Sony WH-1000XM5 review: In a league of their own

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·Senior News Editor
·11-min read
Billy Steele/Engadget
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The rumors were (mostly) true. Sony did indeed have a follow-up to its stellar WH-1000XM4 ready for a proper debut. Today the company announced the WH-1000XM5 ($400), its latest flagship noise-canceling headphones equipped with all of the things we’ve come to expect from Sony’s 1000X line. This time around the company gave its premium cans a big exterior redesign. In the process, it massively increased comfort while also expanding the incredible performance in terms of noise cancelation and overall sound quality.

Design

One of the biggest changes for the 1000XM5 is the design. Sony slimmed down the headband while keeping the underside soft and cushiony. My only gripe with the new look is that you can see where the housing for the adjustable arms ends and the softer padding begins. You only see it when you take the headphones off, but it’s noticeable.

Sony also connects the headband to the ear cups in one spot on the M5, rather than the U-shaped bracket that mounted to the M4 in two places. There’s still plenty of swivel and rotation for the ear cups, so there’s no sacrifice to movement. In fact, I’d argue these changes give this new 1000X a more modern look, than all of the previous models. The lineup has a similar design up through the M4, so Sony was overdue for a big overhaul.

Despite only being four grams or 0.14 ounces lighter than the WH-1000XM4, this new version feels like it weighs a lot less when you put them on. The weight distribution is better, plus the synthetic leather ear cups are quite cushiony. I had no problem wearing these for hours at a time and at no point did I feel pressure around my ears or on the top of my head.

With upgrades to design, sound quality and active noise cancellation, the WH-1000XM5 keeps its place above the competition. These headphones are super comfortable as well, and 30-hour battery life is more than adequate. The M5 makes it clear that Sony won’t be dethroned anytime soon.
With upgrades to design, sound quality and active noise cancellation, the WH-1000XM5 keeps its place above the competition. These headphones are super comfortable as well, and 30-hour battery life is more than adequate. The M5 makes it clear that Sony won’t be dethroned anytime soon.

The outside panel of the right ear cup still houses the touch controls. Here you can play/pause with a double tap, skip tracks with a horizontal swipe or swipe vertically to adjust volume. Tap and hold summons your voice assistant and when you get a call, simply double tap to answer. All of those touch controls work well too, reliably accepting taps and swipes without error. On the edge of the left ear cup, there are physical buttons for power and noise cancellation. The former can also put the headphones in pairing mode and give you a battery level update while the latter cycles through a combination of ANC, ambient sound and off.

Software

As is the case with most of Sony’s earbuds and headphones, the Headphones Connect app is where you tweak settings and enable a host features. When you fire up the software, a battery life percentage is prominently displayed on the right side, with tabs for Status, Sound, System and Services just below. The first, Status, gives you access to the finer details of Adaptive Sound Control or Sony’s handy automatic switching of noise canceling settings based on activity or location.

Of course, if you choose to have things change based on where you are, you’ll have to give the app permission to track your whereabouts. If you do, you can set the M5 to automatically enable ambient sound when you’re at the office, for example. Adaptive Sound Control can also be configured to change the EQ and enable/disable Speak-to-Chat for a particular location or activity.

Sony Headphones Connect app
Sony Headphones Connect app

The Status panel will also allow you to see which devices are currently connected since the M5 allows you to link up to two simultaneously. And lastly there’s a media player here, which I’ve never touched across several reviews. The Sound tab gives you access to Ambient Sound Control, the ability to enable/disable Speak-to-Chat, the equalizer and audio presets. If you recall, Speak-to-Chat automatically pauses the audio and activates ambient sound when it detects that you’re speaking. In my experience, it could sometimes be fooled by coughs, but that’s not the case anymore. You can also configure the headphones for 360 Reality audio, in addition to switching Bluetooth connection quality and employing DSEE Extreme. That latter uses AI to reproduce the frequency response that’s typically lost to compression.

System is where you can enable multipoint connectivity, change voice assistants, disable the touch control panel and add functionality to the noise canceling button. You can also opt for that last control to activate Spotify Tap with either a double or triple press. And last but not least, Services is where you connect various apps for easy access. If you want to use Spotify Tap, for example, you’ll need to sync it with Headphones Connect here.

Sound quality

With upgrades to design, sound quality and active noise cancellation, the WH-1000XM5 keeps its place above the competition. These headphones are super comfortable as well, and 30-hour battery life is more than adequate. The M5 makes it clear that Sony won’t be dethroned anytime soon.
With upgrades to design, sound quality and active noise cancellation, the WH-1000XM5 keeps its place above the competition. These headphones are super comfortable as well, and 30-hour battery life is more than adequate. The M5 makes it clear that Sony won’t be dethroned anytime soon.

Sound quality has never been an issue with the 1000X line, and it’s definitely not on the M5. In fact, it’s yet another thing Sony upgraded on these headphones. New 30mm carbon fiber drivers handle the audio, including tracks in LDAC and DSEE Extreme. I thought the M4 was well-tuned for a range of genres, but the bass seems punchier here. Whether it’s the electronic collisions of The Glitch Mob, the grungy blues of Jack White or the driving bass in Kendrick Lamar’s catalog, the lower range is both pleasant and powerful, expanding the overall soundstage.

The difference between the M4 and the M5 is in the finer details. There’s more depth, making everything seem more immersive. But there’s also more clarity, so the subtleties can shine. I’m talking about things like the texture of someone strumming an acoustic guitar or Jack White’s iconic distortion soaring above the other instruments. Everything is still balanced, and the bass only provides the proper amount of oomph. Switch over to something entirely acoustic like bluegrass and the bass remains in check so the picking, and the highs, can cut through unhindered.

What’s more, activating DSEE Extreme doesn’t make a huge difference in the sound quality. On other Sony devices, that algorithm’s ability to recover some of the detail lost to compression makes a noticeable impact. On the M5, the results are subtle, and on some songs I had a hard time picking up on any change at all. It’s quite impressive.

I only have one complaint about sound quality, and it may actually be a Bluetooth issue rather than a true audio problem. When listening to music or watching a video on my MacBook Pro, I would occasionally experience quick dropouts or skips. It didn’t happen often and, oddly, I never heard it when playing something on my iPhone. The audio stutters a bit just for a second, like you’re watching a video on a bad internet connection, and then it continues. I tested both WH-1000XM5 units sent to me and noticed the issue on both. I’ve reached out to Sony for more info on the potential cause.

Active noise cancellation

With upgrades to design, sound quality and active noise cancellation, the WH-1000XM5 keeps its place above the competition. These headphones are super comfortable as well, and 30-hour battery life is more than adequate. The M5 makes it clear that Sony won’t be dethroned anytime soon.
With upgrades to design, sound quality and active noise cancellation, the WH-1000XM5 keeps its place above the competition. These headphones are super comfortable as well, and 30-hour battery life is more than adequate. The M5 makes it clear that Sony won’t be dethroned anytime soon.

Sony had already developed highly effective noise cancellation for its 1000X line and automated it so the feature could change based on your activity or location (Adaptive Sound Control). Those automatic tweaks are still in play on the M5, but the company has taken its overall noise-blocking setup a step further. First, it doubled both the number of processors and the number of microphones that handle noise canceling duties. In addition to the QN1 that was inside the M4, Sony also employs a separate V1 chip to lend a hand. There are now eight total ANC mics, up from four on the previous model. Plus, there’s an automatic noise canceling optimizer that ensures peak performance based on wear and your environment.

So, what does all of that mean when you’re actually wearing the headphones? Well, Sony says the entire setup is much better at blocking higher frequencies than the WH-1000XM4, which covers things like human voices. Indeed, the M5 is more effective at silencing nearby chatter and TV noise. It’s not entirely effective at combating baby screams (I have a 15-month-old at home), but most speech and what I’d consider a normal television volume went unnoticed. That makes the ANC on the 1000XM5 a clear upgrade over the M4.

Call quality

Despite working just fine for calls, the WH-1000XM4 isn’t equipped with dedicated voice microphones. Sony installed four beamforming mics on the M5, which it says helps this new model deliver the best call quality yet for the 1000X series. Those components work alongside AI-driven noise reduction to make this happen. Companies make lofty claims about voice quality all the time and it rarely pans out, but Sony actually delivers.

Both video and audio calls are crisp and clear, as your voice sounds noticeably better than other earbuds and headphones. With most of the competition, you typically sound like you’re on speakerphone at best. It’s much better than that on the M5, and the headphones do a great job handling background noise too. Constant roaring from a sound machine is easily silenced and things like voices, music or a nearby television are also reduced.

Battery life

With upgrades to design, sound quality and active noise cancellation, the WH-1000XM5 keeps its place above the competition. These headphones are super comfortable as well, and 30-hour battery life is more than adequate. The M5 makes it clear that Sony won’t be dethroned anytime soon.
With upgrades to design, sound quality and active noise cancellation, the WH-1000XM5 keeps its place above the competition. These headphones are super comfortable as well, and 30-hour battery life is more than adequate. The M5 makes it clear that Sony won’t be dethroned anytime soon.

Unfortunately, one rumor that didn’t pan out is the 1000XM5’s battery life. Reports indicated that Sony had added another 10 hours on top of its already 30-hour listening time. That’s not the case, you’ll still only get 30 hours of use with active noise cancellation. Sony did upgrade things when it comes to the quick charge feature. Instead of 10 minutes for five hours of use like on the M4, you get three hours of playback in three minutes.

After just over 21 hours of testing, Sony’s app read 38 percent battery remaining, so I’m pacing slightly ahead of the promised figure. The battery percentage in the macOS Bluetooth menu confirmed the status at that point too. During my tests, I had active noise cancellation turned on and did a mix of music streaming, video live streams, video calls and turning the headphones off a few times. Even though more is always better, 30 hours is plenty on the M5 and it’s enough to get you through a few work days or an international trip that includes long flights.

The competition

When it comes to alternatives, Bose immediately comes to mind. The company offers the pricey 700 which does an excellent job blocking noise although the overall sound quality isn’t as good as what Sony has conjured. The 700 is slightly cheaper at $379, but if you’re looking to save even more money, the QuietComfort 45 is a great choice. Bose updated its classic QC headphones last year with improved ANC and longer battery life, among other things. Plus, that model is $329. Neither of these beat Sony when it comes to the complete package that is the 1000XM5, but they’re worthy alternatives nonetheless.

If you’ve read this far and think the previous 1000X model seems more compelling, you’re in luck. Sony is keeping the WH-1000XM4 around for the time being. It will still be $350, unless you find it on sale, saving you $50 over the cost of the brand new version. Indeed, those headphones have been our top pick since their debut. And even though they’re likely to be dethroned in our next buyers’ guide update, they’re still very good headphones and won’t be obsolete anytime soon.

Wrap-up

With upgrades to design, sound quality and active noise cancellation, the WH-1000XM5 keeps its place above the competition. These headphones are super comfortable as well, and 30-hour battery life is more than adequate. The M5 makes it clear that Sony won’t be dethroned anytime soon.
With upgrades to design, sound quality and active noise cancellation, the WH-1000XM5 keeps its place above the competition. These headphones are super comfortable as well, and 30-hour battery life is more than adequate. The M5 makes it clear that Sony won’t be dethroned anytime soon.

The WH-1000XM5 is evidence that even the best product in a given category still has room for improvement. Sony has consistently impressed us with its 1000X line, but the upgrades it delivers on the M5 are some of the biggest in the history of the series. It managed to make its sound even better while blocking more noise than it has before. Plus, there’s a new look that isn’t only an aesthetic improvement but is more comfortable too. The only gripe is the price, which is $50 more than the previous model at $400. But when considering the entirety of what you’re getting, the cost is perfectly reasonable. Sony was already on top, but with the WH-1000XM5, the company put even more distance between itself and the rest of the pack.

The Sony WH-1000XM5 will be available in black and silver color options for $400. Pre-orders begin today on the company’s website, Amazon and Best Buy and the headphones will be widely available on May 20th.

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