volumes. 

These headphones, like the XM4, enable Sony’s “high-definition” LDAC audio codec, which can be streamed from a variety of Android handsets and dedicated music players. I used an iPhone 13 Pro and a few Android phones to stream music wirelessly. On Android smartphones (with LDAC or AptX Adaptive) and desktops through a wired connection, the Qobuz music service offers high-resolution tracks with Bluetooth streaming. Both scenarios are claimed to get you to near-lossless music, and I did notice a difference in sound quality when I used LDAC or the headphones in wired mode on a PC using the provided cable. Although I did not utilize a headphone amplifier, it is an alternative. 

The music has a little more depth and richness when you listen in wired mode. However, when I used the AirPods Max in wired mode with an Apple cable that you must purchase separately (no, Apple does not provide it), I noticed a greater difference in sound quality. The difference in sound quality was considerably greater with those headphones that didn’t enable LDAC for Bluetooth streaming. 

While the AirPods Max is built of higher-quality materials, the Sony WH-1000XM5 is lighter and offers greater value. Even with the AirPods Max on sale (they’re now $479 but have dipped to cheaper costs in specific hues), I’d choose the XM5 above the AirPods Max. 

Improvement In Call Quality 

Finally, I’ll discuss the XM5’s largest improvement over the XM4. And that’s only for voice calls. Sony eventually solved the code on noise reduction during calls after five tries. When it comes to calling in noisy surroundings, these are extremely outstanding. 

Almost every caller on my test calls thought I was calling from an interior quiet area. They couldn’t believe I was standing in the middle of New York’s bustling streets, with traffic and wind. As previously stated, these contain four beam-forming microphones for voice calls, and Sony’s engineers have devised some clever AI (software algorithms) to separate your speech while suppressing a lot of background noise (car horns and children screaming will still be heard). The call quality of Sony’s new LinkBuds earbuds wowed me, but the XM5 elevates voice calls to a whole new level. 

These headphones, like the XM4, have multipoint Bluetooth pairing, which means you can link them with two devices at once and switch between them. It’s a vital function for certain individuals, especially those of us who work from home and like to couple our phones and laptops at the same time. 

Final Thoughts 

In a nutshell, that’s the Sony WH-1000XM5. As I previously stated, there will be some discussion over single-hinge vs. dual-hinge designs, as well as whether the XM4 or XM5 sounds better (I think the XM5 does). Beyond that, the XM5 offers several apparent improvements, including perhaps the greatest voice-calling experience in the industry. For those who already own an XM4, this is the most compelling reason to upgrade to the XM5. 

If you’re only looking for a new set of noise-canceling headphones, the XM5 keeps Sony at the top of the pack, and I’d choose these above Bose’s Noise Canceling 700 Headphones and the QuietComfort 45 if you can afford them. Although both Bose versions are good, the Sony XM5 headphones offer a better overall package due to their remarkable feature set, excellent sound, and significantly improved voice calling. 

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Saifullah Aslam

Owner & Founder of Sayf Jee Website

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