Sony WH-1000XM5 Wireless ANC Headphones: Review
Every company goes through a period where it stumbles. Sony would be the first to acknowledge that for about 5 years it didn’t make the best TVs, speakers, Blu-ray players, receivers, or headphones. For most companies that would be the kiss of death but Sony didn’t become one of the 5 most recognized brands in the world because they make average products. Apple, Sony, Disney, Coca-Cola, and Nike are immortal brands.
Ask the average person on the street to name 3 consumer A/V brands and “Sony” will always be part of that list. In every corner of the globe.
Sony made some changes and invested heavily in the media side of the business and has done rather well in that regard. They also made the wise decision to double down on gaming and headphones, and return to what made them great — creating the best TVs in the world again. We recently participated in the 2022 TV Shootout and Sony came out on top. LG and Samsung have had a great run and still make some of the best TVs in the world, but Sony is back.
In the headphone category, Sony has also reclaimed some of its prestige and market share by developing category leading ANC wireless headphones and earphones.
Bose and Apple have traded blows with Sony for years; Sony’s WH-1000XM Series have become some of the best-selling headphones in the world with the WH-1000XM3, WH-1000XM4 and new Sony WH-1000XM5 taking on the QuietComfort and AirPod Pro models.
From a marketing perspective, Sony needs to reconsider how it differentiates its ANC wireless headphones and IEMs because the WH-1000XM* and WF-1000XM* sound like the same products — especially with the new WF-1000XM5 IEM on its way later this year.
There was much speculation that Sony would not redesign the current model and only make small changes because the market had responded so positively. Sony of 2022 is a very different company that is always looking for a way to make their products that much better.
The design has changed with the attachment between the ear cup and headband being an entirely new system. Sony has also redesigned the drivers and changed the presentation.
There was some risk in doing so because the market could have responded negatively to the changes.
How did Sony do with the new WH-1000XM5 wireless headphones?
The new design has a nearly cylindrical headband with the bulk of the padding on the underside and the height adjustment done with friction fit tubes that exit the padded section of the headbands.
The headband has a swiveling action in the last inch that allows the cups to turn on the vertical axis 90° to the front so the headphones can lay flat and roughly 40° to the rear.
A single point connection attaches the headband to the cup and acts as the hinge on the horizontal axis. Movement is fairly limited with roughly 20° of travel.
As someone who wears glasses, I am acutely aware of discomfort that can accompany a poor design and am happy to report that the WH-1000XM5 has enough clamping force to stay put during exercise and it never was too much that it forced my glasses to shift.
The ear cups are now a truncated cone design with a flat center surface with a sloped section that adds one-inch of depth and 1.5-inches of width. The vertical section hides the mating of the cup to the pads.
The pads are vegetable leather and are both a bit deeper and wider than the previous version which was a little tight for my ears. Our one gripe is that the pads are not as easily changed as some others but contrary to any online rumors — the ear pads on the Sony WH-1000XM5 are replaceable.
The overall weight is kept to 250 grams which is not the lightest on the market; the additional weight isn’t uncomfortable, however, and the added mass actually makes these slightly more robust.
One aspect of the design that will not make some users happy, is the inability to fold them up to make them more compact for travel.
Sony have decided to go with a newly designed 30mm dynamic driver using a thermoplastic polyurethane edge and a carbon fiber composite material to both lighten and stiffen the driver and reduce outside noise.
Nominal impedance of the new driver is 16 ohms with a sensitivity of 100 dB/mW; we ran wired connections with numerous smart phones, tablets, and laptops and there was no issue driving them.
The electronics have been upgraded as well, with improvements to the noise reduction circuitry and eight microphones now feeding data into the processor. The increase in microphone count and sensitivity also improved call quality in our tests; the Sony WH-1000XM5 was better able to reject outside noise and wind and improve vocal quality for the listener.
The WH-1000XM5 now feature “Find My Device” support (for Android devices) and fast pairing via Google’s GFPS protocol.
Commuters and business travelers will be most pleased by the changes to the battery performance; the new battery was tested during 3 commutes and lasted almost 40 hours between charges with a full recharge requiring almost 3 hours with the battery completely drained.
A 30-minute quick charge yielded almost 8 hours of playtime during a recent business trip which is one of the best results we have seen so far.
Sony advised us that these are designed as travel companions rather than gym headphones; they do not have an IP-rating and we were warned about getting them wet.
I wore these outside wearing a hoodie during a light rain and made sure to keep them dry but they didn’t exactly fall apart from some mist which I wiped down. Should you drop these in the pool or washing machine, it is unlikely that they will survive.
The controls are largely unchanged with the surface of the right cup housing a capacitive touch panel and the left cup having 2 physical buttons for power/pairing and ANC mode selection.
The controls are largely intuitive with swipe up or down raising or lowering volume, swipe left or right is forward or back, and double tap is pause/resume. All of the controls were very responsive and I suspect they will stand up rather well to a lot of listening sessions.
The on-head sensor is a rather useful feature that pauses music when the headphone is removed and restarts playback when it is repacked without having to press any buttons or
The XM5 also has an on-head sensor that works well; music pauses when the headphone is removed and restarts when replaced without needing additional controls.
The other really useful control involves cupping your hand over the right ear cup which enables the ambient pass-through mode temporarily so that you can listen to a conversation when someone walks into your office without having to remove the headphones or pause the music.
Proper etiquette would call for removing your headphones, but it proved to be a rather useful feature that I utilized multiple times at work when a document was dropped on my desk for review, or someone just wanted to speak for 15-30 seconds.
There are some functions that are best controlled or only controlled via the app so installing it is recommended. The Headphone Connect app is available in both Google Play and the Apple Store and gives the user access to ANC optimization rather than just the on/off of the physical button, a customizable EQ, and 360 Reality Audio (Sony’s spatial audio option).
Sony have clearly read the comments online because once a new EQ profile is loaded, it remains in the headset for later use even if the user connects to a different source.
The one caveat is that the Headphone Connect app does want access to more of your personal information than some may feel comfortable with. This is the trade-off we make for things like Fast-Pair and Find-My Device as they need access to location services and other data some may not like handing over.
The app also asks for photos of the users ears, in order to tune 360 Reality Audio to the user. This seems a little odd as well, but I haven’t heard of any biometric ear readers that have been compromised lately so this is probably more of my own paranoia than any real risk involved.
The Sony WH-1000XM5 can be connected via Bluetooth with either SBC, AAC, or LDAC protocols. Bluetooth aptX has not been supported since the XM3 model and did not make a return in this latest version.
There is also a fallback 3.5mm TRS cable that can be used with or without powering on the headphone. This means you can use ANC with a wired connection if desired and serves to show-off the differences in sound profile with ANC and without it enabled.
The USB Type-C port on the right ear cup is still for charging only; which is rather disappointing because users were hoping that Sony would make it a digital connection as well.
The app has a setting to allow the user to prioritize sound quality or stability depending on need so for our testing I set the priority to sound quality except when testing Bluetooth distances when I switched to stability mode.
The first thing one notices when listening is a rather pronounced bass boost with some bleed into the lower midrange. This is not a reference headphone and instead has a much more consumer-oriented V-shaped tuning. Bass depth is good but most of the emphasis is in the 75-250Hz range; the mid bass has a lot more presence than the low end and this is definitely not a wireless headphone for headbangers.
EIC Ian White would probably desire more impact while listening to “Master of Puppets” but the WH-1000XM5 are not going to overload your ears with too much bass either.
The lower midrange is the most recessed sounding range in the overall sonic signature with lower strings and male voices sounding slightly dull unless some EQ is applied.
The tonal balance and presentation changes as you move into the upper midrange with a lot more presence and detail; female vocals and instruments have more energy and the vocals are pushed forward in the mix in comparison to their male counterparts.
The upper midrange and lower treble both display more energy and detail but both stop short of making vocals harsh or thin. The lower treble has a moderate degree of emphasis but that push begins to decline as you move through the range with a rather noticeable drop above 10kHz.
That degree of emphasis and roll-off gives percussion rather good snap, but cymbals lose some of their energy and don’t sound as airy or natural.
The soundstage width and depth creates a rather intimate listen with only slightly more width than depth; expecting anything more than average performance from a closed back ANC headphone in that department is unrealistic right now. The WH-1000XM5’s performance is certainly on par with other ANC models that we have tested lately.
The “wired” versus “wireless” performance highlighted that the “V” sonic signature is heavily influenced by the internal electronics. With the headphone turned off and connected to an external source, the bass performance was much more linear sounding and the recess In the midrange moved to the upper midrange and lower treble with some degree of roll-off between 1kHz – 4kHz.
That doesn’t make the sound quality of the WH-1000XM5 better in wired mode — just different. One still needs to use the EQ to balance out the sound and it must be done from the source; the app will not work if the headphone is not turned on.
The “wired” active mode (with the headphones turned on) offers a very similar tonal balance and presentation to wireless mode which means that the ANC has a great deal of impact on the sound.
Lowering the “Clear Bass” in the app by one or two steps helped a great deal in terms of controlling the low end impact and excess bloom in the upper midrange.
After weeks of listening, the main issue was whether the sound quality takes too much of a hit from the ANC and is the trade-off worth it?
After much debate, it is our belief that the ANC does not hinder the Sony WH-1000XM5, but we need to dig deeper to explain why that is the case. The passive noise isolation has been improved on these headphones which does help cut external noise rather considerably; that improvement means that the ANC doesn’t have to work as hard to deliver an extreme level of quiet.
Turning ANC on adds a second layer of noise reduction which is remarkably better than the previous generation and the recently reviewed Bose QuietComfort 45 ANC Wireless Headphones. Sony has won this new round with a decisive overhand right.
Most droning noises are reduced to the point that I could barely hear them and the improvement with the human voice and other noise in that range was dramatic; perhaps as much as 50%. No level of ANC will ever remove 100% of external noise, but the Sony WH-1000XM5 reduced those sounds to a level that I could barely notice them while listening.
If you find the impact of ANC underwhelming, check the seal and how the headphones are situated on your head. I noticed that if my glasses caused them to shift at all — the ANC performance suffered.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 were the best ANC Wireless Headphones on the market until the Bose QC45 arrived and knocked them off the Iron Throne.
There is no question that the ANC impacts the sound quality of the WH-1000XM5, but most people are considering these headphones for how they deal with noise and sound quality is secondary.
Misgivings aside, the WH-1000XM5 is still a very listenable and good pair of wireless headphones.
The price has increased from $349 to $399 and that’s to be expected in the current environment; supply chain issues and inflation are not your friend here and some will see that as a big increase.
The absence of any waterproofing is odd for a headphone that will be worn outside by millions of commuters and travelers; Sony really needs to rethink that for the next generation.
I do wish that it was a foldable design and that Sony has used the USB Type-C jack as a digital wired input.
Durability, call quality, good sound quality, and category leading ANC makes these a really strong buy for those looking for the best ANC wireless headphones right now.
Is there anything better coming that rivals the Sony, Bowers & Wilkins Px7 S2 or Mark Levinson wireless headphones that we just reviewed?
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