It’s fair to say that the wireless earbuds category has now reached a level of maturity so high, that any new product of this type will have to offer at least one of three things: bring something never-before-seen to the table or do what other such products do but better or do it for considerably less money. Sony clearly understands all of this, hence the LinkBuds S: sitting between the surprising LinkBuds released in February and the best Sony has to offer in this category (at a price…), the amazing WF-1000XM4, this “S” model is meant to provide most of what makes the latter so great while not costing as much.
Still, this is a $199/€199 product. Does it deliver on all fronts?
One has to give it to Sony: the LinkBuds S make an excellent first impression. The packaging is compact, completely made of recycled paper — every player in the tech industry please copy this freely, thank you — smartly designed and immediately disposable. The charging case is made of quality, hard matte plastic that does not seem to be easily breakable or scratchable, it offers USB-C connectivity and a battery life indicator. The only other things included in the packaging are a number of extra buds, a USB-C charging cable that’s laughably short — come on, Sony, give us a usable one or none at all — the printed manuals and… that’s it.
So one can simply throw away all the recyclable packaging, keep the charging case, the extra buds and the charging cable and just start using the LinkBuds S. All that’s needed is Sony’s Headphones Connect app: setup through it is extremely easy, its available options are many and varied, while instructions on how the taps on the side of each LinkBud S work can be accessed right within the app. A few minutes of experimentation… and then the fun begins.
First things first: they sound great
Yours truly has been testing the LinkBuds S for over a week non-stop, listening to music and podcasts, watching movies, making or taking phone calls with an iPhone 12 Pro Max and a Sony Xperia 1 III — all the while leaving aside not just the WF-1000XM4 but his trusty WH-1000XM4 in wired mode too, in an effort to see how life with just Sony’s latest earbuds would be like. In a nutshell: it would be great… with some getting used to.
Listening to music with the LinkBuds S — which is obviously what most people will be using them for — is a delight. They incorporate smaller drivers than the more expensive WF-1000XM4s but they manage to sound almost as full and clear, with detailed highs and convincing lows that never disappoint regardless of music genre. Vocals are textured, classical instruments sound as warm and vibrant as one could ask for, while deep bass can be extremely satisfying depending on the use case.
Everything from all corners of electronica to orchestral to jazz to alternative rock to movie scores sounds fantastic through these earbuds, which is proof of Sony’s expertise in tuning these minuscule drivers to perfection. What’s more, they sound this good and neutral without so much as touching the default equalizer settings in the Headphone Connect app. People more into e.g. dance music or classical music can further enhance that sound to match the usual characteristics of those genres — boost the lows or the mids respectively, for instance — so they can get considerably more out of Sony’s new earbuds.
The LinkBuds S may not be marketed as audiophile-grade, but they do support LDAC, Sony’s codec that allows for listening to hi-res audio of considerably more detail and wider dynamic range. The difference between FLAC files (24-bit/96KHz) and typical MP3 files (320Kbps) of the same albums was readily apparent during A/B testing on the Sony Xperia 1 III using the same music player app. It was much less discernible between the same music albums when played back as 320Kbps MP3 files and 16-bit/44KHz FLAC files ripped from the same audio CDs (as expected). People into hi-res audio who want to listen to their favorite albums on the go — not just at home with a pair of huge cans — can expect the LinkBuds S to serve them well.
Chances are, though, that most people will not be carrying around hi-res music collections of several dozen GB every day: they are much more likely to listen to moderately or highly compressed MP3 files, streaming services such as Spotify or other sources of even lower audio quality, such as YouTube Music. For these consumers Sony’s DSEE Extreme “upscaling” function proves to be a valuable bonus: in A/B testing with and without it activated, on the same material, it was not a “night and day” difference but it was definitely there no matter what the type of music.
Since it did not really seem to affect the battery life offered by the LinkBuds S all that much, yours truly left DSEE Extreme to “On” for most of the testing, only deactivating it again during the last day of the process and… yes: not a marketing gimmick. The difference was easily felt, as previously enjoyable tracks now felt kind of flat and uninspiring. Not bad at all!
Noise-canceling, battery life and smart functions all impress
Not only do the LinkBuds S sound great — even compared to the WF-1000XM4 and the Sennheiser Momentum 2, the top duo of this category right now — but they are even better in one key aspect: comfort. They are extremely light — less than five grams each — so they are barely felt in the listener’s ears (especially if one of the four offered bud sizes fits perfectly) even after several hours of use. There’s almost no “air pressure” in the ear canal compared to all other wireless earbuds yours truly has tried over the years. They are also water-resistant, so they should be OK when used during sweaty workouts while maintaining a firm, dependable fit (even the most violent head shakes did not impress them). Comfortable and reliable? Yes, they are.
A dependable fit is not what Sony is referring to with its “Never Off” motto for the LinkBuds S, of course. It’s talking about battery life… and it’s not actually that far from the truth: the “6 hours per charge with noise cancellation enabled” claim is valid under specific circumstances, although in everyday use — when one takes several phone calls, uses Google Assistant for voice commands etc. — it’s more like a bit over 5 hours. Yours truly also did a lot of testing while listening to hi-res audio where the use of LDAC has a major impact: a session of listening exclusively to FLAC files lasted about 3.5 hours, which is an extreme case but worth mentioning for some.
The use of DSEE Extreme does not seem to affect battery life the same way, no more than e.g. listening to music at very high volume levels for hours at a time does. So, in practice, the LinkBuds S can get through a busy day easily (one just has to recharge them twice for 5 minutes at some point to get those extra two hours from the charging case).
Active noise cancellation does affect battery life significantly, of course, but it’s very, very effective: it manages to block out practically all environmental noise, allowing the listener to be completely immersed in the music or movies or podcasts of his/her choice. While ambient sound does not get through, highly focused sounds nearby might (there’s a reason why the amazing WF-1000XM4s cost more), but it’s a rare occurrence. The LinkBuds S add almost no annoying hissing at all to the listening experience, even when attempting to block potent high-frequency noise: sound remains bright and clear for the most part, which is more than what other such products can claim.
Sony’s “transparency” mode — which offers normal listening to music while also allowing for ambient sound to go through — is obviously important and works well. This is where some of the company’s smart features come in handy too: Ambient Sound Control, for instance, senses the listener’s current type of location/situation and activates or deactivates “transparency” mode accordingly (it even builds a list of places he/she frequents over time so that it can predictably make the right choice). This usually works as intended, sometimes erring on the side of safety.
Precise Voice Pickup works more reliably — successfully adjusting the LinkBuds S microphones so that the listener can speak clearly in voice calls even in noisy environments — while Instant Pause/Play, which senses when the listener takes the buds out of his/her ears or puts them back in and manages music accordingly, works as advertised.
There are a couple of smart features of the LinkBuds S that did not work as smoothly for some reason: Speak to Chat, for instance, which senses when the listener is starting a conversation with someone and adjusts noise canceling to “transparency” mode, frustratingly worked most of the time but not always, requiring awkward manual control every once in a while. Other functions, such as Spotify Tap, are somewhat more complicated to set up and control than they probably should. For the most part, though, Sony has done a good job adding a number of useful extras to its product’s array of functions and a few of them might prove quite popular to certain types of consumers.
Mid-range earbuds challenging hi-end ones, these definitely are
It does seem that Sony truly delivered with the Linkbuds S, then: they strike the perfect balance between performance, features and extras without charging all that much for it. Are these earbuds perfect? No. It would have been nice if Sony’s latest supported Bluetooth Multipoint, for instance, so they could be linked to two different devices at once e.g. a smartphone and a laptop, instead of having to manually connect to the desired device every time. It would also have been nice if the charging case supported wireless charging itself, allowing for consumers to just leave it on a charging mat instead of using cables to connect it to (or having to carry them around).
But these are not dealbreakers by any stretch of the imagination: there’s not a single product tech reviewers can’t find an “it would be nice to have” feature to whine about. The only problem the LinkBuds S may be facing is, funnily enough, the market position of their big brother: the Sony WF-1000XM4s are considered to be the best product in this category, they are supposed to cost $279/€279, but they’ve been out for a year so they are often on sale for a mere $20/€20-$30/€30 more than the LinkBuds S. They do not support Bluetooth Multipoint either, but their superior noise-canceling, the fuller soundstage they deliver and the even longer battery life they offer are well worth the current price difference.
Still, for people who put comfort in earbuds above everything else, for people who do not need the hi-end sound of the WF-1000XM4 (which is even more closely related to hi-res audio), as well as for people who are looking to save some money, the Sony LinkBuds S are an easy product to recommend. They are just amazing at so many things, that it’s almost unfair to call them “mid-range” just because the simpler, cheaper LinkBuds exist in Sony’s lineup. If they are indeed upgraded via software to Bluetooth LE at some point as the company promises — an upgrade that might, theoretically, make Bluetooth Multipoint possible too — they will be among the top wireless earbud choices available today regardless of price. Never a small achievement, that!