For anybody wanting to be able to hear the world around them while listening to music; podcasts; audiobooks; guided navigation or VoiceOver, my likely recommendation over recent years would be either bone-conduction headphones that leave your ears uncovered or headphones with some form of ‘transparency’ mode that uses built-in microphones to process ambient sounds. This changed last week with the launch of Sony's newest set of fully wireless earbuds, the Sony LinkBuds.
Priced at US$180, the Sony LinkBuds offer a unique solution to enabling full ambient awareness - a 12mm Cheerio/donut-shaped driver that has an actual hole in the middle, allowing sounds to pass straight through to your ear canal.
That may sound like a silly idea or downright weird, but don't dismiss the LinkBuds too quickly, as there's lots to like about them. In fact, that unique design, great performance, and some neat features likely make Sony LinkBuds the best headphones yet for blind users wanting to maintain full environmental awareness whilst listening to audio.
Sony aren't unaware of this potential added value of LinkBuds to blind and low vision users, as evident from their collaboration with Microsoft ahead of the earbuds' launch to add support for them to Microsoft's Soundscape app. The result of this collaboration is that by tracking the movement of the sensors in the LinkBuds, Soundscape knows in which direction you are facing. This can then be used to improve the audio experience, making it more natural as you move around. An audio described demonstration of using Soundscape in combination with LinkBuds to explore your surroundings by hearing audio navigation and natural ambient sounds at the same time is available on YouTube.
Key Features at a Glance
According to Sony, the LinkBuds offer features that enable you to “connect your online and offline worlds:”
- Unique open ring driver links your content and what’s happening in your surroundings
- Crystal-clear conversations with high quality sound
- Integrated V1 Processor for balanced high-quality sound
- Precise Voice Pickup technology for crystal clear phone calls
- Up to 5.5 hours of battery and a total of up to 17.5 hours with the charging case
- IPX4 splash-proof and sweat-proof design
- Ultra-small and light for a fit that stays all day
- Control audio by tapping in front of your ears
- Adaptive Volume Control optimizes sound to your environment
- Automatically pause playback when you remove an earbud
- Optionally pause and resume playback when speech is detected
- Enjoy hands-free control with Alexa, Siri or Google Assistant
- A 10 minute quick charge will give you an extra 90 minutes of listening
- Each earbud weights 4.1gm (for comparison, a second generation AirPods earbud weighs in at 4.0gm, whilst an AirPods Pro earbud weighs 5.4gm)
- Available in either white or dark grey
The LinkBuds comprise of a ring-shaped driver that sits on the ridges at the bottom of your ear. This positions the hole in the centre of the driver directly in front of your ear canal.
Connected to the driver is a domed housing that contains most of the electronics, the battery, and serves as the touch control for the earbuds. It also makes for a natural and easy place to grab for removing an earbud.
For most people the top of the dome-shaped housing should sit just below the cartilage that folds in the middle of your ear. The housing has a removable silicon ‘Arc Supporter’ which tucks in under the cartilage to hold the LinkBuds in place. Five sizes of the arc are provided, so there should be one to suit most ear shapes and sizes.
My expectation is that for most people the domed housing is unlikely to protrude beyond the outermost part of the inner earlobes, making it similar in this regard to the AirPods Pro. However, having no stem should make LinkBuds less noticeable when wearing than the AirPods and AirPods Pro.
The two earbuds are the same in shape, so Sony has placed a tactile dot on the left earbud to make it easier for blind and low vision users to determine which is which.
It took a couple of days for my ears to adjust to the fit And feel of the LinkBuds, but once this initial ‘breaking-in’ period passed the LinkBuds now feel very comfortable for extended use. They also feel stable and secure in place, more so than both the AirPods and AirPods Pro do.
The LinkBuds' charging case is thicker than those of the AirPods and AirPods Pro, but shorter in height and width. It should fit comfortably in the coin pocket of your jeans or a purse, but I do find that the extra thickness makes the case feel chunkier and more obtrusive in a coin pocket compared to the AirPod cases that I'm used to.
On the front of the charging case is a button that you press to flip open the lid, which opens like a ring case. When open, an LED light on the inside of the case lets sighted users know approximately how much battery life is left (note that the battery levels of each earbud and the charging case are accessible through Sony's Headphones Connect app, whilst the charge level of the earbuds will also be shown in the iOS Batteries widget).
On the back of the case - the hinged side - there are a pairing button and a USB-C charging port.
Features and Performance
Initial pairing and setup of the LinkBuds with my iPhone was relatively straightforward. Sony's Headphones Connect app is used to setup and customise the LinkBuds. Its interface is a little confusing in places when relying solely on VoiceOver and there are a few unlabelled buttons, but I encountered no significant issues in exploring the information and settings available in the app and customising options.
The Sony LinkBuds don’t support multipoint, unfortunately, so you’re limited to one bluetooth connection at a time. If you have multiple devices that you want to use with your headphones, the missing convenience of multipoint will likely be a hit on the overall user experience - in particular when compared with AirPods, where connection and switching between devices is typically fast and straightforward.
Like the second generation AirPods, you can tap the housing of the LinkBuds to control music playback, answer and end calls, and activate a voice assistant. However, for those who find this process tricky or simply don't like the sensation, Sony offers quite an ingenious alternative - a feature called Wide Area Tap, which allows you to double- or triple-tap the area in front of your ears to control the earbuds.
I was initially skeptical about how well this feature would work. That skepticism has proved to be unjustified. It took a small amount of experimentation to identify the area in front of my ear which works most consistently and reliably - Sony says to tap between the earlobe and the fovea, and from above the auricle to below the earlobe.. Since determining where to tap for consistent results, this feature has worked very well. It feels somewhat odd to be tapping the side of your face when other people are around, but hey it's also novel and kind of fun. And, if it does bother you, there's still the option to tap the earbuds themselves.
Another option offered by the LinkBuds is voice control. For Android users there is full support for the Google Assistant. Alternatively, you can use either Alexa or Siri. In the case of the former, this can be triggered by either a double tap or speaking the “Alexa” trigger word. There's no support for “Hey Siri” here, so you will need to map one of the earbud controls to trigger Voice Assist - a double tap will then activate Siri and a triple tap will dismiss it.
Being able to choose between voice assistants is neat, and I am currently enjoying the novelty of having Alexa available to me on headphones. The downside to this is that I am regularly reminded of how Siri could be a far smarter and more capable voice assistant.
Note that if you do wish to use your voice to activate Alexa you need to map it to one of the earbud tap controls. This arguably makes little sense, as the whole point of voice assistants is to respond to your voice. Having to sacrifice a tap control to be able to use Alexa seems counter intuitive. Hopefully Sony recognised this too, so are busy right now working to add this functionality in a future firmware update.
The currently available tap options that can be mapped to the earbuds are:
- Playback Control: play/pause, next song
- Volume Control: raise the volume, lower the volume
- Select Song: next song, previous song
- Voice Assist Function: launch the voice assist function, cancel the voice assist function
- Amazon Alexa: voice input
Another neat feature of the LinkBuds that I've found to work very well is Adaptive Volume Control. When this is enabled, the earbuds will automatically adjust the volume level to adapt to sound changes in your environment. At home this has near instantly adjusted the volume to adapt to such things as a boiling kettle, an operating microwave, or running water. It has been equally impressive out of the house. My normal daily 6 mile walk typically takes me through a range of environments - from busy roads with high levels of traffic noise, along quieter residential roads, through shopping precincts with a detour in to a store or two, to playing parks. Using AfterShokz Aeropex I would find myself adjusting the volume many times during a typical walk. So far, the LinkBuds now mostly take care of this automatically.
Whilst on the subject of volume, a major concern I had about the LinkBuds ahead of receiving them were comments from a number of reviewers that they don't go loud enough to be usable in noisy environments. I am thrilled that this has not been my experience. They clearly aren't going to be a good choice for situations where some form of noise cancellation is not only desirable, but necessary, such as when on an airplane. However, in my use so far, the volume level has rarely had to be set any higher than it would be when using either AfterShokz Aeropex or AirPods. There has always been plenty of overhead available for the volume to go much higher if it were necessary or desired.
Mention of sound and volume levels is perhaps a cue to discuss what is likely the main question that many will have - just how good are the LinkBuds for maintaining ambient awareness? The short answer is “extremely good.”
In my experience so far, the LinkBuds have been as good as the AfterShokz Aeropex in regard to allowing me to remain aware of what's going on around me. That's a big deal when you consider that the Aeropex leave your ears completely uncovered. This does change if I play audio at a particularly high level on the LinkBuds. However, this is not my typical use case, and certainly not one for when ambient awareness is a priority.
The bottom line for me when comparing the LinkBuds with the Aeropex is that I cannot imagine a situation where I would now reach for the latter, even when the best possible ambient awareness is a priority.
A comparison with the Transparency mode of the AirPods Pro will likely be even more subjective, particularly as there are people who do not enjoy the nature and sensation of ambient sounds that have been artificially processed by earbuds.
In my case, there are a few locations in my immediate neighbourhood where the AirPods Pro's Transparency Mode causes me to be less confident in regard to knowing what's going on around me than I would wish. Specifically, something about the nature of road noise and the environmental acoustics in these locations has Transparency Mode process ambient noise in a way that makes it extremely difficult to determine the proximity, driving direction, and speed of nearby traffic. Of course, these locations also happen to be where I would ideally want to cross the road. Consequently, this and fit issues with AirPods Pro are the reasons I don't use AirPods Pro away from my home.
The bottom line for me when comparing the LinkBuds with AirPods Pro is that ambient sounds on the LinkBuds are natural and reliable. There's no technology processing the ambient sounds that reach my ear canal, thus removing the possibility that the sound might be compromised along the way.
Yet one more neat feature of the LinkBuds is Speak-to-Chat, which can optionally have audio automatically pause if the earbuds detect you speaking. Playback can be set to automatically resume after a configurable delay.
It was whilst walking with my guide dog the day before the LinkBuds were due to arrive that the penny dropped that this feature might not be as neat as anticipated for one of my primary use cases. What made this penny drop? Well, figuring out that the “straight on,” “keep left,” “find the door,” and “good girl” that liberally litter most of my walks would likely be treated as a conversation that would interrupt playback.
And, this is indeed the case if Speak-to-Chat is left on its default sensitivity setting. Fortunately, Sony also offers a ‘High’ or ‘Low’ setting. For me, the latter typically allows me to speak at least three words without triggering Speak-to-Chat. This means that most of the vocal commands I give to my guide dog are ignored by the LinkBuds. Speak-to-Chat still occasionally catches me out - I'm already attempting to retrain myself away from “that's a good girl” to simply “good girl” - but the low sensitivity setting should be enough to keep this feature enabled and useful.
In fact, I find myself immediately missing Speak-to-Chat -– along with some other features mentioned above – when switching back from the LinkBuds to the Aeropex or AirPods.
I've generally found the bluetooth connectivity of the LinkBuds to be reliable, although the range isn't as good as that of the AfterShokz Aeropex, AirPods or AirPods Pro - all of which allow me to leave my iPhone in a downstairs room and move around both levels of my home with no drop or degradation in connection. In comparison, the LinkBuds will typically drop connection once a couple of block walls separate me from the iPhone.
Comments on latency (‘lag’) of bluetooth headphones is generally subjective and influenced by personal use case, but for what it's worth, my experience with LinkBuds is that I only notice a hint of VoiceOver latency if I stop and look real hard for it. In normal use, I notice none, and believe that bluetooth 5.2 support should make the LinkBuds as good as any other headphones currently available.
I've also encountered no significant issues with call quality on the LinkBuds.
Sony says that LinkBuds actively filter out background noise that might otherwise be picked up by the microphones, whilst the company's Precise voice pickup technology performs advanced voice signal processing using a noise-reduction algorithm that’s been developed with AI machine learning. This algorithm was created from samples of more than 500 million voices and is claimed to suppress ambient noise and extract the speaker’s voice with greater clarity.
In real-world use, this has translated in to call quality on both sides of a call which is at least comparable to that of AirPods and AirPods Pro. Call quality using LinkBuds is, however, much better than that of the AfterShokz Aeropex, where the sound of the caller's voice in my experience is typically quite ‘tinny’, and the interference in particular from wind noise at my end of the call is noticeable.
Sony warns in its Headphones Connect app that having features like Speak-to-Chat, listening for Alexa, Adaptive Volume Control, or using an equaliser will deplete the LinkBuds' battery more quickly. For me, this has translated in to battery life of between 3 and 4 hours when both Adaptive Volume Control and Speak-to-Chat are enabled, which is some way short of the quoted maximum battery life of 5.5 hours.
I'm currently undecided on what this will mean for my use of those features: whether they will be sacrificed to gain longer battery life or if I will train myself to take any opportunity that presents itself during the day to take advantage of the LinkBuds ability to get 90 minutes of battery life from just 10 minutes in their charging case. My current guess is that Speak-to-Chat will lose out in favour of extra battery life, with Adaptive Volume Control sticking around for at least a little longer.
The additional 12 hours of battery life available from the charging case is, however, very disappointing when compared to competing products at this price point. For example, the third generation AirPods offer 24 hours of additional battery life from their charging case.
The combined battery life of 17.5 hours should still be enough to get most people through a couple days of extended use, but you will likely want to establish a good routine for making sure that the LinkBuds' charging case is itself charged regularly.
I only occasionally listen to music through headphones, and am no audiophile. This leaves me with little of likely value or accuracy to say about the sound performance of the Sony LinkBuds. However, writing for Ars Technica, Jeff Dunn suggests that sound quality is unlikely to have been Sony's priority when designing earbuds which have a hole right through the middle of their driver:
Compared to Apple's third-gen AirPods—a pair in the same price range, and one of the better-sounding "open" earbuds I've used—the LinkBuds consistently sounded thinner and altogether less dynamic. Considering the AirPods themselves aren't the fullest-sounding pair out there and skew toward a brighter sound, that's not great. Deep bass is more implied than present: with a hard-going hip-hop track like Kendrick Lamar's "DNA" or a thumping electronic track like Jamie xx's "Gosh," you lose a ton of the low-end impact that brings much of the song to life, even relative to the rival AirPods.
However, Dunn goes on to say that audio quality on the LinkBuds can actually be decent when playing music which isn't bass-heavy:
This isn't a surprise, though. Big bass requires a tight seal on the ear, and Sony is deliberately forgoing that here to provide good-enough-for-casual-users sound quality with persistent ambient sound. Besides the lacking bass, the LinkBuds sound pretty decent. On a busy track like David Bowie's "Young Americans," the lead vocals are clear and present. While any wireless earbuds this small will sound relatively constrained, each bit of background instrumentation is given some room to breathe, and none of it sounds overly dulled. The LinkBuds have a bright sound, so when high-end frequencies are pushed to the forefront of a track, it can sometimes sound harsh. But most of the time, the profile is clean and pleasant, at least relative to other open earbuds. They're just thin. The newest AirPods sound richer and provide a clearer distinction between a track's lows, mids, and highs.
Writing for Tech Radar, Olivia Tambini says that the audio quality of the Sony LinkBuds is in their opinion exceptional, “with a remarkably wide soundstage that gives every instrument in your favorite songs the room they need to shine. Detail, clarity, and rhythmic accuracy are also excellent.”
However, like Dunn, Tambini accepts that the design of the Sony LinkBuds makes some sacrifices in regard to audio performance unavoidable:
the bass response isn’t particularly powerful, and being able to hear your environment means the detail you get from the LinkBuds can be obscured by whatever’s going on in the background.
In his review of the LinkBuds for Forbes, Mark Sparrow is positively gushing about their audio performance, saying:
The sound created by Sony’s ring driver is stunning. It’s an incredible experience with a well-focused soundstage and even without adjusting the EQ using the Sony Headphone app, the LinkBuds sound almost perfect to my ears. There are so good. I can’t praise them highly enough.
If you accept that the design of the Sony LinkBuds necessitates some sacrifices in regard to audio quality, Dunn and Tambini's experiences suggest that you won't be disappointed by the Sony LinkBuds, whilst Sparrows comments suggest that they may actually exceed your expectations.
This time last week I wasn't in the market for new headphones. My existing AfterShokz Aeropex, second generation AirPods, and AirPods Pro seemingly catered for all of my needs. Then came along Sony with its LinkBuds.
Now, seven days on, I wholeheartedly recommend the Sony LinkBuds to anybody with similar circumstances and use cases to my own. They are quite simply the best headphones that I have used for keeping me aware of what's going on around me. In fact, they work and feel like they were specifically made for me.
With LinkBuds, Sony has managed to create a design that offers full ambient awareness without having to compromise in performance or features.
This doesn't mean that LinkBuds are for everybody. They aren't likely to be for you if pure sound quality is a priority. They also aren't for those who want a single set of headphones that will be suited for all situations, as all of us likely have times when we want headphones to be able to shut out the world around us. At the very least this means a snug and closed fit. Ideally it means some form of active noise cancellation. What won't work is a hole straight through to your ear canal.
But, if you want headphones which enable a full level of ambient awareness in conjunction with great performance and features, the Sony LinkBuds are from my experience the best option currently available.
Apple is rumoured to be releasing second generation AirPods Pro later is year. These will need to offer extremely compelling enhancements to design, features, and performance if they are to convince me that there's room and need in my life for yet another set of earbuds. If you are listening Apple, there's your challenge. Do your best!