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Sony WH-1000XM5 review

The Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones deliver stellar performance in a sleeker design for a more premium price

Black and ecru (off-white) color versions against a office window
(Image: © Tom's Guide/Future)

Tom's Guide Verdict

Sony demonstrates across-the-board expertise in the XM5 with a great-sounding pair of headphones that has exceptional ANC performance and eco credentials

Pros

  • +

    Articulate and engaging sound

  • +

    Great control options

  • +

    Impressive noise-cancelation

  • +

    Long battery life

  • +

    Stellar call quality

Cons

  • -

    Redesign and eco credentials ups the price

  • -

    Gets hot around the ears during longer listening

Sony WH-1000XM5: Specs

Price: $399 / AU$649
Colors: Black; Silver
Battery life (rated): Up to 40 hours; 30 hours (ANC enabled)
Connectivity: Bluetooth 5.2 (codecs: SBC, AAC and LDAC)
Water resistance: Not specified
Weight: 8.8 ounces

The Sony WH-1000XM5 wireless active noise-canceling, over-ear headphones are a big deal — especially when you consider the headphones they replace (the Sony WH-1000XM4) were widely regarded as the best wireless headphones you could buy. Not least by us at Tom’s Guide.

So it’s a relief, albeit of the predictable variety, to report the WH-1000XM5 pick up where the XM4 left off. Excellent sound quality in every respect, improved noise-cancellation and a very credible eco proposition make them every bit as compelling a set of cans as the model they replace.

It’s not exclusively good news, though. The price at which the XM5 launch is eye-widening — even if our experience of Sony headphones makes us believe the asking price will come down soon. And if you’re expecting a bit of bling for your (not inconsiderable) outlay, you’ll be disappointed — the WH-1000XM5, particularly in the ‘ecru’ finish of our review sample, are bland and unremarkable lookers.

Still, it’s easy to forget what they look like when you’re wearing them. And easier still when you’re listening.

Sony WH-1000XM5 review: Price and availability

The Sony WH-1000XM5 wireless active noise-canceling over-ear headphones are on sale at the end of this month. They’re initially priced at $399 / £379 / €419 / AU$649 and are available to pre order through Sony's website (opens in new tab),  Amazon (opens in new tab) and Best Buy (opens in new tab), among other retailers. For those in Australia, the WH-1000XM5 are available to pre-order directly from Sony (opens in new tab).

This is, without doubt, at the upper end of the ‘mainstream’ over-ear headphone market and is edging towards the ‘luxury lifestyle’ area where the likes of Bang & Olufsen, Apple (with its AirPods Max) and Montblanc hang out. Certainly the XM5’s most obvious competitors — from the likes of Bose and Sennheiser — are all appreciably cheaper.

You can also check out how they stack up against the AirPods Max — Sony WH-1000XM5 vs. AirPods Max.

It seems unlikely Sony will maintain this price for all that long, though. Each previous 1000X model has launched with a top-end price-tag attached, and each previous 1000X model has become considerably more affordable in fairly short order. So unless you enjoy being the earliest of adopters (and don’t mind paying for the privilege), it's certainly worth hanging back a while to see what discounts come to light. 

You might also be torn when it comes to the XM5's predecessor, because the XM4 is still available, and for at least $50 less. Our Sony WH-1000XM5 vs. WH-1000XM4 face-off will help you choose between them.

Sony XM5 headphones in ecru being held in mid air with green plant in background

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Sony WH-1000XM5 review: Design 

Sony has had a bit of a re-think where the design of the WH-1000XM5 is concerned. Certainly they’re a departure from the outgoing WH-1000XM4 — or, at least, as much of a departure as is possible where wireless over-ear headphones are concerned.

There’s something just slightly stealthy about the way the XM5 look. They're a more streamlined shape than their predecessor, with an aero dynamic design that improves the flow of air across the headphone frame to reduce wind noise. 

Branding is minimal — just a little ‘Sony’ logo on each hinge — and the earcups and headband are virtually featureless and entirely anonymous. The WH-1000XM5 are available in black or ecru (for which read ‘uninspiring beige’) and are mostly made from acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS). Sony is very keen on ABS just now — it’s a very useful material in acoustic terms and, given that it’s mostly made from recycled plastic and can be recycled again at the end of its life, its eco credentials are impeccable.

Sony WH-1000XM5 eco packaging

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The whole eco-friendly aspect of the WH-1000XM5 should be applauded and even carries over to the retail packaging box. The unbleached, unprinted and wholly recyclable packaging is made from ‘original blended material’ and is guaranteed to use no plastic whatsoever.

Sony XM5 in there fold-flat case

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

At 8.8 ounces the XM5 are a touch lighter than the model they replace, and they are supplied with a usefully compact and collapsible carry-case, which is barely larger than the headphones themselves. This is handy, because although there’s a lot of articulation where the hinges meet the earcups, the XM5 only fold flat rather than folding in on themselves like the XM4.

Sony XM5 headphones in ecru (off white) placed outdoors on a garden table

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Sony WH-1000XM5 review: Comfort

The WH-1000XM5 are among the lighter premium wireless over-ear headphones around. And thanks to a combination of careful hanger design, soft artificial leather and a smattering of memory foam in the earcup and the central portion of the inside of the headband, they’re no more burdensome to wear than the trim weight implies.

The earcups are of sensible dimensions, so unless your ears are (to be blunt) extravagantly large they should fit nicely. Unlike quite a few alternative designs, the Sony won’t swamp those among us with smaller heads, either. But while they’re unarguably comfortable, the composition of materials in the earpads seems to return your body-heat — with interest — rather quicker than some rival designs.

Sony XM5 closeup of earpiece controls

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Sony WH-1000XM5 review: Controls 

You have numerous options here and, while that’s good news, the better news is that they all work really, really well.

The capacitive touch-surface on the right earcup deals with the obvious stuff in a consistent and reliable manner. Here you can deal with ‘play/pause’, ‘volume up/down’, ‘skip forwards/backwards’ and ‘answer/end/reject call’ with next-to-no effort. The left earcup, meanwhile, has a physical button that allows you to cycle through your noise-canceling options (‘on’ or ‘ambient sound’).

Sony Headphones control app

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The level of ‘ambient sound’ you’d like to hear can be specified in the ‘Headphones’ control app — and that’s far from the only facility the app incorporates. Here’s where you can adjust EQ settings, allow active noise-canceling to adjust to your specific circumstances or environment, set up the XM5 for use with Sony’s 360 Reality Audio spatial sound algorithm, and allow the headphones to wirelessly connect to two devices simultaneously. It’s a stable, useful and fully featured app, and as such has the better of virtually any alternative I've encountered. 

You’ll want to avoid adjusting the ‘clear bass’ setting, though. Seldom has a feature been more inaccurately named...

Sony XM5 closeup of mics

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The WH-1000XM5 have a total of eight mics, and as well as noise-cancelation and telephony, they’re also involved in voice-assistant interaction. Naturally the Sony will work with your source player’s native voice-assistant, but they also have Amazon Alexa built in. And no matter your voice-assistant of choice, the Sony are able to communicate with them clearly and consistently. OK Google with full wake-up word detection is very well implemented, which puts them clear of quite a lot of their nominal competition. 

Sony XM5 on a bench showing inside earcups

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Sony WH-1000XM5 review: Sound quality

The WH-1000XM5 use a couple of mica-reinforced cellular full-range dynamic drivers to deliver sound. This seems like a rather retrograde move — on paper, at least — because they’re a mere 30mm in diameter, which is smaller than those fitted to the outgoing XM4 and smaller than the drivers fitted to virtually every over-ear headphone price-comparable rival.

The audio battle isn’t won or lost on paper, though, and the XM5 waste little time in demonstrating it’s not how big your drivers are but what you do with them that counts. In every respect, the Sony are a confident, convincing and enjoyable listen.

Sony XM5 showing outer earcups placed on an outdoor table

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Listening was carried out using an iPhone 13 mini as a source playing content from Qobuz and Tidal streaming services. I also tried the headphones wired to an external DAC/headphone amp connected to an Apple MacBook Pro (2020) and streamed music using the same services.

Throughout, tonality was neutral and natural, with only the slightest suggestion of the highs being rolled off. Low frequencies were muscular but agile, loaded with detail and texture, and delivered an ordered foundation without over shadowing the presentation further up the frequency range. This allows midrange frequencies where vocals sit to be delivered unhindered — and because detail levels are equally lavish here, it means the XM5 are about as communicative and articulate as any headphones at anything like this money. At the top end the XM5s had the good taste not to get too carried away, but still managed a polite bite and shine with high treble sounds.

Frequencies from the bottom of the range to the top were even and smooth. There’s good rhythmic expression liberated from music that has it to offer in the first place, and more than enough dynamic headroom to put proper distance between the quieter, more contemplative moments and the raucous charge-into-the-last-chorus counterpoints. Detail levels, as already observed, were high and pay close attention to even the most fleeting, transient information contained in a recording to paint a full and vibrant picture.

Sony WH-1000XM5 review: Active noise cancelation

Sony Headphones app - ambient mode

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

If anything, the news regarding active noise-canceling is even better. Sony headphones have always been there-or-thereabouts where sound quality is concerned, of course, but often have been ‘very good’ rather than ‘great’ where noise-canceling is concerned — but that’s not the case here. 

Without leaving any trace of how hard the ANC circuitry is working, the XM5 banish pretty much all external sound and leave a nice dark background against which your music can do its thing. Which means the XM5 can bear comparison with the best noise-cancelers around (which, let’s face it, means Bose).

Sony WH-1000XM5 review: Battery life

The WH-1000XM5 are good for 30 hours between charges if you keep active noise-cancelation switched on, and that will rise to as much as 40 hours if you turn it off. The XM5 need a leisurely 3.5 hours to go from ‘flat’ to full when charging via the USB-C input on the right earcup, and can retain an hour’s-worth of power after 10 minutes or so. But unlike the product they replace, the XM5 are USB-PD (Power Delivery) -compatible, and charged in this way can get three hours of power after just three minutes.

Sony WH-1000XM5 earcup detail showing buttons on earcup against a white background

(Image credit: Sony)

Sony WH-1000XM5 review: Call quality and connectivity

Did we mention the eight mics? Well, they help the XM5 exhibit call quality quite easily described as ‘exemplary’. Wind-noise is kept to a minimum, and both ends of a conversation prove distinct and direct. It’s difficult to know what else you can realistically ask for.

The XM5s use Bluetooth 5.2 for wireless connectivity, and — as with the XM4s — it’s compatible with SBC, AAC and LDAC codecs. The ongoing lack of any aptX codec involvement remains a disappointment — we don’t all want a Sony smartphone, after all — but the XM5s are well capable of dealing with the hi-res content on your favorite streaming service’s most expensive tier.

If the worst happens as regards battery life, there’s a 3.5mm analog input on the left-hand earcup and a 3.5mm-to-3.5mm cable supplied in the carry-case (so long as you have a source with a suitable output jack).

Sony WH-1000XM5 review: Verdict

Expectations have been high for the arrival of Sony's next-gen XM-series over-ear headphones, and in terms of overall performance, those expectations have been maintained. 

That's particularly true where ANC performance is concerned, showing rivals that they need to up their game, as well as in the frankly laudable eco credentials Sony has managed to bring with its use of materials in the headphone and packaging.

Whatever you make of the understated design aesthetic and the price increase, the combination of audio quality, noise-cancelation and interaction is impressive across the board, and the next-gen Sony WH-1000XM5 are a good step forward.

Simon is a freelance technology journalist and consultant, with particular emphasis on the audio/video aspects of home entertainment. Before embracing the carefree life of the freelancer, he was editor of What Hi-Fi? – since then, he's written for titles such as Wired, Metro, The Guardian and Stuff, among many others. Given time, Simon likes nothing more than publishing and then quickly deleting tweets about the state of the nation (in general), the state of Aston Villa (in particular) and the state of his partner's cat.