For the past few years, those in search of serious sound quality from their noise-cancelling headphones have almost uniformly sworn allegiance to Sony. So expectations are precipitously high now that a new flagship offering has joined the brand’s storied lineage in the form of the WH-1000XM5, the successors to 2020’s truly beloved WH-1000XM4. With some fierce audiophile-worthy competition having recently joined the high-end fray in Apple’s AirPods Max, can the OG music lover’s choice still cut it?
Having spent hours jamming out to our playlists with these over-ear cans, there’s little doubt in our mind that these live up to our dizzying expectations and then some. Despite a somewhat contentious redesign, these are easily the best-sounding, best noise-blocking headphones we have used. Here’s why they’re a near-on essential purchase for commuting, your summer travels, and everything in between.
A total design shift?
As headphones go, the Sony WH-1000XM5 are reasonably controversial. Well, ‘controversial’ in the sense that there’s always going to be a subset of people who pretend not to like Abba or claim that Trent Alexander-Arnold isn’t a world-class right-back. Why the fuss? Sony’s oval-shaped on-ear cans inspired a generation of similarly designed headphones, so they’ve broken new stylistic ground in order to distinguish themselves all over again.
While the XM5s are certainly more curvaceous than the XM4s with a broader set of cups that add bulk to your ears, they don’t feel cumbersome to wear at all. The overall chassis is significantly tidier, with all the ports and buttons swept up on the bottom side of the cups for a cleaner profile and a more ergonomic placement for turning on things like noise cancellation and the like. In a world where headphones should absolutely be a consideration when building an appropriate office fit, these look the part wherever your workplace sits on the smart-casual divide.
The headband is definitely a highlight for us, losing the mechanical look from older models for a single arch that’s bolted on the top of each cup for a decidedly suaver look. Better still, those cups are comfier than previous iterations and sit snug on your ears, allowing a bit more room for the improved drivers while bolstering the build quality so it doesn’t feel so fragile if you’re stretching over hats or a larger-than-normal head. The downside? Avoid any sort of moisture as if your life depends on it. There’s still no water resistance of any kind on these cans, and Sony makes a concerted effort to remind you, placing a little flyer in the box with several big, red crosses over images of wearers listening to music while sweating or in the rain.
As much as the Sony WH-1000XM5’s refresh delivers on an aesthetic front, those same design changes go a long way to passively shelter your ears from ambient sound and deliver that all-important noise-cancelling excellence. Previous iterations were excellent for long-distance traveling, drowning out the low-frequency drones of planes, trains and taxi-driver chit-chat, and you’ll still find that quality here, but now there’s even better blockage in higher-frequency sounds like voices or the screech of train brakes. All of which is is enhanced with the smart microphones that analyze your surroundings and send a message to the powerful drivers to pull the curtains around you for total focus on your music.