Sony ‘dropped’ the WH-1000XM5 noise-cancelling headphones far earlier than anyone was expecting. With the two-year cadence of these releases typically taking place later in the summer, the arrival of Sony’s hotly anticipated update to the WH-1000XM4 certainly took me by surprise.
Unfortunately, the silly naming convention remains, therefore I will be referring to these new cans as the ‘XM5’ from here on.
I’ve had them for just a few days, therefore this isn’t an in-depth review. However, it has been long enough to stumble upon some rather interesting discoveries about the XM5s.
More importantly, how do they stack up against the like of the AirPods Max? Where should you spend a not-inconsiderable amount of money on your next pair of noise-cancelling headphones?
What follows is my initial first impression of Sony’s most important headphone launch in (less than) two years.
I won’t regurgitate the entire spec list for the XM5s, but there are some interesting highlights.
At £380/$399/€420, the XM5s sit firmly within the ‘these had better be good’ bracket for consumer headphones – particularly when you consider how their launch will drive down the price of the already-brilliant XM4s.
There’s a brand-new ‘noiseless’ design, which I’ll get onto later, but most of Sony’s marketing for the XM5s is focused on the noise-cancelling capabilities. We’re told that it is “incomparable”, and that the new headphones feature the “biggest ever step forward” when it comes to noise-cancellation.
Battery life has been turned up to 30 hours with a three-minute PD-powered charge delivering three hours of playback (although you’ll need to supply the charging brick yourself).
When it comes to sound, we’re promised a “more natural sound quality” thanks to the carbon fibre composite drivers. The XM5s also retain compatibility with high-resolution wireless audio thanks to LDAC support and DSEE Extreme, which uses artificial intelligence to upscale compressed music.
That all sounds rather fancy, doesn’t it? So, what are these things like when you place them on your head?
We’ll start with noise-cancelling because this is clearly the biggest play for Sony with the XM5s. And for good reason – they know how highly-regarded the XM4s were in that area.
First impressions? It’s the best I’ve ever heard (or not heard). Again. The noise-cancelling on the XM5s don’t feel oppressive, there’s not too much hiss when music isn’t playing, and everything gets dampened perfectly.
It should be noted that the bar for noise-cancelling is particularly high these days – most manufacturers get it spot on. But the XM5s are the first pair of headphones I’ve put on in a while that deliver noise cancelling that is noticeably better than anything else – XM4s included.
The only real letdown is the ambient mode, which just isn’t up to the brilliant transparency mode found on AirPods Max. If you’re unfamiliar, this is the feature which lets in outside noise via the headphones’ mics, thus enabling you to hear yourself and others whenever you feel the need to. On the XM5s, it’s most at fault during calls – I’ll get to that later.
While comfort is indeed a subjective topic, the XM5s feel like a comfortable pair of headphones as soon as you place them on your head.
When it comes to wearing them for long periods, for me, they’re a bit hit and miss. For instance, the headband features plenty of padding, but the ear cups could be far more cushioned. Sony calls the material used ‘soft fit leather’, and this results in ear cup padding that is so light that it sinks far too much into the side of your head.
The net result of this is your ear (or, at least my ear) pressing rather too firmly against the inside of the ear cup. There’s also a small amount of driver protrusion beneath the fabric within the ear cup, which could cause an issue for some users.
For me, it isn’t irritating or particularly uncomfortable, but the proximity of my ear to the speaker driver is hard to ignore. I’ll have to report back as to whether or not that’ll become more uncomfortable over time.
As always, I tested the XM5s out of the box with no EQ treatment. This method of testing headphones irritates certain sections of my audience, but I don’t care; I want to hear what the manufacturer thinks these should sound like.
With that in mind, this is how the XM5s responded to a bunch of tracks to which I always turn for such tests.
On Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy, the sub-bass kick drum is nicely handled. When the rest of the arrangement kicks in, the XM5s reveal just how good they are at dealing with wildly different frequencies stacked on top of one another; nothing gets lost, and there is zero distortion.
Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer was a triumph on the XM5s, too. Crisp vocals, great instrument separation, and a perfectly wide soundstage made it a joyful listen.
Next up was Harry Styles and Adore You (stop laughing at the back and give it a go). The XM5s handled the growling bass part nicely (although, at times, it was a little boomy, if I’m being ultra picky) and there was zero fuss or distortion during the filtered middle eight section.
Throwing Pop Evil’s Breathe Again at these cans was really interesting. This mammoth track is easily misrepresented on headphones and can sound like an utter din, but the XM5s dealt with the huge, dynamic-laden production perfectly. They’re just as punchy as I’d hope they’d be, too – a quality that was evident on Don’t Start Now by Dua Lipa.
But where the XM5s really came to life was during Steely Dan’s Jack of Speed, which shines on Sony’s newest headphones. This track also revealed that the mid-range doesn’t appear to be quite as scooped as it was on the XM4s; indeed, it’s a flatter sound all around.
The XM5s aren’t the most exciting sounding headphones in the world, but then, neither were their predecessors. Instead, they’re assured, confident, and unmistakably Sony XM series. You won’t be disappointed.
Oh, and if you’re more inclined to play with the EQ settings, I’m pretty sure the XM5s will respond just as well to that treatment as the XM4s.
Design and case
So, what does a ‘noiseless’ design mean?
Whatever it means to Sony, two things immediately strike you when you pick up the XM5s for the first time.
They are incredibly light. So light that it would be easy to confuse their weightlessness with ‘cheap’. But when it comes to headphones, that’s no bad thing – we place these on our heads for long periods, after all, and compared to AirPods Max, the XM5s are comically light in the hand and on one’s head.
The XM5s are also unbelievably quiet. There’s no creaking, cracking, or popping as you move, twist, or extend them. Indeed, if this is what Sony means by ‘noiseless’, they’ve smashed it. This will please those who complained about the XM4’s casing being somewhat noisy and explains why Sony refers to “silent joints” in its product marketing.
When it comes to the design, it is certainly unfussy. I like it – these are unmistakably Sony headphones, and they don’t look anywhere near as massive in person as they do in the product photography.
There is one significant change, though, which is that the XM5s don’t fold, at all. To place them in their case, you simply flip the ear cups and… that’s it. I’m a fan of this – I’ve never been keen on the needlessly complicated or precise way in which some over-ear headphones need to be folded to be stowed away.
The XM5s are made from the same recycled automobile plastic as all new Sony headphones. This, arguably, makes them feel a bit cheaper than the likes of the AirPods Max, but at least you know you’re doing your bit for the environment when you buy the Sonys.
Colour-wise? You’re stuck with black or the weird off-white/bone colour I’ve chosen. The latter is a little brighter than the XM4 version, but the colour choice is still rather dour. I dearly wish the inevitable white version were included within the launch.
Onto the case, and if you know me by now, you’ll know that I’m rather obsessed with headphone cases. They have to be solid, chuckable and designed to properly protect your headphones. Sony set the gold standard with their XM3 and XM4 cases, therefore the XM5 case has a lot to live up to.
The good news? It’s a great case. It’s solid, chuckable and, yes, protects the XM5s perfectly. It is, however, quite a bit bigger than the XM4’s case, due in part to the lack of foldability on the headphones’ part. Sony has attempted to counteract this by making the case crushable, which is, without question, the weirdest part of the overall package.
Around the outside edge of the XM5 case, you’ll find a carefully designed crease, which enables you to compress the case when empty. I think this is to ensure that it takes up as little space as possible when stowed away while you’re using the headphones.
It’s just a bit odd. Compressed, you only lose about a third of the case’s bulk, but that compressed state can’t be locked, therefore it relies on something heavy continually pushing against it.
I don’t get it I’m afraid, Sony. The case itself remains as great as before (and now has an awesome little magnetically-flapped inner compartment for cables), but the folding thing is just weird.
Controls and battery life
There are two buttons on the XM5s – one for power (and to check battery life – one of my favourite Sony XM features), and the other for toggling between noise-cancelling and ambient mode.
Every other control – for instance, play controls and volume – has to be undertaken via the touch-sensitive right ear cup. This remains my least favourite method of interacting with headphones, I’m afraid – just give us more hardware buttons, please.
Battery life? Thirty hours is more than enough for anyone, so top marks there. The fact you can grab three hours of battery from a three-minute charge is the icing on the cake.
As I’ve noted numerous times, I rarely use over-ear headphones for making calls, but I’m always being told off for not testing this feature. So, I did exactly that with the XM5s.
There’s some clever tech built into these cans to enable decent calling quality, and it’s clearly something Sony has noted as a required improvement over the XM4s.
My test is ultra simple. It consists of three questions:
- Can they hear me?
- Can I hear them?
- Is it good enough for a decent conversation?
The answer is a resounding “yes” to all three of the above.
The only letdown is the ambient mode, as mentioned earlier. It just isn’t loud or clear enough for you to confidently hear yourself during long calls. AirPods Max still reigns king in this area.
I never get particularly excited about additional headphone features, because they’re usually pretty gimmicky. So, let’s quickly cover the XM5’s:
- Speak-to-chat: this recognises when you begin talking and reacts by pausing your music and turning on ambient mode. It works, but it’s also incredibly irritating if you talk to yourself a lot. Like I do.
- Google Assistant and Alexa integration: didn’t test, but it’s nice to know it’s there.
- Multipoint device connection: this allows you to connect two Bluetooth devices at once and it works just as well as the XM4s.
- Compatibility with Google’s Find My Device: didn’t test, but reassuring.
Should any of the above sway your purchasing decision? No – they are simply nice-to-haves which headphone manufacturers rely on to spice up their marketing output.
Sony scored a home run with the XM4s in practically every area bar calling quality. The XM5s build on all of those things – and fix the clarity of calls – but not in a barnstorming way.
They’re different enough to their predecessors to be interesting, and good enough to be worthy of their place as Sony’s newest flagship, but there isn’t exactly a raft of huge improvements on the table.
The exception to that rule is the noise-cancelling which is demonstrably industry-leading and noticeably better than the XM4s. If that’s a key feature for you, you’re going to be super impressed.
The sound is, also, typically Sony – i.e. brilliant.
Some will feel that the price of the XM5s is a little steep given the slightly lower-grade feeling of the plastics, but we do live in a world where companies like Sony are becoming highly sustainable, and this is an obvious trade-off. I think they’re well-priced, given that epic noise-cancellation, awesome sound, and the lightness afforded by those plastics.
So, are the Sony XM5s better than AirPods Max? I need to dive into that comparison more, which I will be doing over the coming weeks. But initial impressions are rapidly forming a resounding ‘yes’.
There’s the ecosystem thing, of course; AirPods Max inevitably play far better with multiple Apple devices. They also have a much more satisfying transparency mode. But if we take these headphones at retail price alone, the XM5s are much better value and offer better noise-cancelling. I prefer the sound the Sonys make, too.
Stay tuned for lots more coverage of Sony’s latest noise-cancelling cans.