The Sony LinkBuds is Sony's latest attempt to say, we want to do truly wireless earbuds different from the rest.
Since headphone makers both big and small have followed the trend to cut that headphone cable, few have deviated from the norm as far as design and features are concerned.
Essential reading: Best smart truly wireless earbuds to buy
Sony tried to flex its innovative muscles in 2018 with the frankly bonkers Sony Xperia Ear Duo. Unfortunately, it was a difficult hearable to get on with.
So now we have the LinkBuds, another unique take on truly wireless earbuds, putting a big emphasis on letting you still hear the world around you while you listen to your music or take calls. Unique design aside, Sony is introducing features it believes will elevate your listening time as well.
Priced at ¬£149/$179, they come in at around the same price as Apple's AirPods (3rd Generation) and Samsung's Galaxy Buds2, so is up against tough competition.
Has Sony managed to do something different that actually works? We've been putting the odd-looking LinkBuds in our ears to find out. Here's our comprehensive verdict.
Sony LinkBuds: Design, fit and controls
Sony's LinkBuds quite simply look like no other truly wireless earbuds you can put in your ears right now. In fact, they don't look like they even belong in your ears.
There's a doughnut-shaped ring at the front with a round ball further back that houses key components and you've got silicone wing tips to help keep them in place. The ring and the ball (with the help of the wing tip) all sit inside of your ear and it's a setup that takes some trial and error with the different sized tips provided to get a fit that works.
We started with a small pair of the wing tips and while they were generally fine for walking around and sitting at home working at a desk, using them for more energetic movements like running an exercising did see them drop out on a couple of occasions. More than any other buds we've tried recently, you really need to spend some time working with those tips to get a strong fit.
You can do it, and when you do, they feel secure to wear. The buds themselves are very light and small, which means you generally forget that they are in your ears, even during longer listening periods, and that's a big design plus for us.
They carry an IPX4 water resistance rating, which means they're fit for fending off sweat and a bit of rain. We've run and hit the gym with them and got caught in a downpour outside during that time and can confirm they've continued working without issue.
The other big element here to talk about is controls. Unlike most truly wireless earbuds. Sony doesn't go with physical or tap-style controls. You do use taps, but you do them directly on your face, roughly just in front of your ear.
Sony calls it Wide Area Tap and is a control method similar to the one that was embraced by the Bragi Dash when the hearable was on the scene. You can customise those tap controls in the companion Sony Headphones app. From there, you can pick to use this method for playback, volume, song selection, voice assistant support (Google Assistant and Alexa) and Spotify Tap to get quick access to the music streaming service, if it's installed on your phone.
It sounds like a control method that could be a disaster, but once you've found the sweet spot, and it doesn't take long to do that, the control system actually works surprisingly well. It's nicely responsive to double and triple taps and means you have less reason to touch the buds and potentially knock them out of place as well, which is definitely handy when you're on the move.
When the LinkBuds are not in use you can drop them into their charging case, which is small, light and while we'd prefer it to be flatter to make it more pocket-friendly, it still doesn't soak up a lot of pocket space. There's a USB-C port alongside the Bluetooth pairing button around back and a LED light up front to indicate charging, pairing and battery status.
As a package, when you get that fit spot on, the LinkBuds are small, light, can stay in place and are comfortable to wear. The case is a great size too, if you need to take that with you and we'd say overall, this is some upgrade on Sony's ridiculous Xperia Ear Duo buds.
Sony LinkBuds: Features and sound quality
We'll start by saying that the Sony LinkBuds don't sound anything like Sony's other well-loved truly wireless buds. That's because they're built differently and aim to offer a very different type of listening experience.
Sony uses an open design, which essentially means that while they do sit inside your ears, they don't want to entirely block out the world around you when they're in position. It's a bit like the transparency or awareness modes you get on many truly wireless earbuds.
It's also a similar approach to headphones that use bone conduction technology to keep you aware of your surroundings. They want you to hear sound outside of the buds, whether that's traffic or someone trying to talk to you in the office.
The way Sony does that is through the doughnut-shaped driver unit, which lets outside noise in from the outer and delivers the audio you're streaming from the inner.
In terms of the experience of listening to music, handling calls or communicating with your smart assistant, we'd say it's surprisingly pretty good and is up there with the best bone conduction headphones you can find. If you're looking at the LinkBuds thinking they will blow you away with power and bass, then you're going to be disappointed.
What you get is something that prioritises clarity and can punch out a little bass, which is definitely more noticeable in quieter, indoor environments. Head outside and like bone conduction headphones, it's a battle with the wind and other loud noises to get really rewarding audio. You do get good detail on vocals and voices in general, making them ideal for podcasts and audiobooks. We'd say the sound profile is pretty natural overall.
You do get a good top volume, which you'll need outside, with a useful adaptive volume control, which automatically turn things up in loud environments and turn them back down in quieter listening locations.
You do have scope to tinker with the sound profile via the Headphones app. You'll find an equalizer, with a host of preset EQs and room to create custom ones as well. You can get something more versatile sounding in spite of the sacrifices you make with that open-style design.
Where things do get interesting is the smart features Sony includes and need to be set up or turned on in that companion phone app.
Like other Sony truly wireless earbuds, you're getting support for 360 Reality Audio to achieve more immersive sound. Part of that support is to have your ear shape analysed, which involves taking photos of your ear to get the optimal sound experience.
The smart feature that impressed us the most though was Speak-to-Chat. It's a feature that when enabled, can detect when you're speaking to someone and will automatically pause the music so you can have a conversation without taking the buds out. When it recognises that the conversation is done, it will resume playing your audio.
It always managed to recognise when we broke into conversation and for people that never want to take their buds out to talk to people, it's a really smart, simple feature that's well executed.
Sony LinkBuds: Battery life
While other members of Sony's truly wireless earbud family can promise big battery numbers, the same can't be said for the LinkBuds.
Sony promises up to 5.5 hours of battery from a single charge when playing music, and 2.5 hours for non-music use. You're also getting 12 extra hours from the charging case, giving you a combined 17.5 hours in total. There's a battery status light on the case to let you know when they're fully charged and the Headphones app will also give you a breakdown of battery per bud and for the case.
We'd say that 5.5 hours is spot on based on our testing. You do also have a 10-minute quick charge feature that gives you 90 minutes of play time, so you can top things up to get you through a day of listening.
5.5 hours certainly aren't the biggest battery numbers you're going to find on truly wireless earbuds today. You can spend considerably less and get much bigger battery life. If you make good use of that quick charge support though, it will get you through a solid week's worth of listening.
- Small, light and comfortable fit
- Clear and customisable sound
- Responsive gesture controls
- Useful Speak-to-Chat feature
- Need to play around with fit
- You have to live without bass
- Not class leading battery life
- Companion app is a bit busy