A few months ago, Sony released the most interesting earbuds I’ve tested in years. The $180 LinkBuds — a rare Sony product with a pronounceable name — have a ring-shaped design that allows ambient sounds to filter through with perfect clarity. They also have futuristic controls that allow you to tap the space for the earbuds instead of tapping a small surface.
As it turns out, Sony had another addition to the LinkBuds family — the $200 LinkBuds S — and it couldn’t be more different. And by “different” I mean they’re a pair of perfectly normal earbuds.
But they are very good normal earplugs. In fact, I’d say these are the best earbuds Sony sells for most people. Right after the WH-1000XM5 headphones, Sony is doing well.
The original LinkBuds are great, but they’re definitely not for everyone. The lack of noise canceling (or no noise canceling features at all) makes them completely invalid for a large group of potential buyers. On the other hand, Sony’s best noise-cancelling earbuds, the WF-1000XM4, are quite pricey at $279.
The LinkBuds S, available May 20, instead tries to offer the best of both worlds, combining noise cancellation that almost as good as the WF-1000XM4 with an unusually effective ambient sound mode. It’s not as good as the cheaper LinkBuds – which, you know, have a big old hole in them – but it’s better than most.
But headphones have been combining noise cancellation with transparency modes for years; why use the LinkBuds branding at all?
Sony says the LinkBuds S, like their open-eared siblings, are aimed at a new generation of listeners — people who wear at least one earbud most of the day. According to Sony, these youngsters want to be connected to the real world and their online friends at the same time, hence the focus on ambient awareness in this particular lineup.
It’s a good thing, then, that the LinkBuds S are some of the most comfortable earbuds I’ve worn. I’m not one who normally has a hard time with the comfort of earplugs, but this is about as good as custom earplugs. Sony claims they’re also the smallest and lightest earbuds with active noise cancellation, and I’m inclined to believe them.
What sets the LinkBuds S apart from most other headphones with a transparency mode is something called Adaptive Sound Control. Basically, the headphones can switch sound modes depending on your environment and movements. For example, start walking and the headphones will automatically switch to ambient awareness mode. It’s a feature that Sony has refined over the years, but with the LinkBuds S, I finally feel like it’s really useful.
Over time, the LinkBuds S can even learn whether you’d rather have noise cancellation on or off in different locations, such as if you prefer isolation at the gym but prefer to be aware of the environment at home. You can even specify locations from a map if you don’t trust Sony to guess it itself, although that requires the Sony app to have access to your location at all times.
While the headphones can’t possibly know which noise-cancelling settings I prefer in every situation, I appreciated how the headphones could automatically switch to situational awareness when I took my dog for a walk. There’s also a handy talk-to-chat that automatically switches to situational awareness when it senses you’re trying to hold a conversation.
I also like to appreciate that the headphones are pretty good at blocking out wind noise – one reason I often avoid ambient sound modes on other headphones. Alternatively, you can also just use one earbud at a time.
Unfortunately, Sony’s controls are still just okay. Sony forces you to choose from a handful of control presets instead of letting you assign each touch input to an action of your choice. For example, there’s no way to skip tracks, adjust volume and control noise cancellation within the same operating setup, and the situation is worse with a single earbud. It’s extremely annoying.
They also don’t have the cool Wide Tap feature of the original LinkBuds that lets you control the earbuds from outside their actual surface.
On the plus side, the LinkBuds S feels more responsive than most headphones, with minimal lag between your touch and the headphones taking action. They’re also among the few headphones with the proper hotword detection to summon the Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa – rather than force you to hold down a button – so you can access most functions with a quick voice command. The caveat is that enabling hotword detection for the assistants means you won’t be able to use the left earphone solo for some reason.
Sony hasn’t skimped on sound quality either. Unlike the original LinkBuds, this time there’s LDAC for maximum Bluetooth quality, and the headphones sound nicely balanced. In my ear, they sound a little more neutral than the WF-1000XM4, which I found to be decent, but a little boomy and a little dull in the treble, especially with the stock foam earbuds.
The LinkBuds S share some of that sound signature, but it’s less aggressive to my ears. They are still some of the better sounding earbuds in the class, and describing their sound quality is almost incomprehensible to tinkerers, as the Sony app makes it easy to tune the headphones to your taste. I usually just appreciate that they get loud enough that I can listen to high dynamic range music – like a lot of classical music – without silent sections being completely inaudible in noisy environments.
There are certainly better sounding earbuds for the price – the OnePlus Buds Pro and Pixel Buds A-Series are more neutral to my ear and my measurement setup – but few are as good at blocking out noise. The LinkBuds S are coming real close to the WF-1000XM4 in this regard, which was the best in its class.
That said, if you’re primarily interested in noise cancellation, Anker’s SoundCore Liberty 3 Pro offers comparable performance, better battery life, and comparable customizable sound for $170. But even with a variety of tip options in the box, they don’t feel quite as comfortable or safe as the Sony’s, nor do they have the fancy Adaptive Sound Control or voice assistant features.
The biggest flaw of the LinkBuds S is probably their battery life. They have a total of 20 hours (6 per charge), which is a bit low by modern standards. That’s okay now, but all batteries deteriorate over time and you’ll have to charge the case more often than most competitors. They also don’t have wireless charging, which is something I don’t care about but some people swear by. On the plus side, the LinkBuds S charges quickly over USB-C.
And oh yeah, they still can’t connect to multiple devices at once. To sigh.
Despite those caveats, I really like the LinkBuds S if you can’t see it by now. They may not even be half as interesting as the original LinkBuds, but honestly I think they’re better than Sony’s flagship WF-1000XM4.
You may find headphones with similar noise cancellation, better sound quality, and longer battery life. But you’ll struggle to find one that balances all these qualities equally effectively – let alone the clever adaptive sound control and assistant integration.
Apple users may still be better served by the AirPods Pro, while Android users may want to wait for the Pixel Buds Pro in July; the latter offer many of the same features as the LinkBuds S for the same price. Still, Sony’s latest earbuds check most of the right boxes, and they should be at the top of your list if you’re looking for noise-cancelling buds.