Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones review: Robust ANC and sound
Sony has long been the reigning champion of over-ear and noise-canceling headphones. The WH-1000XM4 in 2020 offered 30 hours of battery life, a lightweight design, and great sound. And Sony’s WH-1000XM5 adds more tech and updates the look.
They’re also $50 more at $399, undercutting Apple’s $549 AirPods Max. And given the performance of the WH-1000XM4, Sony is keeping them in line at $349. So for $50 more, what does the WH-1000XM5 bring to the table?
Well, I spent nearly a week playing with Olivia Rodrigo, Lorde, and Bruce Springsteen while taking calls and blocking out loud rides and neighbors to put them through their paces. So let’s dive into Sony’s latest over-ear headphones.
Arena Media Brands, LLC and this website’s respective content providers may receive compensation for certain links to products and services on this website.
A sleeker build with larger earcups
After sticking with a fairly similar over-ear design for the WH-1000XM4 (and the XM3s before that), Sony is opting for a simpler design with softer materials and larger ear cups. However, there are no premium materials like Apple’s AirPods Max or fun pops of color like Beats By Dre. The WH-1000XM5 still uses mostly plastic and is only available in black or white.
The biggest change is the larger ear cups, which allow them to fit even on larger than average ears. It’s about creating a comfortable experience, and Sony has done that here. And yes, it’s similar to the oversized earbud design of the AirPods Max. This change is not only more comfortable, but it also provides a better seal around the ear. This keeps the music inside and passively blocks out external sounds. The memory foam in the ear cup is more compliant and softer to the touch year after year.
This softer foam extends to the top headband, which is significantly thinner than the previous generation. It doesn’t exert as much pressure as the WH-1000XM4, but those can still be felt on your head. They don’t disappear instantly like the AirPods Max with their canopy headband.
Nor is it a single solid piece of plastic that connects the headband to the ear cups. Sony takes a more modern approach, similar to the AirPods Max and Bose Noise Canceling Headphones 700, in that it’s a circular piece that extends and is bare – ie unencased in the foam. The earbuds can also be rotated to lay flat, keeping them slim in the included carrying case. Unlike the WH-1000XM4, the XM5s don’t fold in on themselves for ultra portability.
And all of these changes make for a comfortable pair of headphones. The larger ear cups make them a bit more comfortable than the previous generation for those with bigger ears, but it’s a similar experience.
The outer side of the right ear cup is touch sensitive for easy control – double to play or pause, swipe up or down for volume and swipe left or right for play. The left earcup also has a dedicated button for activating ANC and one for power along with a headphone jack. And you’ll charge the XM5s via a USB-C port on the right ear cup.
Great sound that you can customize
The most important part of headphones is their sound quality, and Sony’s WH-1000XM5 sound is terrific. It’s better than the previous generation XM4s, but not to a wild degree. So if you have some you don’t need to rush, but if you’re new or have an even older pair, you’re in for a treat.
No matter the genre or artist, the WH-1000XM5 delivers rich, crisp sound that sounds great. And for just a pair of headphones, they present every aspect of a track in a powerful mix. Take Olivia Rodrigo’s “Brutal” – the XM5 smoothly introduces the high opening tones, then slams with a thunderous low bass. It’s a song that’s packed with lots of inputs – leads, heavy bass, a guitar riff, backing vocals and lots of electric tones – and the XM5s don’t muddy the mix or introduce different artifacts into the song.
With Florence And The Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over,” you won’t find the mid to low tones under the lead vocal rolling into each other, but rather each is crisp. Likewise, the build-up with all the instruments is energizing and rich with the necessary tones.
Scroll to continue
The audio feed here is a Sony-made 30mm driver unit that offers plenty of power to create a wide soundstage. For example, Bruce Springsteen‘s “I’m on Fire” puts you firmly in the center between vocals and separate stereo instruments around your head. Sony also supports superior audio forms such as LDAC and DSEE Extreme on the XM5s. There’s even an audio jack if you want a wired experience.
True to Sony’s commitment to audio, it’s possible to customize the mix on the fly via the “Sony Headphones” companion app for Android and iOS. Here you can cycle through presets such as “Bright” or use the sliders to create a custom EQ audio mix that you can save. I wish more headphones offered this feature as well.
Best-in-class noise cancellation
The $349.99 WH-1000XM4 was already among the best noise-canceling headphones on the market, truthfully tied to the AirPods Max. So chances are you’re wondering how Sony could improve the experience like me. And the solution was more hardware inside the XM5s and a smarter approach to noise cancellation.
The WH-1000XM5 has two dedicated noise canceling processors and eight microphones, which is a step up from the previous model’s five. It all works in harmony to quickly block out sound – and just like the WH-1000XM4 and AirPods Max, these quickly get into noise cancellation with a bit of a vacuum seal. You will quickly be alone with your thoughts and hear no ambient noise. It’s good for getting rid of low frequencies like loud thumps and footsteps, but it also works better at tackling higher frequencies – things like human voice, HVAC systems, and general fodder when of your travels.
And it’s fair to say that the XM5 is closer to the AirPods Max in terms of canceling a wide range of frequencies. This is useful if you are trying to concentrate as it blocks out all sounds better. It’s still best in class here, and I don’t know what more I could ask for when it comes to noise cancellation here.
With the upgraded tech on board, Sony wants to take it a step further with a smart approach to ANC…mainly with the right time to engage it. “Adaptive ANC” uses sensors and noise to determine your activity and then set the correct listening mode. It can activate noise cancellation if it detects that you are still for a while, like working at a desk. The same is true if you are on a train or plane. And if you’re walking or running, it will let in ambient sound.
And after a week of testing in various scenarios, it works well and makes it easy to wear throughout the day. I could start it up at my desk with ANC on, and when I leave my apartment for coffee or to pick up a package, it switches between modes. It’s pretty handy, and I like that you can customize these modes by choosing the sound experience you have and its levels.
Ambient sound, Sony AKA Transparency mode, is not as natural as AirPods Max or even AirPods Pro. This still adds some nourishment in the form of fuzz.
Fast charging and clear voice pickup
While many were hoping for another wild jump in battery life, the WH-1000XM5s still deliver the same 30 hours of battery life as the WH-1000XM4s. It’s still durable and lets you go days without recharging. Sony has met the same brand with an updated design and more power-hungry components.
Surprisingly with my battery test – listening at 60% volume with ANC and ambient sound off, the WH-1000XM5s lasted 31.5 hours of playback.
What’s new is a quick-charge feature – essentially plugging the WH-1000XM5s in for around three minutes provides around three and a half hours of listening time. It’s pretty impressive and if you ever hit a stalemate – say before a flight – you can top them up quickly. Heck, you could even do it on the plane.
Last but not least, especially since many of us will be using them to work remotely or in an office, let’s talk about call quality. And the good news is that it has improved a lot from generation to generation. Of the eight microphones in total, four are used for voice pickup and provide clean delivery.
I could be heard clearly and without too much background noise during phone calls and even VoIP calls on Google Meet and FaceTime. These don’t quite reach the AirPods Max level, which reduces environmental noise to zero, but they perform at a high level.
At the end of the line
Sony’s WH-1000XM5 are a great pair of headphones that impress with their comfortable design, robust sound quality and class-leading active noise cancellation. They will also last much longer than the competition.
But what complicates an immediate recommendation is that the almost equally excellent WH-1000XM4s are still online, and they’re $50 cheaper. And if you have some, there is no need to buy them right away.
Those sticking with XM3s or older will see significant improvements in key features by opting for the WH-1000XM5s. And if you’re new to on-ear headphones, the XM5s are worth a look and are probably the right decision if you want to block out all sound, listen to higher quality tracks or like a more sophisticated look. If none of that is a must, you’ll be just as happy with the XM4s.
Sony’s WH-1000XM5s are up for pre-order now at $399.99 in black or white and will start shipping May 20.
Prices are correct and items in stock at time of publication.