Sony has announced its latest wireless earbuds: the LinkBuds S, and they're a fascinating mix of tech borrowed from the mighty Sony WF-1000XM4 in a lighter body that costs less. And as a result, I think they could be the first earbuds to finally break the grip the AirPods Pro have had on my ear canals since they came out, because they check certain boxes that too many headphones miss.
I've tested dozens of pairs of the best wireless earbuds since the AirPods Pro first released in 2019, many of which beat the AirPods in various ways. They offer longer battery life, or better sound quality, or more effective noise cancellation… but they rarely beat the AirPods in every way. And more importantly, they don't do it while being as lightweight, small and comfortable as the AirPods Pro.
It's the thing the AirPods Pro got right from the start, and which often gets forgotten, or not taken into account at all. The AirPods Pro weigh 5.4 grams / 0.19 oz per earbud, and their stick design means that the weight doesn't feel like it's sticking way out of your ear, trying to pull itself out.
By comparison, each Sony WF-1000XM4 weighs 7.3 grams / 0.26 oz, and while 1.9 grams might not seem like a huge difference, it's a full 35% heavier. And then you factor in the bulkier design, meaning that the weight sits differently.
The design of the AirPods Pro also means the case is slimmer, so it slips into a pocket without digging into your leg, or bulging awkwardly. As a result of these various advantages, I always end up back with my AirPods Pro – I crave the comfort.
And this brings us back to the Sony LinkBuds S, which feature the same custom V1 sound and noise-cancelling processor as the WF-1000XM4, but are 40% smaller than Sony's top earbuds, and weigh just 4.8g / 0.17 oz per bud.
Opinion: Compromises worth making
Sony has told TechRadar that the LinkBuds S won't offer as strong active noise cancellation as the WF-1000XM4 despite using the same processor, and this is likely down to them having a different driver and microphone configuration – which is to be expected given their lower $199 / £180 price than the Sony WF-1000XM4's $279 / £219. (Except in Australia, where they're the same AU$349 price. Go figure.)
But even slightly less effective noise cancellation from Sony is still likely to beat everything else on the market that doesn't have 'Bose' in the name. And you still get a lot of the features I love about Sony headphones, including the excellent control app, and the DSEE music upscaling, which aims to add extra detail back into the compressed audio that gets sent over Bluetooth. And there's LDAC support for those who want high-quality wireless.
And they'll also address my biggest gripe with AirPods Pro, which is the battery life. The LinkBuds S offer six hours per charge of the buds, while the AirPods Pro manage 4.5-5 hours – just a little extra flexibility would be very welcome.
If I'm getting all the best features of Sony headphones, but in what looks to be an even more comfortable design than the AirPods Pro… well, who could resist?
The LinkBuds S will be available at the "end of May 2022", according to Sony.