Five generations in, Sony’s 1000X is looking to hold on to its benchmark status. And while the price is higher, the sound quality of the WH-1000XM5 is nothing short of stunning.
The world of noise canceling headphones is an interesting one, with lots of choices and fit styles, but in the past six years, there has been a changing of the guard, so to speak.
Bose may have practically pioneered the category, winning accolades with its QuietComfort headphones, but when Sony rocked up with its MDR-1000X headphones at IFA 2016, the noise cancelling world suddenly started to change. Sony had a real challenger in active noise cancellation (ANC), and in the years that followed, knocked Bose out for industry best ANC.
That’s largely where we’ve been since the MDR switched model names in the second gen, when the WH-1000XM2 was able to fend off challengers from Bose and seemingly everyone else. There have been years since then that we’ve picked Sony’s headphones as the year’s best headphones despite coming out a year prior, they’re just that good.
In 2022, though, the competition is more steep. Apple has its AirPods Max which tied with Sony’s most recent last year, and Bose is getting better. And it’s not just those two fighting for a piece, with Sennheiser and other brands out to win also.
So two years on from the release of the XM4, Sony’s benchmark ANC headphones are getting an update, and things are a changing. This isn’t just a fresh coat of paint or a Malibu Stacy new hat, but a different pair of headphones.
Arriving with a new look, new price, and even a new set of specs, the Sony WH-1000XM5 needs to keep the momentum going that Sony has seen for over five years. Do they succeed?
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Design and features
Sporting a new design that looks totally different from the previous four generations of Sony 1000X headphones, it’s clear the WH-1000XM5 is a totally different beast. This isn’t just an update line we’ve seen for a few years, but something new.
Gone is the foldable design that used hinges to make the headphones smaller, and the classic band and cans look so much more modern now.
You’ll still get the matte plastic design with a slick almost rubberised finish, but this is a pair of headphones that looks revitalised and refreshed in a way we’ve not seen from Sony’s noise canceling headphone ranges yet.
Much like how the Bose 700 Noise Cancelling Headphones changed the look of what the QuietComfort headphones were achieving, so too do the fifth-gen 1000X headphones. They’re different, and that’s kind of exciting.
Inside, there are changes as well, with a new 30mm driver made from carbon fibre, a change from the 40mm driver last time. There’s an update to the microphone count, sporting four on each can rather than the two in the previous generations, which now aids the optimisation process, which is kind of always working, something Sony now calls “Auto NC Optimiser”.
Chips will process the audio, of course, with both the Sony Integrated Processor V1 and the Sony HD Noise Cancelling QN1 chip, which you might have seen used in the tiny WF-1000XM4 before it. This probably gives you an idea of what’s also going to come in the WF-1000XM5, which will probably pop up sometime next year.
Back in the present, the Sony WH-1000XM5 will operate on Bluetooth 5 with support for LDAC, though aptX and aptX HD aren’t here, which may bother audiophiles, less so with everyone else. Sony’s LDAC works well enough as a form of wireless HD tech, and there are other features to mess around with, such as its Digital Sound Enhancement Engine, DSEE HX, which you can flick on in the app.
You can also opt to plug in a 3.5mm cable, which is included in the box, though technically in the case under a little flap.
Interestingly, Near-Field Communication has disappeared from this model, as the automatic pairing NFC often provides disappears. Our guess is it just isn’t used enough these days for sound equipment, and Bluetooth LE pairing is typically faster.
While the design has changed, how you use Sony’s headphones hasn’t. There’s still a touchpad on the right side, an inclusion featured in the original MDR-1000X from six years ago, and something the company has featured with every subsequent generation.
Swipe up on the touchpad for volume up, swipe down for volume down, while forward and backward lets you skip tracks. There are taps for media control and holding your hand down over the pad triggers the ambient awareness, a sort of quick listen through the headphones in case someone says something nearby such as an airport announcement you desperately need to listen to. Gate calling, that sort of thing.
There are also some buttons, and in this incarnation, Sony is including some quick access for Spotify through the app, though only Spotify. It’s kind of surreal that the quick access works with one app and not the app of your choose, but that’s how it works.
Fortunately, you can use whatever music source with the headphones that you want, and for our WH-1000XM5 review, we’re using a choice of either Spotify, Apple Music, or YouTube, which are the three places you can find the Pickr Sound Test on.
As usual, you can test it for yourself with your own headphones, or even a pair of these, and that kicks off our performance review with the electronic sounds of Tycho and Daft Punk, and straight off the bat, there’s a warm sound with meaty bass that doesn’t overkill itself, plus some obvious and pronounced sub-bass noted, as well.
They’re warm and detailed, and the drums feel beautifully rendered, delivering a soundstage that really encompasses and helps you feel like you’re in the room.
In the pop of Carly Rae’s “Cut To The Feeling”, the sound is vibrant but balanced, with a distinctive sound offering plenty to hear through the track. It’s the same as we jump across Ariana Grande, while FKA Twigs’ “Two Weeks” details that guttural bass even more clearly.
Bold and strong, the WH-1000XM5 evoke confidence in their sound.
Rock is also similarly meaty, with Sony living up to the warmth it has delivered with every subsequent generation. You’ll find a round and resolute bass sound in Rage Against The Machine’s “Take The Power Back”, while the classic tracks from Bowie, The Who, The Beatles, and Paul Simon appear well-rounded entirely. These are great headphones.
In jazz and classical, there’s little extra oomph because the tracks don’t have that in the first place, but they sound amazing all the same. Warm and friendly, the rendition of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” was like sitting next to some great speakers, while the pristine clarity of Miles Davis’s “Flamenco Sketches” begged to suggest you were in the studio at the time of recording.
Regardless of what you play, the sound on offer from the Sony WH-1000XM5 is excellent, with beautiful delivery throughout.
Noise cancellation also seems like a winner, with a minor improvement you’re not likely to notice, though it’s there. The four microphones on the WH-1000XM4 have been doubled to eight in the XM5, so theoretically the identification of noise types improves, but it was already so good in the previous model, good luck telling the difference.
The noise cancellation does feel faster, though, and we found turning it on and switching locations and profiles was slightly more efficient in the XM5. Not that you’d have really realised in the previous generation, but these just feel faster in doing away with noise altogether.
Punctuating that solid performance is solid battery life, which sees the XM5 achieve roughly 30 hours of battery life, pretty much spot on the same as its predecessor, which we still rate as extremely impressive.
Dead set, listening for a good 3 hours saw the battery drop to 90 percent, which should give you an idea of just how spot on that runtime is.
You could fly from Sydney to New York in one charge if Qantas kicks off this service, given its test flight ran for close to 20 hours. Even without a direct fight, the runtime of 22 to 25 hours for a trip from Australia to New York with stopovers means the XM5 can survive on one charge. Handy, given you’ll probably not want to listen to the high-pitched whir of the plane.
One thing that feels a little off killer is the price, with Sony’s WH-1000XM5 priced at $650 locally, but already found at a street price of a hundred bucks less, going for $549 if you look.
Short of shopping at overpriced department stores, we doubt many will buy the XM5 for it’s recommended retail price, and it won’t take much to find it for lower. While your typical Australian electronic stores list the lower price, so too does Sony’s online presence in Australia.
However, the price is still quite high when you consider what’s changed from its predecessor, because the answer isn’t much.
With the 1000XM4 still also one of the best pairs you can find, and easily found at that for a max of $400, the old pair makes for a more compelling option than the new pair. There’s just not that much difference in what you get between the WH-1000XM4 and the WH-1000XM5, at least not with what your ears can hear.
Simply put, by pricing the XM5 so high, the headphones have lost some of what made the range so appealing for the past few years.
What needs work?
They’re still great headphones, clearly, but they offer very little in the way of differences compared to the old model, which might make the previous generation the more logical and compelling purchase.
You really have to ask what’s changed, because beyond design, we’re not sure the answer is quite so much.
There’s no head tracking for Dolby Spatial Audio, and you get the same Sony 360 Reality Audio you’ve had before, so there’s nothing new there in that regard. Weather resistance isn’t a part of the package yet, even if it’s there on the in-ear equivalent.
Noise cancellation isn’t far from what it was in the last model, though the automatic optimiser means you don’t need to trigger its regular feature. Meanwhile, speak to chat and GPS location switching is still there, left over from the previous generation.
The lack of a foldable design is also a little bit of a backpedal, because now you need a little more space to carry it.
To account for that, the case has also changed, and while Sony has tried to make it somewhat portable — we suspect the fold in the back of the case is design to let the case flex a little more in hand luggage — this redesign doesn’t add much to the package.
Our case managed to break within the first few days of use, splitting the zipper, something we’ve never managed on any other headphone case. Lucky us.
Really, it’s the lack of anything different amidst a higher price that gives us something to poke in the WH-1000XM5.
What once was one of the most compelling headphone choices you could make without a second thought is now one priced to make you reconsider.
Final thoughts (TLDR)
If you can get over the alarming price, Sony’s noise cancelling headphones are still absolute bangers, delivering quality and volume.
Make no mistake, the Sony WH-1000XM5 are among the best noise cancelling headphones around. Yes, they’re more pricey than their predecessors, but they’re brilliant through and through.
That said, there’s not as much reason to upgrade here. If you have the XM3 or XM4, you’re not going to gain a whole heap, and let’s be honest, we know why: each generation has been excellent, and the XM5 just brings more of that. More excellence for the win.
We do wish the pricing was better and less of an attack.
We get it: everything is going up in price, so headphones are going up with them. But when the old model feels more competitive with such minor changes, we’re not sure if the increase feels entirely justified.
But if you’re still after the best, you’ll find it here. These are the best of the best of the best and highly recommended, too.