Sony WH-1000XM5 - a Long Term Review

 8 min read

 December 30, 2023

I got my pair of Sony WH-1000XM5s (let's just call it "XM5s" from now on...) back in April, and have used them a lot since. Just like my phone review, this piece won't be full of numbers or comparisons, but instead be a stream of thoughts accumulated over 9 months of use. There isn't much structure, sorry!

Some Background

I'll first describe how I use the XM5s, to set the scene for the rest of the review. Let's keep this simple.

I've only had 2 sets of quality earbuds before and never owned a pair of headphones. I also don't listen to music (yes, you read that right), so this places me in a very unique and interesting niche.

I use them almost exclusively wirelessly, and on the following 3 devices:

  1. My Android phone
  2. My Linux desktop
  3. My Windows laptop

And my 3 use-cases are:

  1. YouTube videos
  2. Podcasts
  3. Silence

I primarily use them at home and on the train, but plenty of other situations have cropped up which I'll mention as needed.

Field Notes

I adore the design. It's minimal, matte black, modern, and elegant. I really don't like branding plastered all over a product, so the subtle gold "SONY" on the left stem is fine by me. The rest of the headphones also have limited markings on them. I value good design, so the XM5s are a clear winner here.

Lots of headphones on the market have branding all over them, even the Bose 700s – you don't need your brand name on both earcups, do you? You also don't need massive letters on the earpads to show the correct orientation of the headset. Props to Apple with the AirPods Max, I think those are beautiful.

One thing that I feel is simply not needed are the button labels. The XM5s have a power button and a mode button. They have some faint grey letters/text to describe the function of each, but I think that it becomes quite clear what each button does after you've used them once. And you tend not to see the buttons if the XM5s are on your head anyway. It feels like really unnecessary clutter on an otherwise clean finish.

The tactile indicators are subtle design choices that I can appreciate – the left earcup has a small bump which makes it clear which way the headphones should be worn. And the power button is much shorter than the ANC/transparency button. These are small things that make the overall package and UX significantly nicer.

Notice the small bump on the earcup? And the red R on the right side is definitely welcomed. The button labels certainly aren't, though.

I think the new design language of the XM5s makes them very attractive to the main stream – I've seen plenty of them in wild. It's actually quite impressive how closely the shades of colour on each of the materials match, making it look realllllly nice. This level of care and attention to detail essentially summarises my experience with the XM5s.

The older XM4s and XM3s look a bit clunky in my opinion, but at least they fold...

This is the one complaint everyone has with the XM5s – lugging them around in their chunky case is so much less pleasant than previous generations. Having never experienced them, it's hard to relate. But the XM5 case sure is bigger than I'd have liked. It's just fine, though.

The rest of the case is quite nice and has this nifty magnetic pocket to hold the cable. My case earnt a few scars over time, but overall it's holding up really well and is a super secure way to carry the cans.

The headphones are comfortable – I can wear them for about an hour before they need shifting. My only gripe is how they create a pressure point on my head right at the top. It can be quite painful if I don't keep shifting them beyond the initial hour. I feel like this is a problem the XM4s don't have with its bigger headband. But the earpads are super soft and squishy, I've never had an issue with them.

I've noticed that the earpads have become smaller, less 'plushy' over time. It's probably expected and doesn't seem to affect comfort or functionality. But perhaps something to note for the future. Finding replacements isn't easy, nor particularly cheap and this is certainly something I wish Sony was better at doing, perhaps they should even sell their own for a reasonable £15 or so.

Cleaning is a tad difficult due to the unique finish to the plastic, but at least it's very durable. My XM5s have no scuffs or signs of wear despite my heavy use. The build quality is just bang on.

The adjusting mechanism is super smooth and has the right level of stiffness – plus 1 for that!

The XM5s produce awesome audio regardless of what I'm listening to. Of course, I'm not an audiophile and I usually listen for function, but I can recognise good sound and it definitely makes using the XM5s a very enjoyable experience.

I'm convinced that transparency mode amplifies the surroundings greater than reality, but this is adjustable in the app anyway. I find transparency mode to be epic, it just does its job very damn well. It can occasionally make a noise too loud and annoying, for example, cutting my nails on transparency mode is torture for the ears. But other than the edge cases, it's spiffing and sounds just like you're not wearing them!

Active noise cancellation (ANC) is perhaps THE reason I got XM5s. It is incredible, crazy good. Most of the time I'm using XM5s, it's with nothing playing and just ANC to help me focus on tasks. It mutes the surroundings very well, and gets rid of many random noises. But perhaps in the process of doing this, human voices become more pronounced as they are disproportionately filtered compared to other sounds.

Once you've tried the XM5 ANC, you will never be able to go back.

The mobile app is... well... it's functional. It's ugly and has lots of optional telemetry and random 'achievements' that I simply don't see a point in (and would love to hide). It's also just a bit slow to use. But you can control quite a lot from the app, including a detailed EQ.

It has loads of random Sony features like DSEE Extreme and 360 Reality Audio (Sony, get a grip on your naming!). I've tried them all but don't use any. They're actually very impressive but for a non-music listener, pretty useless in practice.

The app offers a solid level of customisation, but I'd appreciate some more touch control options and the ability to completely remove speak-to-chat. It can activate by accident from time to time, but I think it's too slow to react to speech to be useful.

The touch panel is only on the right side, not the left. I like this decision, as it just reduces the amount of accidental touches. The panel is super reliable and responsive, with intuitive gestures and controls.

What I don't like is the voice and suite of sound effects. These are loud and longer than necessary. They just get in the way of using the XM5s, and there's no method to get rid of them in the app. This feels like something Sony could've easily done but didn't. The low battery indicator voice is entirely unnecessary and takes a lot of time (it even interrupts the content without pausing it). The battery indicator is also super inefficient. It doesn't need to say "Battery, about XX percent". It could instead just say "XX" and convey the same information.

It's astronomically frustrating when companies make what seem to be dumb design decisions in a product, and even more annoying when an easy fix would be to give the user a level of control and customisation.

The sound effect to switch between transparency/nothing/ANC is incredibly dumb. It takes a little over 1 second, significantly longer than necessary, and that simply delays the entire process of switching between the modes. I really wish it wasn't there - so I disabled it in the app. BUT, there's still a significant delay to switch modes.

You can hold your palm to the touchpad to temporarily turn on ambient mode if you need to hear something. But again, there's an irritatingly long delay before modes are switched and I found that it's easier to just press the button than to hold my hand there for an indefinite period of time (at least there's a choice!). The delay means you typically waste time and miss out information that you intended to hear during the transition.

A similar strand is observed with the proximity sensor; when I take off the XM5s, it recognises and pauses the content. But it takes a while to do this. I'm sure part of the reason is the Bluetooth latency but it definitely isn't the full story. This makes the auto-pause/resume feature a little useless in my opinion.

The only sounds I'm okay with are the taps and the volume up/down sounds. These are pretty fast and useful.

Back to the positives – the microphone is way better than the XM4s and works very well for calls, and even pretty well for recording videos. The battery life seems to be as promised, with little degradation observed since I got them despite very heavy use. The charging speed is also great for both quick top ups and speedy refuelling.

It charges at a rapid 16W for a few minutes, before jumping down to about 9W (presumably to control temperatures).

Finally, let's talk about connectivity! It connects to the most recent device upon boot pretty quickly, but switching devices can take a few too many seconds. It's not bad, but I certainly wish it was better. Then again, I have sound quality + latency optimised over connectivity (the settings let you choose one or the other), so maybe that's just my fault.

And the latency is absolutely fantastic. LDAC seems to be magical. You can perceive a delay if you try hard enough and are consuming specific content. But for most things, including YouTube videos, it's not something I even notice, let alone be an issue.

I've used the XM5s wired a couple of times, and it works just as you'd expect. The sound quality is comparable to LDAC, and latency is completely imperceivable. It's always super nice having that option to connect the old-school way, avoiding any faffing with Bluetooth complications. Props to Sony for keeping that feature! The cable is pretty nice too, thin and flexible whilst remaining durable thanks to a light texture.

I really do like this cable!

Final Thoughts

The XM5s are truly some of the best headphones that consumer tech has to offer, offering the full package. Despite my plethora of complaints, when I zoom out the XM5s are phenomenal and the nit-picks I've had aren't that big. They've been completely transformative in my life and are perhaps one of the most important products I've ever had.

The ANC is a powerful feature, and the comfort and convenience of the XM5s really adds a lot to my quality of life. Sony has done an awesome job, and I think the XM5s are worth considering for anyone that sees value in the ANC, or just spends lots of time listening to audio.

For now, I look forward to making the most of these cans and perhaps upgrading to the XM6s, whenever they're released!


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