Even if you have only a passing interest in the world of personal audio, you’ve likely heard of Sony’s WH series of premium active noise-cancelling (ANC) headphones. Ever since the WH-1000XM3 (2018) and the WH-1000XM4 (2020), the range has consistently won over not only audio reviewers but also frequent flyers, WFH-veterans and just about everyone else who wanted a premium pair of wireless cans with the best noise cancellation in the market.
The new Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones, which were launched recently, stay consistent with that winning formula (which includes Sony’s penchant for perplexingly complex product names!), but do the improvements across the board justify the not-insignificant outlay?
After two generations of largely identical design, the XM5s (as we’ll refer to them) are a significant departure from their predecessors, with sleeker earcups and a more curvy, less industrial design that feels instantly more with the times than the XM4s. The look is more refined as well, with lesser visible joints and hinges and more discreet noise canceling microphone ports, all of which ostensibly contribute to reduce wind noise as well. The new design only allows the XM5s to fold flat, unlike the XM4s which fold up to take up less room, and so while the included collapsible carrying case is slimmer, it takes up more space in the bag and feels a bit less durable.
The larger concern is that the headphones lack the extra metal flourishes and more visible branding of its predecessors that just looked more premium, a key element for what are undeniably a pricey pair of headphones. These end up being almost anonymous, more so in their low-key black variants (there’s an off-white color available as well). That, and the fact that there’s still no water resistance of any kind. This would have been a very welcome move on a take-everywhere pair of headphones such as these.
Redemption comes by way of the headphones feeling incredibly comfortable on the head. Sony has increased the interior size of the earcups, so they sit better with larger ears, and has employed a new synthetic leather and foam padding on both the headband and earpads, which results in lesser fatigue over extended durations. Over time, the 254g weight and rather gentle clamping force almost feels like you aren’t wearing a pair of headphones at all, save for the glorious silence you’re enveloped in (more on that later).
If it matters to you, the deliberate changes Sony has made to the materials, whether it is the recycled ABS-based plastic parts or the plastic-free sustainable packaging, lends this pair of headphones impeccable ecological credentials.
Controls are largely the same as the predecessors, with two physical buttons on the left cup edge, one to switch between noise cancelling and ambient awareness settings, and a power button for pairing. The right ear cup is touch sensitive for volume controls, declining/answering calls and a long-time Sony favorite – cupping the earcup with your palm to quickly disable noise cancellation and pipe in outside sound for when you need to answer someone without taking the ‘phones off. Sony has also included a bunch of other familiar features, such as location awareness (adjusts the noise cancelation based on where you are), Speak-to-Chat (pauses audio if you start speaking or singing), voice assistant support (for Alexa and Google Assistant) and a proximity sensor which detects when the headphones are taken off and automatically pauses the audio. All of these can be tweaked within the companion app.
Now, one of the big draws in the previous XM4s was the already high bar for noise cancellation that Sony had set. This time around, there’s a definite - if almost too slight to tell based on your usage - improvement. The XM5s now pack in two dedicated processors to control the eight microphones (the XM4 only had four) that listen to ambient sounds to create opposing sound frequencies to cancel the noise. We haven’t had a chance to test these on a flight in our review period, but aside from the stellar job the headphones do to handle low-frequency sounds of air-conditioning, fans and public transport, they’re better at handling some mid-to-higher frequency sounds such as people’s voices in crowded environs, a claim we validated by walking around the mall on a weekend wearing these with music playback dialled all the way down.
By and large, they’re only a smidgen better than the XM4s, but that’s no surprise – Sony has already improved tremendously in the noise cancellation department for the past few generations of the XM series. Despite all the extra hardware and processing, battery life is still in the region of 30 hours with noise cancellation turned on, and nearly 12 hours more with it turned off. In a bind, you can quick-charge the headphones using the supplied USB-C cable for 10 minutes, for nearly five hours of playback.
It's a similar story on the audio quality front, although the move from the XM4’s 40mm driver to a new 30mm driver initially had us considering what impact that would have on the dynamism and soundstage. Fortunately, nothing discernible. Even with the driver change, the soundstage is spacious, the lower end is precise, and the higher end has clarity and detail that one expects from this range. There’s a weight to the drums in percussion heavy tracks, without overpowering vocals or the delicate plucking of an acoustic guitar.
Sony is clearly counting on listeners to take advantage of its proprietary LDAC codec, which delivers greater wireless bandwidth than a bog-standard Bluetooth connection could, but if you’re on an iPhone (no LDAC support) or using a standard-resolution streaming service, Sony’s DSEE Extreme tech ekes out more detail. Either way, your audio sounds good, as it should.
It's tough to improve on something like the XM4, while simultaneously taking the fight to Apple’s AirPods Max which has launched in the two years since the XM4s came out. The design changes in the XM5 are largely for the better (if even the new pair feel distinctly less premium than their predecessors), the ANC is good too, extended usage comfort is a notch higher, and features like multi-device connectivity and LDAC make a strong case for Sony.
If you’re in the market for a premium pair of wireless headphones and aren’t on the XM4s already, the XM5s will woo you like few others. Just be sure to line up and pick them up at their incredibly low introductory price of ₹26,990 (valid from 21 September till 7 October, when the headphones will ship), after which they will be priced somewhere in the region of their suggested ₹34,990 maximum retail price.
Tushar Kanwar, a tech columnist and commentator, and tweets @2shar.