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Sony WH-1000XM5 review: Still the Bluetooth headphones to beat

Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
379
inc VAT

Minor improvements to their predecessor keep the Sony WH-1000XM5 ahead of the chasing pack

Pros 
Excellent sound quality
Smart, effective noise cancelling
Extremely comfortable
Cons 
More expensive than predecessor
Still lack water resistance
No longer foldable
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The Sony WH-1000XM5 are the latest entry into one of the most critically and commercially successful headphones series of all time. Since the launch of the original MDR-1000X in 2017, Sony’s flagship over-ear noise cancellers have gone from strength to strength, with the WH-1000XM2, WH-1000XM3 and WH-1000XM4 all receiving our Best Buy award.

This fifth-generation update sticks closely to what has worked for Sony in the past, delivering smart, effective noise cancellation and outstanding audio quality wrapped up in a supremely comfortable package.

An aesthetic overhaul means that package looks more minimalist than the 2020 model but minor upgrades to many of the core features ensure the WH-1000XM5 surpass their predecessor in terms of performance. That comes at an increased price, however, so it’s still worth considering the discounted WH-1000XM4 if you’re looking for the best bang for your buck.

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Sony WH-1000XM5 review: What you need to know

The WH-1000XM5 share many traits with the model that came before them but have received tweaks in a few notable areas. The most obvious change is a structural one. The WH-1000XM5 have what Sony describes as a “noiseless” design with a stepless slider along with seamless swivels and hangers connecting the headband to the earcups.

Sony has also ditched the 40mm drivers found in the XM4 in favour of 30mm carbon-fibre composite alternatives. The new drivers have high rigidity domes and soft edges, which the Japanese manufacturer says improves clarity higher up the frequency spectrum and enhances noise cancellation efficacy.

That noise cancellation is also aided by an increase in the number of microphones. The mic count is up from five to eight on the WH-1000XM5 and Sony says that this, combined with the power of the Sony Integrated Processor V1 and Sony HD Noise Cancelling Processor QN1, results in its “biggest ever step forward in noise cancelling”.

Bluetooth connectivity now comes courtesy of version 5.2 with codec support extending to SBC, AAC and Sony LDAC. The latter provides access to Hi-Res streaming quality on most Android devices but can’t be used if you’re connected to two devices via Bluetooth Multipoint.

Battery life remains unchanged from the WH-1000XM4 at up to 30 hours of audio playback, a figure that jumps to 40 hours if you switch noise cancellation off. The convenience features that helped make the XM4 such a success have also made their way into the fifth-gen model. Adaptive Sound Control, Speak-to-Chat, wear detection, touch controls, Quick Attention mode and hands-free support for the Google and Alexa voice assistants are all present and correct, as are Sony’s DSEE Extreme upscaling algorithm and Precise Voice Pickup technology.

Like their predecessors, the WH-1000XM5 are compatible with the Sony Headphones Connect app, which provides plenty of ways to customise your experience and can also provide insights into your headphone usage if you’re willing to create an account.

Sony WH-1000XM5 review: Price and competition

Sony has bumped up the RRP of its flagship over-ear headphones by £30, meaning you’ll have to fork out £379 if you want either the black or platinum silver pair. If you’re happy to settle for the last-gen WH-1000XM4, you’ll regularly find them available for around £250, with prices occasionally falling closer to the £200 mark.

Competition is fierce in the over-ear noise-cancelling headphones market and there are plenty of other capable non-Sony alternatives worth considering. The Bose QuietComfort 45 attenuate external sound exceptionally well and cost £320, while the Apple AirPods Max are more expensive but integrate seamlessly with the Apple ecosystem, making them a great choice if you own an iPhone, iPad or MacBook.

The Bowers & Wilkins PX7 and Technics EAH-A800 both have style in abundance and can be picked up for around £300, while the £350 Nuraphone combine innovative audio personalisation technology with a hybrid in- and over-ear design to deliver impressive noise cancellation and fantastic sound quality.

READ NEXT: The best over-ear headphones

Sony WH-1000XM5 review: Design and comfort

The Sony WH-1000XM5 look rather different to their predecessors and I initially thought them a little basic in appearance. In time, however, I’ve come to appreciate their simple elegance to the point where I actually prefer them to the XM4.

They’re engineered in such a way that nothing feels surplus to requirements. The stepless headband slider moves smoothly, making adjusting the size of the headphones extremely easy, while the swivelling sections connected to the narrow headband blend into the earcups in a pleasingly minimalist manner.

Earcup controls are kept to a minimum, with just two buttons (power/pairing and noise cancelling/ambient) located on the left cup along with a 3.5mm jack. The outer surface of the right earcup functions as a touch pad for playback controls and these worked reasonably consistently during testing, although I did occasionally have to repeat a double tap to play or pause as the first action didn’t register.

The minimalist aesthetic serves a practical purpose too – by streamlining the structure, there’s less space for wind to move through and affect noise-cancelling performance. This is one part of the “noiseless” design Sony refers to, with the other being the use of soft fit leather to line the memory foam earcups. The cups don’t look particularly well padded but they do feel extremely comfortable around the ears and create a seal that provides impressive passive noise reduction.

Though only a few grams lighter than their predecessors at 250g, the difference between the two models felt more pronounced than that – these are headphones you can wear for hours on end.

There are a couple of issues with the design, however. Unlike previous entries in the series, the WH-1000XM5’s earcups can’t be folded inwards, so you’re unable to stash them in a coat pocket. This means you’ll have to wear them around your neck when not using them if you don’t have their collapsible carrying case to hand. Personally, I’m fine with that, but it’s something that will likely bother some.

The other issue is their lack of water resistance. There’s an insert in the box explicitly stating the headphones shouldn’t be exposed to rain or worn if you’re sweating, which is a blow if you want a pair of headphones for wearing in the gym. It’s something I highlighted in my review of the WH-1000XM4 but Sony seems unwilling, or perhaps unable, to address the issue without compromising the headphones in other ways.

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Sony WH-1000XM5 review: Features

The WH-1000XM4 have one of the most impressive feature sets around and the XM5 include all of the same functionality.

Speak-to-Chat pauses your audio when your voice is detected, allowing you to hold a conversation without missing a second of whatever you’re listening to. It’s particularly handy in an office environment but those prone to singing along to songs will want to turn it off, which can be done in-app or by holding two outspread fingers on the right earcup.

Quick Attention mode provides an easy way of increasing your awareness of your surroundings by piping in ambient sound. Holding your hand over the right earcup activates it and I found it handy when I wanted to hear what was being said by those around me while sitting at my desk.

Wear detection is handled by a sensor located on the inside of the left earcup and it works very consistently. It only ever paused audio when the left earcup was fully removed from my ear and audio resumed promptly when back in position.

Quick Access lets you assign a specific service to double or triple presses of the noise cancellation button. At present, only “Spotify Tap” is available as an option and this immediately launches Spotify if you have the app open on your mobile. Spotify remains the most popular music streaming service around, so having it available at the touch of a button is a smart move on Sony’s part.

DSEE Extreme and Precise Voice Pickup do their work autonomously without any user input, although the former does need to be toggled on in the app. DSEE Extreme is the latest version of Sony’s AI upscaling technology, which is designed to help improve the sound quality of lossy content, while Precise Voice Pickup uses four beamforming mics and an AI algorithm to isolate your voice when on calls. Sony says the latter now reduces the impact of wind more effectively but I didn’t notice a huge difference.

READ NEXT: Best wireless earbuds

Sony WH-1000XM5 review: Noise cancellation

Sony’s noise cancellation is among the best in the business and that remains the case with the WH-1000XM5. This time around, the company has incorporated “Auto NC Optimizer” technology to analyse your environment and wearing conditions (if you put on a pair of glasses, for example) and adjust noise cancellation accordingly. The adjustments are pretty much impossible to pick up on but I was extremely impressed with sound attenuation overall.

Low-end frequencies are very effectively reduced and the attenuation of mid-range and higher-pitched frequencies is a step up on the XM5’s predecessor, too. You’ll still be able to hear nearby voices on transport or in the office clearly enough to make out what’s being said if you don’t have music playing, but anything above 30% volume and only the loudest of interruptions will disturb your listening experience.

The ambient mode is exceptional, too. It operates on a 20-point scale and at maximum you’ll almost feel as though you don’t have headphones on at all. The clarity with which external sound makes its way to your ears is second to none and it doesn’t feel unnaturally processed.

Like the WH-1000XM4 and their in-ear stablemates the WF-1000XM4, the WH-1000XM5 can make use of Sony’s Adaptive Sound Control technology to switch noise-cancelling and audio settings based on your actions and location. Settings can be assigned to four actions – Staying (not moving), Walking, Running and Transport – and for locations you’ve visited frequently or add via an in-app GPS map.

The WH-1000XM5 never missed a beat in terms of registering my actions. As soon as I got up and started moving around, my settings would switch from staying to walking and the same proved true when moving between different registered locations. The technology functioned brilliantly on both the WH-1000XM4 and WF-1000XM5 and works equally well here.

When compared to the competition, I would still give a slight edge to the Bose QC45 when it comes to dampening voices but in every other respect, the WH-1000XM5 are at least their equal and, when it comes to intelligent noise cancellation, far superior.

READ NEXT: Sony TV model numbers explained

Sony WH-1000XM5 review: Sound quality

Complementing that excellent noise cancellation is first-rate sonic delivery. The move to the new 30mm drivers has certainly had a positive effect, allowing the WH-1000XM5 to produce a broader soundstage and extract even more detail from source material than their predecessors.

That’s true whether you’re listening to a bass-heavy banger like DJ Snake’s “Bird Machine” or something with a greater number of layers like the 2012 remaster of the Sex Pistol’s “Submission”. The low-end is tight and precise, different notes are distinct and instrument separation is equally impressive.

The level of clarity does wonders for vocals, too. The fluctuations and strains in Johnny Rotten’s voice on the aforementioned Pistols track were super-clean despite the chaotic nature of the arrangement and Rotten’s exaggerated, anarchistic enunciation.

There’s very little to complain about with the default EQ, but if you do want to tweak it, there’s a graphic equaliser in the Headphones Connect app. This lets you adjust the 400Hz, 1kHz, 2.5kHz, 6.3kHz and 16kHz frequency bands, increase or decrease bass, and save two custom EQs. Various EQ presets, including “Excited” and “Mellow”, provide alternative listening options if you’d rather not play around yourself and cover a broad enough range to cater for most musical genres.

In addition to Hi-Res audio support over LDAC, the WH-1000XM5 support Sony’s 360 Reality Audio and can create a Dolby Atmos surround sound experience when connected to one of the company’s Bravia XR televisions via its WLA-NS7 wireless transmitter. This isn’t something I was able to test but is a nice bit of ecosystem-specific compatibility for those who do own a premium Sony TV.

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Sony WH-1000XM5 review: Verdict

The WH-1000XM5 don’t reinvent Sony’s noise-cancelling headphones formula but they are superior to their predecessors in the key areas of comfort, sound quality and noise cancellation. The improvements made may not be huge, but Sony has set a high bar for itself and the uptick in performance is noticeable enough.

The new form factor won’t be to everyone’s tastes and the inability to fold the headphones will put some people off, as will the higher RRP. That price hike is reflective of global trends, however, so I’m inclined to let Sony off the hook on this one.

What it does mean is that owners of the Sony WH-1000XM4 will likely want to wait for a price drop before upgrading, and those looking to make a value-for-money purchase should gravitate towards the last-gen model. The Sony WH-1000XM5 are best-in-class Bluetooth noise-cancellers but, while they’re still available, their predecessors remain a better option for most people.

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