Sony’s noise-cancelling headphones have enjoyed a lofty position atop reviewer shortlists and Top 10s for years. The third and fourth iterations of the WH-1000X range traded blows with the Bose Quiet Comfort and Sennheiser Momentum product lineups and, recently, the Apple Airpod Max for those in Apple’s ecosystem.
The older Sony models shared a lot of similarities in design, feature set, and sound profile with the company making relatively minor adjustments between the two. Now, the WH-1000XM5 is here and it is a departure from the formula. Changes were made, some for the better and some… not. But, wherever your preferences may lie, the XM5s – as we’ll refer to them until Sony learns how to name products – are premium in feel, sound, functionality, and price.
Embracing the V
You can expect these to sound like you paid good money for them. They’ll blow the socks off the average casual listener. Sony has reduced its driver size from 40mm in the XM4 to 30mm but driver size can mean as much or as little as the megapixels of a smartphone camera.
Digital signal processing (DSP) and tuning are what really count. The XM5 has been tuned with the consumer-friendly V-shape, meaning low and high frequencies are amplified, sometimes to the detriment of the mids.
Sony’s headphone tuning has always favoured the lower end and that continues here. Although this time it’s more refined. The bass is present and punchy but manages to avoid being overbearing. It can get quite boomy, depending on what you’re listening to, but that can be righted with an adjustment to the in-app equaliser.
The high frequencies are also boosted. While they are crisp, they could’ve been slightly more precise. There also seems to be a sharp drop-off towards the upper highs. This means that most music will sound at least ‘okay’ with bass-heavy genres like EMD or Metal sounding slightly better. But, if there’s any part of the sound you don’t like, you can fiddle with the EQ until you’re happy.
But then, these were never made for critical listening. When you’re using them for what they’re intended, shutting out the noise of an office or plane engine, most users will be more than impressed.
New year, new XMs
The sound profile isn’t everything. Most of Sony’s departure from its formula is design-related. The XM3 and XM4 cans looked similar to the point where even we would struggle to tell the difference in a side-by-side image comparison. The XM5 features a new design that looks like the XM4 and the Bose NC700s got together one drunken night.
Thankfully for Sony, that lovechild turned out pretty well in most areas. We’ll start with the negatives because there are fewer of those. The XM5s weren’t as comfortable as we were expecting and they don’t fold up like previous pairs. Don’t get us wrong. They’re still some of the most comfortable headphones we’ve ever worn. But they suffer from the same flaw as the Yealink headphones we tested recently.
The headband has a decent amount of fake leather-coated foam, but it’s still too thin. This means there’s less surface area for downward pressure, concentrating that pressure more. We had to adjust them every couple of hours which isn’t ideal for a premium product.
The new design also means these don’t fold up and the earcups don’t swivel the right way while they’re around your neck. No folding means the case is bigger. The lack of swivel is a nitpick but for frequent flyers and commuters, where every centimetre of bag space matters, the case’s size could be a deal breaker.
Picking the nits
The only other nitpick we could find was that the matte coating on the earcups holds onto oil extremely well. They’re easy enough to clean but it would be nice if you didn’t have to do it every time you put them down.
The fake leather and foam on the earpads are some of the softest we’ve ever felt. They, together with the 250g weight and gentle but reassuring clamping force, make for a very comfortable fit. Like every pair of closed-back headphones, you can expect your ears to get a little warmer during use.
The spread of controls on either earcup is well-spaced and intuitive. The whole side of the right earcup is a touchpad. This handles playing or pausing, skipping a track, and increasing or decreasing the volume. On the left, you’ll encounter the power/Bluetooth button, the toggle for active noise cancellation, and a 3.5mm jack for when you want to go old school. Scattered around both cups are eight microphones for ANC and voice capture. More on those later.
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The XM5 might not fold up into its case but it is nevertheless a premium house for your new cans. The fabric texture and origami folds bring an air of sophistication. So does the internal magnetic door that keeps the included USB-C and 3.5mm male-to-male audio cable contained.
The rather short USB-C cable is presumably Sony’s way of letting you know you can’t listen to these while charging. Thankfully, Sony offers improved fast charging capabilities. A three-minute charge will net you three hours of playback. A full charge will take significantly longer at three and a half hours. That might sound like a long time but when you consider you’ll only have to do that once a week, it doesn’t seem so bad.
Sony says these support 30 hours of battery life and we found that to be slightly less than we got. We got six or so hours of music listening and the odd phone call with ANC enabled every day for a whole week with battery life to spare at the end. Turning ANC off will bump the rated life up to 40 hours, according to Sony, but you might well get more.
An ANC masterclass
We’ve mentioned active noise cancelling (ANC) a few times but saved diving in until the end. If you haven’t made up your mind about these yet, this should help. These offer some of the best ANC currently available on the market. The ANC in the XM4 cans is outstanding. These are better. We didn’t get the chance to test them while flying but we can say that road noise is non-existent. We wouldn’t recommend wearing these while driving yourself for exactly that reason.
Office chatter, loud coffee machines, and aircon or generator noise (depending on how Eskom is feeling) fade into the background. When you add music to that, you might as well be on another planet.
This improved ANC is thanks to the extra mics (Sony doubled the count from the XM4) and new audio processors. Yes, plural. There are two of them. In the first couple of days of use, we struggled to see how these could be worth the asking price. Noise-cancelling performance goes a long way in making that apparent.
ANC and transparency mode go hand in hand. Ideally, with transparency mode, you want an experience as close to if you weren’t wearing headphones at all. It isn’t quite that good here but it’s close.
The extra mics lend themselves to improved voice quality. That’s not to say it’s super good. We still have yet to figure out how to properly transmit voice over Bluetooth, so the bar was pretty low. Thankfully, the XM5 manages to clear it. They perform especially well in noisy environments. Your voice is still going to sound compressed on a call, but at least that’s all your listener is going to hear.
Wait, there’s more?
There are a few other features worth mentioning. The XM5 supports Sony’s proprietary LDAC audio codec for Hi-Res audio. Your source will also need to support a high bitrate (so, not Spotify yet) to get the most out of the extra bandwidth. Enabling this feature also means you’ll be limited to a single Bluetooth connection whereas using SBC or AAC means you can connect to two devices simultaneously.
Setting up those connections was a breeze. Unfortunately, NFC one-touch connection support has been dropped but Sony makes up for that with support for Swift Pair for Windows and Fast Pair for Android. Put them in pairing mode and you’ll see a popup on your devices within seconds.
Sony WH-1000XM5 verdict
Sony has produced a winner once again. The XM5s might depart from the familiar design of previous generations but they more than make up for it in almost every other aspect. The sound profile should suit all but the most critical ears. The design is subtle and understated. You may have to adjust them after extended listening sessions but, for the most part, they cup your ears as a mother would her child. Sure they’re pricy but if you want the best noise cancellation you can buy, these are worth the R9,000 asking price. If that’s too steep for you to justify, or you can’t do without the folding design, then Sony has kept the XM4 around and dropped the price. Either way, you can’t go wrong.
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