Sony took a risk with these. As with the first of anything, there are some things it got right and some that need improvement If you need earbuds and also need to know what's happening around you at all times, these are for you.
The announcement of Sony’s latest earbuds, the WF-L900 or ‘LinkBuds’, first came across our desks in February earlier this year. We were first sceptical, and then a little excited. Sceptical because a ring-shaped audio driver and open-back design were unheard of in a true wireless earbud. Excited because if anyone could make a risky idea like this work, it was Sony. Risks don’t always work out. But if you have Sony’s track record in the personal audio space, you can afford to take a few chances.
But these are not for most users. When spending R4,000 on wireless earbuds you have expectations. Like Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) or a well-balanced listening experience.
The LinkBuds take the opposite route to every other headphone we’ve tested. The others were designed to isolate the user from their environment via a closed-back design, passive noise isolation, active noise cancellation, or all of the above. These do the opposite.
Keeping you connected… to noise
The main selling point of the LinkBuds is their ability to connect the user to both what they’re listening to and their environment. Most ‘regular’ earbuds do this already with a passthrough mode you can switch on and off. Microphones pick up external sounds and transmit them to your ear holes. This requires processing audio, which can introduce delay and, in this form factor, never sounds as natural as the real thing. The ring design of the driver in the LinkBuds bypasses all that processing, allowing external noise like the hum of an aircon or office chatter to pass through to your ears directly.
The problem with that is you can’t adjust the level or turn it off. The hole can’t be closed. This factor alone will turn a lot of people away. If you want to be left alone to focus on work in a noisy office or get those gains in a public gym, you may want to look elsewhere.
As with the idea of always being connected, all-day comfort is also a priority for these buds. You don’t really have to remove them, because you aren’t cut off from the world. And if you must wear them all day, comfort is obviously rather important.
Their unusual design took us a little time to get used to. After that, we had no problems keeping them in for a full workday. Instead of the usual silicone or foam tips, these come with silicon loops of different sizes to suit different ear shapes.
The Earth sends its thanks
One thing that hasn’t changed with the LinkBuds is the premium unboxing experience. Sony has, presumably, gone to great lengths to ensure that the ‘buds and their charging case are made from recycled plastics. You also won’t find any plastics in the packaging. It manages to do this without taking anything away from the unboxing experience (except for plastic, obviously). Turns out, cardboard can feel surprisingly premium.
We can’t say the same about the construction of the case. It left us feeling wary of its longevity. The hinge feels flimsy when compared to other similarly priced products. We also weren’t big fans of the slippery coating or the button with which you’re supposed to open them. The case is rather small to begin with (see below). If your hands are any bigger than ‘tiny’ you might struggle to find purchase. The only way we were able to consistently open them without fumbling was to pick them up like they were the venerated Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch.
The ‘buds themselves are made from the same recycled plastic as the case but because of their compact nature, you don’t really notice it much. And these really are compact. The Linkbuds are Sony’s smallest to date, weighing only 4g each. This also makes a difference when you’re wearing them the whole day.
Sounds a little hole-y
On to the main event: the sound. We were pleasantly surprised by the sound profile with these things. That’s not to say they’re all that good. They aren’t really. But they were much better than we expected.
As with almost all open-back headphones, these produce very little bass. That is expected with open backs and you should know that going in. Sony’s ‘buds excel in the mid-range. Thankfully that’s where the human voice sits, which means vocal tracks, audiobooks, and podcasts all sound crisp.
That translates over to call quality as well, though the onboard microphones can be a little hit and miss. They do their best to isolate your voice from background noise when you’re talking. The higher frequencies are under-emphasised, meaning you’ll be spared harsh vocals and instruments but you’ll lose a lot of fidelity if you’re anywhere other than a library.
But we don’t recommend you use these in a library. Not unless you want to start an unsolicited listening party. That hole in the middle that lets external sounds in works both ways. If you like to crank your tunes up, we hope your taste in music isn’t too wild. If it is, don’t be surprised if you get strange looks from passersby.
These are premium Sony earbuds so you can expect a good set of features. There’s no ANC and no wireless charging, which is disappointing. Maybe it would’ve made the case too big and easy to hold.
Battery life was a little underwhelming. Sony says they do 5.5 hours of continuous music playback or 2.5 hours of continuous call time with the case providing a further twelve hours of life. We found this to be mostly true. They got us through most of the day, most of the time, but that isn’t anything special. At this price point we would’ve liked to see more out of them. Charging the buds was fairly quick though. Ten minutes in the case gets you 90 minutes of playback and they’ll take 90 minutes to charge everything to full.
You get a USB-C port for charging and a pairing button on the case. The pairing process itself is a breeze. The Linkbuds feature Swift Pair for quick pairing on a Windows device and Google’s Fast Pair for Android devices. They are also compatible with iOS but there’s no fancy name for that.
There’s an app for that
After you’ve paired them, you’re going to want to download the companion app. This gives access to an EQ with a few presets, or you can customise it to your liking. You’ll get a range of extra features like Speak-to-chat, which will pause the music when you start talking. Adaptive volume control is also available. That will automatically increase the playback volume if your environment gets louder. We tried these features for all of two hours before they got obnoxious and we turfed them.
Sony’s in-ears come with the usual digital assistant integration. You can issue commands with your voice or use Sony’s Wide Area Tap. That last one is a new one Sony presumably had to develop because these things are so damned small. This extends the area you tap to include part of your head as well as the earbuds. We managed to make it work by bonking ourselves on the top of our heads. So yes, it works.
And, if you have particularly sweaty ears, rest assured the IPX4 rating will keep the LinkBuds functioning through your gym workout.
Sony LinkBuds verdict
Sony took a risk with these. As with the first of anything, there are some things it got right and some that need improvement. These could’ve turned out a lot worse. We’re glad they didn’t, because that improves the chances of the next set being better. It’s been a little over a week since the LinkBuds became available and we’ve already seen talk of the ‘LinkBuds S’. Based on those leaks, Sony might’ve already fixed a lot of the problems in the first version. Hopefully, they don’t make us wait too long for those. In the meantime, if you want to try out a pair of these for yourself, they’re currently available in SA for R4,000.