Sony’s latest true wireless earbuds is called LinkBuds S, but has a totally different design and use case from the first LinkBuds. In fact, the new LinkBuds S more closely resembles the WF-1000XM4, and retails at S$299 in Singapore. The LinkBuds series looks set to be a new sub-brand for Sony true-wireless earbuds.
The LinkBuds is an open-fit earbuds with a unique ring-shaped driver. It lets in ambient sound so that users can keep wearing them the entire day and still interact with the surroundings. The LinkBuds S is a normal-looking earbuds with all the bells and whistles from the WF-1000XM4, minus a few premium features here and there, for instance, no wireless charging, a less superior ANC (obviously), and slightly shorter battery life (20 hours vs. 24 hours). On the flipside, the LinkBuds S are smaller and more compact to carry around. The case and earbuds surface are slightly rough, so it has better grip and not prone to grease marks.
Just like the WF-1000XM4, LinkBuds and many other premium Sony headphone models, the LinkBuds S connect to the Sony Headphone smartphone app and lets you customise a handful of functions. For the new users, here are the list:
- Select audio quailty (LDAC) vs. connection stability (SBC/AAC)
- Select ANC, Ambient Sound, or Off
- Adjust Ambient Sound Level (0 to 20) with Voice Focus option
- Adjust Custom EQ
- Select DSEE Extreme mode
- Customise tap controls
- Enable Speak-to-Chat
- Enable Adaptive Sound Control
- Enable Auto-Pause when earbuds are taken off
- Setup 360 Reality Audio
Needless to say, there are going to be a lot of close comparison between the LinkBuds S and WF-1000XM4, at only S$80 price difference. It’s the same situation previously between the WF-H800 and the WF-1000XM3 in 2020. My direct answer is: the WF-1000XM4 offers class-leading noise cancellation and if you really need the best ANC, the extra S$80 is worth paying. I would go for the LinkBuds S if I wanted smaller earbuds and don’t mind slightly less aggressive ANC. It has many of the premium features on the WF-1000XM4 that even other brand earbuds do not offer. For instance, when removing one of the earbuds, the other earbud would automatically turn on Ambient Sound so that you have balanced hearing. You can tap-hold the earbud to immediately turn on Ambient Sound and reduces music volume. Also available is the Speak-to-Chat where the earbuds automatically pauses music and turns on Ambient Sound when it detects your voice speaking.
The ANC level on the LinkBuds S works well for mid- to low-range frequencies, while the upper frequencies are still audible, but they don’t get heard much once music is piped in. As for Ambient Sound mode, the ambience sound processed and not so natural. For high-frequency noises, they sound digitised. When Voice Focus is enabled, the higher frequency noises are slightly reduced and less clear, but the actual vocal range is not boosted. This implementation is different from other earbuds I reviewed where the midrange is boosted to bring up the vocal range.
For audio quality, the LinkBuds S is brighter sounding compared to WF-1000XM4 but you can EQ to your preferred balance on the smartphone app. The bass is not very heavy, the overall sound is not warm, midrange is controlled, treble brightness is also not harsh, well controlled detail even with the sibilant saxophone, as the main instruments are not too forward. It’s a generally balanced sound tuned towards the clearer spectrum. Sound staging is wide and close, L-R panned instruments are positioned towards the sides of my ears, while mix-channel instruments are at the front. It delivers comfortable staging without sounding too tight and pushy.
Testing the mic quality, the LinkBuds S manages to handle ambient noises pretty well. In urban spaces, the other party can barely hear any traffic noises, not even a rattling motorbike zooming past. But there is always a limit to how intelligent the noise elimination can work. Occasionally, at enclosed noisy places like food centres, the noise can be overwhelming such that while the earbuds can remove background noise and leaving only my voice, it does not sound consistently clear. So far, the Technics AZ60 still reigns supreme in terms of background noise removal and voice pickup.
When Sony sent over the two LinkBuds models, they expect some close comparison. But they cater to very different use cases. Personally, I would get the WF-1000XM4 for its superior ANC and overall price-value (it’s my favourite true wireless earbuds in 2021), and get the LinkBuds as a second pair to use for all-day wear situations. The unique open-ring design allows me to wear the LinkBuds whole day without the need to remove or activate electronic noise-processing, which can sound unnatural, despite the best technology. The sacrifice, like all open-fit earbuds, is the lack of audio seal to immerse the listening experience, but the LinkBuds still offer impressive bass prowess.
Putting the WF-1000XM4 aside, the LinkBuds S offers similar features in a smaller package and smaller price, so it sits confidently among the best wireless earbuds below S$300. Time to update my ranking charts.