The year isn't even half over, but Sony has now graced us with two devices under its new LinkBuds line. I did not hide my general distaste for the last Sony LinkBuds, which sported middling battery life and were nowhere near as comfortable as I'd hoped. Just a few months later, Sony has a new set of LinkBuds—the LinkBuds S. These earbuds have a more traditional design, eschewing the open-ear design of the last buds. However, they're much more comfortable thanks to the lightweight design, and Sony didn't sacrifice sound quality. They might not stand up to the Sony WF-1000XM4 or Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 3, but you can wear them all day long. They're good enough that you might even want to.
The Sony LinkBuds S are light as a feather for all-day comfort, and the sound quality is surprisingly close to Sony's more expensive earbuds. Unless you need wireless charging or longer battery life, the LinkBuds S are all you need for music and calls.
- Battery Life: Max. 20 hrs (6 hrs+14 hrs)
- Audio codecs: SBC, AAC, LDAC
- Bluetooth: 5.2
- Price: $199
- IP Rating: IPX4
- Driver Size: 5mm
- Wireless Charging: No
- Charging Port: USB-C
- Very comfortable and compact
- Good enough audio and ANC to justify the price
- Can stream in high-quality (LDAC)
- Slightly expensive
- No wireless charging
- Battery life is just this side of okay
Design, hardware, what's in the box
The Sony LinkBuds S are understandably being compared to the previous LinkBuds, but I think a better point of comparison is the WF-1000XM4. The new LinkBuds look and behave like a smaller, less capable version of Sony's flagship buds. That's not a bad thing, either. The XM4s are probably the best all-around earbuds you can buy right now, so there's some room for compromise to address different needs—perhaps most prominently that the XM4s are huge and heavy. The LinkBids S are anything but.
These earbuds are the same basic shape as the XM4s, but they're about a third smaller and much lighter. The XM4s are 7.3g each, but the LinkBuds S are 4.8g per ear. Picking up the matte plastic housing, it almost feels like there's nothing inside. The LinkBuds S have an in-ear design, but there are no wings or stabilizing fins. You do get four different silicone tip sizes, which ensure almost everyone should find a good match. There are touch sensors on the outside surface, and they're large enough to tap reliably. The small circular shapes next to the sensor are microphones covered in mesh, which is supposed to reduce wind noise.
The LinkBuds S are so light that the tip in your ear canal holds them in place fine. Even with intense movement, I haven't felt them budge even once. The LinkBuds from earlier this year stayed put as well, but you have to wedge them in and tuck a wing behind a fold of cartilage to keep them in place. In my experience, that makes the LinkBuds S vastly more comfortable for extended use. I've actually forgotten I was wearing them a few times.
The earbuds drop into the charging case and are held in place by strong magnets. However, they're easy to remove, in part thanks to the grippy finish that also helps hide skin oils and ear gunk. The case has the same material with a slightly rougher finish—it's reminiscent of the sandstone finish on older OnePlus phones. The case itself is a bit on the large side. It's taller (but narrower) than the XM4's case, which is not small by any means. The front has a charging status LED, and the only branding is the debossed Sony logo on the lid. Around back, the case has a USB-C port and a physical pairing button, which I always like to see. Unfortunately, the USB-C is the only way to charge. At $200, these earbuds should have wireless charging. The included USB A-to-C cable is only a few inches long, but you probably have USB-C cables coming out the yin-yang by now.
The LinkBuds S occupy a small niche in Sony's lineup—I guess you could call them premium-mid-range. The WF-1000XM4 earbuds are priced at $280, a full $80 more than the LinkBuds S. If comparing the new earbuds to Sony's last LinkBuds, the $20 premium is well worth it. Not only are the LinkBids S more comfortable, they sound worlds better. I'd even say they compete well against the XM4s.
The LinkBuds S don't sound better than the XM4s, but they are impressive considering the petite, lightweight package. The default sound profile is very prominent in the mid-range, which can make the LinkBuds S sound a bit overwhelming at high volumes. I assume Sony tuned them this way to compensate for slightly weak highs and lows. That said, the soundscape reproduces my tracks very well. Vocals are crisp, and there's no appreciable distortion even when cranking the volume. While you won't get the thumping of bass, even the best earbuds only do that a little better. If that's what you're after, over-ear headphones with larger drivers (like the WH1000-XM5) are your best bet.
Like the XM4s, the LinkBuds S support the high-quality LDAC codec in addition to SBC and AAC. However, activating LDAC will eat into your battery life, and that's on the weak side as it is. A future firmware update will also add Bluetooth LE Audio support.
Sony has class-leading active noise-canceling technology, and that's on full display here. Flipping on ANC mode filters out most of the ambient noise from your environment. Droning, constant sounds like crowd noise or a lawnmower are attenuated enough that you won't even hear them with music playing. More defined sounds, like someone standing next to you talking at a normal volume will bleed through, and the overall performance is worse than the XM4 earbuds, but that shouldn't be a surprise. At least you get ANC on these buds, which wasn't possible with the previous open LinkBuds design.
The LinkBuds S include Sony's ambient sound control, which is supposed to adjust the ANC based on your environment. However, I never found this to be worth using. It's a bit flaky and inconsistent, and sometimes the buds would adjust the ANC so dramatically that it was distracting. You can still change the ANC transparency manually in the app, and tap controls let you toggle between ANC and ambient sound.
On the latter, I was impressed by how natural the audio sounds. It's possible to carry on a conversation without taking out the earbuds, and I love the quick attention feature. Like on the more expensive XM4s, you tap and hold the left bud to activate passthrough audio. When you release, it's back to your music—no tedious pausing and unpausing for every human interaction. It also has Speak to Chat, which is supposed to support a similar use case without any button presses at all, but I have not found it to be reliable enough on any of Sony's buds, the LinkBuds S included. In phone calls, the microphones did a fine job picking up my voice. People on the other end of the line had no trouble understanding me, although the audio doesn't sound quite as natural as high-end buds like the Jabra Elite 7 Pro, which include a bone conduction sensor.
Software and battery
To get the most out of the LinkBuds S, you'll want to install the Sony Headphones Connect app. The app lets you adjust the EQ, change touch controls, adjust the ANC, and more (if you can find things). It's a bit clunky, and some settings are presented in a confusing manner, but it has a ton of functionality. The app also guides you through the process of enabling Alexa or Assistant on the earbuds. With this option enabled, you can long-press the right touch sensor to issue voice commands and check notifications. The buds support "OK Google" hotword detection, but it's not as supernaturally sensitive as the XM4s, which can hear the trigger astoundingly well even in noisy environments.
The LinkBuds S have good integration with Android, and not just in the realm of Assistant. You also get Google Fast Pair, which makes it a snap to move between devices (there's no multipoint support, though). You can't take advantage of all the LinkBuds' features at the same time. For example, only the right earbud works in solo mode if you have Assistant enabled. The same is true if you enable any of the additional services, like Spotify Tap, that are built into the earbuds. The integrations with Spotify and Endel also require you to disable LDAC, which is not a tradeoff I'd make. If you're only listening to the default streaming quality on Spotify or YouTube Music, you might be fine leaving LDAC off. It'll save you a little battery life anyway.
Sony claims the LinkBuds S can run for six hours with ANC enabled, plus you get another 20 hours in the charging case. This is a fair estimate—my battery life was a bit weaker, but still well north of five hours, which I consider the minimum for a premium true wireless experience. Even if the battery life is a bit weaker than competing devices like the Jabra Elite 7 Pro and WF-1000XM4, I'm giving Sony a pass. These earbuds are so light and compact that I'm surprised they last as long as they do. My only gripe here is the lack of wireless charging in the case. For $200, that really ought to be an option. The USB-C port is faster, but dropping the case on a wireless charging pad (or on a phone with wireless power share) can be useful.
Should you buy it?
Yes, and I'm a bit surprised. I didn't care much for the original LinkBuds, in large part because they didn't live up to their claim of "all day" comfort. The LinkBuds S with their more traditional design get closer to the mark. They'll only run five or six hours on a charge, but you'll be able to use them without irritation for the entire time.
While the buds do have a raft of features, you're paying a premium for the ultra-compact design. The LinkBuds S have most of the goodies I'd expect for a $200 pair of earbuds including Assistant integration, a high-quality streaming format (LDAC), and excellent ANC. While the Sony app is powerful, I wish it was less convoluted and translated with a bit more care.
Sure, you can get better audio performance from more expensive earbuds like the XM4s, but those are big and heavy. The LinkBuds S are feather-light and comfortable while still offering good audio performance. They're missing a few features, and I'd like to see the price tag closer to the previous LinkBuds, but $200 is justifiable if you need comfy earbuds that don't sound like junk.
Buy it if...
- You want earbuds that are comfortable to wear for long periods
- You value high-quality audio
Don't buy it if...
- You need to switch between multiple devices on the regular
- Your buds need to last all day on a charge
Q: How do the Sony LinkBuds S compare to the Sony LinkBuds?
The LinkBuds S and standard LinkBuds don't look like they'd be part of the same product family. The LinkBuds use a unique open-ear design that lets you hear the world around you. The LinkBuds S have a traditional sealed earbud design with ANC and the option for ambient audio passthrough. The LinkBuds S cost $20 more, but they sound better and are more comfortable.
Q: How do the Sony LinkBuds S compare to the Jabra Elite 7 Pro?
Jabra's Elite 7 Pro have the best voice call performance of any earbuds we've tested, and they're pretty comfortable. Although, they're not as comfortable as the LinkBuds S, which also have better audio quality.
Q: How do the Sony LinkBuds S compare to the WF-1000XM4?
Sony's flagship XM4 earbuds sound a little better, especially at the low end, and the noise-canceling is even more capable than the LinkBuds S. However, the LinkBuds S will fit comfortably in any ear thanks to their small size, whereas the XM4s are huge and fatiguing to wear for long periods.