Sony’s WH-1000XM5 headphones come with a new design, $50 price hike

Sony’s WH-1000XM4 has been widely regarded as one of the best pairs of noise-canceling headphones for most people since launching in August 2020, and we at Ars have recommended them in various buying guides over that time. On Thursday, Sony is announcing the next iteration of those flagship wireless headphones: the WH-1000XM5. They’ll arrive on May 20 for $400, which is a $50 increase over the existing XM4.

An updated design

In general, the WH-1000XM5—which remains a mouthful of a name—aren’t a massive shift from their predecessor, and interestingly, Sony will continue to sell the prior XM4 alongside this new pair. Still, there are a few changes of note. The most immediately noticeable tweaks are in the design department: Compared to the XM4, the XM5 has a thinner headband and wider earcups that should better fit those with larger ears. The earcups use a softer synthetic leather material, and the slider used to adjust the headband’s fit now has a smoother, notchless action.

I’ve only had the XM5 on hand for about a day as of this writing, which unfortunately isn’t enough time for me to give more definitive impressions. At first blush, though, the fit feels roomier and lighter on the head, despite only weighing 4 grams less than the XM4 (at 250 g, compared to 254 g before). The XM4 were already comfortable, but the XM5 appears to distribute its weight a bit more evenly, putting less pressure on the sides of your head without letting in a ton of outside noise. They’re closer to Bose’s QuietComfort 45 in that regard, albeit not quite as spacious-feeling.

The overall design is somewhat reminiscent of Bose’s Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, though the XM5 are still largely composed of a smooth and sturdy-feeling plastic, not the metallic finish of Bose’s pair. There’s still a button for quickly swapping between active noise-canceling and ambient sound modes on the side, and swiping and tapping on the sides of the earcups still allows you to take calls, adjust volume, and change tracks. The headband is also still nicely flexible. The headphones also continue to feature a headphone jack and a cable for wired listening, and you can use the headphones passively without battery power if needed (though you’ll lose noise-canceling functionality and other features in that case).

The big trade-off is that you can’t fold the XM5’s earcups up, only flat. The headphones will take up more room on your desk when you’re not using them as a result, and the included carrying case is significantly larger than that of the XM4. This may not be a dealbreaker for most, but it’s an inconvenience.

ANC and audio-quality promises

The main appeal of the XM4 was its stellar active noise cancellation (ANC), which was generally considered among the most effective on the market. (Apple’s AirPods Max is the only pair I’ve tested that clearly blocks more outside noise, but that pair is significantly more expensive with a $549 MSRP, so it’s not as good of a value.) Sony says it has improved that ANC performance with the XM5 by dedicating two processors—the “HD Noise Cancelling Processor QN1” that powered the XM4’s ANC, plus the “Integrated Processor V1” used in Sony’s impressive WF-1000XM4 true wireless earbuds—and eight microphones (up from four mics with the XM4) to picking up and subsequently negating external noise. Sony says the headphones will automatically “optimize” their ANC performance based on your fit and environment, too, so if you move from a quiet home office to a busy street, the ANC effect will ratchet up accordingly. Unlike the Bose pair noted above, though, there’s still no way to manually adjust the strength of the ANC, so if you’re particularly sensitive to the sensation of strong ANC, you may feel discomfort here.

We’ll have a more comprehensive breakdown of how the XM5’s performance compares to that of the XM4 and other competing pairs in the future, but I haven’t noticed any alarming drop-off in ANC quality in the short time I’ve had with the device thus far. Sony says its upgrades should particularly result in better cancellation of mid- and high-frequency sounds—things like human voices, which ANC headphones have traditionally struggled with more than low-end noises like the rumbling of an aircraft cabin.

The company made similar claims when it launched the XM4, but, at least anecdotally, the XM5 headphones have indeed erased the chatter of phone conversations happening just a few feet away from me with the ANC on and music playing at lower volumes. Without something playing, the less-snug fit seems to passively let in a little more sound than the XM4, but it wouldn’t appear that you’ll need to listen at anything close to unsafe volumes to effectively block outside noise.

The included ambient sound mode—which uses the built-in mics to purposefully let in external noise, giving you better awareness of your surroundings—sounds a bit less natural than the implementation on the AirPods Max, but it’s still effective and not overly processed. Cycling between the ambient sound and ANC modes doesn’t have an adverse effect on audio quality, either.

Speaking of audio quality, Sony says the XM5 has a new 30 mm driver unit with a particular emphasis on improving treble accuracy—think female vocals, hi-hats, and the like—and creating a more “natural” sound profile. The XM4 and its larger 40 mm driver unit had a bass-forward sound by default; if my early tests are any indication, the XM5 doesn’t completely stray from that tendency, but it doesn’t go quite as hard on the low end, offering a smooth, more balanced profile. It wouldn’t appear to surpass the AirPods Max, which remain the most detailed wireless headphones I’ve tested—and you can usually get superior sound quality from a good wired pair in the same price range—but the early signs are still promising.

If you don’t like the default profile, there’s still an equalizer tool in Sony’s Headphones Connect app that lets you customize the sound more to your liking, effectively creating a more excited or mellow sound as needed. In terms of Bluetooth audio codecs, the XM5 headphones support Sony’s own higher-end LDAC tech on Android phones alongside the more common AAC and SBC; aptX and aptX HD remain unsupported.

Similar battery life and features

The rest of the XM5’s package is similar to the previous model. Battery life remains rated at 30 hours of continuous playback with ANC active, although, as usual, you can get more or less than that depending on how loud you set your volume. An upgrade here would have been nice, but this is still longer-lasting than other noise-cancelers we like, such as the AirPods Max and QuietComfort 45. There’s a USB-C port for charging, and Sony says you can now get three hours of juice with a three-minute charge; previously, the XM4 got five hours from a 10-minute charge.

The headphones pair easily enough over Bluetooth 5.2 and can connect to two devices simultaneously through Sony’s companion app. The headphones can swap between those connections automatically; Sony says they’ll switch to your phone whenever you receive a call, for instance. That said, I’ve noticed a slight delay when, say, stopping a song on a PC and starting a video on a phone. You can manually move between the two through a menu in the app, though, and having the functionality at all is still a net positive. It’s also worth noting that I’ve been using beta software thus far, so things may well improve by launch.

Call quality was one area where the XM4 could clearly stand to improve. Sony says it has equipped the XM5 with four beamforming microphones and new noise-reduction algorithms to better distinguish your voice in loud environments and reduce wind noise when taking a call outside, but we’ll have to see how these claims hold up in testing.

Many of the extra features we liked on the XM4 are still here, too. A “speak-to-chat” feature can recognize when you start talking and automatically pause your music until you’re done, which is helpful for a momentary chat while you’re in the middle of something work-related. A “quick attention” will quickly turn on the ambient sound mode whenever you lift a hand over the right earcup, which can be useful for catching a quick announcement on a flight or train ride. You can adjust the strength of the ambient sound effect on a 20-step scale in Sony’s app. The headphones will automatically pause playback when you remove them and restart once you’ve put them back on. An “adaptive sound control” feature that uses location tracking to automatically adjust audio settings—turning on ambient sound and speak-to-chat when you’re in a frequented coffee shop, for instance—is still here, as well.

Sony seems to be mirroring Bose’s market strategy with high-end noise-canceling headphones: just as Bose sells its more premium Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 alongside the still-quality QuietComfort 45, Sony will now sell the WH-1000XM5 as an upgrade option over the well-reviewed WH-1000XM4. The potential problem is that the latter is still a fantastic set of wireless headphones, with active noise cancellation that’ll still be highly effective for the majority of users. They’re often on sale for less than Sony’s MSRP, too. Still, while not all of the XM5’s design changes are ideal, they do look like an improvement in terms of fit and comfort. And if Sony’s claims of improved noise-cancellation and audio quality hold up over time, they might be worth the extra cash for those who want better performance. We’ll spend some more time with them in the coming days to figure out where they stand.

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Listing image by Jeff Dunn

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