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Headphones: 160 x 160 x 74 mm
Ear cup: 33 x 33mm
Sony makes lots of different headphones for just about anybody out there. So when wireless headphones have taken over, but there’s still a demand for cheap headphones, what fits the bill? The WH-CHXXX series, of course. The latest addition to this line is the Sony WH-CH520 — but is it any good? Let’s listen in.
Editor’s note: this is the first version of the article. Updates will follow as the market changes.
If you want a set of affordable wireless headphones and need to hear your surroundings, the Sony WH-CH520 should be on your radar. However, this product isn’t for anyone hoping for ANC, frequent flyers, or audiophiles.
What’s it like to use the Sony WH-CH520?
If there’s an overarching theme with the Sony WH-CH520, it’d be “boring reliability.” Inside the packaging of the Sony WH-CH520 is some documentation, a USB-A to USB-C cable, and your headphones. Pretty Spartan, but very utilitarian. The few advanced features there are generally integrated well into the experience.
The Sony WH-CH520 is made primarily of very light plastic, but that’s not exactly a bad thing when it comes time to use them. The Sony WH-CH520 is very light with decent clamping force, meaning that a secure fit isn’t difficult to achieve. The soft ear pads and leather-like material coating just about every surface that meets your head is a nice touch, but it does build heat after a spell. Despite that, it’s easy to forget you’re wearing the Sony WH-CH520, so if you were looking for comfortable on-ears, you might like these.
While the on-ear design isn’t exactly known for its ability to seal to your head well, the Sony WH-CH520 does a fairly good job with its task provided you’re not surrounded by a ton of noise. The Achilles’ heel of any on-ear design is its inability to make a seal as solid as those offered by over-ear headphones and in-ears, and that difficulty is present with the Sony WH-CH520 as well.
If you have long hair, you’ll be happy to note that there are very few places for your flowing locks to get caught. While it may seem like a small thing, headphones are notorious for plucking out errant hairs that get stuck in hinges. The fact that the Sony WH-CH520 doesn’t have those exposed to you, the user, is a very good design choice that should help you avoid any unexpected pain upon removal of the headphones.
Though the predecessors, the WH-CH510, had some foibles, the newer headphones have remedied our biggest issues (the sidetone issue seems to have been fixed).
How do you control the Sony WH-CH520?
Cheaper headphones use buttons instead of capacitive touch controls, which is the case here. I’m not going to light up Sony too much over this, but in general, buttons are inferior to touch surfaces because their use often means compromising your fit when pushing on something. That’s not great, and the more you rely on the on-headphone controls, the more you risk dislodging the light hunk of plastic on your head.
|Button||Single press||Double press||Long press|
Play / Pause / Answer call
|Double press||Long press|
With the Sony WH-CH520, I found this to be a legitimate worry, and I used the smartphone’s controls more often than not. However, if you do elect to use the buttons on the side, the controls are very straightforward.
Should you use the Sony Headphones Connect app for the Sony WH-CH520?
It’s up to you if you’d like to use the Sony Headphones Connect app, but there are some benefits. For example, you’ll need to use this software to enable the 360 Reality Audio content playback and execute firmware updates. Personally, I like the baked-in ability to equalize your tunes through the app, but there are a number of third-party options out there that can do the same thing (if you’re using an Android phone or a Windows computer). Though the app only uses wide band adjustments, anyone looking to tinker further will want to find an app that provides parametric EQ settings.
That said, the Sony Headphones Connect app does ask for several permissions, and privacy-minded folks might want to avoid this. It is very unlikely that you’ll miss the 360 Reality Audio if you elect to forgo the app, because its performance is heavily dependent on fit. You may want to install the app every few months to check on a firmware update, but beyond that: it’s unnecessary.
How does the Sony WH-CH520 connect?
The Sony WH-CH520 connects to your source devices wirelessly using Bluetooth 5.2. Only SBC and AAC, are provided, there are no higher-bitrate codecs available to the Sony WH-CH520, but in this day and age that’s not a big deal. Unfortunately, there is no option for wired listening, as the USB-C port on the right ear cup is only for charging — not audio passthrough. There is no 3.5mm port either.
Much to our surprise, the Sony WH-CH520 supports Fast Pair and Multipoint. This will allow you to quickly pair the headphones to the nearest Android, Mac, or Windows device without digging around in the Bluetooth settings. If your phone supports this, simply enable Bluetooth on your device, then turn the Sony WH-CH520 on — you should see a card pop up on your screen asking to pair the headphones.
The Sony WH-CH520 is as basic as it gets with headphones, so connecting it to your device follows the same general format as any other wireless headphones if you don’t have a device that can handle Fast Pair.
- With the power off, hold down the power button until the light flashes blue and enters pairing mode.
- On your phone or other source device, navigate to Bluetooth settings and select the Sony WH-CH520 in the list.
- After a brief period, your headphones should be connected.
How long does the Sony WH-CH520 battery last?
With our standardized test, we squeezed 55 hours and 25 minutes of total playback time out of the Sony WH-CH520. That’s a fair bit more than is needed for a couple of weeks’ worth of commutes, so this is a good headset to have on your radar if you hate constantly having to recharge.
According to the packaging, 3 minutes of charging time will net you about 1.5 hours of playback time. Of course, this depends on what you use to connect the USB charging cable to, so your mileage may vary.
How well does the Sony WH-CH520 block out noise?
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In general the Sony WH-CH520 is able to block out a fair amount of high-frequency noise, provided you get an ideal fit. Should you find yourself in the very likely situation where you have a broken seal with your ears, sound will leak in (and out). In the chart above, you can see what a decent fit provides, and the Sony WH-CH520 is able to block out between 10-30dB of outside noise above 1kHz.
Though this kind of result will not do much to dull engine or airplane noise, it’s a lot better than nothing, and pretty decent as far as on-ear headphones go. Still, if your Sony WH-CH520 can’t do what you need it to do, you will need to look for headphones that support active noise cancelation.
A product that doesn’t block out all noise is useful for certain situations. For example: at home when you need to hear your surroundings, or walking in town. Though ANC does enable you to listen at lower volumes, it’s also useful to hear when a car is coming, for example.
How does the Sony WH-CH520 sound?
Of course, a set of relatively cheap headphones isn’t going to knock your socks off, but the performance over the preceding model is improved a bit. Keep in mind that if you have a compromised seal, you’ll find the mids and highs to be a bit grating, as the bass drops off a cliff.
We seek to achieve the best results in our lab, but you will have determine whether or not you’re happy with the sound. It’s possible your outer ear won’t let you get a good seal, or the headphones might move around a bit. With on-ears like the Sony WH-CH520, it’s even more important to get a secure fit than over-ears, as the reduced size and weight of the cans make that more difficult to achieve.
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Assuming you get an ideal fit, the sound of the Sony WH-CH520 is not bad for a set of on-ears. However, it does suffer from bass and mids over-emphasis. While what we’d call “low mids” are overemphasized to a noticeable degree, the rest of this particular range suffers from under-emphasis, which will make some stringed instruments like the harp and acoustic guitar sound a bit strange, as the harmonics are going to be quieter than they should be. I certainly found this a little off-putting while listening to songs like Chromeo’s 100% — the echo effect and synths just sound… very off.
Because these are Bluetooth-only headphones, you’re not getting lossless audio or anything of the sort. Though the performance deficiencies aren’t going to show up in a frequency response chart, it’s worth mentioning that the codecs available are merely the basic ones mandated by Bluetooth so there’s a ceiling on what you can expect. For this price point, that’s probably what you’re looking for anyway.
Can you use the Sony WH-CH520 for phone calls?
If you were looking at the Sony WH-CH520 to handle phone calls, it’s capable enough. Below are standardized samples collected in simulated conditions so you can hear for yourself how it performs in these common scenarios.
Sony WH-CH520 microphone demo (Ideal conditions):
Sony WH-CH520 microphone demo (Office conditions):
Sony WH-CH520 microphone demo (Windy conditions):
Tell us what you think
How does the microphone sound to you?
Should you buy the Sony WH-CH520?
If you’re looking for headphones that simply do what you ask them to: the Sony WH-CH520 is a decent option, even if it isn’t very exciting. Sony’s WH-CHXXX line fits this role quite well, and the WH-CH520 offers a decent raft of quality-of-life updates over its predecessor that should keep listeners happy. If the Sony WH-CH520 were a car, it’d be the boring-but-safe commuter compact. However, the price will be a bit tough to swallow for some if you can only find the product without a discount. The fact of the matter is that there’s a bunch of headphones out there for the sub-$100 price point that are completely competent picks like this one — but if you’re hoping for a safe brand to trust, there are few more attested than Sony.
The Sony WH-CH520 is aimed at the entry-level buyer not terribly worried about getting the best or flashiest features, and there’s something to be said for that. Cheap and competent is a good combo.
What should you get instead of the Sony WH-CH520?
These are not suitable if you’re looking to produce music or need something a little more audiophile-grade: you’ll have to look elsewhere.
I’d recommend getting the Audio-Technica ATH-M20xBT $79 at Amazon or Anker Soundcore Life Q20 $59 at Amazon if you’ve got a little wiggle room in your budget. Though neither of these options will be as frustration-free as the Sony WH-CH520, they do offer a better fit and experience if you fall into the usual categories of “people who have issues with on-ears.” You know, glasses-wearers, those looking for a more consistent fit, or those hoping for more noise reduction than the Sony WH-CH520 can provide.
Frequently asked questions
Any headphones that do not completely seal to your head runs the risk of leaking sound.
Yes, the Sony WH-CH520 has a microphone.
Yes, you can connect the Sony WH-CH520 to a Macbook laptop.