Sony WH-1000XM5 ($349ish): The ANC King Raises The Bar
W. Jenning’s eCoustics article.
Back in the late 90’s, in my opinion there was only one TV brand to purchase (besides Curtis Mathis), and that was a Sony Trinitron. Staying up late on that millennial night, we watched New Year’s celebrations from around the world. How often will one be able to say they were alive for a millennial change, after all? Getting up early the next morning, I turned the telly on again to more celebrations. But first, the Sony went a bit haywire, popping, crackling, and a bit of smoke came out. With all the Y2K stuff going on, a friend’s wife had told me point blank, “your appliances don’t care what year it is.” Well, apparently my Sony did (along with some Japanese subway systems, apparently). But it came on, and the picture was still the same, and we used it all the way up to digital TV’s (we just ecycled it recently). Sony had a reputation for building quality products in very large numbers. There is a reason that they now compete with Bose and Apple for the top of the ANC wireless headphone market.
We have had the pleasure of trying all the latest wireless headphones this fall from the big manufacturers. From expensive, to affordable they all compete for your hard-earned. Widely recognized as the top of the heap regarding ANC technology, along with the latest from Apple & Bose, the Sony next generation might just raise the bar as well.
Following on the excellent XM4, the 5 is more of an evolution than a revolution; except for some of the technology inside and a redesign of the headphone. I still hold that this is an updated design than a completely new unit, since it carries much of the same excellent characteristics of its predecessor.
Another review of this unit appeared in eCoustics, from Senior Headphone Editor W. Jennings here.
Weight: Approx. 250g
Headphone Type: Closed, dynamic
Driver Unit: 30mm
Impedance (Ohm): 48 ohm(1kHz) (when connecting via the headphone cable with the unit turned on) , 16 ohm(1kHz) (when connecting via the headphone cable with the unit turned off)
Frequency Response: 4 Hz – 40,000 Hz (JEITA)
Frequency Response (Active Operation): 4 Hz – 40,000 Hz
Frequency Response(Bluetooth® Communication): 20Hz-20,000Hz (44.1kHz sampling) 20Hz-40,000Hz (LDAC 96kHz sampling 990kbps)
Sensitivities (dB/mW): 102dB(1kHz) / mW (when connecting via the headphone cable with the unit turned on) , 100dB / mW(1kHz) (when connecting via the headphone cable with the unit turned off)
Volume Control: Touch Sensor
Cord Type: Single-sided (detachable)
Cord Length: approx. 1.2m
Plug: Gold-plated L-shaped stereo mini plug
Input(s): Stereo Mini Jack
Wearing Style: Over Ear
DSEE Extreme: Yes
Passive Operation: Yes
AMBIENT SOUND MODE: Yes
Battery Charge Time: Approx. 3.5 hrs
Battery Charge Method: USB
Battery Life (continuous music playback time): Max. 30 hrs (NC ON), Max. 40 hrs (NC OFF)
BATTERY LIFE (CONTINUOUS COMMUNICATION TIME): Max. 24 hrs (NC ON) , Max. 32 hrs (NC OFF)
Bluetooth® version: Bluetooth Specification Version5.2
Effective Range: 10m
Frequency Range: 2.4GHz band (2.4000GHz-2.4835GHz)
Profile: A2DP, AVRCP, HFP, HSP
Supported Audio Format(s): SBC, AAC, LDAC
Supported Content Protection: SCMS-T
Personal NC Optimizer: Auto NC Optimizer
Atmospheric Pressure Optimizing: Yes
Ambient Sound Mode: Yes
Quick Attention: Yes
In The Box:
(completely post-consumer recycled box)
USB-C charging cable
Edifier Stax Spirit S3 ($399)
Sennheiser Momentum 4 ($349)
Sony WH-1000XM4 ($299)
Astell & Kern ACRO CA1000
iPhone 13 Pro Max
Redoing a near icon in the market (but still an evolution…) is a mighty task. Comfort was one of the purported shortcomings of the 4. Thicker cups on the 5 have taken that into account, along with a sleeker design. Unlike Sennheiser, which completely redid the design between their third and fourth gen models, Sony made the 5 more sleek, with matte coverings, which hold the part, but not fingerprints.
Also, not foldable anymore, the 5’s cups flatten (twist 90 degrees) to fit inside a slim case, which can easily fit into your backpack or commuter bag. Six of one, a half dozen of the other. Personally, I like the fold flat aspect better. Where the Spirit S3 folds onto itself (thicker), the 5 folds flat (slim).
Those plastic pieces look and feel premium but fall far short of the B&W Px8 or Focal Bathys, which is not unexpected. Considering the price, the 5 feels about right. A thinner headband still feels quite good, due to the cushioning, and easy adjustment. There is an inner sleeve, which houses the stanchions as they extend, which can be felt after long periods. This will vary, but I have not seen much mention of this, so be wary of the fit due to this.
The cups are memory foam with vegan leather, and thicker than the 4, but I feel they are just average in comfort. While they do compress nicely, the cups compress so much that they are almost flush with the ear cup. This to me makes for a very close fit/comfort borderline. Thankfully, due to the just right clamping pressure, fit is still quite good. The cups are larger than the Px8, which fit somewhat snuggly, so there is plenty of room for your listening tools.
The case has a hidden zipper, which is nice as well as canting like a wedge. With a form fitting inside, the 5’s are held firmly. I did have to continuously move the outside foam protection, lest it curled under the ear cup on one side. Tucked between is the ubiquitous magnetized cover over the pouch where the cables can be held. Nicely shaped and with plenty of room, this is an addition I like seeing from manufacturers.
Using essentially the same 30mm dynamic driver as the 4’s, the 5 features a specially designed 30mm driver unit featuring a soft edge, which enhances noise cancelling helping you enjoy your music precisely without ambient noise. The carbon fiber composite material keeps the driver light and the high rigidity dome improves sound clarity, especially in high frequency ranges, for more natural sound quality up top. Sony also includes a premium lead-free solder containing gold for excellent conductivity, Fine Sound Resistor for even power distribution, and optimized circuitry for an improved signal-to-noise ratio to ensure clear, consistent sound. It is Hi Res certified as well, for up to LDAC 96kHtz.
Noise reduction technology has been tailored for a more natural listening experience as well (not as good as the Px8, in my opinion), with work on the upper and mid regions. Typically, the lower region takes the brunt of the ANC for use on commutes or planes, but Sony took it one step further, and better. Now slightly reducing ambient noise from the upper treble and mid regions allows for less of those annoying “piercing” sounds such as sharp hits or sounds from the outside. While the sound signature is still inhibited, the effect is less and makes for a nearly silent listening experience when ANC is on. Ambient is also very, very good easily competing with the best in my book as well.
The 5’s have touch control on the right ear cup, and functions perfectly, unlike some. Swipe up, and the volume goes up. Swipe forward, and the next song queues. Remove the headphone, and the adaptive technology kicks in pausing the music. Double clicking the ANC/Ambience button on the left ear cup automatically queues up Spotify. A single tap, then long press activates the voice assistant of your choice.
The button under turns the unit on/off and into pairing mode, which can happen with two devices. This comes in handy if you are listening to music on your computer and have an important call to take. The Sony will automatically queue up the call so you can answer using the four microphones. Double tapping the both answers and ends the call from the right cup. Your music automatically starts again.
Covering the right cup allows you to quickly hear ambient noise, as opposed to removing one cup. A really nice feature. There are other features, which are best explored by the user.
Sony has its own app as you would expect, and it is among the better ones out there. At least technology-wise. With only a 5-band equalizer, there is room for improvement. But, once you sign in (or sign up), you can use your own ear to optimize the sound characteristics. You can also tailor the app for movement as well through the Adaptive Sound Control, which customizes movement options for you with regard to ANC. In other words, if you set it to moving, the ANC would be optimized for your environment. This is active using your devices locations, so the Sony can “learn” the ambient background sound and remember the location. This is some AI trickery going on, and very well the next adaptive step.
You can also use the “Activity” part, with records headphone use time and makes sure you are using the headphone at a safe listening level. And of course, you can acquire badges for doing so. Sign in options range from Sony, to Amazon (for Alexa) Apple (for Siri), Facebook and Google (for Google Assistant). Services include Spotify as a native part, requiring only that you log in. You can customize the touch sensitive controls for Spotify as well.
As far as functions and the app, I think this is the best integration of any unit I have used. While it still falls short in some respects (EQ), this is a very intuitive app to use, and the functions are as well. Well done, Sony.
All of that said, the app is a bit more intrusive, information-wise than some would like, including me. I did not make an account to judge some of the functions listed above.
30 hours (verified) can be had on a single charge. A quick 3-minute charge will yield 3 hours (no, really!), while 30 minutes will yield an extra 8-hours. While not quite up to the Sennheiser’s insane 60 hours (verified), 30 hours is plenty good. Plus, you can use the USB-C cable for listening AND charging when hooked up. Something you cannot do on the Bathys, as it requires the unit stay on continuously.
The main issue with the Sony was whether the sound quality takes too much of a hit from the ANC and is the trade-off worth it? The ANC does not hinder the Sony WH-1000XM5, but we need to dig deeper to explain why that is the case. The passive noise isolation has been improved on these headphones which does help cut external noise rather considerably; that improvement means that the ANC doesn’t have to work as hard to deliver an extreme level of quiet.
Turning ANC on adds a second layer of noise reduction which is remarkably better than the previous generation. Sony has won this new round when we consider the contenders such as the Px8 and Senn M4. Most droning noises are reduced to the point that they could not be heard, and improvement with the human voice and other noise in that range was dramatic; perhaps as much as 50%. No level of ANC will ever remove 100% of external noise, but the Sony WH-1000XM5 reduced those sounds to a level that I could barely notice them while listening.
If you find the impact of ANC underwhelming, check the seal and how the headphones are situated on your head. I noticed that if my glasses caused them to shift at all — the ANC performance suffered.
When one of the leaders in the category makes a change, the others sit up and listen. We the consumer benefit as a result. On pure sound qualities, I would take the Px8, but it cost 2x the amount of the Sony. For this price, the Sony provides excellent lows, that do bleed a bit into the mids, but those remain clear and somewhat crisp, with good detail. ANC hinders the upper end a bit, but in Ambient Listening, those upper come back with aplomb. Very good extension allows for a somewhat expansive soundstage as well, with good placing of instruments.
As mention by Will, in the eCoustics article, “The app has a setting to allow the user to prioritize sound quality or stability depending on need so for our testing I set the priority to sound quality except when testing Bluetooth distances when I switched to stability mode.” I did as well.
Bass extension goes fairly deep, especially in ANC mode. With a slower decay than attack, the lingering provides a good foundation, which many want for commuting or office listening. It is no secret that bass-heavy wireless headphones are the desire of many people out there. There is bleed into the mids as a result, but smoothness pervades the mids, without being sappy or dull. Oasis’s Wonderall comes across as iconic from Pandora and the vocals are in no way encumbered by the bass.
Those vocals and guitar work, which make up the mids come across as very slightly forward to me, but slightly dull, which again seems to be a trademark of wireless headphones (except the Bathys). Fairly clear, distinct male vocals are heard as a result, without sounding dry or analytical. Female vocals sound sumptuous, with very good presence and detail as well, adding to the excellent sonic qualities of the Sony.
Cymbal hits sound natural in the treble region, without any tizziness as one might expect; but very slightly withdrawn. As a result, the treble region does tend to lose energy as you move into the upper region, which is not unexpected in an ANC wireless headphone. Especially given the Sony’s soundstage, which is to me higher than wide and deep. Think of a smaller venue with higher ceilings, allowing the sound to reverberate back from that ceiling. While not always the case, such as on Monte Alexander’s Spunky, which is pretty much an intimate box, the Sony can hold its own against the others.
Sony WH-1000XM5 ($299) v Edifier Stax Spirit S3 ($399):
When Will and I made our “best of wireless headphone” list for eCoustics, I immediately put the Spirit S3 on the list. Edifier has their stuff together, and while the Stax name comes with and “advisor” role only (from the Stax Tech I talked to), the impact Edifier is making on the wireless market should be taken seriously. It lacks the technology of its competitors, but I hope that is coming in the future, with only a power and volume up/down button.
While not having ANC, allowing the sound to come through can be a deal breaker to some, it really shouldn’t be. Fit is about average, but to me, the Spirit S3 sounds better in the upper region, giving it the edge in an airiness, the Sony cannot match. Slightly flat in the mids, but still with good energy, this comes down to whether you want ANC or not. With less bass than the Sony, but a good, functional app; the Edifier can compete at this level. That said, treble might be a bit bright without EQing, but I find it still an easy choice for our “best of” list.
Sony WH-1000XM5 ($299) v Sennheiser Momentum 4 ($349):
Sennheiser completely rewrote the book with the M4, changing everything, including its vaunted design. Many took offense to this, since the M3 had a unique look, mimicking an actual headphone as opposed to the cookie cutter wireless headphones. I would agree, but the M4 comes with a nondescript look, which has its advantages as well (think security).
No strangers to top of the heap sound, the M4 competes well with the Sony, with better airiness between notes, but a less authoritative bass. I liked the tuning very much, but wished for more weight in the notes, which to me hindered its ANC qualities. I do not blame Sennheiser for aiming big, since they have the size to do it, but to me the M4 falls a bit short from the Sony 5 in overall package, but not sound. That said, I have heard from many who purchased the Senn M4’s and are not looking back. Options are certainly nice to have.
See my review here.
Sony WH-1000XM5 ($299) v Sony WH-1000XM4 ($299):
I was able to hear the M4’s before I had the 5’s, but this will be from memory. To me, the improvements on the 5’s are well worth the extra cost. Better ANC technology, more weight to the notes, and an overall package which functions slightly better make it the choice for me.
That said, those who already have the 4’s should really think twice before upgrading to the 5. Simply doing so because it is the new model would be like trading in a 2021 car for a 2022, even if the model is new and a remake with improvements. If that’s the case, why didn’t you just wait for the 2022? The 4’s are also on sale as of right now, which might make them the better option, at least monetarily.
Sony upgraded the seriously successful M4. They didn’t have to, much like B&W didn’t have to upgrade the widely successful Px7 V2. But they did, making for a more upscale model in the Px8. Here though, Sony took an evolutionary step, making the M5 better in ANC technology, and fine tuning the sound a bit. I think the M4 look better, with a better headband as well. If I had to choose on looks alone, the M4 would be the choice.
If I did not have one of either, and was looking at both, I would listen and judge ease of use to see which fit my needs better. I would probably come home with the M5, even if the M4 is still alive and kicking. And on sale.
The Sony WH-1000XM5 sets the bar yet again for its competitor’s with regard to ANC technology, and to me provides the best usage of this technology to date (even slightly better than the Px8 to me). Those are mighty words, and those competitors should realize that Sony isn’t sitting around watching. They are leading.
I close this listening to Taylor Swift’s (no really!) excellent song, Question…? and it is good. Really, really good.