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  • About the Sony LinkBuds S

  • What we like

  • Related content

  • What we don’t like

  • Should you buy them?

Pros

  • Light, comfortable fit

  • Great noise canceling

  • Improved battery life

Cons

  • Adaptive Sound Control inconsistent

  • Need to be EQ’d

The LinkBuds S deliver great noise canceling and a feather-weight fit, but you’ll pay a premium.

The LinkBuds S attempt to continue the philosophy behind their namesake. Sony claims both earbuds are built for a generation on the move that wants to always be "linked" to their tech without losing their connection to the real world. But the LinkBuds S do so by employing noise canceling paired with transparency mode and Sony’s Adaptive Sound technology.

For better or worse, this moves the LinkBuds S away from the novel (if limited) design of the original LinkBuds and into direct competition with every other pair of true wireless ANC earbuds. While the new Linkbuds offer relatively good sound quality and ample features via Sony’s app, a high price and deep competition put them in a tough spot.

About the Sony LinkBuds S

A hand holds a pair of the black Sony LinkBuds S.
Credit: Reviewed/John Higgins

The Sony LinkBuds S are some of the lightest ANC earbuds available.

The specs for the Sony LinkBuds S are as follows:

  • Price: $200
  • Battery Life: Up to 6+ hours, 20 hours total with the case
  • Fast charging: 5 minutes charge for 1 hour of listening
  • Colors: Black, White
  • Ambient sound modes: Adaptive Active Noise Canceling (ANC) with Sony V1 chip, Transparency mode
  • Speakers: 5mm drivers
  • Connectivity: Bluetooth 5.2
  • Audio codecs: AAC, LDAC, DSEE Extreme
  • Dust/water resistance: IPX4
  • Fit: Four sizes (SS, S, M, LL)
  • Weight: 4.8 grams per bud, 35 grams for charging case

One thing I've appreciated from Sony over the past few years is its commitment to reducing packaging waste. The LinkBuds S come in fully paper-devised packaging. The cardboard box reveals a removable insert that holds the earbuds in their charging case and three sections that slide out containing documentation, a six-inch USB-A to USB-C charge cable, and four ear tip sizes.

The charging case is slightly thinner and longer than the previous LinkBuds case. Instead of the chest design with a button that releases the top, it features the flip-top configuration we’ve come to expect from most true wireless earbuds. As much as I appreciate the aesthetic of the chest, it required more maneuvering to open due to the button release. The flip-top is a welcome change.

What we like

Small, sleek, and light

The black Sony LinkBuds S lie next to the Jabra Elite Active 75t, Apple Airpods Pro, and Samsung Galaxy Buds2.
Credit: Reviewed/John Higgins

The LinkBuds S' profile is slimmer than the Apple AirPods Pro, Samsung Galaxy Buds2, and Jabra Elite Active 75t.

One of the most important aspects of earbuds, especially those you’re expected to wear most of the day, is that they’re comfortable and unobtrusive. The LinkBuds S fit the bill.

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They fit my ears well without going too deeply into my ear canal but never felt like they were in danger of falling out. Even for the few runs I took with the LinkBuds S, I was never concerned about the fit. (The IPX4 water resistance is enough for most exercise unless you’re a heavy sweater or it's raining. In those cases, I’d suggest one of our Best Workout options.

Adding to the comfort is the lowish profile of the LinkBuds S that visually are flush to the ear in a more attractive way than the original LinkBuds. The body of the S isn’t as bulbous, revealing a flatter top that blends better into your ears. It’s more reminiscent of the Jabra Elite Active 75t or a miniaturized Sony WF-1000XM4.

One way the LinkBuds S follow their predecessor is with weight. They don’t quite meet the bar set by the LinkBuds, but at only 4.8 grams per bud they’re less than a gram more. The LinkBuds S are lighter than the Jabra Elite Active 75t and Apple AirPods Pro, as well as the Beats Studio Buds (although only slightly).

A bevy of customization options

A man in a blue shirt with the Sony LinkBuds S in his ear stands in profile in front of a bush.
Credit: Reviewed/John Higgins

There are a lot of features available for the LinkBuds S through the Sony Headphone app on iOS and Android.

While you can control play functions, calling, and noise canceling with touch controls on the sides, the earbuds rely on the excellent Sony Headphones app for most features. There’s Sony’s Adaptive Sound Control, Speak-to-Chat, an equalizer with 12 sound profile settings (including two custom options), 360 Reality Audio Setup with supported apps, DSEE Extreme for improving compressed audio, and quick access customization for Spotify and Endel, an app that provides relaxing soundscapes.

Adaptive Sound Control allows noise canceling and transparency mode to be automated depending on the activity or even location. Sitting, walking, running, or riding the subway can all be assigned to have noise canceling on, transparency (labeled Ambient Sound) on a 20-point sliding scale, or everything off. Want to be sure you can hear the barista when getting your coffee? Add your local coffee shop to the learned locations list in the app and set the Ambient Sound to 20 so every time you walk in you’ll be able to hear everything around you, though there are practical issues I’ll discuss below.

Impressive noise canceling

The LinkBuds S’ noise canceling is impressive, in line with what we’ve come to expect from Sony. It’s not at the level of the WF-1000XM4 in our mix of real-world and practical demos, particularly in the always-difficult vocal range, but those also have an MSRP $80 higher than the LinkBuds S.

I found the LinkBuds S’ noise canceling to be better with crowd noise than the more expensive Apple AirPods Pro, not to mention the additional battery life. The AirPods Pro are a bit better with low-frequency sounds like airplane noise. I'd still recommend regular travelers opt for an over-ear pair that handles plane noise better, but for the outside rumblings of daily life the LinkBuds S offer a welcome reprieve.

Fuller audio performance

The black Sony LinkBuds S with their black charging case and the white Sony LinkBuds with their charging case sit on a wooden table.
Credit: Reviewed/John Higgins

The design of the LinkBuds S is completely different from the original LinkBuds, which had a hole in them to let ambient sound through.

Thanks to the sealed design of the LinkBuds S, their sound is an improvement over the LinkBuds that had an overall thinner sound due to the donut holes. While the Linbuds S’ out-of-box sound was too forward in the mids for my ears, and the highs were sizzly, those peaks were able to be tamed with the EQ options in the Sony Headphones app.

Before the EQ, the sound quickly became fatiguing for me, especially at higher volumes (the LinkBuds S can get loud). That’s not something you want from earbuds meant for wearing all day long. These frequency peaks could easily be heard with songs that relied on a twangy guitar tone—such as the Richenbacher on Tom Petty’s Listen to Her Heart—or the more distorted, colorful sounds of Tom Morello’s guitar on War Within a Breath.

The EQ allowed me to bring down the pushy midrange and deliver a satisfying listening experience.

This sound improvement extends to the microphone as well. Over phone calls my voice sounded clear, crisp, and bright. For some it had a slight tinny sound, but not oppressively so.

Improved battery life

An unfortunate aspect of the original LinkBuds was their limited battery life. For a pair that doesn’t include the power-sucking ANC feature, only having 5.5 hours of battery life for earbuds meant to be used all day is a bit disappointing.

Even with the added ANC functionality, Sony lists the LinkBuds S at 6 hours, which I found to be on the conservative side. In my testing (playing a constant stream of music at around 75% volume with ANC turned on) they made it just past 6.5 hours.

What we don’t like

Adaptive Sound is too dramatic

A man in a blue shirt listens to the black Sony LinkBuds S while standing on a balcony.
Credit: Reviewed/John Higgins

When the Adaptive Sound Control switches between noise-canceling and ambient sound modes the change can be jarring.

Depending on your Adaptive Sound Control settings, the automated change can feel dramatic when changing activity. There’s also a slight delay between physically changing activity and the Adaptive Sound Control kicking in—and sometimes a delay on activation between the left and right earbuds. For instance, after I finished getting laundry out of the dryer in my building’s laundry room (which registered as the “Staying” activity with noise canceling on), the app didn’t register my movement as I left for close to 10 seconds which resulted in a near collision (and mild fright) with a noisy neighbor I couldn’t hear.

Sometimes I don’t want the Adaptive Sound to change when the app thinks I’m altering my activity. For instance, slowing down for Don’t Walk signs on my run changes the activity from Running to Walking, and therefore the Ambient Sound setting. It’s less distracting to turn off the Adaptive Sound Control and select an Ambient Sound setting for the duration of the run. By default, there’s also a notification tone when it switches between movement modes that I recommend turning off, as it interrupts music that’s playing.

Best performance takes some tinkering

Getting the best out of the LinkBuds S, both when it comes to sound and functionality, takes some time playing around with the settings. For long-term listening, I needed to tame the sound with the app EQ (I didn’t find any of the presets to be useful and had to dial in my own preferences). And the automated functionality can be hit or miss. You can get the performance to a good place with effort, but for someone that wants a premium no-fuss experience, the LinkBuds S aren’t the right earbuds.

Should you buy them?

Maybe, if you’re able to find a good deal

The original LinkBuds have some advantages over the LinkBuds S. They have a novel design—albeit built for some very specific use cases—that sets them apart from other earbuds. But that’s where their benefits end. The LinkBuds S improve on the sound of music and calls, add in ANC, and are more comfortable. The thing is, they’re yet another model with ANC and transparency mode in a very crowded field.

That field includes the Jabra Elite 4 Active, Samsung Galaxy Buds2, and Panasonic RZ-S500W that all can be found for at least $50 cheaper. While the fit on the LinkBuds S is better than all three, the Elite Active 4 is a better workout option, the Galaxy Buds2 are almost half the price on sale, and the RZ-S500W offers better noise-canceling performance value. If you're looking for earbuds for the plane, and want excellent iPhone functionality, the Apple AirPods Pro can be found for the same price as the LinkBuds S and do a better job filtering out airplane noise.

That isn’t to say Sony's latest Linkbuds aren’t a solid pair of earbuds. At $200, they’re just a bit too expensive. But when seasonal sales come around, it’ll be worth keeping an eye out for the LinkBuds S.

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Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.

Meet the tester

John Higgins

John Higgins

Editor, Electronics & Audio/Video

@johntmhiggins

John is the A/V Editor for Reviewed. Previously he's had bylines at ProjectorCentral, Wirecutter, IGN, Home Theater Review, T3, Sound & Vision, and Home Theater Magazine.

See all of John Higgins's reviews

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