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Review: Sony’s LinkBuds S offer top comfort and noise-canceling for $200

A few months ago, Sony released the most interesting earbuds I’ve tested in years. The $180 LinkBuds — a rare Sony product with a pronounceable name — have a ring-shaped design that allows ambient sounds to filter through with perfect clarity. They also feature futuristic controls that allow you to tap the space in front of the earbuds rather than tapping on a tiny surface.

As it turns out, Sony had another addition to the LinkBuds family on the way — the $200 LinkBuds S — and it couldn’t be more different. And by ‘different,’ I mean they’re a pair of utterly normal earbuds.

But they’re very good normal earbuds. In fact, I’d argue that for most people, they’re the best earbuds Sony sells. Coming right after the WH-1000XM5 headphones, Sony is on quite the roll.

The original LinkBuds are great, but they are absolutely not for everyone. The lack of noise canceling (or any noise-blocking properties at all) completely invalidates them for a large group of potential buyers. On the other hand, Sony’s best noise-canceling earbuds, the WF-1000XM4, are quite pricey at $279.

The LinkBuds S, available from May 20, instead try to offer the best of both worlds, combining noise canceling that is almost as good as the WF-1000XM4 with an unusually effective ambient sound mode. It’s not as good as the cheaper LinkBuds — which, you know, have a big ol’ hole in them — but it’s better than most.

But headphones have combined noise-canceling with transparency modes for years now; why use the LinkBuds branding at all?

Sony says that, like their open-eared siblings, the LinkBuds S are aimed at a new generation of listeners — people who wear at least one earbud most of the day. According to Sony, these youngsters want to be connected with the real world and their online friends at the same time, hence the focus on ambient awareness in this particular lineup.

It’s a good thing, then, that the LinkBuds S are some of the most comfortable earbuds I’ve worn. I’m not someone who normally has much trouble with earbud comfort, but this is about as good as it gets short of custom-made earbuds. Sony claims they’re the smallest and lightest earbuds with active noise canceling too, and I’m inclined to believe them.

What differentiates the LinkBuds S from most other headphones with a transparency mode is something called Adaptive Sound Control. Basically, the headphones are able to switch sound modes depending on your environment and movements. Start walking, for example, and the headphones automatically switch to ambient awareness mode. It’s a feature Sony has been refining over the years, but with the LinkBuds S, I finally feel it’s genuinely useful.

Over time, the LinkBuds S can actually learn if you prefer to have noise canceling on or off at different locations, such as if you prefer isolation at the gym but would rather have ambient awareness at home. You can even specify locations from a map if you don’t trust Sony to guess on its own, although that requires allowing the Sony app to access your location at all times.

While the headphones can’t possibly know what noise-canceling settings I’d prefer in every situation, I appreciated how the headphones could automatically switch to ambient awareness when I went out to walk my dog. There’s also a handy speak to chat that automatically switches to ambient awareness when it notices you’re trying to hold a conversation.

I also like appreciate the headphones are pretty good at blocking out wind noise — a reason I often avoid ambient sound modes on other headphones. Alternatively, you can also simply use one earbud at a time.

Sony LinkBuds S Case

Unfortunately, Sony’s controls are still just okay. Sony forces you to choose from a handful of control presets rather than allowing you to assign every touch input to an action of your choice. There’s no way to skip tracks, adjust the volume, and control noise-canceling within the same control setup, for instance, and the situation is worse with a single earbud. It’s supremely annoying.

They also don’t have the cool Wide Tap feature from the original LinkBuds that allowed you to control the earbuds from beyond their actual surface area.

On the plus side, the LinkBuds S do feel more responsive than most headphones, with minimal delay between your touch and the headphones taking action. They are also among the few headphones that have proper hotword detection to invoke the Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa — as opposed to forcing you to hold down a button — so you can access most functions with a quick voice command. The caveat is that enabling hotword detection for the assistants means you can’t use the left earbud solo, for some reason.

Sony didn’t skimp on the sound quality either. Unlike the original LinkBuds, there’s LDAC this time around for maximum Bluetooth quality, and the headphones manage to sound nicely balanced. In fact, to my ear, they sound a little more neutral than the WF-1000XM4, which I found to be decent, but a little boomy and kind of dull in the highs, especially with the default foam ear tips.

The LinkBuds S do share some of that sound signature, but it’s less aggressive to my ears. They’re still some of the better-sounding earbuds in the class, and describing their sound quality is almost moot for tinkerers as Sony’s app allows you to easily EQ the headphones to your tastes. I mostly just appreciate that they get loud enough that I can listen to music with high dynamic range — like much classical music — without quiet sections being completely inaudible in noisy environments.

There are certainly better-sounding earbuds for the price — the OnePlus Buds Pro and Pixel Buds A-Series are more neutral to my ear and my measurement rig — but few that are this good at blocking out noise. The LinkBuds S come really close to the WF-1000XM4 in this regard, which was best-in-class.

That said, if you’re primarily interested in noise-canceling, Anker’s SoundCore Liberty 3 Pro offer comparable performance, better battery life, and similarly customizable sound for $170. But even with a variety of tip options in the box, they don’t feel as comfortable or secure as the Sonys, nor do they have the fancy Adaptive Sound Control or voice assistant features.

The biggest bummer about the LinkBuds S is probably their battery life. They’re rated for 20 hours total (6 per charge), which is a little low by modern standards. That’s not a big deal now, but all batteries degrade over time, and you’ll have to charge the case more often than most competitors. They also don’t have wireless charging, something I don’t care about, but some people swear by it. On the plus side, the LinkBuds S do charge quickly via USB-C.

And oh yeah, they still can’t connect to multiple devices at the same time. Sighs.

Review: Sony's LinkBuds S offer top comfort and noise-canceling for $200

Despite those caveats, if you can’t tell by now, I really like the LinkBuds S. They may not be even half as interesting as the original LinkBuds, but frankly, I think they’re better than Sony’s flagship WF-1000XM4.

You may find headphones with comparable noise canceling, better sound quality, and better battery life. But you’ll struggle to find one that balances all these qualities as effectively — let alone with the clever adaptive sound control and assistant integration.

Apple users may still be better served by the AirPods Pro, while Android users may want to wait for the Pixel Buds Pro coming July; the latter offer many of the same features as the LinkBuds S for the very same price. Still, Sony’s latest earbuds check most of the right boxes, and they should be near the top of your list if you’re on the hunt for noise-canceling buds.

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