True wireless earphones can be broadly categorised into two kinds of fit. These are the in-canal style which offers better noise isolation and active noise cancellation, and the outer-ear fit popularised by the original Apple AirPods, which offers a bit more comfort and the ability to hear your surroundings better. Sony's latest true wireless earphones in India, the LinkBuds (WF-L900) don't particularly fit into either category, with a radical and unconventional design that sets it apart from the competition.
Priced at Rs. 19,990 in India, the Sony LinkBuds promise a comfortable all-day fit, the ability to hear your surroundings naturally and unobstructed, and good call and audio performance. Pitched as the kind of true wireless earphones you can wear all day and use reliably for various purposes, the Sony LinkBuds claims to be quite different from the typical premium TWS headset. Does it live up to these promises? Find out in this review.
The Sony LinkBuds unique design means that there is a clear passage for ambient sound to be heard even when the earphones are worn
Sony LinkBuds design and features
The design of the Sony LinkBuds is its most eye-catching aspect; many might not even realise these are earphones at first glance, if they don't already know. The earpieces have an obvious outer-ear fit since there is no part that goes in the ear canal, and there are no stems either. In the middle of the driver chamber of the earpiece is a donut-like hole, which ensures that there is a clear way for ambient sound to be heard even with the earphones on.
This meant that even with the Sony LinkBuds on (with no audio playing), I could hear my surroundings nearly as well as with no earphones on at all. As a result, it's a natural and entirely organic hear-through, with the obvious caveat that it's ‘on' all the time and without a choice. If ambient awareness is important to you, you won't find a better designed pair of earphones than this right now.
The unique design also made for a comfortable fit, aided by what Sony calls arc support fittings. There are five pairs of these fittings of different sizes included in the sales package for a customisable fit. I found the smallest size to be the most comfortable for my ear shape, but this affected the security of the fit itself. Shaking my head around a bit would dislodge the earpieces, so you'll want to try and find one that combines comfort with a secure fit.
The earpieces of the Sony LinkBuds weigh 4.1g each, and are IPX4 rated for water resistance. The outer sides have an interesting texture and aesthetic, and are touch-sensitive for controls. Interestingly, you don't necessarily have to tap the earpieces themselves for the controls, thanks to a feature called Wide Area Tap.
When enabled through the app, this lets you tap the area on your cheek in front of your ear, just as you would on the earpiece for the same effect, and this worked reliably for me. It also meant that I didn't have to blindly feel for the rather small touch area on the earpieces, and this made using the on-device controls a lot easier.
The Sony LinkBuds' charging case has USB Type-C charging, but no wireless charging
The charging case of the Sony LinkBuds is notably smaller than those of most true wireless headsets in its price range, making it considerably more pocketable. There is a lid release button and indicator light at the front, and a pairing button and USB Type-C port at the back. Notably, the earpieces need to be snapped into place to start charging, but simply closing the lid will do that, so it isn't too complicated to get used to. Also worth noting — there's no wireless charging, which is disappointing at this price point.
Other features on the Sony LinkBuds (WF-L900) include support for voice assistants, Google Fast Pair, Spotify Tap, and 360 Reality Audio. There is no active noise cancellation, but given the positioning of the headset and the rather deliberate nature of the design, I wouldn't call it a shortcoming.
Sony LinkBuds app and specifications
As is usually the case with Sony headphones and earphones, the LinkBuds work with the Sony Headphones Connect app, available for iOS and Android. For the Sony LinkBuds, the app has a fairly large list of features that can be tweaked and customised, including Speak To Chat, equaliser, 360 Reality Audio configuration, customisation for the tap controls, adaptive volume control, auto play and pause when the earphones are put on or removed, and firmware updates.
Although sound quality with music is good, I found the sub-bass levels quite inadequate
Some of these features are already present on older Sony headsets, such as Speak To Chat and 360 Reality Audio. Of particular note on the Sony LinkBuds is Adaptive Volume Control, which adjusts the volume according to the intensity of ambient noise, and the Wide Area Tap toggle, which as mentioned, allows you to use the on-device controls without actually touching the earpieces.
The Sony LinkBuds use Bluetooth 5.2 for connectivity, with support for the SBC and AAC Bluetooth codecs; there's no advanced Bluetooth codec support here, which is disappointing at this price. The earphones have a frequency response range of 20-20,000Hz. Apart from the five pairs of arc support fittings, there is also a USB Type-C cable included in the box of the Sony LinkBuds.
Sony LinkBuds performance and battery life
The unique positioning of the Sony LinkBuds means that it can't really be compared to anything else in and around its price segment. There is no passive noise isolation or active noise cancellation, but what Sony does offer is comfort, awareness of your surroundings, and all-purpose usability across functions and use cases.
While it initially felt a bit too radical to fathom, the LinkBuds do deliver a reasonably good overall experience that I found myself often choosing over the handful of other, arguably better options I had on my work desk. Sony's pitch of the LinkBuds being all-day and all-purpose has some merit, and the ambient awareness indeed made it my favoured pair of earphones when at my usually quiet home workspace, and while working out or walking on the street.
The ability to clearly hear what's playing on the earphones without any passive noise isolation sounded like a big ask at first, but the Sony LinkBuds delivered a pleasant listening experience in terms of volume and listenability. That said, the sonic signature was a bit awkward, with barely any audible sub-bass frequencies, and somewhat dull mid-bass frequencies as well.
The design and fit of the Sony LinkBuds is completely different from the in-canal and outer-ear fits which are common on true wireless earphones
Listening to White Horse by Croatia Squad and Frey at home with the volume turned up reasonably high wasn't too bad, given the decent tonality and pace of the Sony LinkBuds. However, the thump and attack in this aggressive house track were practically non-existent, and the deep, rhythmic beats of the track sounded a bit hollow and underwhelming.
Although the sound felt fairly balanced and the capable mid-range made for a good amount of detail, it nonetheless sounded far from good compared to similarly priced headsets such as the Sony WF-1000XM4. This is perhaps deliberate given the form factor and the need to be able to hear ambient sound alongside what's playing on the Sony LinkBuds, but it definitely won't suit many genres of music.
Outdoors, the Sony LinkBuds tended to struggle a bit as compared to indoors. Turning the volume up to the 80 percent level ensured that I could hear what was playing just fine, but at no point was it able to drown out what was going on around me, even if it wasn't particularly loud. This wasn't as much of a problem in relatively quiet areas, but the sounds from a busy main road in Mumbai were quite distracting.
The tuning of the Sony LinkBuds meant that the headset worked well for voice-based content such as audio books, movies and TV shows, and YouTube videos. Voices were clear and refined, which naturally also extended to the earphones' performance with calls. Provided the volume was sufficiently high, I had a great experience with calls on the Sony LinkBuds, despite the lack of noise isolation. If anything, the free-flowing hear-through made taking calls on the earphones feel more natural.
Battery life on the Sony LinkBuds was fairly average for the segment, and somewhat disappointing given the lack of energy-consuming features such as active noise cancellation and advanced Bluetooth codec support. The earphones ran for 4 hours, 35 minutes at moderate volumes, while the charging case added two full additional charges for a total run time of around 13 hours per charge cycle.
Sony arguably makes the best wireless headphones and earphones you can find, and has a varied range of products that suit various use cases, some of which tend to be quite niche and radical. The Sony LinkBuds is among the company's more adventurous and unique products. It goes against many design aspects that might have been considered the norm for the segment, in order to deliver the specific kind of user experience that was envisioned.
For the large part, the Sony LinkBuds succeeds at this, offering comfort, unmatched ambient awareness, and sound that is geared around overcoming the natural hurdles of being able to hear clearly what's around you. This can be distracting in particularly noisy environments, and the weak sub-bass levels in the sound can make some genres of music sound a bit weird. However, I found myself often favouring these earphones for uses such as calls, outdoor walks, and general everyday use at my work desk.
That said, the Sony LinkBuds is expensive at Rs. 19,990, and even at the pre-order price of Rs. 14,990, given that the design is the biggest feature here. The LinkBuds will suit users who want good performance with voice-based sound and the unmatchable ambient awareness it offers, but for the musically inclined, I'd recommend the similarly priced Sony WF-1000XM4.
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