Sony knows a bit about headphones, having produced the world’s first in-ear buds in 1982. It’s at the sharp end of innovation again with the diminutive LinkBuds, which feature an open-ring design that delivers supreme hi-fi sound, but not at the expense of road safety.
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Coming in at a featherweight 4 grams per bud, and fitting into a case smaller than a matchbox, the detailed, absorbing sound the LinkBuds produce is astounding for such a tiny package.
These are not bone conduction headphones, like the Aftershokz Openmove. The figure-of-eight shaped buds fit much like in-ear headphones, but the open ring leaves the centre of the diaphragm, and your ear canal, unrestricted.
It’s a novel approach that kept me aware of approaching traffic during testing – vital for cycling safely while listening to music.
The short battery life and a slight inability to compete with louder ambient noise are the only things preventing a perfect five-star review.
Sony LinkBuds specifications
From the minute you open the box, it’s clear the Sony LinkBuds are a thoroughly well-considered product from a brand with rich audio heritage.
Sony says it takes sustainability seriously, and the minimalist card and paper packaging that wraps the LinkBuds underlines that claim.
Eschewing plastic, everything is organised into such a compact space that a certain Scandinavian furniture and meatball retailer would be impressed. The LinkBuds are said to be made from recycled materials, too. Bravo, Sony.
Inside the box, you get a diagram explaining how to set up the buds, a USB-C charging cable and four pairs of ‘fitting supporters’, or rubber adaptors, for XS to XL ear sizes.
A QR code points to a video explaining fitting – and it’s worth paying attention, because getting a stable fit is key both to keeping the buds in place and their sonic performance. Watching your new £149 headphones disappear under a car wheel is not an experience I’d recommend.
Bluetooth connection to my Google Pixel 6 was instantaneous, and the LinkBuds also support Google’s Fast Pair function.
Meanwhile, the range of features Sony – in partnership with brands such as Spotify and Microsoft – has crammed into such a small device, is remarkable.
The Sony Headphones Connect app is well-developed, while Auto Play is designed to make Spotify control seamless, triggering your music when you start running (or riding).
You can use Voice Assistant to effect commands such as ‘skip to the next song’ or ‘raise the volume’, while Speak to Chat pauses your music when you talk, extending the LinkBuds’ use into the office.
Using 360 Reality Audio with apps such as Tidal, you can tailor the sound to your ear shape using a photograph, fine-tuning the remarkably wide audiophile picture the buds paint. Equaliser presets include bass boost, treble boost, vocal and speech, alongside your own custom settings.
You can double- or triple-tap the buds to control playback, or employ Sony’s ingenious Wide Area Tap, to turn the side of your face into a controller. Far out.
Claimed battery life is a ‘full working day’ of 5.5 hours, which makes a job at Sony sound rather appealing. That’s not quite long enough to enjoy Prince’s Emancipation album twice, and falls short of rival wireless headphones.
It’s understandable, considering the buds’ size, but when compared to the seven hours of the Shokz OpenFit or the remarkable 19 hours for the OpenRock Pro, it could be an issue.
A further 12 hours’ power is available from the case, while a 10-minute charge is said to enable 1.5 hours’ listening.
The buds offer IPX4 water resistance, which should protect them from sweat and light splashes but not trips to the pool.
Sony LinkBuds performance
Much of my 20 years’ journalism experience has been while working on guitar, vinyl and tech magazines. In that time, I’ve reviewed a wide musical spectrum of amplifiers, effects pedals, turntables and headphones.
I tested the LinkBuds on my daily commute for a month, subjecting them to hostile wet and windy conditions, a splash of light gravel and plenty of hills to assess fit stability. I also took in a handful of 5k runs in similarly sodden conditions.
Bypassing the instructions, the LinkBuds fitted brilliantly – then I discovered I had them upside down. When I placed them correctly, using the default medium-sized fitting supporters, the fit was tenuous and I could easily dislodge them by shaking my head.
Slipping the extra-large fit supporters over the buds was simple, and did the job of keeping them secure throughout testing. However, I’d recommend getting the buds in position before pressing play, because each micro-adjustment risks triggering the playback controls, which is annoying.
My awareness of traffic noise was largely unimpeded, while there was no significant spill from the buds. However, my office neighbour Jack Luke’s lilting tones were entirely drowned out by my music. A bad thing, right?
Sony LinkBuds sound quality
The hi-fi performance from the LinkBuds’ 12mm ring driver is simply outstanding. The balance and detail surpass most wireless headphones, as each instrument is reproduced with stunning separation and clarity.
Listening to Explosions In The Sky’s First Breath After Coma, the crystalline guitar lines seemed to dart in coruscating high definition towards my ear from somewhere about six inches either side of my head.
Often, the first thing to go AWOL from in-ear headphones when the clamour of the outside world increases is low-end detail, resulting in a fatiguing, treble-heavy experience.
However, dropping Jon Hokpins’ Singularity as I whizzed through the city streets, the bass was focused and punchy with no distortion, as the ambient techno soundscape enveloped me.
I was similarly wowed by the sonorous thrum of the acoustic guitar on Wilco’s Love Is Everywhere (Beware) and the malevolent rumble of Curtis Mayfield’s If There Is A Hell Below, We’re All Gonna Go.
Listening to your favourite music on the LinkBuds quickly becomes addictive and no genre I tested caught them out. They don’t feel as loud and bombastic as the Shokz OpenFits, but the performance is a shade more refined and nuanced.
Traffic noise and awe-struck pedestrians yelling compliments about my exceptional commuting speed remained low-level background noise, diluting the listening experience only slightly more than the OpenFits.
Sony LinkBuds bottom line
I challenge you to find earbuds this light that produce sound as well-rounded, clear and widescreen while facilitating safe cycling.
Factor in the vast range of useful features, the well-considered app, innovative fit and focus on sustainability, and the £149 price tag (you’ll find them cheaper online) starts to seem entirely reasonable.
These are headphones to wear all-day long – put them in to soundtrack your commute, wear them in the office, give them a quick charge and then head out on your evening gravel rumble.
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The short battery life and the effect of louder outside noise on performance are natural consequences of the micro design. If Sony cracked those minor issues, the LinkBuds could be the perfect cycling headphones – they’re not far off as it is.