The Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones have one of the most revered family trees in modern audio history. Following two best-in-class over ear noise cancelling predecessors, the WH-1000XM5 land with a level of anticipation that is unusual in the world of personal audio.
In terms of specs and performance, they mostly do follow in their predecessors’ footsteps (a little too closely) but in terms of design, the Sony WH-1000XM5 cans represent the biggest departure that the line has seen since its conception. But are the differences in design enough to raise the already-high bar Sony has set for itself?
Sony WH-1000XM5: Price and release date
- Price: $399 in the US
- Price: £380 in the UK
- Price: AU$649 in Australia
- Released in May 2022
On sale now, the Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones will begin to ship from May 20, 2022, priced at £380 / $399 / AU$649 – a significant step up above the £350 / $349 / AU$549 asking price of the previous-generation Sony WH-1000XM4.
At launch, you’re looking at around a £30 / $50 savings by choosing the older – and still very good – Sony WH-1000XM4. It’s a sizable chunk of change and, more importantly, it’s a gap that could widen as the year goes on and we drift towards the big shopping holidays like Black Friday and Cyber Monday. At some point in the future, we’re likely to see the Sony WH-1000XM4 dip below the $300 mark before plummeting to half-price – and, at that price, the Sony WH-1000XM4 is a no-brainer.
They’re still a fair sight cheaper than Apple’s alternative though, with the AirPods Max still commanding a $549 / £549 / AU$899 price tag when bought direct from Apple.
Sony WH-1000XM5: Design
- All-new design
- Comfortable for long listening sessions
- Design prevents wind distortion – but no longer folds into a compact shape
- Still no water resistance
After two generations of largely-identical over-ear headphone designs, the WH-1000XM5 headphones are a significant departure from their predecessors.
The best way to quickly describe the WH-1000XM5 headphones is that they’re a bit curvier than their predecessors. It’s all a bit tidier, a bit sleeker – there are fewer visible points of articulation, more discreet noise-cancelling mic ports, and a slimmer headband with additional leather-look covering to hide away its joins and extension points. The cavity for your ears to sit in is a slightly different shape too – a more squat ovoid than the oval of the WH-1000XM3 and WH-1000XM4. Though we’ve not stress tested them to their absolute limits, the slide-out extension points feel sturdier than earlier designs too, with fewer pressure points that could snap away – a complaint of well-used previous models.
But there are some changes that may not be so welcome. Frustratingly, there’s still no water resistance of any kind featured here. As the headphones can no longer fold in on themselves, they’re not quite as portable as they once were. And while the headband is better hidden and integrated into the overall design aesthetic, it feels as if it has less padding than previous Sony headphones in the line.
That may be a slightly moot point though – in our experience, they’re no less comfortable as a result, and will happily sit on your head for long listening sessions. There’s ample padding around the ears, and the cups twist and pivot to suit all sizes, with just the right amount of clamp pressure exerted from the band to keep them in place without squeezing your brain out through your ears. That headband now smoothly extends too, rather than using the stepped extension of earlier versions.
Controls are largely the same as the 1000XM4 headphones. Smart context-aware auto controls aside (which we’ll discuss in the ‘Features’ section of this review), there are two physical buttons on the left ear cup edge. The first cycles between noise cancelling and ambient awareness settings, and you can now use a couple or trio of taps of the ANC button to activate either Spotify Tap or Endel Quick Access, letting you fire up and play from the music streamer and meditation apps respectively without getting your phone out of your pocket. The second is the power button, which you can keep held down to activate Bluetooth pairing mode. You’ll also find the exterior to the right ear cup is touch sensitive: swipe up and down on it to change the volume, double tap it to pause audio and answer calls, and cover it with your palm to instantly jump to an ambient awareness mode that funnels in exterior sound. There’s also still a USB-C charging port on the right cup, and a 3.5mm headphone jack on the left cup.
So, of the obvious exterior changes and additions, what’s going on and why?
First up, that curvier design is intended to reduce wind-drag across the headphones, which can cause that annoying distortion in noise-cancelling performance when out and about on a windy day. A more aerodynamic design here should help reduce that effect, and while we’ve not run head on into the path of a hurricane, that claim held up on a breezy London day exploring Greenwich park.
The second obvious addition is a doubling of the amount of microphone points housed on the headphones. This provides the onboard noise cancelling processors (yes, there’s two inside the headphones) more audio data to to anaylze and improve active noise cancelling performance with, as well as doubling the amount of beamforming mics near a user’s mouth for calls up from two on the WH-1000XM4s to four on the WH-1000XM5s. Call quality, according to our critical buddies, was crystal clear.
Despite these additions, the headphones are actually lighter than the previous model, weighing just 250g – 4 grams lighter than the last version. On top of this, they use ABS plastics in their construction (as does the packaging), made of recycled car parts to up their green credentials.
Again, there’s a much-welcome included carry case with these latest Sony over-ears. Made of a grey fabric, it’s somewhat collapsible, offering a little more bag space when you’re using your headphones. Just don’t expect it to flatten down to a paper-thin size, as an inner pocket for cable storage keeps it a little beefier. It’s not a like-for-like assessment, but the surface area of the new case is larger than that of the earlier models, even if you can squeeze its cubic area down.
Sony WH-1000XM5: Features
- The best active noise-cancelling in the business
- Smart ambient awareness options
- Allows a connection to two devices at once
- App has features to protect your hearing
Active noise-cancellation features have long been the hallmark of the Sony WH range, and the WH-1000XM5 headphones continue in that fine tradition. It must have been difficult to top the superb performance of previous generations and, admittedly, it’s not a world apart from the WH-1000XM4 model. But there is a definite, if slight, improvement.
The WH-1000XM4 already effectively wiped out low-frequency sounds (the din of public transport, or a plane’s rumbling engines), but the XM5s work harder at the higher frequency zone. That’s in part thanks to the new 30mm driver design that, while smaller than the 40mm design of old, makes use of a high rigidity dome and soft edge to take some of the bite off of higher-pitched sounds. Indeed, walking through London’s Paddington Station, a hive of scum and villainy (and sounds of all kinds), I could barely hear a thing, even with the volume of my music dialled back to a minimum. It was very impressive.
Active noise cancellation is the headline act among a whole bunch of smart features Sony includes with the WH-1000XM5 headphones, many of which automatically kick in without you needing to do anything, improving the overall listening experience without you having to lift a finger.
First up is location awareness. By pairing with your smartphone, the WH-1000XM5 headphones can learn your daily routine, and adjust Ambient Sound Control settings according to your location. If the headphones spot that you’re sat still at home, they might jump to a less intense level of noise cancellation compared to while you’re sat in the office, based on your preferences. And if you’re out for a walk, it may pipe in more exterior audio to keep you safe while crossing the street.
Speak-to-Chat is another handy feature. As its name suggests, if you begin talking while listening to the headphones, they’ll halt playback and pump in ambient sound so you can have a conversation without taking the cans off. But like the WH-1000XM4s before them, they come with an unfortunate side effect – it’ll stop playback if you begin singing when the feature is switched on. Thankfully, it’s an optional feature, so if you too are a wannabe Pavarotti, you’ll still be able to stretch those lungs when listening.
A more immediately useful and intuitive feature is the fact the WH-1000XM5s will automatically pause audio when removed from your head, thanks to a hidden sensor in the ear cup. Leave them off for a little longer, and they’ll automatically switch off completely, saving your battery life. You’ve also got the option of connecting to two devices at once, switching between the two depending on what’s happening on each, such as to prioritise a notification.
Finally, there’s better support for voice assistants and their wake words. Alexa and Google Assistant can be activated hands-free by their respective trigger commands, and can then be used to do everything from place and answer calls to reading incoming text messages and notifications, as well as controlling music.
Lots of these features can be tweaked an customised by the accompanying app, which is far more useful than similar supporting software of this ilk. There’s a responsive EQ, with a bass boosting function, that makes a genuine impact on the sound profile of the headphones (though we were very happy with the default tuning), an ear analyzer for optimising the effect of Sony’s proprietary 360 reality audio spatial sound format), and lots of options when it comes to customising noise cancelling levels and the location-aware settings that the app can be set to automatically configure based on your usage and surroundings.
A nice touch which I never realised I’d appreciate before having it presented to me was the “Safe Listening” section of the app. The headphones are constantly logging the decibel level and sound pressure of your listening sessions and lets you know how close you’re coming to the recommended weekly loud noises allowance as defined by WHO. For someone who regularly enjoys drowning out the world at ear-blistering levels, it was a wake up call to have the potential damage I was doing to my ears visualised. The app also tracks the amount of time you’ve spent listening to the headphones too, which is a nice touch for life-loggers, and awards gamified for badges for using the different features of the headphones over time. It’s a shame then that it seems only possible to log time used when connected to a device with the app running, rather than keeping this data onboard the headphones – you won’t get a log of time spent listening to a connected laptop, for instance.
Sony WH-1000XM5: Audio quality
- Spacious soundstage
- Spatial audio support
- LDAC and DSEE Extreme perform well
- Well balanced, with powerful bass and eye-opening detail
The jump from a 40mm driver in the WH-1000XM4 headphones to the new 30mm driver in the latest WH-1000XM5 headphones had us initially raise our eyebrows – would the signature dynamism and space of the WH line be lost with the smaller driver? Thankfully those fears were unfounded – they sound pretty much just as good as the exemplary XM4s, though we must admit they don’t sound dramatically better, either.
Sony’s again leaning on a one-two punch of both LDAC codec and DSEE Extreme support here to offer the best possible sound quality from your connected devices. LDAC is your hi-resolution audio option, compressing and decompressing tracks on the fly to deliver much greater wireless bandwidth than a standard Bluetooth connection could conjure. But even if you’re on a lowly standard-resolution streaming service over Bluetooth, DSEE Extreme ekes out a little more detail by using AI upscaling techniques to restore some of the audio data which would otherwise be lost. Both do a great job.
Even with the driver change, the soundstage remains spacious and capable of giving all elements of a mix room to breathe and shine. Take the mighty solo section of Metallica’s classic One, for instance – all thrash metal riffing and double bass drum madness, but Kirk Hammett’s blistering high-register finger tapping cuts through and shines. In a more sedate but layered tune like Jeff Buckley’s Grace, the acoustic strum percussively rattles below the harmonised vocals and chorus-pedal guitar line, but there’s room for a walking bassline to sit alongside soaring strings too. Everything finds its place with the Sony WH-1000XM5s, and the effect is a wonderful enveloping of sound, even outside of the 360 Reality Audio spatial settings.
If you’re looking for a test of the tightness of the bass, there’s little better than Rage Against the Machine’s Bullet in the Head, where the bass work of Tim Commerford runs like a… well a piston-powered machine through the track. The WH-1000XM5s let the bassline kick behind the trebley guitar riff with real power without flattening everything else. If you want to see how low the cans can go without losing definition, Massive Attack’s brooding Angel sees the WH-1000XM5s retain musicality and detail at even the lowest frequencies.
At the other end of the mood spectrum, jumping into Prince’s joyous Raspberry Beret revealed details previously missed. It’s Prince’s 80s “more-is-more” production at its pomp, with snapping snares and hand claps piercing the wizard-like mix of synths, strings and guitars. I may be mistaken, but is that a harpsichord sitting beneath it all? If it is, it’s the first time I’ve noticed it in my 35 years of listening to the song.
And, if you want to listen to the clarity of a wonderfully realised vocal performance while having a good cry, pop on the Prince-penned, Sinead O’Connor-performed Nothing Compares 2 U – she might as well be in the room with you, from forceful chorus to trembling bridge, O’Connor runs the gamut from anger to heartbreak, with the Sony cans picking up each inflection and sibilant cry with wondrous effect.
There’s very little sound leakage too. Sat in the office next to a colleague, they didn’t register any sound even with the volume ramped up to its highest setting, which is an improvement over last year’s version based on what those around me said at the time.
Sony WH-1000XM5: Battery life
There weren’t many areas that the Sony WH-1000XM5s could have improved over their 1000XM4 predecessors, so many had hoped that one area that could have seen a jump in performance was battery life. Sony is claiming a slight improvement here – while the 30 hours with noise cancelling activated matches the predecessor, 40 hours with noise cancelling switched off is a two hour improvement over the WH-1000XM4s. That may be a little disappointing for some readers, as competitors are beginning to squeeze out more battery life per charge. But the quality of the other features offset any loss to the competition here, particularly in terms of noise-cancelling abilities, and 30-40 hours of playback is more than respectable enough regardless.
Do Sony’s playback estimates hold true? From our experience, we’d say they’re broadly true – we appeared not to quite reach the advertised 30 hours with ANC switched on, but also tend to crank the volume up louder than the average person would (or the recommended safe level is, even), and thus would expect to see the battery drain faster in line with the high volume.
Sony’s definitely put effort into the charging experience generally though – using the USB-PD standard, you’ll get three hours of playback from just a three minute charge of the headphones, getting you out the door and into your tunes as quickly as possible.
Should I buy the Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones?
Buy them if…
Don’t buy them if…
First reviewed: May 2022
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