The Sony WH-1000XM5 is finally here. Its predecessor, the WH-1000XM4 has reigned, nearly unchallenged, as the best wireless headphones for two years now. This new iteration comes with a long-overdue redesign while beefing up its active noise canceling smarts, but are these improvements worth the higher $400 price?
Sony WH-1000XM5 Review
Sony WH-1000XM5 – Design and Features
The look of Sony’s flagship wireless headphones has remained relatively constant since the WH-1000XM2 debuted in 2017, but that all changes with this latest pair. The first and most drastic update is that the headband doesn’t fold up anymore.
This is a major departure and one I initially didn’t like, since it makes the headphones less portable, but I’ve come around to it. The new design means the headband is now made of one rigid and thinner piece of plastic, letting it sit on your head like a minimalistic hairband. This means it’s less likely to mess up your hairdo, and it feels comfy thanks to being almost completely upholstered in a soft pleather wrap with a wide memory cushion that rests on top of your head.
The ear cups have also been tweaked with a more seamlessly sculpted design that makes the microphones less prominent. You’ll still find two physical controls on the left earcup including a button for power/pairing and a second one that cycles through noise-canceling modes. You can also tap and swipe on the earcups, as they act as touch-capacitive controls for playing, pausing, or navigating tracks, as well as raising or lowering the volume. Lastly, there’s a 3.5mm jack if you want a wired connection and a USB-C port for charging.
The forks attached to the earcups are now angled slightly outward so they apply an extra bit of clamping force around your ears and help form a better soundproof seal. They’re not so tight that it’s like putting your head in a vice – instead, the new forks just help give the headphones a surely snug fit. I wore it for hours on end without experiencing sweaty ears or feeling a sore spot on the top of my skull. It also helps that this new design weighs only 250 grams – five grams lighter than the WH-1000XM4.
That said, the WH-1000XM5 seems to be more prone to wear and tear – visually at least – than its predecessor. The new soft-touch finish and smoother pleather inside the earcups seem to pick up oils much easier than previous generations, so keep a microfiber cloth handy.
Sony WH-1000XM5 – Active Noise Cancellation
Sony has improved the active noise-canceling feature on the WH-1000XM5. The headphones now feature eight noise-canceling microphones – double the amount of its predecessor – to monitor external and internal noise. Also, instead of having to manually adjust the noise-canceling, this latest model uses AI and a new integrated V1 processor – the same found in Sony’s WF-1000XM4 wireless earbuds – to automatically optimize it.
According to Sony, the extra microphones, chip, and AI help dramatically reduce high-frequency noise. In my experience, subway rides around New York City sounded a bit more muffled, and I was saved from the high-pitched squeals of train cars braking as they pulled into a station.
Cupping your hand over the right earcup temporarily disables noise-canceling if you need to more clearly hear someone or something. Alternatively, enabling the Speak-to-Chat feature in the Sony Headphones Connect app makes the headphones pause playback and disable NC temporarily whenever you start talking. However, I found this feature to be a little too sensitive. Even after switching Speak-to-Chat to a low sensitivity mode, it would still activate when I yawned a little too enthusiastically.
Additionally, the WH-1000XM5 also inherited some of the activity- and location-based smarts from Sony’s WF-1000XM4. If you enable action detection and start walking, the WH-1000XM5 will switch from a full active noise-canceling mode to a partial ambient sound mode on its own, which you can further tweak or disable in the settings. Additionally, these headphones can learn any locations you frequent, and you can then set your preferred noise-canceling or ambient listening modes for each place.
The ambient sound mode on the WH-1000XM5 sounds quite natural, and hearing a car drive by or the wind blowing around sounds amazingly similar to what they would sound like while wearing a pair of open-back headphones. There’s no notification or ping to let you know you’re switching between modes, and the transition from having sound blocked out to hearing your surroundings is surprisingly imperceptible.
The multipoint feature that first debuted on the Sony WH-1000XM4 makes a return here, allowing you to connect to multiple devices at once. You’re still limited to only two simultaneous Bluetooth connections, but hearing audio from two devices is pretty seamless with only a half-second of delay. Plus you can easily switch to any other previously connected devices from the Sony Headphones Connect app, meaning you don’t have to go diving into the Bluetooth settings to reconnect.
The only caveat of multipoint is you have to give up LDAC, so you won’t be able to stream high-quality wireless audio with it enabled. The good news is it’s pretty simple and quick to disable or enable multipoint in the smartphone app.
Sony WH-1000XM5 – Battery Life
The Sony WH-1000XM5 claims 30 hours of battery life and that was more than enough to see me through three full days of usage. And when I say full days I mean 8 to 10 hours per day of near-constant use listening to podcasts and music on my phone, streaming videos on my tablet, and watching movies on my TV. Even better, charging the headphones for just three minutes with a USB-PD compliant charger gives you back three hours of playback time. That said, there’s no charger in the box, so be prepared to pick one up if you don’t already have your own.
Sony WH-1000XM5 Software
Sony WF-1000XM5 – Software
I’ve talked a great deal about the Sony Headphones Connect app already, but it has even more features you’ll want to access. Namely, Adaptive Sound Control, Equalizer, Ambient Mode, firmware updates, and more are all controlled from here.
The app is well organized and the main status page contains all the settings you’ll use most often, including adaptive sound control, multipoint device switching, and playback controls. The sound tab will be your second most used page as it contains the equalizer. There you can jump through a few presets to help brighten, relax, boost the vocals, or just go whole hog and set your own custom sound.
The sound screen also lets you prioritize your Bluetooth connection for a stable connection or sound quality. It’s a nice feature but I just left it on prioritizing sound quality and I never had a connection issue, even if I went to a different room or floor away from whatever device I was connected to.
You can also set up 360 Reality Audio from this menu tab, which enables a spatial audio mode that feels like sitting in the middle of a recording studio or concert if you’re listening to a supported audio service. Currently 360 Reality Audio only works with Amazon Music Unlimited, Deezer, nugs.net, and Tidal.
Sony WH-1000XM5 – Performance
When it comes to audio performance there isn’t anything the Sony WH-1000XM5 can’t make sound great.
While watching the beginning of Guardians of the Galaxy, the headphones do a great job delivering all the nuances in the sober tones of when Star-Lord lands on Morag before beautifully exploding into the funky, bassy guitar of Hooked on a Feeling, then delivering the oomph of explosions when the action kicks off. And this was all without tweaking the EQ at all.
Overall you get a well-balanced and warm sound backed by a wide soundstage and strong bass.
The headphones really show off what they can do when playing intricate pieces of music like Bach’s Passacaglia and Handel’s Sarabande. Tracks like this really show how well the Sony WH-1000XM5 can clearly and distinctly portray each violin strum next to each viola pluck.
The headphones also have a decent level of codec support between Sony’s LDAC codec and Apple AAC – though aptX HD would have been a welcome addition too. There’s also DSEE Extreme, which you have to enable in the smartphone app, that uses AI to help restore the detail and clarity of low-quality formats.
The Sony WH-1000XM5 is the big upgrade we’ve been waiting for from Sony’s flagship wireless headphones. The new design and AI makes the noise-canceling stronger while the ambient listening mode is splendidly natural. Audio quality is impeccable too – whether you want to listen to intricate classical music or a rocking action movie, these headphones can do it all.