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Sony LinkBuds review: Awareness comes with a catch

Our Rating :
£129.00 from
Price when reviewed : £149
inc VAT

The Sony LinkBuds are a clever idea but you can forget about hearing your music in loud environments


  • Exceptional ambient awareness
  • Comfortable and discreet
  • Clean, spacious sound


  • Unusable in certain conditions
  • Leak a fair amount of sound
  • Controls can be triggered accidentally

Sony is renowned for technological innovation, and the Sony LinkBuds are its most unconventional true wireless earbuds yet.

The Japanese manufacturer already has class-leading earbuds in the form of the WF-1000XM4, so it’s perhaps not surprising its latest pair of in-ear headphones offer something rather different.

The LinkBuds seek to deliver a unique experience whereby you can enjoy most of the benefits of true wireless earbuds while remaining completely aware of what’s going on around you. It’s a tantalising prospect and, in the right conditions, proves a refreshing and liberating way of enjoying audio.

Unfortunately, I found environmental conditions prevented me from hearing what was playing pretty frequently, meaning I wouldn’t rely on the LinkBuds for general, day-to-day use.

Sony LinkBuds review: What you need to know

The LinkBuds are a distinct departure from previous Sony true wireless earbuds. Unlike the Sony WF-1000XM4 and their various less expensive stablemates, the LinkBuds actively allow external sound into your ears rather than trying to keep it out.

They do so via holes in their 12mm ring drivers, a design that caters for a generation of consumers seeking simultaneous connection to both the virtual and real world. These are headphones for those people who walk down the road with an AirPod dangling out of one ear while holding a conversation with a mate.

Sony wants to create a situation where users feel they never have to remove the LinkBuds from their ears. Battery life constraints mean using them all day long isn’t feasible but you shouldn’t have cause to remove them from your ears other than to top them up in their charging case.

Because the focus is on convenience rather than sound quality, the LinkBuds ditch support for Sony’s high-resolution Bluetooth codec LDAC and stick to your basic AAC and SBC options. They do, however, support the latest Bluetooth 5.2 specification.

They’re also pretty flush in terms of features, thanks to the incorporation of Sony’s Integrated Processor V1 – the same chip found in the WF-1000XM4. This means you’re getting adaptive volume control, which automatically adjusts your volume based on your surroundings, audio upscaling courtesy of Sony’s Digital Sound Enhancement Engine (DSEE) and Speak-to-Chat, which pauses audio as soon as your voice is detected. Wear detection is also present, pausing audio when one or both of the buds are removed from your ears, as is hands-free voice assistant support via Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa.

All of the above can be toggled on and off in the Sony Headphones companion app, which also provides access to various EQ options, including the ability to create your own presets. You can also customise the LinkBuds’ controls, which are rather ingeniously implemented. Many modern earbuds support touch controls but the LinkBuds go a step further, allowing you to execute commands by tapping your face.

I’ll discuss just how well these features work shortly but the number of advanced technologies squeezed into such a compact product is impressive.

Sony LinkBuds review: Price and competition

Sony’s LinkBuds are available in two colours – dark grey and white – and will cost you £149. That’s a fair bit cheaper than the company’s flagship WF-1000XM4 earbuds, which have a list price of £250 but are currently available for £199.

Given the unique nature of the LinkBuds, they don’t really have any direct competitors but they are vying for your money with a huge range of true wireless earbuds offering ambient and transparency modes. These typically sound quite artificial, however, and can be accompanied by a palpable hiss from their external microphones.

Sony’s WF-1000XM4 avoid both of these issues and are some of the best buds at piping ambient sound in while still delivering stellar audio quality. A cheaper option is the Sennheiser CX Plus, which cost £129 and offer an excellent “Transparent Hearing” mode in addition to active noise cancellation, natural, balanced audio and a range of customisation options.

The only way to achieve natural environmental awareness on par with the LinkBuds is to go with bone conduction headphones. These create tiny vibrations that transmit sound through your facial bones to your inner ear, bypassing your eardrums and leaving your ear canals clear.

Although lightweight, bone conduction headphones are a lot less discreet than the LinkBuds. The drivers that rest on your cheekbones are connected by a band running around the back of your head and the headphones are held in place via hooks that loop over your ears. If you want to find out more, our list of the best bone conduction headphones features a detailed explanation about how they work along with our favourite options.

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Sony LinkBuds review: Design, fit and battery life

I’ve touched on the design of the LinkBuds, but their unique form demands a bit more discussion. Sound is generated by ring-shaped drivers with circular openings in the centre and these sit just outside the entrances to your ear canals. Attached to these drivers are dome-shaped units, inside which the V1 chips are housed. These units are the only section visible from the outside and the overall aesthetic is very discreet

Wrapped around the central units are silicone stabilising arms that help keep the LinkBuds in your ears. Five different sizes are included in the box and I had no issues whatsoever with fit or comfort. The medium-sized pair of arms held the buds in place no matter how much I moved my head and I was able to wear them happily until they ran out of juice.

Sony says the buds have a battery life of up to five-and-a-half hours on a single charge, although this takes a hit if you have three or more of the advanced features engaged. With Speak-to-Chat, DSEE and adaptive volume control all active the LinkBuds gave up the ghost slightly short of the five-hour mark.

The accompanying charging case provides up to 12 hours extra playback and just ten minutes in the case will see you good for roughly 90 minutes of additional audio. Assuming you have the buds glued in your ears like I did, you’re looking at needing to charge the case once every couple of days. Wireless charging isn’t supported, so you’ll be using the included USB-C cable.

At this juncture, I want to stop to marvel at the delight that is the LinkBuds’ charging case. It’s one of the cutest, most compact cases I’ve ever come across and, better still, is made from recycled plastic created from car parts and stone. There’s a pleasing snap to the closing of the lid and a small LED reflects the charging level of the buds when the lid is popped open.

The case is not water resistant but the buds have the same IPX4 rating as the WF-1000XM4, which is good news if you plan on using them while exercising or live in the perennially rainy UK.

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Sony LinkBuds review: Features

The smart features incorporated by the LinkBuds work as intended but how effective they are in real-world scenarios varies and a couple of them come with pretty big caveats

Adaptive volume control does what it says on the tin, adjusting volume based on how noisy your environment is. It’s responsive to your surroundings – it only took a matter of seconds for volume to be decreased when entering my block of flats from the road – but its effectiveness is limited by how loud the buds go.

In noisy environments, the LinkBuds simply don’t have enough amplification and get drowned out. Even if they did go louder, you wouldn’t want them pushing the volume up any higher for fear of damaging your ears. I received an iPhone audio exposure warning after four days of using the LinkBuds – a clear indication of how high the volume was automatically set to, in order to combat the level of ambient sound on my travels. Granted, those travels involved bus, train and tube journeys but I’m certainly not alone in having to use multiple noisy forms of transport to get to work.

Speak-to-Chat is a feature used by both the in-ear WF-1000XM4 and over-ear WH-1000XM4 and it works in exactly the same way here. Audio is paused as soon as the LinkBuds’ in-built mics pick up your voice and resumes again after a set amount of time. This is 15 seconds by default but it can be changed in the app.

It’s rather less useful here, however, as the open-ear design means you can have a conversation easily enough without needing to pause your audio at all. And because it’s triggered by mumbling along to music or talking to yourself – both things I find myself doing relatively frequently – it’s a feature I ended up turning off. The only time you’re really going to want it active is if you’re listening to an audiobook you can’t bear missing a word of.

More useful are the LinkBuds’ “Wide Tap Area” controls. These use a sensor to pick up on vibrations on your face, allowing you to execute various commands with double and triple taps in close proximity to your ears. You can tap the buds themselves too, but I found it easier to tap my face most of the time. Anywhere around your sideburns will do the trick and commands are executed with consistency.

Tapping your face may lead those around you to question whether you’ve lost your marbles, but, as a bald man, I found it to have one big practical advantage. I was able to control the LinkBuds while wearing a beanie, which I just can’t do with earbuds using traditional touch controls. There’s a decent amount of control customisation on offer in the Headphones app too, which, combined with hands-free Google Assistant or Alexa, means direct interactions with your phone are kept to a minimum.

But these controls aren’t entirely without fault and the buds would occasionally pause my audio when I was eating or chewing gum. This didn’t happen enough to force me to turn off Wide Tap Area but is something you’ll want to be mindful of.

It’s worth touching on the LinkBuds’ microphone quality. The in-built mics don’t use bone conduction technology like some buds – the Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro, for example – but they isolate your voice pretty well. I was heard very clearly on Zoom and phone calls and recording quality proved perfectly respectable, although I was told I sounded a little robotic at times.

Sony LinkBuds review: Audio

I was sceptical about how well the LinkBuds would deliver music but audio quality is an area in which they perform pretty strongly. They produce a soundstage not dissimilar to that you’d expect from a pair of open-back headphones. There’s a spaciousness to the sound and it feels like audio is being played around your head rather than being pumped into your ears.

It’s an effect that prevents the LinkBuds from ever becoming a claustrophobic listen but it also leaves them unable to deliver a truly immersive musical experience. That’s not their raison d’être, however, so it would be wrong to be overly critical of their shortcomings in that department.

Mids and treble shine brightly given all that room to breathe in and clarity in the upper registers is top-notch. Sony seems to have dynamics down pat in its earbuds and, as with the two most recent entries to the WF-1000 range, the LinkBuds articulate variations in loudness very adeptly.

Low-end frequency response has never been a strength of open-fit earbuds and the LinkBuds do little to change that. There’s enough there to prevent bassier numbers from sounding flat and lifeless but, if you’re after robust, rich bass you’ll want buds that seal off your ear canals.

The main issue is you can only get the best out of the LinkBuds in relatively quiet environments. At home, I found them an engaging listen that allowed me to hear the courier dropping off the next pair of headphones for me to review. In the park, I was able to absorb the soothing sounds of nature alongside a podcast discussing a video game about hunting robot dinosaurs. An odd juxtaposition, to be sure, but one I relished.

My trips further afield were a different matter altogether. On the bus, how well I could hear what was being played was determined by where I was sitting. When near the engine I couldn’t hear a thing; on the upper deck I was able to enjoy a podcast without too many interruptions.

In addition to letting all that noise in, which can be both a blessing and a curse, the LinkBuds are capable of sending rather a lot of sound out into the world if you’re not using the adaptive volume control setting. The technology does a good job of ensuring what you’re listening to isn’t audible to others if you’re sitting next to them in a quiet room but, at maximum volume, sound leakage is unavoidable. It’s no worse than most Apple AirPod style open-fit true wireless earbuds but is something to consider if you don’t want to be that person in the lift.

Sony LinkBuds review: Verdict

I’m a huge fan of Sony’s WF-1000XM4 earbuds and want to give the company credit for trying to break the mould with the LinkBuds. The headphones industry has reached a point where we see far more iteration than innovation and the LinkBuds seek to change that.

The idea of true wireless earbuds that provide environmental awareness on par with bone conduction headphones is a clever one and, in certain circumstances, the LinkBuds work brilliantly. In others, you’re left unable to hear what you’re meant to be listening to, an issue impressive sound quality and useful features simply can’t overcome.

If you’re the kind of person that owns a pair of headphones for every occasion or you spend a lot of time in quiet areas, you might be able to make a case for the LinkBuds. But, if you’re a city dweller whose existence is punctuated by the sounds of busy roads and public transport, it’s hard to see them getting much use.

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