Technology

Sony LinkBuds review: novel earbuds that let the outside world in


Personal audio has taken a bizarre turn with Sony’s latest attempt to reinvent the earbud. The weird doughnut-shaped speaker with a hole in the middle allows you to listen to music without blocking out the world.

The LinkBuds are the first in a new line of earbuds from Sony that aim to let you listen to music but also have awareness of what is going on around you. They cost £149 ($179/A$319) and compete with earbuds such as Apple’s standard AirPods and Google’s Pixel Buds A.

Breaking the tradition for what earbuds should look like, they lack any form of tip, silicone or otherwise, and look like a Polo mint stuck to a mint imperial. The circular main body fits in your concha while the ring-shaped speaker sits outside your ear canal for an open fit.

The back of the right LinkBud earbud showing the speaker grille, sensors and charging contacts.
The back of the earbud has a presence sensor, charging contacts and speaker grille. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

They only weigh 4.1g each and are kept in place by silicone wings in one of five included sizes, which tuck under the folds at the top of your concha. It’s a unique, low-profile fit that takes some getting used to. It was immediately comfortable in my right ear but took some adjustment for my smaller left ear.

Once in place you can clearly hear the world around you through the hole in the middle of the speaker for full awareness on the street, park or in the office while you are listening to music. You can easily have full conversations without taking them out and can hear your own voice to stop you accidentally shouting on calls. My voice came through sounding clear and natural on the other end of calls, too.

Music has good separation of instruments, balance and detail in the highs, treble and mid-bass, with a full equaliser to adjust to your sound preferences. However, the ring speaker struggles to produce deeper notes, which means some tracks sound a bit hollow, making them better suited to pop, rock and songs that don’t rely on thumping bass.

The LinkBuds are discreet when kept at quiet listening volumes but crank up the volume to mask other people talking around you and they will be able to hear your music.

Specifications

  • Water resistance: IPX4 (sweat)

  • Connectivity: Bluetooth 5.2, SBC, AAC

  • Battery life: 5.5 hours/2.5 hours talk, up to 17.5 hours with case

  • Earbud weight: 4.1g

  • Driver size: 12mm ring

  • Charging case weight: 34g

  • Case dimensions: 41.4 x 48.5 x 30.9mm

  • Case charging: USB-C

Connectivity, controls, battery

The Headphones Connect app on an iPhone on a table next to the LinkBuds and open charging case.
The Sony Headphones Connect app on Android and iPhone handles settings, updates and adjusts extras such as one-tap access to Spotify or Microsoft’s Soundscape audio augmented reality service. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The earbuds last up to 5.5 hours of music playback and clip into a small and pocketable case that can store an additional 12 hours of charge for a total of 17.5 hours. When low on battery, a 10-minute charge will be enough for up to 90 minutes of playback.

The earbuds support standard Bluetooth 5.2 and the universal SBC and AAC audio formats but also have Fast Pair with Android and Swift Pair with Windows PC. They only connect to one device at a time but can seamlessly switch between them. Connection to various phones, tablets and watches was rock-solid.

A LinkBud earbud shown inserted in an ear.
The design and fit of the LinkBuds is unlike anything else. Tapping the patch of skin between ear and sideburns activates the onboard controls. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The LinkBuds have customisable controls for playback, volume and other options, which you can either tap twice or thrice on the earbud or even just on the side of your head to get the same effect. Each earbud can have different controls, which work well enough, but the selection is a little restrictive compared with the best competitors.

The music pauses when you take out an earbud and starts again when put back. There’s also an automatic volume adjustment option that turns the music up or down depending on how loud your environment is.

Sustainability

The side profile of the LinkBud earbud showing the right of the rubber stabilising wing.
The rubber stabilising wing simply pulls off the top of the earbud to swap out for a different size, five of which are included in the box. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Sony does not provide an expected lifespan for the batteries in the earbuds or case. Batteries in similar products typically last more than 500 full-charge cycles while maintaining at least 80% of their original capacity. The LinkBuds are not repairable and the battery cannot be replaced, ultimately making them disposable.

The earbuds and case are made of recycled plastic. The company does not publish environmental impact reports for headphones. It publishes annual sustainability reports and its roadmap to have zero environmental impact by 2050.

Price

The Sony LinkBuds cost £149 ($179/A$319) and are available in white or grey.

For comparison, the Apple AirPods 3 cost £169, Google Pixel Buds A-Series cost £100, and the Microsoft Surface Earbuds cost £199.

Verdict

The LinkBuds are an interesting new idea in the world of Bluetooth earbuds, one with a novel physical design that ensures full awareness of the outside world while playing music.

They lack a bit of bass but otherwise sound good, particularly in quieter environments, making them perfectly suited to the office or similar. Voice calls are great, too. The fit is a bit weird at first but should suit those who do not like having tips inserted in their ear canals.

They are great for running and other activities that require awareness of your surroundings but those who wear earbuds to block out distractions should look elsewhere. The battery can’t be replaced, however, ultimately making them disposable and losing a star.

They certainly won’t suit everyone but those looking for a good open-fit alternative to Apple’s AirPods finally have a competitive option in the much more interesting Sony LinkBuds.

Pros: open fit, decent sound, decent battery, great case, good connectivity, great call quality, sweat resistant, good app,

Cons: no sound isolation at all, no noise-cancelling, limited control options, can only connect to one device at a time, cannot be repaired, expensive.

The Sony LinkBud held between two fingers showing the hole in the centre of the speaker.
It looks weird in the hand but its low-profile design means it doesn’t stand out once you’ve correctly inserted it into your ear. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

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