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Sony LinkBuds S
May 18, 2022
4mm (interior tip diameter)
42g (in case), 5g (per bud)
The Sony LinkBuds made a big splash earlier this year, with a unique ring-shaped design to keep you in touch with your surroundings without relying on a transparency mode. But there’s a new LinkBuds in town, and it’s following that up by… leaving it all behind. The Sony LinkBuds S is a conventional pair of wireless earbuds, for better and worse.
We spent a week with the LinkBuds S to see if dropping its predecessor’s shortcomings justifies losing what makes it unique.
People looking for a typical, reliable pair of wireless earbuds will likely find exactly what they’re looking for here. More specifically, gym-goers will appreciate the secure fit, IPX4 rating, and sealed ear tips that Sony provides.
Editor’s note: this review was updated on September 23, 2022, to address an FAQ about the Google Pixel Buds Pro and to add the Samsung Galaxy Buds 2 Pro to the Alternatives section.
What is the Sony LinkBuds S like to use?
Everything about using the previous LinkBuds revolves around the earbuds’ donut-shaped housings, which makes for a bit of a learning experience—that’s not something to worry about with the Sony LinkBuds S. This pair of true wireless earbuds is about as conventional as it gets. The black plastic earbuds feature a slightly round shape that nestles into your ear, with silicone ear tips designed to seal the ear canal.
The familiar design makes wearing and using the LinkBuds S pretty straightforward. The earbuds come with four different sizes of ear tips; the buds themselves feature an ergonomic shape that sits in my ear very comfortably. Sealing the ear means you won’t be able to hear your surroundings nearly as well as the original LinkBuds, but it also means you can actually hear the bass in your music. Another benefit of the sealed fit: you shouldn’t have to crank the volume to unsafe levels during moments of loud environmental noise.
Something that carries over from the original LinkBuds WF-L900 is the matte textured plastic of the LinkBuds S and its charging case. On one hand, the texture feels nice, and it’s hard to imagine it ever slipping from your grasp. However, it’s also extremely quick to pick up dust, dirt, and grime—that’s true of the ear tips, too. If you don’t like cleaning your earbuds regularly with rubbing alcohol, swabs, and the works, you’ll have to get used to a perpetually dirty pair of earbuds. It certainly makes photographing them for a review trying.
How do you control the Sony LinkBuds S?
The LinkBuds S is pretty straightforward to control, too. All the on-ear functionality is handled by tapping on the flat exterior sides of the earbuds. There are control profiles for doing the typical range of taps to handle toggling between active noise cancelling (ANC) and transparency mode, activating your virtual assistant, controlling volume, and controlling playback. There’s also an awareness mode, which you activate by holding the side of an earbud for a quick hit of transparency mode, just like with other Sony audio products like the ANC flagship WH-1000XM5.
You can change the profile of what each earbud can handle in the Sony Headphones Connect app, but you can’t set individual controls—the left earbud can handle toggling ANC or playback controls, but you’ll never be able to specifically decide what triple-tapping it does, for instance. Here’s what everything does by default:
Double tap right
Triple tap right
Tap left, hold for Attention mode
Triple tap and double tap left
However, while the tap controls are pretty normal, the earbuds aren’t terribly sensitive to successive taps. Roughly half the time I double-tap to skip a song, it just pauses, failing to recognize the second tap. You really need to slow down your taps for the LinkBuds S to recognize them.
The Wide Area Tap feature that had users gently slapping their faces to control the previous LinkBuds is also absent. This is probably a prudent move, but part of me will miss the absurdity of that feature, especially given that it’s a little more reliably sensitive than the LinkBuds S.
The LinkBuds S lacks the unoccluded design of the previous model, but it has a transparency mode. Called Ambient Sound mode by Sony, this works as well as most other transparency modes. That is to say, it’s fine—it doesn’t sound very good, but it’ll do the job. It doesn’t sound nearly as natural compared to just hearing what’s around you with the original LinkBuds.
Should you use the Sony Headphones Connect app with the LinkBuds S?
You should definitely install Sony Headphones Connect (iOS/Android) if you buy the LinkBuds S. The app is how you get firmware updates, customize the earbud controls, and monitor the battery level for each earbud and the charging case. It also features several EQ options, with presets and the ability to set a custom EQ.
Headphones Connect is where all the additional bells and whistles that come with the LinkBuds S are, too. You can set up quick access for Spotify and Endel, a service for creating personalized soundscapes. Like with many other Sony audio products, Headphones Connect will also allow you to set up Sony 360 Reality Audio for the LinkBuds S.
This app also lets you prioritize connection strength or sound quality, which will dictate which Bluetooth codec you can use. Remember that selecting connection strength will make you unable to force LDAC in the Android developer options.
How does the Sony LinkBuds S connect?
The Sony LinkBuds S connects to your device of choice with Bluetooth 5.2, and supports the default SBC, AAC, and LDAC codecs. LDAC is a little less steady than other high-quality Bluetooth codecs like aptX, but its inclusion means that Android users will have a high-quality option, rather than relying on AAC, which is better tailored to Apple devices.
The LinkBuds S also supports Google Fast Pair, so getting set up on Android is pretty simple. When you initiate pairing, a card should pop up on a compatible Android device and allow for a fast connection. The use of Bluetooth 5.2 also means that this device could well use the new LC3 codec when that becomes available. However, it’s unclear when that will actually happen, so don’t hold your breath.
How long will the Sony LinkBuds S battery last?
Sony claims the LinkBuds S can last up to 6 hours on a single charge, and in our testing we found the earbuds come close. With a constant output of real music peaking at 75dB(SPL), the Sony LinkBuds S lasted 5 hours, 41 minutes on a single charge—not exceptional, but more than enough to get through almost any extended listening session.
The LinkBuds S charging case advertises an additional 14 hours of charge, bringing the total to nearly 20 hours. In our experience that seems pretty accurate.
How well does the Sony LinkBuds S cancel noise?
The Sony LinkBuds S has excellent active noise cancelling (ANC) for a pair of wireless earbuds. With low-end attenuation of up to 35dB around 200Hz, environmental noise in that range should be rendered roughly one-eighth as loud. ANC performance like this will significantly quiet low, droning sounds, like the rumble of a car engine or the blaring of a lawn mower.
Higher frequency, incidental noises will still come through to a degree. Passive isolation has more impact on this kind of sound, and the LinkBuds S offers decent isolation performance. As long as you get a good seal with the properly sized ear tips, you shouldn’t be troubled by things like the clatter of dishes or the chatter of people at a cafe.
How does the Sony LinkBuds S sound?
If there’s one area of dramatic improvement over the previous LinkBuds, it’s the frequency response. The Sony LinkBuds S output closely follows our in-house target curve, at least until around 2kHz. Bass and mid-range sound are well represented, which makes for a very enjoyable sound, though the sound in the 200-700Hz range is a little lower than we like to see.
Lows, mids, and highs
Music of most genres should sound pretty nice coming through the Sony LinkBuds S, however, the under-emphasis in the high range means some harmonics and other high-pitched sounds will come through a lot less prominently. Listening to a song like Search and Destroy by The Stooges, the vocals, guitar, and bass all come through clearly, but the drums, and the cymbals in particular, sound comparatively muted. With minimal tinkering, it’s pretty easy to fix the issues.
Yes! The Treble Boost EQ preset goes a long way to raising up high-range sound to a nice level. This EQ preset doesn’t over-emphasize high-end sound, instead of bringing it much closer to our house curve.
How is the microphone on the LinkBuds S?
The Sony LinkBuds S features a decent microphone for a pair of wireless earbuds, at least in ideal conditions. The microphone doesn’t deal terribly well with external noise (there are some very apparent processing artifacts in our street noise test), and voices suffer as a result. If you’re at home or in a quiet place, this will work for phone calls, but don’t expect much more.
Sony LinkBuds S microphone sample (Ideal conditions):
Sony LinkBuds S microphone sample (Office conditions):
Sony LinkBuds S microphone sample (Street conditions):
How does the microphone sound to you?
Should you buy the Sony LinkBuds S?
If you’re hoping for an updated, refined second attempt to the open design of the Sony LinkBuds, the LinkBuds S will be pretty disappointing. However, if you’re just looking for a reliable, if a little uninspired pair of wireless earbuds, this is worth a look.
It’s not exciting, but the Sony LinkBuds S has a lot going for it. It sounds very good, especially with a little EQ tinkering, it has great ANC, it fits securely, and it’s easy to use. Sure, all the uniqueness of the original LinkBuds is gone, but reliability is an attractive quality too.
If you’re looking for a great pair of noise cancelling wireless earbuds, this competes nicely with anything under $200 USD. If you’re on the hunt for something that lets you stay aware of your surroundings at all times, the older model is still available.
What should you get instead of the Sony LinkBuds S
If you’re an iOS user, the Sony LinkBuds S is still a good option, but something made by Apple will still work more smoothly. The Apple AirPods Pro remains the go-to pick on iOS—it sounds good, seals the ears (unlike other AirPods), and it works near-seamlessly with your iPhone.
Samsung users may want to look at the Samsung Galaxy Buds 2 Pro or Galaxy Buds 2. Like AirPods with Apple devices, these noise cancelling earbuds are built to function seamlessly for Samsung Galaxy phones, and they sound good, offer decent noise cancelling, and generally cost less than the Sony LinkBuds S. These are also totally valid picks for non-Samsung Android phones, it’s just they’ve got some extra bells and whistles for their own devices.
Of course, if you don’t mind dropping a dime on your headphones, the Sony WF-1000XM4 still packs a serious punch in the noise cancelling, sound quality, and features department. It’s basically the bigger, more capable sibling to the LinkBuds S, and priced like it.
Frequently asked questions about the Sony LinkBuds S
Yes, the LinkBuds S case can fast charge the earbuds, and just 5 minutes in the case provides 60 minutes of playtime.
The Google Pixel Buds Pro is another IPX4-rated pair of wireless earbuds that runs for almost the same price. It also has active noise cancelling and a transparency mode. The most notable perk that the Google Pixel Buds Pro has over the Sony LinkBuds S is hands-free Google Assistant access. Regarding sound quality, the Google buds have a greater boost in both bass and treble frequencies. Unfortunately, the headset doesn’t have equalizer capabilities and instead uses something called Volume EQ, a software that adjusts relative frequency range levels depending on your media volume.