Sony caught the audio industry by surprise with the launch of the WF-L900 LinkBuds. It is a new design with a hole in the middle of the earbuds to allow natural ambient sound to be heard by the ears instead of deploying the electronic ambient mode. Retailing at S$269, my initial expectations were mostly proven incorrect after going through a hands-on experience. Is it in a good or bad way? Well, read on.
Design and Operations
I have listed all the prominent features of the LinkBuds in my previous post: Speak-to-Chat, Wide Area Tap, Adaptive Volume Control, Auto-Pause Detection, 360 Reality Audio, Microsoft Soundscape, Google Fast Pair, Windows Swift Pair, Spotify Tap. Many of these features are also found in the other Sony true wireless earbuds, like Speak-to-Chat. which I will discuss more later.
I would classify the LinkBuds as on-ear since the earphone drivers are placed on the ear concha without inserting into the ear canals. Rated IPX4 water protection, the design allows the LinkBuds to be securely seated within the ears and comes with 5 pairs of fitting supporters to cater for all ear sizes.
The online help guide clearly demonstrates that the LinkBuds should be worn at an angle, though initially I had the tendency to align the drivers against the entrance of the ear canals to channel the sound waves better. Like all earbuds, how you wear the LinkBuds affect the sound balance and the effectiveness of hearing the ambient sound. I’ll elaborate on that later.
There are no physical buttons on the LinkBuds: just open the charging case and the earbuds will be powered on and connected to your last paired device. To initiate a new pairing, open the case and press the button next to the USB-C charging port on the case. Once the LED flashes in blue, you should see the LinkBuds option on the Bluetooth device list on your smartphone.
Opening the case requires achieving the right amount of push distance for the release mechanism to unhook the upper cover and for the light spring coil to lift off. Push too hard and there is a risk of the case falling off the hands. I may have to forgive Sony on this, after all, the LinkBuds is the smallest true-wireless earbuds they have designed and so is the case. The spring-open case design is also their first time, so they might need a few iterations to get it right.
Another interesting observation is that the earbuds are fastened on the case by magnet near the ring driver as well as a mechanical hook at the body. Once you snap the case tight, the earbuds will be naturally pushed to lock into the catch. To remove the earbuds, you can need a bit of force to separate from the physical hook.
From the Sony Connect Headphones app, you can select one of the 7 preset tap operation functions for each earbud to define the 2-tap and 3-tap gestures without option to change them individually, sadly. From the app, you can also customise quite a lot of functions like adjusting EQ, enabling auto-pause, auto power-off, Speak-to-Chat, Wide Area Tap, DSEE. The Wide Area Tap seems cool where you can tap anywhere around the ears to trigger the function. In practice, enabling this feature might cause more accidental triggers when I am casually touching or adjusting the earbuds. Anyway, if you were to turn off the Wide Area Tap, you can still operate the controls by tapping the earbuds anywhere on the buds: the LinkBuds detect by vibration and not by touch, which also means there is less chances of accidental triggers.
I am rarely concerned with battery life on true wireless earbuds because they usually end up on the charging case more often during my reviews. However, given the LinkBuds are designed to be #NeverOff, I find myself leaving them on longer than any earbuds.
The LinkBuds are rated to last up to 5.5 hours continuous usage with a charging case to extend another 12 hours. What I find is that with a mix of audio playback and standby, the battery drains within 5 hours. I find that by disabling Speak-to-Chat, Wide Area Tap, Auto Pause, Auto Power Off, it extends the standby time considerably as it stops the active sensor on the earbuds from consuming power. Sony app also prompts that if you enable Speak-to-Chat, EQ, DSEE, Adaptive Volume Control, and Voice Assistant, it will increase battery consumption. Given the earbuds cannot sustain a full working day’s wear, and one might need to recharge it during mid-day work break to continue the rest of the day.
Recharging the case to full can be achieved in about one hour. I recommend charging them every night because after one full recharge on the earbuds, the remaining battery in the case would be slightly less than 50%.
The comfort level of the LinkBuds is a bit of a mixed bag and depends on how sensitive your ear cartilage is to foreign objects. Sometimes I feel so comfortable that the LinkBuds practically disappears and I almost could not feel any presence of the earbuds. At times, I felt discomfort because the hard plastic surface comes in contact with my ear skin. But I am able to adjust it to achieve a good wear balance that keeps them on my ears for hours – until I need to charge them. I also don’t feel that they got more uncomfortable over time. In fact, as long as I don’t touch them, they “disappear” from my senses until I somehow touch them again.
As seen on all the official images and videos of Sony LinkBuds, the earbuds are worn at a slant angle against the base of the ear groove. When I tried the earbuds initially without reading the detailed instructions, I have the ring drivers aligned at the entrance of the ear canals, so the earbuds appear more horizontal.
When the drivers are closer to my ear canals, I find that the treble details are obscured and the low range is too clouded. On top of that, the ambient sound is a bit more blocked, so I cannot openly hear the surroundings.
When I adjust the ring to be lower and away from the ear canal (the “recommended” position), I find the sound is more balanced and more musical. Bass is less overpowering, treble is clearer, percussions are crisp, and I can hear the ambient sounds more openly. Instrumental details are also aplenty but generally more laid back. The spatial sound stage offers listening comfort and eliminates fatigue.
As I think again while doing this review, the initial wearing position is probably not the correct way, because pushing the ring drivers too close to the ear canals result in an imbalanced acoustic projection, given the LinkBuds design is not the same as AirPods where the speaker grilles are intentionally angled towards the ear canals.
Nevertheless, you could adjust the ring driver position to tweak the sound signature: push closer to the ear canals for a warmer sound, more midrange, fuller lows, while tuning down the highs a little. I would also use the smartphone app EQ to increase the low-bass response, though it is still not possible to attain the same bassy impact as the WH-XB910N to satisfy bass heads. Not that on-ear earbuds aren’t capable of delivering powerful bass. I’ve heard that on the Earin A-3, but on that earbuds, the trade-off is a weak treble. Perhaps that is something that Sony can improve on the next iteration.
- Bass: 6.5/10. Clean bass without sub-bass intensity
- Midrange: 6.8/10. Open midrange sound, detailed without bloom.
- Treble: 7/10. Clean and full sounding.
During conversations, one of the LinkBuds mics will be active to capture the voice clearly with a warm chesty tone. Under windy conditions, it is able to pick up the voice sparingly. In a noisy environment with people talking in the background, the LinkBuds pick up your voice and captures in the mic during your conversations. When one of the earbuds is powered down during recharge, the audio switches from 2-channel to mono-channel.
Looking back over the decade, the design of on-ear open-fit earbuds remained largely the same, mostly inspired by Apple Earpods. Sony broke the mould with the LinkBuds to achieve the same open-fit experience but tuning the audio quality to mimic open-back headphones. The sound is not overly exciting and detailed compared to premium in-ears. They are laid-back, spatial, inoffensive, and pleasant to listen to. If the battery life is improved extensively, I would keep the LinkBuds on my ears for the entire day.