The Sony LinkBuds have got to be one of the most unique true wireless earbuds on the market right now. The reason is their open-back design. Yes, you read that right. Sony used a unique open-ring design that has a hole in the middle to allow you to hear everything around you even when your media is playing.
I’ve never seen anything quite like it — the closest in function being bone-conducting headphones but those aren’t earbuds. Naturally, I was sceptical about how the LinkBuds would sound but Sony isn’t one for willy-nilly innovation. The LinkBuds sound far more impressive than they should and boast microphone quality that’s shockingly good.
But for $320, are these LinkBuds worth your time? That’s a hefty sum for any headphone, let alone earbuds and in spite of the many things the LinkBuds get right, it fumbles on others. So should you buy them? Let’s find out.
Sony LinkBuds Review
LinkBuds have a rather unusual shape that you’ll notice right away. Basically, the bud is a plastic sphere with a donut-shaped speaker attached to it that goes into your outer ear. This is what allows you to always hear your surroundings when the buds are on. The LinkBuds are made from recycled plastic and are incredibly light at just 4.1gms for each bud.
The only challenge is whether the Linkbuds will fit comfortably in your ears without falling out. There have been a few times when one of the buds fell out onto the floor. It almost made it into the toilet once. In order to help keep the buds firmly in your ear, Sony supplies some arc supports that attach to the main sphere of the buds. I found none of them particularly effective, but you might find them useful.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, my inner ear started aching after about two hours of wearing the LinkBuds. So not the most comfortable design ever, but like Apple’s famous Earpods, depending on your ears, they’ll either be incredibly comfy or incredibly irritating.
The Charging case is a rather tiny affair that shares the same recycled materials as the buds and is equally light. You can easily keep this in a shirt or pants pocket without any heft. The opening latch isn’t great though and you won’t be able to open it one-handed due to the super smooth texture of the case. Inside the case, the LinkBuds sit snugly and lock into place so there’s no fear that they’ll accidentally drop out when you open the case. On the back of the case is the USB Type-C port for charging and a Bluetooth pairing button.
The Sony LinkBuds come with a wealth of technical and quality of life features that you’d expect from Sony. The buds are truly wireless with the latest Bluetooth 5.2 and support Google Fast Pair and Windows Swift Pair which makes connecting to your devices a breeze. The buds also support Sony’s patented Digital Sound Enhancement Engine or DSEE which essentially upscales compressed audio to what the original recording was. This is obviously great for listening to Spotify or any other streaming service that doesn’t offer hi-res audio.
The controls for the LinkBuds are similarly innovative with the option to tap on the buds or use Wide-area tap that allows you to tap on any area around your ear. It will be a little different for everyone but I found tapping on the ear lobe or just above your jaw worked best. It was still not a smooth experience and I often accidentally paused my music just by chewing.
With Adaptive sound control, the LinkBuds adjust playback volume based on surrounding noise levels though in my testing, I couldn’t really sense the change happening so either it’s really good or I’m just too old. The buds also have proximity sensors so if you take them off, it automatically pauses your media. And you can use one bud at time if you so choose though given the open back nature, I don’t see why that would be necessary.
Another great feature is Speak-to-chat, an old Sony staple that detects when you start speaking and then pauses your media. After a couple of seconds of no talking, the LinkBuds will resume playback. This is handy when you just want to respond to someone but your hands are otherwise engaged or dirty; eliminating the need to touch the buds.
As with other Sony headphones, the LinkBuds also support 360 Spatial Audio. You can set this up in the Sony Headphone app which will guide you through an elaborate process of mapping your ears. Given the size of the drivers and open back design, I wasn’t impressed with 360 audio on the LinkBuds as I was with the WH-1000XM4. Either way, you will need a speciality streaming service to enjoy 360 audio.
You can also enjoy Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa with these buds. The LinkBuds have the kind of integration that lets these voice assistants even tell you how much battery life is left in the buds. I’m surprised that there isn’t support for Apple Siri though, yet another strange omission.
Continuing on omissions, you won’t find Active Noise Cancellation or ANC on the LinkBuds. Obviously, that glaring hole in the earbuds has everything to do with it but for a $300 set of earbuds, it’s a pretty tough pill to swallow. ANC is practically a basic feature at this price point.
Performance & Battery
The Sony LinkBuds are, as I said earlier, sound far better than I expected them to. Open back headphones are designed for better movement of sound from the drivers to give you a more open, spacious and natural sound. And despite their tiny size, the LinkBuds are capable of doing the same audio magic.
The sound signature is very open, clean and rich in detail. It sounds almost like you are listening to speakers near you rather than buds in your ears. The spaciousness of the sound is very impressive and pleasing. Now, being open-back earbuds, don’t expect the greatest bass in the world but I was more than pleased with what’s there.
The open back design can struggle to compete with environmental noise so you’ll often have to raise the volume when you are out and about. Conversely, raise the volume too much and you won’t be able to properly hear people talking to you. I’ve enjoyed listening to my assortment of film and game scores and was pleasantly surprised at the LinkBuds ability to render both instruments and vocals. Although the bass might be lacking, these buds are still enjoyable to listen to for the most part.
Even more impressive than the audio playback are the built-in microphones on the LinkBuds. These are the best microphones I’ve tested on any earbuds period. I’m not sure what witchcraft Sony has employed here but take a listen to this sample recording. My voice is very loud, clear and free of background noise. You can safely use the LinkBuds for Zoom calls, phone calls and even Discord chat with no problem. I was rather impressed how clearly it picks up my voice without me having to raise my voice as is often the case with other earbuds. So if you are the chatty type, these buds are great.
Of course, if you’re going to be on calls all day, then you need to know about battery life. The LinkBuds are rated for 5.5 hrs in each earbud which is what my experience was. It’s not the greatest I’ve ever seen where cheaper buds like the Jabees Firefly Vintage easily get 8 hours on a charge. However, there’s another 12 hours in the case making a total of 17.5 hrs which again, comes short of several other buds that offer up to 30 hours.
That said, the LinkBuds do support fast charging with 10 min in the case giving you 90 minutes of playback. The buds built-in assistant will warn you when your charge is low and the Headphone app will send you a handy notification to let you know when the case has less than 30% charge. I found that really useful as the case doesn’t really have a way of letting you know how much charge is left. I was also bummed that the case doesn’t support Qi wireless charging — yet again, something cheaper buds offer.
I like the Sony LinkBuds. Not only are they a refreshing change in the earbud space but they are also expertly executed. They are well built, sound fabulous and have the best sounding microphone that I’ve ever had in an earbud. But as wonderful as they sound, it’s all mute if they don’t sit in your ears comfortably and that will be hit or miss for most people. Then there’s the matter of price. $320 MSRP is way too much money for a pair of earbuds that don’t even have Active noise cancellation.
What makes this even harder is that at the time of writing this review, Sony has just released the new LinkBuds S. The newer buds drop the open-back design in favor of a traditional silicon tip design that will fit more people better. More importantly, they gain ANC and improved battery life — all for $50 less than the LinkBuds. I am yet to get my hands on those but it’s hard to imagine why anyone would pick these LinkBuds over the LinkBuds S. It’s a strange thing but it looks like Sony just made the LinkBuds obsolete already.