For the past few years, those in search of serious sound quality from their noise-cancelling headphones have almost uniformly sworn allegiance to Sony. So expectations are precipitously high now that a new flagship offering has joined the brand’s storied lineage in the form of the WH-1000XM5, the successors to 2020’s truly beloved WH-1000XM4. With some fierce audiophile-worthy competition having recently joined the high-end fray in Apple’s AirPods Max, can the OG music lover’s choice still cut it?
Having spent hours jamming out to our playlists with these over-ear cans, there’s little doubt in our mind that these live up to our dizzying expectations and then some. Despite a somewhat contentious redesign, these are easily the best-sounding, best noise-blocking headphones we have used. Here’s why they’re a near-on essential purchase for commuting, your summer travels, and everything in between.
A total design shift?
As headphones go, the Sony WH-1000XM5 are reasonably controversial. Well, ‘controversial’ in the sense that there’s always going to be a subset of people who pretend not to like Abba or claim that Trent Alexander-Arnold isn’t a world-class right-back. Why the fuss? Sony’s oval-shaped on-ear cans inspired a generation of similarly designed headphones, so they’ve broken new stylistic ground in order to distinguish themselves all over again.
While the XM5s are certainly more curvaceous than the XM4s with a broader set of cups that add bulk to your ears, they don’t feel cumbersome to wear at all. The overall chassis is significantly tidier, with all the ports and buttons swept up on the bottom side of the cups for a cleaner profile and a more ergonomic placement for turning on things like noise cancellation and the like. In a world where headphones should absolutely be a consideration when building an appropriate office fit, these look the part wherever your workplace sits on the smart-casual divide.
The headband is definitely a highlight for us, losing the mechanical look from older models for a single arch that’s bolted on the top of each cup for a decidedly suaver look. Better still, those cups are comfier than previous iterations and sit snug on your ears, allowing a bit more room for the improved drivers while bolstering the build quality so it doesn’t feel so fragile if you’re stretching over hats or a larger-than-normal head. The downside? Avoid any sort of moisture as if your life depends on it. There’s still no water resistance of any kind on these cans, and Sony makes a concerted effort to remind you, placing a little flyer in the box with several big, red crosses over images of wearers listening to music while sweating or in the rain.
Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones
As much as the Sony WH-1000XM5’s refresh delivers on an aesthetic front, those same design changes go a long way to passively shelter your ears from ambient sound and deliver that all-important noise-cancelling excellence. Previous iterations were excellent for long-distance traveling, drowning out the low-frequency drones of planes, trains and taxi-driver chit-chat, and you’ll still find that quality here, but now there’s even better blockage in higher-frequency sounds like voices or the screech of train brakes. All of which is is enhanced with the smart microphones that analyze your surroundings and send a message to the powerful drivers to pull the curtains around you for total focus on your music.
The ANC goes a long way in improving your music, but even with that turned off they sound superb. The new drivers are 10mm smaller than the previous model but pack a much more powerful punch, with new processing power to eke out the individual notes in your tunes for a much better listening experience than we ever got out of the WH-1000XM4s and we noticed vibrancy in voices we hadn’t heard before—Kendrick Lamar’s velvety voice on “Mother I Sober” is an emotional gut-punch with these on.
The sonic performance is expansive and rich, with a clear focus on spreading out the quality throughout the frequency range so you don’t miss anything. We enjoyed the hearty kick drum of Alt-J’s “The Actor”, which stayed out of the way of the brilliant vocals for an even listen. High-hats have a lively trill to them, and bass-heavy tunes like “Cooped Up” from Post Malone’s latest album thunder without being overbearing, which is great if you’re currently riding the Kate Bush wave post Stranger Things season 4.
Location tracking weirdness
Being a pair of highfalutin headphones, the XM5s don’t simply promise to look great and play back your favorite tunes in resplendent form. They also come with a few gimmicks to further stand out from the chasing pack. Download their app and it will track your location so it will adapt your sound for the optimal experience whether you’re walking down the street, sitting in an airport lounge, or hurtling along the countryside on a train.
As well as just slightly creepy, this trickery proved a bit wonky in turning the transparency mode on when we definitely didn’t want it to. More useful by far is a speak-to-chat feature for the office that dims the ANC and volume so you can still hear conversations without having to take the cans off. This also works with voice control so you can switch up tracks without taking your hands out of your pockets.
As for the one additional headphones spec that everyone really does care about, we got about 30 hours of noise-cancelling listening, which isn’t any longer than the XM4s, but still proved enough to see us through a full week’s worth of work days. It bumps up to 40 hours with the noise-cancelling turned off, but you’re better off leaning into the USB-C quick-charge refueling when these cans are running low on stamina.
Sony WH-1000XM5 verdict
To anyone who’s been paying attention to the music scene over the last few years, it should come as no surprise that the Sony WH-1000XM5s are as good as we expected. These are industry-leading headphones that continue to break new ground and build on the excellent work of the previous builds. Audiophiles expect true quality from their music, and while there are other brands like Apple and Bang & Olufsen that offer similar stylistic class and verve, there’s just no beating Sony in the audio department.
We’ve been lucky enough to slip many of the top noise-cancelling headphones over our ears, and for the longest time, Sony’s WH-1000XM4s were our favorite, so it seems fitting that the improved XM5s will receive that honor to take over from their predecessors.
There will be some who might turn their nose up at the design, but once you pull them over your ears, you probably won’t care about any of that, because you’ll be lost in your music anyway. The price tag is justified with the improved smart features that adapt your tunes on the fly based on what you’re doing, and we love being able to switch up tracks with just a few quick voice commands. Those of you with the previous XM4 models slung around their necks might not be keen to dish out more cash for the same sort of product, but if it’s the best-in-class you’re after, look no further.