Sony WH-1000XM5 Headphones Review: The One to Beat


When you have a product that a lot of people love, change can be risky. Such is the case for Sony's WH-1000XM5, the fifth generation of the 1000X series headphones, which were first released in 2016 as the MDR-1000X Wireless and have become increasingly popular as they've improved with each generation. Over the years, Sony has made some tweaks to the design, but nothing as dramatic as what it's done with the WH-1000XM5. Other than the higher $400 (£380, AU$650) price tag, I think those changes are good -- and the WH-1000XM5 has one key upgrade that's legitimately awesome -- but some may disagree.

Design changes

The first thing you'll notice is that XM5 -- I refer to it as the Mark 5 -- has a new design with big changes to the design of the headband. Gone is the dual-hinge of previous models and now there's just a single hinge with a swivel and rocker. That means these fold flat but they don't fold up. They also come with a new carrying case that looks to be about 20% bigger than that of the previous model.

That's disappointing, but the good news is the XM5 weighs 4 grams less than the XM4, tipping the scales at a relatively svelte 250 grams. They're also more comfortable to wear. They fit my head snugly but don't have that overly clamped feeling.

[caption id="attachment_18420" align="alignnone" width="643"] The new model has a single hinge and the headband has been redesigned.[/caption]

I happened to have a trip to France planned before I got my hands on a review sample, so I was able to test these on a transatlantic flight. I basically wore them for 8 hours straight, only taking them off for bathroom breaks. They have the same battery life as the previous model -- up to 30 hours, with a quick charge feature that gives you 3 hours of juice from a 3-minute charge. But, as I said, they're more comfortable. 

They also feature new synthetic leather ear pads that seem more durable than to the pads on the XM4. I could be wrong but I thought they breathed better. But as with any over-ear headphones, your ears are going to steam up if you wear them around when it's hot outside.

There doesn't seem to be any metal in the headband but the plastic appears to be pretty high-tech and I spent some time contorting and twisting the headband and nothing snapped. The headphones come in two colors -- black and silver -- though the silver looks more like a sand color. They both have nice matte finishes that don't show fingerprints. Aside from the larger case, I personally prefer the new design of the XM5. But I'm sure there will be people who favor the XM4.

[caption id="attachment_18421" align="alignnone" width="644"] Because the headphones only fold flat, the case for the WH-1000XM5 (left) is larger than the WH-10000M4's case (right).[/caption]

Similar features but some upgrades

Sony's headphones are packed with features and the MX5's feature set is similar to that of its predecessor. From the beginning, the 1000X's signature extra feature was Sony's Quick Attention mode. If you hold your hand over the right ear cup, it pauses whatever audio you're listening to and lets sound in so you can quickly have a conversation then go right back to what you were listening to. Also, if you take the headphones off your head, your music will pause then resume when you put them back on.

These also have Sony's Speak-To-Chat mode that's essentially hands-free Quick Attention. If someone comes up to you and wants to chat, you can simply start talking -- say, "Hey, what's up?" -- and your audio pauses and the headphones go into ambient mode. The audio then resumes after a short period of time -- anywhere from 5 seconds to 30 seconds, depending on your preference. Or you can manually resume it by touching the ear cup.

The touch controls work quite well. You swipe forward across the ear cup to advance tracks forward and swipe back to go to the previous track. Swiping up raises volume, swiping down lowers it. 

[caption id="attachment_18422" align="alignnone" width="646"] Wearing the headphones on vacation in France.[/caption]

The Sony WH-1000XM5 have Bluetooth 5.2 and are powered by both Sony's QN1 and V1 chips, giving this headphone dual processors compared to the single processor of the XM4. According to Sony, that helps with noise canceling and noise reduction during calls. And these have double the number of microphones for noise cancellation, as well as what appears to be additional microphones dedicated to voice calling. Sony won't say how many beam-forming microphones the XM4 has, but it says the XM5 has four of them. So one of the biggest upgrades is to the microphone configuration.  

The noise canceling function was excellent with the XM4 and now it's even better with the XM5. That said, I didn't notice a real difference on my plane ride. Both models seem to do equally well with lower frequencies. But according to Sony, these do better when muffling higher frequencies and I did notice some small differences walking around the streets of New York. For instance, people's voices seemed to be more muffled. 

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I should also note that with the XM4 you had to manually engage the "noise-canceling optimizer" feature. With this model, the optimizer feature is automatically engaged and the adaptive noise cancellation does seem smoother and more seamless. There's almost no perceptible hiss, unlike with the XM4.

[caption id="attachment_18423" align="alignnone" width="642"] The M5 (left) vs. the M4 (right).[/caption]

You can manually toggle between noise canceling and an ambient mode that lets sound in -- this is what Apple calls a transparency mode. And while the noise canceling levels aren't manually adjustable, you can adjust the amount of ambient sound you want to let in. When you set it at the highest ambient sound level, it does go a bit past transparency and actually augments sounds from the outside world. As I type this with ambient sound set to 20, for example, my key taps sound more pronounced than what I'd normally hear with no headphones on. 

I'm not going to go through all the features -- there are things like an adaptive sound mode, an ear-shape analyzer, plus support for Sony's 360 Reality virtual surround audio format for music, which is available with certain music services. I've highlighted what I think is the key stuff.

That also includes EQ settings in the app that you're probably going to end up playing around with, especially if you're used to the sound of the XM4 and even the XM3. Again, aside from their higher price tag, the biggest point of contention with these headphones will be their sound. Sony has equipped the XM5 with new more rigid 30mm carbon fiber drivers and these do sound markedly different from the two previous models. They have more of an audiophile sound profile with slightly more balanced, accurate sound, better clarity and a bit tighter bass. 

Sound comparison

Going back and forth between the XM4 and XM5, I noticed that the XM4 plays a little louder at the same volume level on my phone and is more forward and aggressive sounding. It does have 40mm drivers and I can see some people preferring its bolder, slightly more exciting sound, especially if you listen to a lot of hip-hop and bass-heavy tracks. That said, the XM5 does produce deep bass with plenty of kick. However, the XM4's bass can come across with a bit more gravitas. It's not exactly a quantity over quality situation, but the bass of the XM5 is more reserved but has better definition, which is what I like. 

And overall I preferred the more refined sound of the XM5 -- I do think it's an excellent sounding headphone -- but I suspect some reviewers may feel the headphones should offer a bigger perceived jump in sound quality based on their $400 price tag. That's $50 more than what the XM4 started out at. But you can frequently find that model for around $280 or less and I do expect to see some discounts on this new model in the not-so-distant future. 

While the changes to the XM5's sound might not please everybody, I appreciated that they sound different from the M4 and I like the direction Sony's taken the sound. The fact is that if you didn't have the M4 to compare them to, you'd simply think they sound smooth and accurate, the way a good pair of headphones is supposed to sound. You have to listen to them a bit more, and with a variety of music, to fully appreciate them.

[caption id="attachment_18424" align="alignnone" width="642"] The new faux leather ear pads.[/caption]

The added clarity and detail is particularly beneficial on tracks where you have several instruments playing at the same time (rock music, for instance). You can hear each instrument more distinctly compared to the XM4. The soundstages of the two headphones are similar -- they're both pretty spacious -- but you may have to take up the volume on the XM5  to get more of a visceral listening experience. That said, there's nothing wrong with the XM5's volume: These headphones play plenty loud and don't distort at higher volumes.

Like the XM4, these headphones support Sony's "high-definition" LDAC audio codec, which is available for streaming over a number of Android devices and certain dedicated music players. I wirelessly streamed music using an iPhone 13 Pro and a couple of Android phones. The Qobuz music service offers high-resolution tracks with Bluetooth streaming on Android devices (with LDAC or AptX Adaptive) and computers via a wired connection. Either scenario is supposed to get you to near lossless audio and I did notice an uptick in sound quality when I went with LDAC or used the headphones in wired mode with the included cable on a computer. I didn't use a headphone amp, but that is an option. 

If you're listening in wired mode, there's a touch more depth and texture to the music. That said, I felt the difference in sound quality was bigger when I used the AirPods Max in wired mode with an Apple cable you have to purchase separately (no, Apple doesn't include it). The jump in sound quality was even bigger with those headphones, which don't have LDAC support for Bluetooth streaming. 

While the AirPods Max are made out of more premium materials, the Sony WH-1000XM5's are significantly lighter and the better value. I'd lean toward taking the XM5 over the AirPods Max, even with the AirPods Max on sale (they're selling now for $479 but have dipped to lower prices in certain colors).  

Cracking the code for call quality

I'll finish with what I think is the XM5's biggest improvement over the XM4. And that's voice call quality. It took Sony five tries, but it's finally cracked the code on noise reduction during calls. These are truly impressive when it comes to calling in noisy environments. 

In my test calls, almost every caller said they thought I was calling from a quiet room indoors. They couldn't believe I was standing in the noisy streets of New York with traffic rushing by and some wind in the mix. As I said, these have four beam-forming microphones for voice calls and Sony's engineers have come up with some nifty AI (software algorithms) to isolate your voice while blocking a lot of background noise (you'll still hear car horns and kids shouting). I was impressed with the call quality of Sony's new LinkBuds earbuds, but the XM5 takes things to another level for voice calls.  

Like the XM4, these headphones have multipoint Bluetooth pairing so you can pair them with two devices at the same time and switch back and forth between them. It's an important feature for some people, particularly those of us who like to simultaneously pair our phones and computers while working from home.

Final thoughts

That's really the Sony WH-1000XM5 in a nutshell. As I said, there's going to be some debate over single-hinge vs. dual-hinge designs and whether the XM4 or XM5 sounds better (I think the XM5 does). But beyond those discussions, the XM5 has some clear upgrades, including a voice-calling experience that's arguably best-in-class. For those of you who already own the XM4, that's really the biggest reason to upgrade to the XM5. 

If you're just looking for a new pair of noise-canceling headphones, I do think the XM5 keeps Sony right at the top of the category and, if you can afford them, I'd take these over Bose's Noise Canceling 700 Headphones and the QuietComfort 45. Those Bose models are both excellent but the Sony XM5 headphones are the stronger overall package thanks to their impressive feature set, excellent sound and much improved voice calling.

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