PlayStation Pulse Explore review

Sony’s gaming wireless earbuds deliver on their promise, but they are far from perfect


Sony’s first wireless earbuds specifically designed for gamers certainly look the part, but do they deliver on all of their promises? (Image: Sony)


In all honesty, the most incredible thing about the PlayStation Pulse Explore – Sony’s first wireless earbuds bearing the logo of the most successful brand in gaming – is that it actually took the company this long to release a product like this. Sony has enjoyed great success with its flagship WF-1000X line of wireless earbuds, after all, as well as with its more affordable such lines, so – in theory – it would be easy to build a high-quality PlayStation-focused option. Plus, there should be quite a few people interested in wireless earbuds capable of pulling double duty, i.e. providing great sound in games while also being good enough for listening to music on the go. Right?

The Pulse Explore is a product that would seemingly fit that description: it is clearly designed with the PlayStation crowd in mind, but it also makes use of audiophile-class tech developed by Audeze, a highly respected audio products manufacturer Sony acquired in 2023. So how do the company’s new earbuds fare when it comes to PlayStation gaming and music listening? Here’s what consumers need to know.

Design, build quality, comfort: impressive and divisive in equal measure

Sony has been nothing if not consistent with the design language of the PlayStation5 and its accessories, so it’s no surprise to see the Pulse Explore follow suit: they sport the same kind of lines and curves, the same two-tone black and grey white combination, the same accents. Even if the PS logo was missing, which it isn’t, they’d still scream “PlayStation”. The same goes for the carrying/charging case the Pulse Explore come with – it’s on the bulky side but still easily portable – but branding is rather discrete, so no compaints there.

Build quality of both the Pulse Explore and the accompanying charging case is very good overall. Hard plastic is the name of the game here, as expected, but the earbuds are thoughtfully put together and sturdy enough in everyday use. They may not scream “premium” in the way most people would expect but they do feel high-quality compared to many, many other products of this kind. The charging/carrying case is also well-built, but its sliding mechanism does feel a bit flimsy when opened, as if it could snap in two if handled carelessly.

The Pulse Explore are nicely designed and an unmistakably PlayStation product. They do look kind of weird compared to other wireless earbuds, though, and their carrying case is not exactly small. (Image: Sony)


Earbuds are notoriously difficult products to evaluate when it comes to comfort, since so much depends on each individual’s ear shape and cavity, as well as specific habits and tolerance levels. The Pulse Explore do seem like a pair of earbuds that will not be immediately liked by everyone, though: for starters, there is a very specific way these need to be placed in any listener’s ear in order to get a firm fit and most consumers will need some time to get used to that fine-adjusting (which can be irritating). Then the Pulse Explore practically enforce a “slide and twist” motion in order to get the angle right, but – because of their design – the edges near the top of each earbud dig into one’s ear, causing discomfort. It’s not the end of the world, sure, but it’s not great either.

On a positive note, once the Pulse Explore are correctly placed they do feel lightweight – even after prolonged use – and the supplied tips snug into the ear canal just enough to provide a tight seal without putting pressure on its sides. Everyone can get used to almost anything over time, so many consumers will find them easy to live with after a while, but these particular Sony earbuds could have done with a little less focus on how they look and a bit of more attention to how they actually feel while using.

Performance in games: amazing, actually

When it comes to such products it’s obviously the sound quality on offer that matters the most and, luckily, that’s where Sony’s new earbuds excel. For the specific use case they are primarily designed for, PlayStation Pulse Explore deliver the kind of audio performance not usually associated with gaming products – and it’s all because of Audeze’s planar magnetic drivers that this particular pair of earbuds is based on: simply put, playing PS5 games while using these is a revelation.

The sound PlayStation gamers can expect from these wireless earbuds is amazing: fully bodied yet acutely detailed, bassy yet never overwhelming, truly directional, extremely convincing when it comes to distance and intensity of various effects, this is gaming audio at its finest (sound quality takes practically no hit in high volume too). In all honesty, these sound unlike what wireless earbuds usually sound like in games and more like how gaming headphones sound like, which is high praise indeed considering the vast difference in driver size. Audiophiles familiar with Audeze’s signature tech may have expected this, but everyone else will be pleasantly surprised.

PlayStation5 owners will be able to make a number of adjustments to the Pulse Explore, but a fully-featured, dedicated app – one for smartphones or tablets too – would be greatly appreciated. (Image: Sony)


Sony claims that these were designed to take advantage of the Tempest Audio Engine subsystem of the PS5 for true 3D sound reproduction and, regardless of whether that’s the case or not – they performed just as impressively in PC games that support positional audio – it definitely sounds like they do. What’s more, people who own a PS5 will be able to make a number of adjustments to the audio offered by the Pulse Explore through the handy equalizer included in that system’s Settings. That’s sadly not offered on smartphones or tablets, while PC gamers will have to work with what little options are available to them through Windows Sound Settings.

The boldest claim Sony made regarding the Pulse Explore, though, obviously has to do with its proprietary PlayStation Link technology, which promises high-quality sound in games without the connection, delay or distortion issues usually associated with its wireless transmission to earbuds or headphones. Well, the company’s particular bet paid off handsomely as PlayStation Link proved to actually be as effective as advertised: not once during testing did sound from PS5 games or PC games – using the included, necessary USB dongle – unexpectedly crackle or lose clarity, which is a far cry from what we’ve come to expect from most Bluetooth earbuds.

Over the course of this review yours truly did notice a few connection drops here and there (largely depending on the distance between the Pulse Explore and the dongle), but in normal operation there was almost no detectable latency between the sound transmitted and the effects or dialogue they are tied to. That’s obviously important to gamers but an impressive feat in its own right, considering the rapid, bombastic, often overwhelming nature of audio in modern games.

The Pulse Explore perform amazingly well with Sony’s PlayStation Portal remote player, just as the company promised. They are literally made for one another. (Image: Sony)


Sony also made good on its promise regarding the PlayStation Portal. Controversially, the company’s remote player accessory does not support Bluetooth headphones or earbuds for audio, but it does support PlayStation Link, meaning that the Pulse Explore (and the Pulse Elite over-ear model) are the only way people can enjoy sound in PS5 games wirelessly. It’s a good thing, then, that the Pulse Explore when connected to a PlayStation Portal perform exactly as Sony claims, delivering clear audio without any latency to speak of. Yours truly liked but not loved the PlayStation Portal, to be perfectly honest, but many seem to really be into it – it’s almost constantly out of stock – so those consumers can now be safe in the knowledge that the Pulse Explore works exceedingly well with that product.

There’s just one aspect of the Pulse Explore’s gaming credentials where there’s room for complaint: microphone performance. These are understandably tiny and practically hidden – so direct comparison to e.g. the bigger, retractable microphones that come with gaming headphones would be unfair – but voice distortion or echoing are hard to ignore. Sony mentions the use of “AI-enhanced noise rejection”, but that does not seem to work as consistently as one would expect in practice. It’s not like the microphones offered by the Pulse Explore are unusable, but they are nowhere near as good as its drivers. PlayStation5 gamers who routinely play team-based online titles with friends should keep that in mind.

Performance in music: serviceable but limited

Yes, Sony does not promote the Pulse Explore as anything else other than a gaming product – a PlayStation one first and foremost, regardless of its PC compatibility – but… let’s be real here: it’s practically a given that most people interested in true wireless earbuds assume that they’d be able to use them outdoors too (not just near a PS5 or a computer) and that they’d have no trouble using the same earbuds for listening to music on the go. The Pulse Explore can offer that too, strictly speaking, but they leave a lot to be desired when it comes to this particular use case.

Sure, Sony never claimed that these would perform just as well when listening to music outdoors, but would most people buy two different sets of earbuds for music and gaming? Probably not. (Image: Sony)


Addressing the elephant in the room first: in 2024 terms, any true wireless earbuds that do not offer noise cancelling (let alone hi-end ones) are simply not good enough for outdoor use in the eyes of most consumers. It’s as simple as that. So the Pulse Explore, which do not offer that for some reason, are not going to cut it when it comes to how most people like listening to music when commuting, travelling, running, exercising etc. What’s more, when it comes to gaming on the go – either on the PlayStation Portal or on a smartphone/tablet – noise cancelling is obviously important too, so why Sony thought it would be OK for the Pulse Explore to not include such an important feature is unclear.

Even if one is willing to accept the absence of noise cancelling when listening to music outdoors, though, audio performance is rather unimpressive all on its own – for planar magnetic driver standards anyway. Any kind of music played through the Pulse Explore sounds… OK, but it’s all rather unexciting: there’s enough detail in the highs to appreciate Audeze’s specialty in that area, while mids and vocals are clear enough, but anything lower than that – especially bass, thumping or otherwise – is weak and unconvincing, hurting the overall presentation in the process.

Some of these issues may be fixable: the Pulse Explore are not currently supported by Sony’s rather useful iOS or Android companion app, for instance, so if or when they are, the equalizer included in that app should help make music from smartphones or tablets sound more interesting. Other problems – such as the rather average sound quality delivered through Bluetooth during music playback, despite the planar magnetic drivers – may not be easy or even possible to fix via software updates. The fact that Spotify playlists sound much better on the Pulse Explore when using the PlayStation Link dongle on the PS5 is proof of that. It will certainly be interesting to see just how these earbuds are supported by Sony in the future, especially given their pricing.

Connectivity, usability, battery life: you win some, you lose some

It’s a shame that the sound quality delivered by the Pulse Explore is so markedly different between video games and music because, funnily enough, Sony’s earbuds offer the kind of solid connectivity that would encourage their use with a wide range of devices. One can actually have them connected to a PS5 or PS Portal and a smartphone or PC at the same time, for instance, so taking phone calls while playing games is not just perfectly doable but seamless. It’s not just about gaming either: one could use e.g. the PlayStation Link dongle for listening to music on a PC in the office while taking calls on a smartphone normally. It’s a useful feature that makes sense.

The Pulse Explore offer multiple connectivity options, but some usability issues (plus only decent battery life) make for a less than stellar pair of earbuds – especially for the price. (Image: Sony)


The same cannot be said about some of Sony’s other choices. The volume buttons on each of these earbuds – yes, they can be adjusted independently for some reason – are mushy, shallow and somewhat difficult to press without affecting their fit, so usability takes a hit there, while the multi-function button seems either underutilized or unnecessary at times (it basically works as a device switcher and not much else). Talking about the buttons on the Pulse Explore, it’s worth pointing out that Sony’s latest PlayStation product does not have an IP rating at all – so those buttons may cause problems by letting water or sweat enter the earbuds by accident. Again, not the end of the world… but all these small issues collectively render the Pulse Explore unsuitable for a number of use cases.

What about battery life, then? It’s more of the same: it’s OK but nothing to write home about. When gaming through the PlayStation Link connection, the Pulse Explore do not seem to last more than 4-4.5 hours (tops). When listening to music they do better – as one would expect from a slower and less demanding connection – offering between 6 and 7 hours at moderate volume levels before needing a recharge. The battery inside the accompanying charging/carrying case is enough for a couple of full Pulse Explore recharges before giving out – which is more than enough, considering that outdoors use of these earbuds is not highly recommended anyway.

The verdict: good for many PlayStation gamers, not good enough for everyone

So where do all the points raised above leave the Pulse Explore as the first true wireless earbuds squarely aimed at the PlayStation crowd? In a weird place, that’s where. On one hand, it may seem irrational or even unfair to feel dissatisfied with them because they do deliver on Sony’s promise: they are really impressive when it comes to gaming – which is the main use case they were designed for – and PlayStation Link performs amazingly well in the same context. They are also a natural choice for PlayStation Portal owners, since they work great together match in terms of functionality and aesthetics.

The Pulse Explore actually deliver on Sony’s promise when it comes to high-quality sound in modern games… but only just. (Image: Sony)


On the other hand, here’s what’s also true regarding these earbuds: they are great to use indoors for gaming on a PS5, PS Portal or PC – preferably quite near these devices as to avoid any random disconnections – but they are not great to use outdoors for gaming because of the absence of noise cancelling (some would say the same is true for indoor use too). At the same time, they are not that great for listening to music, indoors or outdoors. But if they are practically meant to be used just indoors for gaming, why go for these or any other wireless earbuds instead of wireless gaming headphones, wired or wireless? Headphones would win hands-down when it comes to comfort or battery life or sound quality or microphone quality – while portability is a non-issue with headphones, if those are only meant to be used indoors. Obvious, no?

What prospective buyers of the Pulse Explore would probably end up doing is use two different pairs of wireless earbuds depending on location and content – which is a tough sell when Sony’s latest cost two hundred dollars on their own. Some people may intend to use the Pulse Explore in other situations e.g. in the office with a PC and a smartphone at once, but then why invest in these advanced planar magnetic driver-based earbuds and not go for something decidedly more affordable? It only makes sense if these consumers plan on gaming a lot at home, can take advantage of two-device connectivity daily and do not mind the so-so sound quality the Pulse Explore deliver outdoors.

No wonder, then, that the Pulse Explore are not easy to recommend to every single PlayStation player out there… but, rather, to a subset of that crowd. The rest may do well to take a look at Sony’s other new product that’s based on Audeze’s audio tech, the Pulse Elite: these are full-on, headband headphones made for gaming that offer deeper sound, a wider soundstage, longer battery life and a far superior microphone while costing less than the Pulse Explore. Sure, they might not look as cool, but if both sets are ultimately meant to be used at home, does it really matter?

SONY PLAYSTATION PULSE EXPLORE SCORECARD

Kostas Farkonas

DESIGN
BATTERY LIFE
SOUND QUALITY
USER EXPERIENCE
EXTRAS

TO THE POINT

The Pulse Explore work well indoors with PS5 games, PC games and the PlayStation Portal, but several omissions and weaknesses mean that this particular use case is the only one they truly excel at.

3.4
pros
Nicely designed, well-built
Wide range of compatible devices
Simultaneous dual-device connectivity
PlayStation Link really does work well
High-quality audio in games content
cons
Not an intuitive or comfortable fit
No noise cancelling
Mediocre audio quality in music content
So-so battery life
No sound adjustments over Bluetooth

ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Kostas Farkonas

Veteran reporter with over 30 years of industry experience in various media, focusing on consumer tech, entertainment and digital culture. No, he will not fix your PC (again).

Veteran reporter with over 30 years of industry experience in various media, focusing on consumer tech, entertainment and digital culture. No, he will not fix your PC (again).

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