There’s a few fans of Sony products in the DRN team. Yes Sony have made some questionable decisions from time to time, but in the audio space they have been kicking goals more often than not. The opportunity came to test drive the Sony LinkBuds S, the second entry to the LinkBuds line up, and we weren’t going to turn that down.
Unlike the original LinkBuds “donuts”, the LinkBuds S are much more conventionally designed. So much so they are essentially non-descript. There is a Sony logo embossed on the top of the charging case, and also very discreetly on the top of each earbud. There is nothing in your face about them.
With the black finish on my review unit, they truly fly under the radar. There are other colourways available, namely white and ecru (unbleached linen).
The earbuds and the case have a very tactile finish that makes gripping them a breeze. I tend to have dry hands which makes grabbing a gloss or semi-gloss finish challenging at times, but it was a sure grip for the LinkBuds S every single time.
There are no mechanical buttons on the LinkBuds S. The rounded outer surface is touch-sensitive so you can tap and hold for different control functions with ease.
The earbuds return to the case with help of magnets to ensure that it is always in the correct position for charging. The lid of the charging case is also secured by magnets, and a central LED is present to display the status at a glance. Charging is via USB-C around the back of the case.
Like most gadgets, you can optimise the LinkBuds S with an app. The Sony Headphones Connection app is available on Android and iOS.
Once your app is installed, simply take out the earbuds and position them in your ear to initiate the pairing process. Both Google Fast Pair and Microsoft Swift Pair are supported, and as one would expect in this day and age, the pairing process was quick and painless.
Additional features are available with a Sony Cloud Service account, this will be covered in more details later.
I have reviewed plenty of earbuds from many manufacturers, some takes more work than others to find the right fit.
The Sony LinkBuds S worked right out of the box for me. They sit nicely and firmly in my ear, and never threatens to move out of position or drop out of my ear regardless of how animated I am when I talk. Even with the lingering spicy cough thanks to COVID, I can have my coughing fit without the LinkBuds S ever moving out of position. From that perspective they absolutely shine in comparison to some other reviews.
Each each bud weighs in at approximately 4.8g, and in my experience is barely noticeable from the weight perspective. There is a slight pressure that serves to remind me that the earbuds are in place, but it is neither intrusive or annoying.
Sony markets the LinkBuds S with Precise Voice Pickup Technology that optimally controls microphones on the outside and inside of the earbuds, advanced signal processing for ultra clear conversations even in noisy environments. Sony has put in 5mm drivers powered by neodynium (rare earth) magnets into the LinkBuds S, and the sound is surprisingly solid.
What was I saying at the start about questionable decisions by Sony from time to time? Well it rears it’s head with the codec support. Naturally Sony opted for their proprietary codec, LDAC. LDAC allows streaming of high-resolution audio up to 32-bit/96kHz over Bluetooth at up to 990kbps. In comparison, other codecs supported by the LinkBuds S is SBC (standard Bluetooth) only achieves a maximum data rate of 328kbps, and AAC is a very modest 96kbps. There is no love for aptX HD or aptX Adaptive.
On a positive note LDAC is part of the Android Open Source Project, but is subject to Sony’s approval for implementation. On my Pixel 5, it is a supported codec and the phone automatically switches to it when the LinkBuds S are connected.
So with all that, how is the sound?
Putting them through the paces, conversations are without doubt a strength with the LinkBuds S. I use them constantly for calls and there has been no complains on the clarity of the calls. I did find that very some rare occasions the audio does cut out, which may tie into a Bluetooth stability issue. There is an option to prioritise the Bluetooth connection at the expense of sound quality.
For music, the sound is actually quite impressive for what they are. With LDAC compatible devices, the frequency range is 20Hz to 40,000Hz (20,000Hz without LDAC). The top end is a bit watery, but the mid-range for vocals and picking out key instruments are strong and clear. Coming down low, the bass is solid, both tight and rich.
However there is a noticeable lack of “passion” to the sound. While the elements are all technically present and accounted for, it feels that the beat just does not quite hit home and nail the dynamics. Guns N’ Roses’ power ballad November Rain should rock me with Axl’s impassioned delivery and Slash’s ironic guitar solo. Instead I feel like I am tasting a Grand Cru just on the shoulders rather than at it’s peak, with the sublime satisfaction just so tantalisingly out of reach.
Similarly “Don’t Cry” should be a clean, almost delicate instruments to match the haunting lyrics. There is just enough muddiness to at the start to cause some consternation.
Each earbud has the Sony Integrated Processor V1 that offers improved noise cancellation, enhances sound quality and reduces distortion. Ambient noise is analysed to provide noise cancellation and automatic wind noise reduction can be toggled on to compensate when windy conditions are detected.
With the fit of the LinkBuds S, there is a decent amount of passive noise cancelling. It is a little harder to pick out the active noise cancelling for me. During the days that I don’t need to be constantly aware of what is going on around me, the environment tends to be naturally quiet until my cat has the zoomies. Otherwise I tend to have the ambient sound mode on so I can hear the various people in the household needing my attention.
I get to jump on a plane next week so my impression of the ANC may change once I get the chance to test the LinkBuds S in flight.
Neither thrilling or disappointing. With ANC on Sony rates the batteries to be around 6 hours which within striking range with my usage. It is a little harder to test a variable usage as I very rarely take public transport.
A full charging case will give you another 14 hours of juice.
There is also quick charging support, and Sony claims a 5 minute charge will give you an hour of playback time.
The app provides a bunch of addition features that would be of benefit to invest some time in exploring.
For starters it has Adaptive Sound Control which detects your current activity and switches the mode from noise cancelling to ambient sound or off. At a high level it has four categories – Staying, Walking, Running and Transport. Each can be individually configured to your individual needs.
The first thing I did though, was to turn off notification tone when switching because I found it intrusive as it dims the audio while it plays the notification. It interrupts my audio feed and to me, particularly problematic when I am on a call where I find it distracting and also missing words.
The Speak-to-Chat setting is handy as you don’t have to do anything to pause your music if you need to have a conversation. It happens a lot here and it helps that I can respond without having to take out the LinkBuds S. The mode can close automatically after it does not detect your voice after a defined interval (5s, 15s, 30s or never).
Similarly there is a Quick Attention mode where you can tap and hold one earbud which drops the audio level, which is handy to hear an announcement or the like.
The Sony Headphones Connection app also have the 360 Reality Audio feature to work with the LinkBuds S. It does require a subscription to Deezer, Tidal, Artist or nugs.net, none of which I possess. The app leverages the use of the phone camera to analyse your ear shape to configure the full 360 Reality Audio experience.
There is a toggle for DSEE Extreme, which works for audio like upscaling 1080p video to near 4k stream. In this case it upscales lossy audio to near lossless quality at the expense of battery life. It has more impact on poor quality old mp3 rips than say FLAC. Your mileage will vary and it comes down to personal preferences.
Lastly there is a Spatial Sound Optimisation option where the headphone wearing angle is measured so you can have the best fit and sound with a compatible service. Again it comes with a cost, which is a continuous connection to the right earbud and the loss of the ability to use just a single earbud. Additionally you will also lose the LDAC codec support.
I have some thoughts on features that may be a bit nitpicky.
A couple of things that stood out is the lack of wireless charging. It would be a handy feature to have although it is not a deal breaker in the grand scheme of things.
The earbuds themselves have IPX4 rating which makes them splash proof. The case itself is not water resistant.
What bothers me most is that whilst I can customise the control via the Sony Headphones Connection app, it gives me no option to customise the settings for call control. I am stuck with having to refer back to my phone to accept and hang up my calls
I also had a situation where one of the earbuds disconnected completely and refused to work again. This necessitated a factory reset of the LinkBuds S in the end to resolve the issue.
There are a lot of things to love about the Sony LinkBuds S. The texture just works for my fingers, they fit my ears beautifully and there is never any danger of them falling out. My primary use case is handling calls on the go, many of them. After finetuning the priority for Bluetooth connection most of the issues I encountered seems to have gone away. In particular I really love the Speak-to-Chat setting which allows me to hold a conversation without having to do a thing to pause my audio feed.
Whilst I found the sound for music a little lacklustre, they will work just fine for the in-between work music sessions. If I am in for a serious session of audiogasm then I have a different of headsets altogether for that need.
The Sony LinkBuds S comes in three colourways, White, Black and Ecru, with a RRP of AUD$268. It is a a significant drop from the launch SRP of $349.95.
DRN would like to thank Sony for providing the review unit.
Bluetooth Version: 5.2
Effective Range: 10m
Frequency Range: 2.4GHz band (2.4000GHz-2.4835GHz)
Profile: A2DP, AVRCP, HFP, HSP
Supported Audio Formats: SBC, AAC, LDAC
Supported Content Protection: SCMS-T
Ambient Sound Mode: Yes
Quick Attention: Yes
Battery Charge Time: Approx 3 hours (USB charging)
Dimension: 42.8 x 60 x 27.6 mm