Review: Sony's LinkBuds are unique, but the performance doesn't match the style

Sony's new LinkBuds
Can the promise of quality audio be fulfilled with a hole? Photo credit: Newshub

I've used many sets of earbuds over the years, both wireless and not, but I can't recall trying any that look quite as strange as Sony's new LinkBuds.

They have an open ring design that the Japanese tech giant says allows you to experience the outside world without compromising your listening experience.

Given how good Sony's top of the range standard earbuds are, that's quite a promise.

So can the LinkBuds deliver top-notch sound while defining a new style?

I've been using them for a week now and here are my thoughts.

The good

The first thing that hits you on opening the packaging is just how small the LinkBuds and their case is.

Compared to some wireless earbuds, these definitely leave extra room in your pocket.

The earbuds themselves look incredibly stylish for the first generation of a new design. When I first saw a picture I wasn't convinced, but holding the incredibly light ear-shaped devices in my hand changed my mind.

They are pretty damned sexy.

Sony's new LinkBuds
Photo credit: Newshub

One of the most common downsides to wireless earbuds is the sensitivity of touch controls and Sony have come up with something truly brilliant here to avoid such issues.

Wide Area Tap control means that, once fitted, you just tap the skin beside your ear to initiate a response, instead of tapping the devices themselves.

I tried numerous different configurations of the double and triple tap functionality and found it responsive and accurate when tapping the skin in front of my ear.

It also meant I was able to make adjustments to their fit in my ear without accidentally skipping music tracks or chapters in my book, something that happens way too often with other brands.

They are incredibly comfortable to wear, when you can get them fitted properly - more on that soon. I had them on for extended periods sitting at my desk and there were times when I forgot I was wearing them.

The hole in the LinkBuds ensures you can hear the environment around you, just as it was designed to. While that's fine in a home office, however, it's not quite as ideal in a busy one with lots going on around you. Bear that in mind if you're thinking of buying them.

The call experience was very good, with the person on the other end able to hear me clearly and without issue. Again, however, add some background noise and it becomes harder for you to hear the other person.

The earbuds themselves are IPX4 splash proof rated, meaning using them in Aotearoa's inclement weather or in the gym shouldn't be an issue. I'll explain why that's not quite the case for me in a minute...

Sony's new LinkBuds
Photo credit: Newshub

Last, but not least, I want to give Sony kudos for the excellent Headphones app that accompanies the LinkBuds.

New firmware was downloaded and installed easily and it's intuitive to use.

I really enjoyed the pop-up which told me exactly what the battery life on each bud as well as the case was when connecting to the software, and that information stays visible while you navigate sub menus.

Those give you access to control a whole range of additional functions, including changing what happens when you tap your ear, automatic pausing when you take them out and automatic power off settings.

I also appreciated the ability to switch off and on Adaptive Noise Control - designed to automatically increase the volume when your background noise gets louder - even if I didn't think it quite delivered on its promise.

All in all, there's definitely something about the LinkBuds that makes them alluring, if not perfect.

The bad

For every positive with the LinkBuds, however, there appears to be an opposite which detracts from the overall experience.

While the compact case is to be welcomed, it does mean the additional battery life offered is less than I've come to expect from top brands in the last year or so.

Sony says you can get an extra 12 hours of juice from the case on top of the 5.5 hours of battery from the earbuds themselves which definitely isn't as much as I'd expect from earbuds that don't include battery-draining Active Noise Cancellation (ANC).

Sony's new LinkBuds
Photo credit: Newshub

A 10 minute charge via the supplied USB-C cable will give you another 90 minutes of life, but with no wireless charging options it's still less than ideal.

And while they undoubtedly allow you to experience the outside world while wearing them, I have to disagree that the listening experience isn't compromised by it.

For me, the volume is lacking compared to my preferred earbuds of choice, particularly in noisier environments. It's at precisely that moment I'd normally turn on ANC, which isn't an option here.

Even compared to headphones like Apple's basic AirPods, which are also designed to allow environmental sounds through, the sound isn't as full. 

It can get loud if you turn the volume on your phone right up but, at that point, the distortions and limitations of the audio just don't provide an enjoyable experience.

The overall fidelity of the sound simply doesn't match with others on the market, even those which come in at substantially less than the $329 the LinkBuds will set you back in Aotearoa.

There is an equaliser available in the companion app, but even that couldn't get over the deficiencies, unfortunately.

I felt there was a muddyness to the audio that simply left me wondering when I would choose to use these over alternatives that offer a transparency mode.

Sony's new LinkBuds
Photo credit: Newshub

My doubts were confirmed when it came to my other usage case - exercise.

While the LinkBuds were comfortable to wear, they never felt totally secure in my ears, particularly my left.

They do come with five different sizes of fittings, but even then I couldn't find the perfect size, even after watching the tutorial video.

I'd be convinced everything was as it should be and then I'd start moving my head and they'd come loose. It happened much quicker if I started talking.

I'm not sure if my ears are simply a little weirder than others, or this is one of the prices you pay for the unique design, but it was still a little underwhelming.

The verdict

In a world where it can be hard to identify one set of wireless earbuds from another, I applaud Sony's decision to make something unique.

However, the LinkBuds seem to be trying to answer a question they probably don't need to at a price that just begs more questions.

Sony's new LinkBuds
Photo credit: Newshub

Most quality ANC earbuds - including from Sony - also have transparency modes, often able to be selected with a simple touch, allowing you to hear the environment around you quickly.

I've used that functionality on my long walks when I've popped into a shop for a refreshment and needed to speak with the person serving.

The benefit, of course, is as soon as I'm back outside I can turn the ANC back on, taking away the sound of the traffic.

The LinkBuds, by design, offer no such functionality and therefore feel rather limited to me.

Perhaps if the audio quality was as good as the company's other wireless earbuds I might be more persuaded. But with a lack of bass and not enough battery to justify wearing for the whole day as Sony suggests, they just aren't able to demand that sought-after spot in my pockets.

Maybe the next generation will fulfil the promise this design showed?

Newshub was supplied with a set of Sony LinkBuds for this review.