LinkBuds S is one of the few pairs of true wireless headphones that manage to stand out in an extremely crowded and competitive market. It comes in unusual colours and is equipped with some of the latest technologies we’d expect to see on models in the premium range. Still, we’re talking about a mid-priced pair of headphones in tune with the market, with no obvious major drawbacks.
LinkBuds S come with a recyclable package and are made from recycled plastic
Sony has been offering eco-friendly packaging for its audio products for a few years now, and LinkBuds S come in a box made entirely from easy-to-recycle paper and cardboard. The company offers special attention to detail that we rarely see in this product category. For example, the LinkBuds logo is indented on the lid, and the box has cardboard drawers where manuals, the USB-C charging cable, and silicone plugs of various sizes are placed. The latter start at size SS (super small), for those who previously couldn’t wear in-ear headphones because even those considered small were too big for the ear canals.
The LinkBuds S model tested comes in Earth Blue, which seems to be inspired by the oceans of planet Earth. The exterior design is similar to that of water wrapped in water, and the plastic used is a recycled plastic with a matte texture that is pleasant to the touch. This will resist scratches over time, unlike glossy textured boxes that immediately fill with micro-scratches. And the earphones are a similar colour to the box, also matt. The dimensions of the earphones are larger than we’re used to from such accessories, but that suggests they have large enclosures for powerful speakers.
On the outside, the headphones have metal hoops where the main microphones are most likely located. I originally thought they were physical buttons, but this is not the case. Control is done exclusively by touching the outside of the headphones.
Sony’s Headphones app hasn’t changed much
Connecting the LinkBuds S headphones to your smartphone is done through the Sony Headphones app, the same one you can use for the company’s other headphones. It offers a simple and intuitive interface for connecting and setting up all the features, and anyone who’s used Sony headphones before knows exactly where to find the options.
If it’s your first time using the app, you’ll need to sign up for a Sony account, which will ask for photos of your ears included, in order to tune the 3D spatial sound. Yes, even though we’re talking about not very expensive headphones, they do offer 3D playback, something we’ve only seen so far on top-end premium headphones priced at over €200. Of course, compatibility with apps offering playback in this format is limited, with only four options available and none of them among the popular playback services.
We’re talking about the Sony 360 Reality Audio Live service, Artist Connection, nugs.net and TIDAL, the latter being the most popular of all. The headphones include a promo code for three months access to TIDAL or nugs.net, which must be activated on the Sony 360 Audio website. Unfortunately, this code didn’t work for us to test the functionality, with Sony’s website refusing to go through with entering the code. From this point of view, I can’t confirm or deny whether the 3D spatial sound rendering is good or not, as it only works on those services. Apple Music offers such playback, but it’s not yet compatible with Sony headphones, only AirPods.
LinkBuds S offers high-quality playback at a mid-range price
Although true wireless headphones have been on the market for many years, a standardized design has not yet been chosen for them. Some companies produce earphones with “pigtails” like Apple’s AirPods, others produce smaller models, others have additional in-ear clips for a better fit, and even the first generation LinkBuds came with a unique design with a round shape that allowed outside sound to penetrate the ear.
LinkBuds S comes with a more traditional design, which I find inspired even by the company’s premium headphones, the WF-1000XM4. They sit snugly in the ear and I didn’t feel like they would slip out during use. Being in-ear headphones, they have passive outdoor noise isolation, but there’s also ANC as well as ambient mode for capturing outside sound.
As we’ve become accustomed to with Sony’s various headphone models over the years, LinkBuds S also come with a standard bass-pushing sound profile suitable for music of all kinds, especially pop, hip-hop and electronic music. There are many pre-configured profiles for those who want to quickly change the audio profile, most with the “Clear Bass” option active. Of course, custom profiles can also be made. Personally, I found the standard mode frequency balance OK for the music I usually listen to. I tested the headphones on an iPhone 14 Pro Max, but on Android there is also enhanced processing via LDAC and Hi-Res Audio Wireless. These are not available on iOS, however.
I found the maximum volume loud enough not to be obtrusive and can cover just about any outside sound, even without ANC, from 60-70% and up. When listening to music in very noisy environments, such as in transportation, the ANC does a very good job of almost completely cancelling out noise and repetitive sounds. On the subway, I noticed that you can’t hear anything once you turn the ANC on, but unlike other headphones I’ve tested previously, there’s only the option to turn the ANC off and on, with no loudness levels.
Ambient mode provides natural sound through the microphones, even offering a voice enhancement option. This feature is useful in an office, for example, when you want to listen to music or are on a call, but also want to be able to hear if someone wants to talk to you. Ambient mode, however, has the option of increasing or decreasing the loudness of outside sound. There are also options such as voice detection to automatically turn off the sound and turn on ambient mode when you’re talking to someone, or shortcut on touch to activate this feature.
Personally, I’m not a big fan of touch surface control on headphones, and the LinkBuds S had pretty much the same problems I keep running into: pretty poor accuracy to the touch, especially when you have to make two or three repeated taps for various shortcuts. Also, play and pause are on a single tap, which can lead to music stopping or starting on an accidental press.
There are options to customize the shortcuts, but none of the preset profiles particularly appealed to me, and there’s no option to customize what each tap does, though the menu suggests it might be possible. The only voice assistant available on iOS is Alexa, which isn’t exactly ideal, but on Android you can use the headset with Google Assistant.
I have to admit that I didn’t feel a huge difference in streaming music playback using the mode that makes quality a priority. It provides a higher bitrate connection. I did however seem with this mode active to disconnect the headphones while walking down the street. When you enable the option, you are warned that this could happen due to interference with other devices around. I only recommend using it when you’re at home and not moving around too much. DSEE Extreme, on the other hand, could improve playback even in standard mode, providing AI audio processing to recover from frequencies lost in compression. The results are subtle in many cases, but they do exist, providing better clarity for certain songs.
Those who use Spotify will be pleased that there’s also integration with Spotify Tap, which allows you to quickly play a playlist from the recommended ones instantly, without having to start playback from the app.
The LinkBuds S is a pair of headphones that integrates just about everything you’d need, and with such headphones available, it’s hard to recommend a significantly more expensive pair. The headphones even offer IPX4 water resistance for sports use, and the 6-hour battery life is “real” as long as you don’t turn on ANC. With ANC, this drops another hour or so, but you generally never listen for 5 hours in a single session, and the box offers two more full charges. I’ve managed to go over a week with these headphones between charges.
The only thing missing is wireless charging. I didn’t miss it, but probably those used to charging their headphones on the back of their phone or on a charger that sits permanently on their desk will be bothered by it. Thus, the Sony LinkBuds S are some of the most versatile headphones I’ve tested lately and are worthy of consideration when looking for a new pair of headphones.