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Sony LinkBuds S review: This is more like it

The Sony LinksBuds S are capable wireless earbuds and comfortable enough to wear all day

Sony LinkBuds S
(Image: © Future)

Tom's Guide Verdict

The Sony LinksBuds S are capable wireless earbuds that are comfortable enough to wear all day and have a great transparency mode and intuitive controls.

Pros

  • +

    All-day comfort

  • +

    Good bass handling

  • +

    Effective ambient awareness

  • +

    Intuitive controls

Cons

  • -

    Mediocre ANC performance

  • -

    Midrange sound performance mixed

Sony LinkBuds S: Specs

Price: $199 / £180 / AU$349
Colors: Black, Ecru
Battery life (rated): 6 hours (ANC); 14 hours (with charging case and ANC)
Connectivity: Bluetooth 5.2 (codecs: SBC, AAC and LDAC)
Water resistance: IPX4
Weight: 0.17 ounces (per bud)

The Sony LinkBuds S are among the most intuitive wireless earbuds we’ve ever reviewed. These LinkBuds mirror other mainstream true wireless earbuds in terms of looks, and like the original Sony LinkBuds they’re designed for all-day wear. 

For $199/AU$349, the Sony LinkBuds S promise a lot: active noise cancellation and ambient awareness (or transparency) modes that switch automatically based on your activity, auto-play and auto-pause features, plus the company's respected reputation for sound quality and performance. The $279 / AU$348 Sony WF-1000XM4 remain the best wireless earbuds overall from the brand, however the LinkBuds S are positioned as a capable option at a slightly lower price depending on where you live.

But are they right for you? Read this Sony LinkBuds S review to find out what's different between the LinkBuds S and the original LinkBuds, plus how the LinksBuds S compare to other top-rated true wireless earbuds.

Sony LinkBuds S review: Price and availability

The Sony LinkBuds S are available to pre-order as of today (May 18) for $199 directly from Sony (opens in new tab) and retailers including Amazon (opens in new tab) and Best Buy (opens in new tab) in the US. In Australia, however, the LinkBuds S don't arrive till July for AU$349.95 apiece. 

They’re the so-called “middleman” of Sony’s wireless earbud lineup, sandwiched between the WF-1000XM4 ($279/AU$348) and the LinkBuds ($179/AU$319.) The same way the Sony WH-1000XM4 remains on the market alongside the newer Sony WH-1000XM5 (which are now the best headphones overall), the original LinkBuds continue to be available as an alternative option to the newly launched LinksBuds S.

Sony LinkBuds S

(Image credit: Future)

Sony LinkBuds S review: Design and comfort

  • Lightweight and comfortable enough for all-day wear
  • Look pretty similar to some other wireless earbuds

In our Sony LinkBuds WF-L900 review, we found the open-ear design polarizing. While the earbud design has a hole to allow wearers to listen to their tunes and be open and aware of their surroundings at the same time, the appearance is a bit odd. The LinkBuds S feature eartips, come in basic black and ecru color options, and are indistinguishable from other popular wireless earbuds models. But in this case we wouldn’t consider blending in a bad thing.

Sony LinkBuds S

(Image credit: Future)

We appreciate the simple, rounded design that looks discreet enough to wear all day. In fact, Sony is pitching the LinkBuds S as all-day earbuds, so we wore them throughout our normal routine. Thanks to a lightweight, plastic-free/recycled material and small size they were comfortable enough to wear several hours at a time, and didn’t budge during workouts or commutes for us. That’s not always the case with some wireless earbuds, and it certainly wasn’t the case in our experience with the LinkBuds WF-L900. Of course, its possible that not everyone will find the LinkBuds S fit to be quite as secure or comfortable as they were for us, but again, we were pleasantly surprised by how confident and comfortable we felt with them in place throughout the review.

Sony LinkBuds S

(Image credit: Future)

And as you might expect, LinkBuds S come with multiple ear tip sizes and a charging case. The charging case looks like a combination of the WF-1000XM4 case and AirPods cases, with a rounded top and a flat bottom, so it can sit upright on a level surface.

Sony LinkBuds S review: Controls

  • Lots of control options
  • Intuitive playback control based on activity 

There are several ways to control the Sony LinkBuds S. For one, you can control playback from the connected Bluetooth music source. Each earbud also features capacitive touch controls: by default, the right earbud can pause/play/skip audio, while the left earbud acts as a toggle for active noise cancellation and transparency mode. These can also be customized to your preference.

Like most Sony headphones, LinkBuds S supports voice controls through Alexa or Google Assistant (or Siri, for iOS users). You can ask for playback changes or other queries. But LinkBuds S also offers some controls that require no intervention from the user. Speak-to-Chat automatically pauses music playback when the earbuds hear that you’re having a conversation with someone. 

Sony LinkBuds S

(Image credit: Future)

The earbuds can detect whether you’re moving and change the ANC/transparency toggle automatically for you, too. For example, if you’re walking outside, you’ll likely opt for transparency mode to be aware of your surroundings. Then, when you’re seated at a desk or on a plane, the earbuds will switch to ANC. You can customize these settings or listening preferences based on activity in the companion app. This kind of intuitive automatic control makes the LinkBuds S feel a little more premium than similarly-priced Jabra Elite 85t and Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro. We wish AirPods Pro had a similar option, too.

Sony LinkBuds S review: Sound quality

  • Mixed sound quality compared to WF-1000XM4 and AirPods Pro
  • Engaging bass performance

Listening to “Stolen Dance” by Milky Chance, the verses sounded ever-so-slightly off-key, exactly as we know they should in this folksy hit. Meanwhile, the song’s simple bass beat offered interesting complexities, perhaps more so than the Apple AirPods 3, but some of the acoustics and mid-tones blurred together. The AirPods Pro demonstrated far more sophisticated and intentional layering on the same track.

Though on Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” the snare drum and guitar made a more convincing argument for how the Sony LinkBuds S handle midrange frequencies, especially during the guitar solo. But it was at the expense of Kurt Cobain’s wailing, limiting some of the razor-sharp emotions of bridge.

Sony LinkBuds S

(Image credit: Future)

We discovered a happy medium on Mac Miller’s “Best Day Ever” — we enjoyed the distinguished elements, bookended by faithful vocals and mellow bass. Don’t forget Sony headphones let you change EQ settings, so you might want to make some adjustments based on how your favorite genres of music sound. 

One advantage the LinkBuds S have over a lot of the competition is support for hi-res audio, though you’ll need an LDAC device as the source. They also support Sony 360 Reality Audio as the most immersive listening option, though you’ll need a subscription to music streaming services like Deezer, Tidal, Amazon Music HD or nugs.net (a streaming service for live concerts) who offer support for the format. It’s hard to compare that to the availability of the AirPods Pro and AirPods 3 spatial audio feature, a version of which is also coming to the Google Pixel Buds Pro.

Sony LinkBuds S review: Active noise cancellation, transparency mode and call quality

  • Transparency or ambient awareness mode is a highlight of the LinkBuds S
  • Active noise cancellation and call quality are both good, but not groundbreaking

We tested the LinkBuds S active noise cancellation and transparency in the stands of a college graduation. ANC delivered relief from rowdy family members, and transparency mode tuned us back into the action when graduate names were called. 

While the ANC successfully battled fellow graduation-goers and cacophonous traffic outside the college football stadium, select loud frequencies (who brings an airhorn to commencement?) could still be heard. As some of the best noise cancelling headphones, we found the AirPods Pro did a better job at combating ambient noises in the same environment, though when it comes to transparency mode, the LinkBuds S are very convincing. We could listen to side conversations among our family simultaneously with the calling of graduate names to walk the stage, all with the band playing "Pomp and Circumstance" in the background. 

Sony LinkBuds S

(Image credit: Future)

The success of transparency helps make the case for LinkBuds S as all-day earbuds. We usually recommend open-ear, bone-conduction headphones like the Shokz OpenRun Pro for those who prioritize being aware of surroundings, but the LinkBuds S are just as viable an option. Still, if you're active, our lists of the best running headphones or best workout headphones have better choices for you.

A photo of a woman wearing the Sony LinkBuds S.

(Image credit: Future)

As for call quality, the LinkBuds S made our voice sound much fuller compared to the original LinkBuds, though as was the case with the WF-1000XM4, we think the call performance could be better. While we consider, say, the Apple AirPods 3 as one the best headphones with a mic for voice and video calls, the LinkBuds S are more viable for answering a quick call on a run. The buds are supposed to filter out interference sounds, which seemed to be effective unless the ambient noise included voices, like from a TV or radio announcement.

Sony LinkBuds S review: Battery life

  • 6 hours of playtime with ANC
  • Charging case holds up to 14 hours of playback time

Battery life for the Sony LinkBuds S is rated at up to 6 hours with active noise cancellation enabled, with another 14 hours of playtime available via the charging case (which charges USB-C.) In testing, our LinkBuds S were ready to go back in the case after about 6 hours and 15 minutes without phone calls, beating the LinkBuds (5.5 hours) and the AirPods Pro (4.5 hours). With a 45-minute phone call in the mix, the LinksBuds S died just after 5 hours.

Sony LinkBuds S

(Image credit: Future)

Sony LinkBuds S review: Verdict

Before now, there was nothing between the polarizing LinkBuds WF-L900 and premium WF-1000XM4 that had active noise cancellation but also allowed all-day wear. Though the LinkBuds S might not look or sound much different from a number of models in the saturated wireless earbud market, they redeem some of the trust lost to the strange LinkBuds with a hole by borrowing in-brand features from the company's higher-end headphones. Plus, a great transparency mode and lightweight design truly make it possible to keep them in your ears for hours at a time.

That said, if top-notch audio quality is your main priority, we might steer you towards the AirPods Pro. We made so many comparisons to AirPods Pro since you can often find them on sale at around the same price as the LinkBuds S. Or, be patient for a WF-1000XM4 discount. The Sony WF-1000XM3 can be found for under $150/AU$180, too, and are still some of the best noise-cancelling earbuds. Yet if you consider battery life, ambient awareness and intuitive controls of at least equal importance, the Sony LinkBuds S are easy to recommend. 

Kate Kozuch is an editor at Tom’s Guide covering smartwatches, TVs and everything smart-home related. Kate also appears on Fox News to talk tech trends and runs the Tom's Guide TikTok account (opens in new tab), which you should be following. When she’s not filming tech videos, you can find her on an exercise bike, mastering the NYT Crossword or channeling her inner celebrity chef.