Sony LinkBuds S review: Tiny earbuds with big sound

The LinkBuds S fill the hole of the original LinkBuds model, adding active noise-cancelling and more appeal

Sony LinkBuds S earphones in use
(Image credit: Sony)
T3 Verdict

Well-specified, easy to wear, and with some real sonic talent, the LinkBuds S make sense in a lot of ways. But they’re a rather dispassionate listen, and they have rivals at every turn – not least from Sony itself.

Reasons to buy
  • +

    Remarkably light, small and comfortable

  • +

    Open, informative sound

  • +

    Good control options, great app

Reasons to avoid
  • -

    Lots of very capable rivals

  • -

    Strangely matter-of-fact sound

  • -

    Ordinary look and feel

It seems ‘LinkBuds’ is Sony shorthand for ‘a bit unusual’. The original LinkBuds in-ear headphones launched earlier this year, and certainly an open earbud with a hole in the middle counts as ‘a bit unusual’. At a glance, the LinkBuds S seem a lot more conventional – but look again. 

As Father Dougal might have wondered, are they very small or are they far away? ‘Very small’ is the answer, as well as ‘very light’. But, as we all know, a true wireless in-ear headphone has to have a bit more about it than compact dimensions to stand out – especially when it costs the thick end of £/$200. Do the LinkBuds S have what it takes?

Sony LinkBuds S review: Price and availability

The Sony LinkBuds S are on sale now and they’re priced at £179 in the UK. That translates to $199 in America and AU$349 in Australia – which, as only a quick glance at the market in the best true wireless in-ear headphones confirms, is right in the thick of the action.

Apple, with its ubiquitous AirPods Pro, Sennheiser’s lovely new Momentum True Wireless 3, other great alternatives from the likes of Audio Technica, Grell Audio and Shure all cost similar money, and all have plenty to recommend them. 

And Sony is currently bidding against itself, too – its not-long-for-this-world WF-100XM4 are now routinely yours for about the same money, and they haven’t stopped being excellent just because their replacement is due. So the LinkBuds S have plenty to do, in other words.

Sony LinkBuds S review: Features and what's new?

Sony LinkBuds S

(Image credit: Future / Simon Lucas)

Despite their relative titchiness, Sony has managed to give the LinkBuds S quite extensive specification. Wireless connectivity is via Bluetooth 5.2, it’s compatible with SBC, AAC and LDAC codecs – and just because the lack of any aptX compatibility is no surprise, that doesn’t mean it’s stopped being disappointing.

Once the digital audio information is on board, it’s dealt with by the same V1 processor as fitted to the WF-1000XM4 and first LinkBuds model, before being served to your ears by a couple of 5mm full-range dynamic drivers.

Sony claims a battery life of between 6 hours (with active noise-cancellation (ANC) switched on) and 9 hours (with it off), with a couple of extra charges in the included case. The ANC is a binary ‘on’ or ‘off’ system, switchable in the app – but there are 20 stages of ambient noise control to investigate while you’re there. So the LinkBuds S can provide you with anything between ‘a tiny hint of external noise’ to ‘really quite aggressively amplified ambient sound’.

Sony has also given some thought to wind-noise reduction. ‘Precise Voice Pick-Up Technology’, the company calls it – and if the relative size of the mesh-coloured external mic on each earbud is anything to go by, it’s got every chance of proving helpful.

Other Sony technologies familiar from the brand’s extensive headphones range are on board too. DSEE Extreme processing, for instance, which reckons it can restore information lost from a compressed digital audio file and return it to something approaching high-resolution status (a bit like claiming to be able to reconstruct a carrot after it’s been grated). ‘Quick attention’ and ‘Speak to chat’, both of which are designed to help you communicate while still wearing your earbuds, are considerably more useful.   

Sony LinkBuds S review: Performance and sound quality

Sony LinkBuds S

(Image credit: Future / Simon Lucas)

Regardless of price or type, some headphones take a little while to reveal themselves. Safe to say the Sony LinkBuds S are not those headphones – their many strengths and relatively few weaknesses are apparent from the off, and no matter how many hours you spend listening their attitude doesn’t alter.

There’s no doubt the LinkBuds have every piece of the jigsaw, and they fit it together properly. Tonality, for example, is smooth and consistent from the bright and substantial top of the frequency range to the hefty and well-controlled bottom-end – it’s balanced, loaded with plenty of detail both broad and fine, and properly integrated. They create reasonable momentum, handle rhythms and tempos with positivity, and allow recordings to hang together coherently.

The midrange is the main beneficiary of these positive traits, though. The LinkBuds S allow singers real expression, handing over the finest details of their performance in order to create a focused, convincing picture while allowing individual character to shine through.

Having put the jigsaw together, though, it turns out to be a slightly uninspiring picture. The LinkBuds S just don’t sound all that energetic or engaged – and as a consequence they’re not all that engaging to listen to. There’s a distinct lack of dynamic impetus to the way they sound, which makes for a rather matter-of-fact, all-at-one-level sort of presentation – the charge into the last chorus has no greater intensity than the intro had. The Sony are disinclined to hit as hard, or gather as much impetus, as some alternative designs, and are unfailingly polite even if the music you’re listening to wants to be rude and obnoxious.

Beyond the way they sound, the LinkBuds S are more straightforwardly likeable. They cancel noise with real assurance, dealing with external sounds decisively and leaving no hint of how hard they’re having to work. And call quality is superior too – voices at both ends are intelligible, and the wind-noise reduction algorithm is effective.

Sony LinkBuds S review: Design and usability

Sony LinkBuds S

(Image credit: Future / Simon Lucas)

A big part of the LinkBuds S design is how little there is of them. Sony reckons these earbuds are more than 40 percent smaller than the XM4 and, at just 4.8g each, are significantly lighter too. They live in an equally compact charging case that’s a trim 35g when empty. There’s no wireless charging facility here, just a USB-C socket on the rear of the case.

Nothing about the LinkBuds S looks or feels especially luxurious, although they’re predictably well-made from carefully textured plastic – it’s yours in black, white or a tepid sort of beige Sony is calling ‘ecru’ (as pictured below; our review sample in black is much nicer to our eyes). 

Sony supplies four different sizes of eartip in the packaging and, between this, the light weight and the tiddly dimensions, the LinkBuds S are simple to position comfortably and will then stay that way pretty much indefinitely. 

Once they’re in place, you’ve a choice of control methods. Alexa is built in, and there’s Google Assistant compatibility too – the integrated mics are just as capable here as with telephony. 

The LinkBuds S are compatible with the Sony Headphones control app, which remains one of the best around – here’s where you can adjust the level of ambient noise, muck about with EQ settings, switch ANC on or off, rearrange the touch-controls and loads more besides. The touch controls themselves are responsive and predictable, and don’t require a whole lot of pressure on the earbud to understand your instructions. 

Sony LinkBuds S review: Verdict

Sony LinkBuds S

(Image credit: Sony)

The Sony LinkBuds S are impressive in quite a few ways. All the stuff that comes from being a Sony product – great build quality, properly implemented control options, that sort of thing – can be taken for granted. But here there’s also very decent active noise-cancellation, class-leading comfort, and a nicely open, detailed sonic presentation with chunky, controlled bass as a foundation.

The problem for the LinkBuds S is that they just don’t seem all that enthusiastic about music. They strike quite a puzzling audio balance: more than happy to let you know all about the music you’re listening to, but refusing to properly enjoy it. Which makes them easier to admire than to love – especially in a market where the WF-1000XM4 from the same brand now cost pretty much the same – unless it's ultra-small that you're looking for first and foremost, in which case these tiny 'buds are highly accomplished. 

Also consider

Weirdly, the LinkBuds S are most in danger of losing out to other Sony designs. The WF-1000XM4 remain an outstanding option in every respect – and now are routinely available for LinkBuds S sort of money. But they’re quite big and heavy, relatively speaking, so if you fancy something as comfortable and discreet as the LinkBuds S, give some thought to the original LinkBuds – they’re compact, have a Unique Selling Point (unless you know of any other earbuds with a hole in) and are an energetic listen where the LinkBuds S are most certainly not. You can see those other options in our deals widget below for comparison:

Simon Lucas is a freelance technology journalist and consultant, with particular emphasis on the audio/video aspects of home entertainment. Before embracing the carefree life of the freelancer, he was editor of What Hi-Fi? magazine and website – since then, he's written for titles such as Wired, Metro, the Guardian and Stuff, among many others. Should he find himself with a spare moment, Simon likes nothing more than publishing and then quickly deleting tweets about the state of the nation (in general), the state of Aston Villa (in particular) and the state of his partner's cat.