Ear buds are great for a lot of people; they’re small and can be worn discreetly, they often pack a powerful sound punch, and they are the ultimate in portability. But for some people they can be extremely uncomfortable because they protrude into the ear canal, creating pain or tension, or just giving an uncomfortable plugged up feeling. To resolve the pain and the odd isolation feeling, manufacturers are now starting to create what are called open earbuds. This style of headphone no longer protrudes directly into the ear canal, rather it leaves the area open, resting instead inside the larger ear concha. I recently bought a pair of Sony Link Buds (model WFL-900-W), the company’s newest earbud offering. In this review, I’ll tell you about their fit and comfort, how they sound, special features, and if I can recommend them for you.
Sony Link Buds review
Sony Link Buds
I’m loving these! These headphones sound great, they’re ultra comfortable to wear, and I love the open feeling. The size is perfect for travel or commuting, and all of the special features work outstandingly well. Battery life could be better.
- Amazing sound
- Unique, comfortable open fit
- Super small & portable
- Packed with features
- Chat removal works very well
- Auto power off
- Automatic level adjustment works great
- Ears never feel plugged
- Battery life is average-to-low
- I wish they had noise cancelling
- Can’t adjust amount of ambient noise coming in
Why choose open ear buds?
The Cliffs Notes or Coles Notes here is that Open-ear wireless headphones are headphones that don’t block or cover your ear canals and the idea is to let you hear both your music and your surroundings at the same time.
The major upside to getting this product is that you don’t need to have anything jammed in your ear canal if you find that uncomfortable. You can get Transparency Mode or HearThrough digitally from a lot of headphones and ear buds but the key difference here is nothing is physically blocking your ear canal or covering your ear.
What makes Sony Link Buds special?
You can find some other open earbuds out there, including over-ear hooking Bose Sport Open which uses bone conduction to get the sound into your ear. Sony says it’s unique open ring driver easily manages both your content and allows you to be aware of your surroundings at the same time while delivering clear phone calls and music.
These are also IPX4 water resistant meaning they protect against splashing water, no matter the direction, and these should be able to withstand wet workouts or rain.
There are also some crazy touch controls that don’t work when you touch the buds, they work when you touch your face in front of the buds. Woaaaah. More on this in a sec.
Approximately four grams in weight and so very small, LinkBuds are a “marvel of miniaturization” according to Sony.
Notably while the open design does allow you to keep an ear on your surroundings like you can with Hear-Through or similar technology, there’s no noise cancelling in these earbuds, meaning there’s no way to block out exterior noise if you need that kind of focus.
What’s in the box?
In the package you get your pair of Link Buds, a super tiny charging and storage case, and a power cord for charging.
The first time you put these earbuds in they should be in pairing mode and you can go to your phones Bluetooth app and tap to connect. If you want a little bit of additional functionality you can download the Sony headphones connect app which adds a few features, settings and visual battery life indicator. You can also link Amazon Alexa Digital Assistant during app set up if you like.
Fit, feel and comfort
The headphones look smooth soft and comfortable just on their own, but their somewhat double-angled-circle design did make me wonder how they would feel in my ear. They’re a bit odd to place the first time, with the open ring over your ear canal and the small bud towards the back. Tuck the tiny silicone loop in for stability and you should be ready to go. I loved the feeling of a good fit, without a tiny rubber plug jammed in my ear.
One of the great things about these headphones is they said almost completely flush with your ear. They do not protrude, hang, or dangle out. They are extremely discreet to wear, and would actually be outstanding for sleeping in, even on your side. Right away I did notice that it doesn’t feel like anything whatsoever is plugging my ears. It definitely feels open and natural. Even though I don’t have a major issue with stuff in my ear canal, right away this felt better; the new fit I didn’t know I needed.
Bonus? No gross earwax!
Can you hear everything while listening? Does sound bleed out?
One of the biggest questions folks have about open earbuds is, can others hear your music while it’s playing. The short answer is no. Even with these earbuds playing at a moderate volume level someone standing right beside you will only barely be able to hear it; it wouldn’t even be reminiscent of that annoying guy who has his volume set on nine and it’s bleeding out everywhere.
Without noise cancellation or adjustable hear-through there is no way to control the ambient noise bleeding in and I guess that might be a downside for some shoppers. I will say that with the music playing, most background noise is muted to a moderate level and it’s not overbearing. Even so it’s still possible to hear things like the doorbell, dog barking, or someone talking to you, but the music is the focus, and you can drown out the background by increasing the volume. If you’re looking for complete cone of silence, these are probably not for you.
Touch Controls: Wide Area Tap
The Sony Link Buds come with something that’s akin to touch controls, called Wide Area Tap. With this feature, you can double or triple tap your jaw in front of either ear to control your music playback. You never even need to touch LinkBuds to operate them. This feature works amazingly well and I think it’s much smarter than touch controls, mainly because touch controls on earbuds can be finicky and require you to place your finger in the exact right sport or they aren’t responsive. With Sony’s wide area top, you don’t need to be very precise and you get exactly the results you want every time. I was blown away by this feature and it may be among my new favourite technologies.
Sound & call quality
From the first moment I slipped these into my ears, I was in love with the audio quality. The base is beautiful, the levels are perfectly set, and the overall balance is very evenhanded. These headphones sound fantastic no matter what I was listening to.
I was surprised by the new musical intricacies I heard in Sting’s Englishman in New York, and loved the subtleties I got from Dual Lipa and Elton John. Jazz was detailed and so much fun to listen to.
When it came to phone calls the Link Buds were able to slip seamlessly between music and calling. My callers said I sounded great and really clear.
Sony’s Precise Voice Pickup technology may be the reason. Sony claims it performs advanced voice signal processing that allows the person on the other end of calls to hear you clearly, even through noisy surroundings. So I took myself outside on a very windy day and started dialing. None of my callers said they could hear any wind noise.
Automatic audio adjustment
Adaptative Volume control is supposed to automatically optimize volume based on how loud it is around you. This means the Sony LinkBuds will adjust to lower volume in quieter places and raise it in noisier situations. I was actually super impressed with how well this worked; the effect is subtle, as in it climbs gradually. It doesn’t just snap from say volume 2 to 8, it adapts gently but effectively.
Speak to Chat & Pause Removal
With the Speak to Chat feature, the LinkBuds will automatically pause your audio as soon as you start talking to someone so you can have a conversation without taking the headphones out. When you’re done, the Link Buds are smart enough to resume playing your audio, and you can adjust how quickly that will happen, from 5 seconds after to 30 seconds. This feature works really, really well and I quite like the option.
This is not, however, good for people who talk to themselves, or folks who like to sing along, since it will stop the music any time it detects you talking. While it worked great, I’m forever mumbling to myself or singing along so it was constantly pausing the music and I ended up turning the feature off.
Auto Power off
When enabled, you can set the earbuds to automatically power off when removed so you do;’t have to worry about them draining.
Battery life & charging
The Sony Link Buds have up to 5.5 hours of battery and a total of up to 17.5 hours with the charging case.
Truthfully, that’s actually a bit on the average-to-low side of earbuds these days, but it’s probably because the buds and the case are so small there’s just not a great way to hold a lot of power; you’ve got to make tradeoffs.
While I’d love to see Sony make these with a lot more battery, it’s probably just not possible… yet.
In the Sony app
EQ & Presets
The Sony headphones connect app gives you precision equalizer settings that let you adjust things like bass and treble with a click. If you don’t want to fuss with settings yourself, you can choose one of the five preset sound options. These include: bass boost, treble boost, vocal, relaxed, mellow, excited, bright or none of the above.
Each setting does offer a bit of a different sound profile, and my picks were Extra Bass or just off.
360 Reality Audio
360 Reality Audio is a new immersive music experience using Sony’s 360 Spatial Sound technology. This technology lets Sony dynamically place and control individual sounds in a 360 spherical sound field and immerse listeners in sound from all around. Sony asks to take photos of your ears for this, then conducts some kind of analysis, but it appears you need a subscription to certain music services that use 360 Reality technology. Since I wasn’t a member, there was nothing for me to try.
Spatial Sound Optimization
If you’re taking advantage of music services or technologies that use spatial sound, these headphones can work with that. Essentially you’ll put the earbuds in, turn some music on and move your head around while Sony measures some thing. It doesn’t really tell you what to do next, or how to best take advantage of this technology so this was another feature I probably didn’t make the most of. Maybe later…
Soundscape is a Microsoft app that purports to help you stay aware of where you are and where you’re going by using unique audio guidance and calling out roads intersections and places as you approach them. Soundscape uses 3-D sound to let you know what’s around you. For example if your destination is on your right you will hear sound coming from that direction similarly if a coffee shop you’re seeking is on your left you’ll hear a call out from that direction. Essentially soundscape place is an audio beacon on your destinations and uses you’re supposed to just be able to put your phone away and walk and soundscape will help you stay aware of what you need to know. This might be a whole blog on its own…
Overall review: Sony Link Buds
I’m surprised at how much I enjoyed my Sony Link Buds. These headphones sound great, they’re ultra comfortable to wear, and I love the open feeling. The size is perfect for travel or commuting, and all of the special features work outstandingly well.
Downsides? The Sony Link Buds aren’t breaking any barriers when it comes to battery life but you should have more than enough to get you through a day or two. I also really wish there was a way to incorporate noise cancelling entities, but in truth I fell in love with so many of the other aspects of the earbuds that I found myself not truly missing noise cancellation after a while. (But to the Sony engineers: if it’s possible let’s add noise cancellation and adjustable ambient to gen 2).
I really really love these earbuds and they have earned a place in my ears and perhaps even as my new go to headphones. Sony Link Buds sell for about $179USD/$249CAD and you can get them from Sony or Amazon.
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