Like Nintendo, Sony has a long history of experimenting with weird products. Sometimes those experiments are flops, but other times they result in genuinely clever, useful, and innovative products. The new Sony LinkBuds fall into that latter category. They won’t completely replace your favorite pair of headphones, but you might actually find yourself using them far more.
Five years after the original Apple AirPods helped make wireless earbuds a (relatively) affordable mainstream product, headphone makers now need to bring something new to the table if they want folks to upgrade. For the most part, that has involved minor improvements made to sound quality, battery life, or noise cancellation, but the new Sony LinkBuds don’t actually include improvements on any of those fronts.
Instead, Sony took into consideration where and how most consumers use their wireless earbuds—at work, on the subway, out on the street, etc.—and came up with a new design that makes it much easier to hear the world and people around you while still taking calls or listening to music and podcasts. It sounds like a niche product, but Sony has executed the LinkBuds so well that I’m surprised how often I’ve been using them.
Up until this point, there’s really been two approaches to making it easier to hear what’s going on around you while wearing wireless headphones: transparency modes, where wireless earbuds use a built-in microphone to simply boost surrounding sounds like a hearing aid, or bone conduction, where headphones transmit sounds through your cheekbones using vibrations, leaving your ears completely uncovered.
With the LinkBuds, Sony is introducing a third solution. Instead of cramming speaker drivers into your ear canals (which are often paired with squishy tips to create a tight seal that prevents other sounds from getting in) Sony has created a 12-millimeter driver in the shape of a ring with a hole in the middle.
Most earbuds go out of their way to block any other sounds from entering your ear, but the LinkBuds let them pass right on through. Without removing the earbuds from your ears you can easily carry on conversations or hear the sound of a cyclist’s bell coming up behind you while still enjoying music or a podcast. That’s assuming you don’t have the volume turned up too high, because even with a hole, the LinkBuds still deliver sound right at the entrance to your ear canals and can still easily drown out everything else you hear.
After the hole, the other thing you notice about the LinkBuds is their size. They’re definitely the smallest and lightest wireless earbuds I’ve ever tested.
I often recommend the third-generation Apple AirPods to people looking for a comfortable set of wireless ‘buds as they just sit in the outer folds of the ear instead of going deep inside the ear canal. I also know some people struggle to keep AirPods securely in their ears, which makes the LinkBuds a solid alternative when comfort’s a priority.
In lieu of noise-blocking silicone or memory foam tips that also help anchor wireless earbuds in place, the LinkBuds rely on a silicone ring with a squishy protruding bump that slips under one of the folds in your ear for a secure hold. Sony includes five of these rings with bumps of various sizes so you can find a secure fit that also doesn’t put too much pressure on your ear that can cause soreness over time.
With the proper sized silicone ring in place, the lightweight Sony LinkBuds provide a very secure and comfortable fit, even if you’re jumping around during a workout. That’s important for a wireless earbud designed to be left in all day, but there is still a bit of a bulge that sticks out of your ear to accommodate a battery that provides 5.5 hours of use on a charge, or 17.5 hours in total when paired with an equally tiny charging case.
That’s less use per charge than the third-generation AirPods provide, and while a 10-minute nap in the charging case will give the LinkBuds another 90 minutes of power, I do feel that a slightly larger battery would have been beneficial here, even if it slightly increased the size and weight of the earbuds.
Sony isn’t positioning the LinkBuds as a replacement for your favorite pair of wireless earbuds, but as a secondary pair that are better suited for specific use cases, like a workday spent in an office where people are constantly wanting to talk to you. And while no, they don’t sound anywhere as good as my favorite wireless earbuds that I use when I really want to enjoy my music, I’m genuinely surprised at how good the LinkBuds do sound.
The sound is crisp and clear and can be pushed to uncomfortable listening levels without any distortion, and the highs and lows are well balanced with the default settings. The sound profile can be customized using presets or manual EQ adjustments through the Sony Headphones mobile app, and while I think that gives them an advantage over the third-gen Apple AirPods, what’s completely lacking with the LinkBuds is that satisfying thump from lower bass frequencies. The low-end is there, you can hear it, but you just don’t feel it, and that seems to be the biggest sacrifice the LinkBuds had to make.
The LinkBuds bring with them features from other Sony headphones that make it easier to leave them in all day, including speak to chat functionality, where the earbuds automatically pause playback when you start talking, and then resume again after a predetermined length of time once you’re done speaking. It works very well, and is a feature I’d love to have on every pair of wireless headphones I use.
But my favorite feature of the LinkBuds is something Sony is calling Wide Area Tap. Being able to control music playback and other functions directly through a pair of wireless earbuds without having to reach for your phone is a useful feature, but it often requires users to tap or touch the earbuds themselves, which easily dislodges them from their already precarious perches in your ears. I’ve tested many of these tap shortcuts for reviews in the last few years, but I simply don’t ever use them in real life and usually just rely on a smartwatch as a playback remote.
Wide Area Tap changes that. Instead of having to directly tap the LinkBuds to activate shortcuts (you can if you want to) users can instead tap the area around their ears, and the buds will recognize the gesture. The shortcuts can be configured in the Sony Headphones app, but double tapping the area in front of my left ear raises volume, while a triple tap lowers it, and taps around my right ear control music playback. I’ve found the taps are easily detected in front of my ear, above it, and even below it, and the LinkBuds will recognize even the lightest of boops. It’s a feature that just works great, and honestly might even be a bigger selling point than the LinkBuds’ open-ear design.
Here’s where I normally tell you if a pair of wireless earbuds are worth ditching your current pair for, but not even Sony is trying to sell the LinkBuds that way.
Like Shokz’ bone-conducting wireless headphones, the LinkBuds are more of a companion to your Apple AirPods, Google Pixel Buds, or Master & Dynamic MW08s. They sound surprisingly good, but not quite as good as what these other earbuds offer in terms of sound performance—and you don’t get active noise cancellation with the LinkBuds. What they do offer is a better experience if you’re tired of constantly having to take your earbuds out every time someone at work stops by to have an in-person chat, or if you aren’t a fan of artificial sound-boosting transparency modes when you’re out for a bike ride and want to be able to hear cars and other cyclists sharing the road, or other hazards.
The LinkBuds do what they promise very well, and I desperately want features like Wide Area Tap to show up on competitors’ products. It’s their $180 price tag that’s the real sticking point. Had Sony managed to get the price down closer to $100, I think it would have a much easier time selling consumers on the idea of buying them as a secondary pair. That being said, were I someone who didn’t work from a quiet home and forced to participate in office life, I could see myself using the LinkBuds far more often than my favorite pair of buds. So maybe Sony’s marketing should instead insist that rival earbuds are actually the companion to the LinkBuds.