Sony WH-1000XM5 have matured with age, which shouldn’t come as a surprise

None of what we are about to say should astound you. Absolutely, nothing. Prior to 2018, if you wanted top-notch noise cancelling headphones, your port of call would likely have been Bose or Sennheiser. The former’s QuietComfort (popularly known as QC series) and the latter’s Momentum headphones, battled to set the benchmark. That’s also when Sony decided to up the game.

In the time since (and a lot of it has passed), Bose has been perplexingly silent about almost anything new (though efforts aren’t entirely lifeless). And Sennheiser – well, we aren’t really sure what Sennheiser has been up to all this while (the Sonova acquisition aside). The lull and distractions have worked out swimmingly for Sony. The WH-1000XM3 was followed a couple of years later by the WH-1000XM4, both resetting the noise cancellation benchmark.

Also Read:Sonos’ affordability pursuit with the Ray soundbar leaves a lot on the table

The competition landscape for the Sony WH-1000XM5 (this is priced around 26,990 for now) includes the Sennheiser Momentum 4 Wireless (this is priced around 34,990) and Bose’s latest QuietComfort 45 (these cost around 32,990). If you are eyeing the Apple AirPods Max, those are significantly more expensive at around 59,900 in India. For the new Sony headphones, you’re paying a lot less than any of the rivals. In this economic environment, that itself is a win.

Here and now, the Sony WH-1000XM5 takes over. The WH-1000XM4 took such a step forward, that the WH-1000XM5 doesn’t have that pressure. Yet, it isn’t an update rolled out in boredom induced slumber, though we have to note that not everything has worked out perfectly.

Are you okay with plastic on premium headphones?

The design, for instance, is a significant departure from before. Freshening up the personality is always a good thing, particularly when the visual reference to headphones is quite limited. They make a first impression, and that lasts. The headband is thinner and the arm that attaches to each earcup, is single layer too. It has had an impact on ergonomics – these headphones feel a tad lighter than the predecessors (in reality, there isn’t much difference).

At the same time, Sony has taken away the flexibility of folding the earcups inwards when not in use. Now they simply twist, which causes a bigger problem – the carry case is bigger, and therefore takes more space in the backpack. It isn’t a hardship but could have been avoided. You may want to leave the carry case at home (we did consider this quite seriously), but there’s the risk of scratching these headphones, or anything that scrapes against them.

The design on each earcup is understated to the extent that even the Sony branding has been toned down. That’s the sweet spot for premium headphones – discerning buyers don’t always appreciate shouty elements. You still have a grand total of two colour options – black and one that is off-white. Unlike the Apple AirPods Pro, there is no attempt to dabble with any colour options.

This is where we are at a crossroads – comfort is paramount, but does the Sony WH-1000XM5 really look premium? Plastic is most certainly not a problem as far as durability or fit are concerned. But a dash of metal wouldn’t have felt out of place. But then again, this is the template Bose and Sennheiser are largely following too.

What’s with the codecs, Sony?

The 1000XM5 is compatible with SBC, AAC and LDAC codecs. The glaring omission is the AptX family. To be fair, LDAC will get the job done for hi-resolution music streaming on Apple Music, for instance. By default, these headphones will connect via Bluetooth for most stable connectivity, which means it’ll likely default to a lower quality bitrate. The companion app will be your point of attention, to switch the connectivity option to the best quality for streaming. We really recommend you do that.

Streaming the tunes, better than before…

Sony has decided against bundling the dual-pin airline adapter with the WH-1000XM5. The WH-1000XM4 did. It just is an unfortunate move. We had firsthand experience of struggling to locate an airplane adapter (luckily, the cable and adapter stash is deep, and aged gracefully) before a travel recently. It’s just one of those things that you don’t expect to negotiate, after splurging a premium on headphones.

To be honest, we expected the upgrades from the WH-1000XM4 to the WH-1000XM5 to be minimal. But they aren’t. Which in turn has had a significant bearing on the sound signature and noise cancellation.

The predecessors delivered the sound using 40mm audio drivers. That’s been downsized to 30mm this time around. Much like how car engines have been downsized while attempts made to keep power outputs similar to earlier, sound has actually improved. The new drivers are carbon fiber composite construction, thermoplastic polyurethane edges, with a rigid dome holding it all together.

There is no doubt the 1000XM5’s sound is tighter; you can pick the finer details more easily and the bass is more refined as well (it’s not watered down).

Premium headphones, unlike the more affordable siblings, shouldn’t go overboard with boosted sound and booming bass. Sony has taken one big step towards that, with the 1000XM5 sounding very balanced. In particular, the lower frequencies. There is much less hint of any artificial intervention than the 1000XM4. The 1000XM5 feels and sounds much like a completely different generation (as it should too).

We know it’s in the back of your mind, and we must get this right – the smaller audio drivers haven’t taken away the sense of space from a soundstage, if the audio track or the movie you’re watching, demands that sort of width. You can make these sound like the 1000XM4s, using the EQ in the Sony Headphones companion app. But why would you want to?

…and blocking everything else, better than before

Sony has carried forward the QN1 chip for noise cancellation processing. Alongside is the V1 (this is what Sony calls an Integrated Processor). The results are as you would expect – noise cancellation is a notch more powerful than before.

For some reason, the Boeing 777-300ER’s cabin is much noisier than an Airbus A380, and that’s a diverse test not many headphones pass with such aplomb (not even the airline’s own provided noise cancelling headphones). Absolutely not nitpicking, this is just an observation for our review process for these headphones. We had the experience of using the 1000XM5 in both environments for many hours (music, movies, and a talk show or two thrown in for good measure).

We aren’t at all exaggerating when we say the return to the ambient din felt like a (very much unexpected) punch in the face, when the Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones were taken off. These do a very good job of isolating you from the ambience, be it inside an aircraft or in an extremely noisy airport terminal. Mind you, noise cancellation on the 1000XM5 is a notch better than the 1000XM4. Those are Sony’s growing credentials, and the praise doesn’t come cheap.

This is also testament to the fact that Sony has done a good job of shifting the “optimize” functionality from a little physical button on the headphone, to automatic detection and software-based optimization. The data is collected from microphones (there are eight mics littered around the contours of the headphones: there’s very little scope of things going wrong).

Don’t overthink this; it’ll serve no purpose

You’d have been forgiven for overthinking if there were genuinely good alternatives to consider. To be fair, there aren’t, and we don’t say that lightly (Bose and Sennheiser really need no introduction). The Sony WH-1000XM5 has the undisputed lead in the premium ANC headphone space, much like the 1000XM4 before it. Two years hasn’t changed much.

Unfortunately, two years hasn’t been a long enough window for Sony to put an additional ruggedness layer. These headphones aren’t water or sweat resistant. While you’ll not wear these to the gym, it’d be a nice thing to tick off on the checklist.

Battery life continues to be a strong point – we clocked around 32 hours of music playback (stop-start, mind you, and while connecting to different devices) with ANC. You could get a few hours more if that, and automatic ambient noise calculations are turned off. We’d really like the successor to deliver audio via the USB-C port too.

As is the case with immediate generational upgrades, there should be no urgency to rush to buy the Sony WH-1000XM5 if you already own a 1000XM4. But anything older than that, or if you have an ageing headphone that needs to be replaced, these should hold you in good stead for a few years. In case you haven’t noticed, Sony’s strategy of attempting to be the master of many trades has worked quite well with the 1000XM5.