Sony WH-1000 XM5: More focused, less features, still awesome

Sony WH-1000 XM5
PHOTO: Sony

The Sony WH-1000XM5 is the latest iteration of Sony’s highly-regarded WH-1000 series of headphones. At this point, competition is no doubt stiff in the ANC headphones space, so much so that picking a pair has become somewhat like an exercise in finding one that resonates with you and your lifestyle.

While the WH-1000XM5 (hereby referred to as XM5) is effectively an incremental update of the WH-1000 series, it almost resembles a ground-up rebuild as there is nothing visually familiar about the new WH-1000 entry. If anything, the XM5 is somewhat of a nod to the current trend in high-end wireless headphones with its sleeker profile a la Apple AirPods Max, B&O H Series and Master & Dynamic MW65, just to name a few.

Likewise, the early WH-1000s were pretty much in the same mould as the ubiquitous Beats headphones at the time. When it comes to headphone designs, I won’t hound Sony for taking the safe route.

Specifications
Price $569
Headphone type Closed
Driver  30mm neodymium dynamic
Impedance 48 ohm with amp, 16 ohm turned off
Frequency response 4 Hz - 40,000 Hz (JEITA)
Frequency response (Bluetooth) 20Hz-20,000Hz (44.1kHz sampling), 20Hz-40,000Hz (LDAC 96kHz sampling 990kbps)
Sensitivity  102dB/mW (headphones on), 100dB/mW (headphones off)
Bluetooth specification Version 5.2
Bluetooth profile A2DP, AVRCP, HFP, HSP
Audio profile SBC, AAC, LDAC
Content protection SCMS-T
Active noise cancelling  Automatic with atmospheric pressure optimising, ambient sound mode and quick attention
Battery Up to 40 hours (NC off, 30 hours NC on)
Weight Approx. 250g

 

New headband design

Previous models in the WH-1000 series featured a popular foldable headband design that could be stored in a compact hard case, but Sony has thrown that out the window.

In its place is something Sony calls a ’noiseless’ design, which makes zero sense on paper (or on your monitor screen, more like) until you get your hands on a pair of XM5s. With the new design, there’s almost no chance of hearing hinges creak or sounds of plastic being strained – you simply can’t fold the headphones. It uses a pair of stepless slider arms, a swivel mechanism for the ear cups that offer approximately 300 degrees of rotational freedom, and a pivot for the ear cups that enables the earpads to sit square against your head. True to their word, the mechanism is indeed noiseless, though for how long I’m not sure. I would think it’s more likely your battery will wear out first.

There’s another upshot to this new headband design: the pressure that the headband spring exerts is distributed more evenly across the face of the earpad cushions. Unlike the previous design, there’s adequate pressure against your head even at the base of the ear cups. In truth, your mileage may vary, but my take is that it looks like a clear improvement over the original design. The wearing detection is more sensitive this time around as well, but as I never thought I had any problems with the feature on the XM4, I don’t have insight into the significance of this change.

PHOTO: Potions.sg

I’m sure that many punters will not like the larger footprint of the new case but I don’t think it makes much of a difference as the cases for the XM4 and its predecessors aren’t exactly small either; I guess some people are looking to pack as much as they can into their bags. But the way I see it, I think the trade-off is justifiable. The new case for the XM5 has folds so you can compress it slightly. It’s a nice touch but I think this is more of an afterthought than anything else.

There is one visible downside – albeit a matter of opinion – concerning these changes: the headphones don’t quite look as premium as they used to. Granted that they were all plastic too but now you subconsciously see plastic where metal should be (the arms). Perhaps metal would add too much weight? As it is, the XM5 weighs roughly four grams less than the 252 grams of the XM4.

However, there are some downsides as a result of this revamp. Not only does the new WF-1000 not have IP certification, meaning that it has little to no water resistance, but the earpads are also shallower (2mm vs 2.2mm on the XM4), so users with protruding ears may experience some discomfort. The new earpads are certainly more comfortable, though.

PHOTO: Potions.sg

New audio design

Unlike the old days bigger drivers constituted an upgrade, the XM5 has ‘downsized’ to a smaller 30mm driver with a carbon fibre composite dome. In addition, Sony touts other technologies like a premium lead-free solder containing gold to improve conductivity, Fine Sound Resistor for even power distribution, and optimised circuitry for an improved signal-to-noise ratio. While it’s hard to quantify how much each of these tiny, audiophile-style tweaks add to the overall sound quality, I can tell you for certain that improvements thanks to the new microphone system are less vague.

There are now eight microphones in total with four beamforming mics dedicated for speech, and they’ve added an Integrated Processor V1 to complement the HD Noise Cancelling Processor Q1. Sony has also relocated the external microphones on the XM5 to reduce their susceptibility to the effects of wind.

Does it work?

These changes have largely been effective and what we have here is currently the most refined edition of the WH-1000 series. It’s not quite audiophile-grade stuff, but audio quality has noticeably improved over its predecessor.

There’s more detail in the sound, the bass reaches deeper and is tighter and more responsive, while the staging has been improved as well. It even feels like it has a “3D” effect. However, much like the XM4, the XM5 is far from what people will consider audiophile headphones due to its sound profile: an emphasis on the hard-hitting bass end of the spectrum along with the punchier and cleaner high frequencies.

Sony is unapologetically targeting a mainstream audience here and to that I say, more power to you then; you’re doing a good job of it. I have my 80s playlist on the ready.

But, is it a marked improvement over the XM4? There’s a clear, discernable improvement, but not by a lot. If you are obsessive about sound quality, it’s unlikely you will settle for the XM4. But if you’re not in the habit of looking for headphones that sound better than the one you have, then chances are the difference will feel insignificant, especially when prices come into the picture.

What helps in the listening experience, I feel, is the Active Noise Cancelling (ANC) circuit in the XM5, and it’s very different from the system on the XM4. It’s more refined, and you feel less of that oppressive pressure that ANC headphones always seem to have in the background. I’m happy to leave it on all the time and it never feels fatiguing.

The new tech is not with its downsides, however. Noise-cancelling is kind of a mixed bag for the average user. If you’re expecting a pair of headphones that will kill all matter of noise, the XM5 will not do that. Sure, it does a better job than the XM4 at cutting out train track noise on the MRT, but it fails at stopping you from killing your partner to stop that infernal snoring at night. But I suppose you have ear plugs for that sort of thing. I don’t need to kill all noise so I’ll opt for the XM5 here as it’s far more comfortable.

Furthermore, the external microphones have been relocated and are less susceptible to wind noise. While I wasn’t able to test it with actual wind, I did the next best thing – a fan in my face. While it can’t completely eradicate the buffeting noise, it certainly reduces it to tolerable levels. In this respect, it is a marked improvement over the XM4.

You’ll also be pleased to know that the microphone performance is pretty stellar – clarity is the watchword, and it’s even-sounding across all frequencies. What’s killer is that while I was putzing around with the fan, I found that it copes very well with buffeting and most of the time people on the other side of the phone call couldn’t tell that I was right in front of a fan. This is probably the one area where the difference was night and day.

Part of the reason why one gets a WH-1000 headphone is for its smarts. Aside from the capacitive right ear cup that enables touch controls, there’s also an adaptive system that changes settings based on location. As much as I abhor touch controls on headphones, I have to put my bias aside and say that they work well enough. Features like Quick Attention Mode – where you cover the face of the earcup with your palm to immediately activate ambient mode – justify the need to go with capacitive controls; it’s rather handy and more importantly, it is responsive, which makes it viable to turn ANC on all the time.

PHOTO: Potions.sg

Another helpful feature is Speak to Chat, which functions literally as described. Ambient noise is turned on the moment you speak so that you can hear what the other party is saying. You can also dial in the sensitivity so that it will not trigger the moment you cough. There still is a slight pause before it activates, which I think isn’t ideal.

You will need the Headphones app to change sound and ANC settings, which is pretty much the norm these days. Unlike its predecessor, the XM5 sets the level of noise-cancelling automatically, and you might not want their recommended settings. For the most part, I was happy, so my tweaks were minimal if any. At the same time, it’s kind of limited. You choose between three modes – Noise Cancelling, Ambient Sound, and turned off – but you can only tweak Ambient Sound and decide on the ‘volume’ of the external sounds you want to hear.

The good thing (or bad, if you are all about privacy) about Sony’s solution is that it can track your movements – e.g. standing still versus walking versus running versus stationary on a vehicle – and switch dynamically based on activities that it thinks you are doing. Going one step further, you can preset settings for specific locations like home or the office, which you can set on a map. The Headphones app will also make a note of locations that you frequent so you can add them to your list as well. These designated locations will override the adaptive settings.

The adaptive settings are fairly responsive, although the location-based overriding settings may take a little time to enable or relinquish control. By default, Sony sets an indicator tone whenever it changes modes, but I turned it off as it’s incredibly distracting, especially when you are on the move.

On top of that, the headphones support hands-free controls with Google Assistant (not on iOS, though) and Amazon Alexa; Siri isn’t completely hands-free, in case you’re wondering. You can also launch Spotify via a double-press or triple-press (you decide in the settings).

PHOTO: Potions.sg

Codecs and intended usage

One (valid) criticism of the WH-1000 headphones of recent times is that it doesn’t support a wired DAC connection mode; i.e you cannot use the DAC onboard the headphones to listen to music off your computer. The other is the lack of support for aptX, a popular high-resolution codec that many devices support. And the XM5 continues this ’tradition’.

It’s hard to decide which of the two is the bigger sin, but it looks like Sony is rather adamant in its design choices. These headphones are intended to be wireless-only, with the only concession made for a standard 3.5mm jack for universal compatibility.

The XM5 only supports SBC, AAC and LDAC codecs. In other words, AAC and LDAC, as SBC is the equivalent of having a physical key on hand when your electronic lock fails. To be fair, the experience via SBC isn’t all bad because the XM5 sound is heavily processed anyway but there are potential latency issues associated with SBC, which are more apparent (it also depends on your tolerance) when video or games are involved.

There really is no nice way to put this across, but you need serious money to get the full experience out of the XM5. In other words, you either need an Apple device for AAC (AAC on non-Apple devices can be spotty) or mid-to-high-end mobile phones for LDAC. While the best audio experience is achieved via LDAC, I don’t think it’s a significant improvement, to be honest; I’m satisfied with just AAC. If you must have LDAC on a non-LDAC device, you can get third-party amplifiers with Bluetooth transmission like the FiiO BTR3K but that adds bulk to your setup.

Also note that if you were to connect to two devices at once to take a call from your phone while connected to your laptop, LDAC is not available.

Battery life and conclusion

In my case, the battery easily lasts over 24 hours, because I pretty much listen close to maximum volume (it’s bad, I know). You should be able to last through a long-haul flight; easy. Charging is pretty quick – three minutes gives you about five hours, so in day-to-day use, I find it easy to maintain the charge without having the battery drop to dangerously low levels.

There’s a slight price increase for the XM5 – from $549 to $569 – and like most things, you wonder if the pandemic had something to do with the costs. I guess it’s safe to assume yes but the question then is whether the downsides and compromises unduly hurt the XM5 from a value standpoint.

PHOTO: Potions.sg

The collective lack of a USB DAC feature, NFC, water-resistance, and aptX codecs might spell a death knell for many headphones, but not the XM5. It has more than enough features in the tank to survive and indeed, thrive. If any of the missing features are a deal-breaker to you, chances are, you’re not the intended target audience either, so no loss there, my friend.

The other question then: is the XM5 worth buying? Especially since the XM4 can be had for $379 or even less if you know where to look. That’s a tough question, but perhaps the best way to answer that is to consider it from the XM4’s perspective.

If you can buy the XM4 for $379 or less, you can buy that with the belief that the XM5 isn’t $200 better. Furthermore, if you need a more aggressive noise cancelling solution, the XM4 is the natural pick. In my opinion, water resistance and NFC (which they removed as well) are good features to have, but they aren’t deal makers.

If sound quality is your priority, then the XM5 gets the vote. If you need a solution with a robust mic that can cut out noise in most situations, this is the jam; or, if you prefer a more ’natural-sounding’ ANC. There’s no getting around the price, but if these are the features you need, I think $569 is pretty fair for a new flagship product.

 

Sony WH-1000 XM5
Features 8/10
Value proposition 6/10
Performance 9/10
Design & build quality 7/10
Overall 8/10
Verdict

While the XM5 is no longer the outright winner of the ANC headphone segment, it certainly does have its reputation intact and boasts a host of features that no one else would attempt to offer.

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This article was first published in Potions.sg.