Sony LinkBuds S review: The magic is in the software

Like

  • Comfortable and secure fit
  • Quick charge support
  • Full-featured smartphone software
  • Made with recycled plastic

Don’t Like

  • ANC not as obvious as the Mark 4s
  • 6 hour battery life
  • No wireless charging support

In February 2022, I had the chance to try out a very unique new Sony earbud, the Sony Linkbuds and have enjoyed the performance and comfort of those buds. Since the earbuds did not penetrate into my ear, they were extremely comfortable, and I was willing to give up the complete silence of ANC. I didn’t think we would see another headset in the LinkBuds line anytime soon, but then Sony surprised me with the Sony LinkBuds S.

The LinkBuds S has a more traditional earbud design, and along with that design comes support for active-noise cancellation, a feature we don’t see in the LinkBuds. The LinkBuds S slots into the price gap between the $159 LinkBuds and the $278 WF-1000XM4 with functionality that also bridges the gap between these two models. While the WF-1000XM4 sound terrific, they are also too large to be comfortably worn while working out.

The LinkBuds S are only $20 more than the LinkBuds, but they are also intended for different customers. The LinkBuds are primarily focused on those who want to hear ambient sounds and do not care at all about active-noise cancellation. The LinkBuds S is built for ANC customers, and they are price competitive with other ANC-capable earbuds in today’s market.  

Table of contents

Specifications

Speakers 5mm driver
Water resistance IPX4 rating
Battery life Up to 6 hours of play with the charging case providing another 14 hours of playtime. Five minutes provides 60 minutes of playback. Two hours of charging will provide a full charge of the earbuds starting at 0% remaining battery
Wireless connectivity Bluetooth 5.2
Earbud weight 4.8 grams each

Hardware

  • Unique plastic-free packaging
  • Traditional earbud design
  • Quick charging, but no wireless capability

The plastic-free packaging includes the earbuds in a charging case, a short USB-C cable to charge up the case, and four pairs of silicone earbud tips. The medium-sized tips are installed on the earbuds with XS, S, and L in the packaging. Guides and warranty paperwork are also included in the packaging. The packaging is intelligently designed with small drawers present to access the tips, guides, and cable.

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Plastic-free packaging and cool drawers

Matthew Miller/ZDNet

The Sony LinkBuds S are available in black and white for $199.99. We tested the black color earbuds that are made using recycled plastic materials from automobile parts. The front of the charging case has a status indicator light along the center edge of the opening. The USB-C port and pairing button are found on the back. There is no wireless charging capability, so you will need to use a USB-C cable to charge the case and your earbuds.

Also: Sony WF-1000XM4 earbuds review: Superb noise cancellation, clear calls, and long battery life

The headset has a traditional earbud design with a large main body that sits outside of your ear and then a post with the silicone tip that is inserted into your outer ear canal. All parts of the earbuds are covered in the matte textured coating. The outer touch-sensitive surface is rounded and large, making it easy to tap and hold for the different control functions. There is a red color around the right, R, earbud label, so you can easily figure out which is the right or left earbud. There is also a sensor near the three charging spots to detect whether you have the earbuds inserted.

Strong magnets are found in the charging case to hold each earbud securely in place in its compartment. A central LED is present to show the case’s charging status and earbuds. A strong magnet also keeps the lid closed on the charging case. The charging case has rounded edges and a textured matte finish so it can be carried comfortably in your pocket. A USB-C port is on the back for wired charging. The charging case is not water-resistant, so make sure to keep it safe in a dry location.

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The LinkBuds (left) and LinkBuds S (right) have different design features

Matthew Miller/ZDNet

Speaking of charging, a 5-minute quick charge provides up to 60 minutes of playtime. The LinkBuds S is advertised to provide up to 6 hours of playtime, with the charging case providing another 14 hours. You can use each LinkBuds S individually, so you can extend your usable time by swapping out one bud for the other. The LinkBuds S will achieve a full charge in about two hours.

Inside of each earbud, we find the Sony Integrated Processor V1 that offers improved noise cancellation, enhances sound quality and reduces distortion. The headphones analyze ambient noise to provide noise cancellation. Automatic wind noise reduction can be toggled on to compensate when windy conditions are detected.

Sony Headphones Connect software

  • Full-featured, powerful smartphone software
  • Fully explore the Sound settings
  • Check out the new Services options, including Spotify Tap

In order to optimize your use of the Sony LinkBuds S earbuds, you need to download and install the Sony Headphones Connect application to your Android or iOS device. After installation, simply take out the earbuds and position them in your ears to initiate pairing with your smartphone. Google Fast Pair and Microsoft Swift Pair are supported, so connecting to Android and Windows devices is quick and easy.

The Sony Headphones Connect application shows the battery level of each earbud and the charging case. Through the upper right menu option, you can view a tutorial, check the firmware version of the earbuds, back up and restore settings through the cloud, or launch the Music Center app.

There are four main tabs in the application; Status, Sound, System, and Services. The Status tab shows the music being played and provides back play and forward buttons with a volume slider below the controls. The Adaptive Sound Control option is also available.

Tapping Adaptive Sound Control brings up another screen where you can toggle this function on and off. This function detects your actions and locations so that headphone settings are switched to allow some ambient sound. You can toggle on various controls on this screen, including having the ear buds learn from locations or maps.

Also: Sony WH-1000XM4 wireless noise-canceling headset review

Moving along to the Sound tab, we find the ability to choose noise canceling, ambient sound, or off. If noise canceling is selected, then the automatic wind noise reduction option can also be toggled on or off. You can use a slider to control the ambient sound level and toggle on the focus on voice option in the ambient sound settings.

Below the sound control settings, we find the ability to enable or disable the Speak-to-Chat option. This function is very useful for those who work from home when they may want to speak with other family members without having to remove their earbuds. You can choose from automatic, high, or low sensitivity to voice detection, which may be helpful if you like to sing along to your music. 

My wife and daughters often walk into my office when I am working, and over the past week, I just started speaking to have the Sony earbuds pause the music. You can choose when to have the music start playing again or choose to turn off the automatic feature. I have it set to 15 seconds (labeled as standard), but there are options for five seconds (short), 30 seconds (long), or no automatic closure.

Below this section is the equalizer area with an option for boosting the bass as well. Various default options are available, including bright, excited, mellow, relaxed, vocal, treble boost, bass boost, speech, and manual. You can also set up a couple of custom levels for your specific preferences.

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The Sony LinkBuds S (left) is much smaller and lighter than the WF-1000XM4 (right)

Matthew Miller/ZDNet

Further down the display, we find the 360 Reality Audio Setup area. I did not test this functionality yet since you also need to subscribe and install 360 by Deezer, nugs.net, or Tidal in order to enjoy the audio experience offered here. The test audio sample sure sounded good, but I was unable to use it since I do not subscribe to any of these services. You also use the camera on your phone to analyze your ear shape for the full 360 Reality Audio experience.

Below the 360 Reality Audio section is a Bluetooth connection quality selector where you can choose to put a priority on a stable connection or sound quality. I primarily tested a stable connection since the sound was fantastic. There is also a toggle for DSEE Extreme. Lastly, a spatial sound optimization setting is present where you have your vertical and horizontal head movement measured. I’m not quite sure how impactful this option is on the overall listening experience.

The System tab is where you customize other settings on your earbuds. The first option at the top of the display is where you select your voice assistant. Options include the voice assistant function of your mobile device, which would include Siri on an iOS device, Bixby on a Samsung device, and Google Assistant on an Android device. You can also select and set up Amazon Alexa or choose not to have a voice assistant setup on the earbuds.

Settings below this allow you to select the left and right earbuds, single, double, and triple tap options, as well as a press and hold action. Ambient sound control/quick access, playback control, and volume control options are available. You can set one earbud with a full control set and the other earbud with a different control set so you can customize the earbud button actions to your specific needs. A setting for the ambient sound control toggle is available so that the action you set up only toggles through settings you want to use with options for noise canceling, ambient sound and off.

Other settings on the System tab let you control automatic power off, pause toggle, language for the notification and voice guide, download of the software, and initialize settings.

Also: Sony LinkBuds review: Unique open ring facilitates online and offline listening

The Services page is new in the Sony Headphones Connect app and is provided to help you set up Spotify Tap, Endel, Auto Play (in beta form at this time), Soundscape, and Service Link. Spotify Tap is a Quick Access option where a double or triple tap can jump right into Spotify playing on the earbuds. Sony Auto Play is currently in beta and requires downloading the Auto Play app. With Auto Play setup, you can have Spotify start playing where you left off just by putting the earbuds in your ears. This is perfect for my daily train commute and workout sessions. You can also have time announcements made through your earbuds at the top of each hour. App notifications are also available in the Auto Play settings.

The software also includes an activity page that has badges for different learning sessions, which may be interesting for some people. I find the activity page useful since it shows how many total hours I have used various Sony earbuds, see which locations I have used the headphones, and the actions I was involved in while listening.

A menu is also available to view a tutorial, check your earbuds’ software version, backup and restore settings, and view help for the app and earbuds.

Daily usage experiences

  • Subtle noise cancellation
  • More comfortable than the Mark 4s
  • Stiff competition in the $200 earbud market

With the Sony WF-1000XM4 earbuds, it was clear when I enabled noise cancellation, but on the LinkBuds S, it is not as obvious. I can hear a slight difference between the noise canceling and ambient sound modes, but I don’t get the feeling that I am in a quiet room by myself when I have noise cancellation enabled. I haven’t had the chance to test out the earbuds on an airplane where noise cancellation levels are easy to differentiate. The LinkBuds S block out more ambient sound than the LinkBuds, but I suspect that is largely due to the design differences.

The LinkBuds S are more comfortable for long term wear than the WF-1000XM4 due to the lighter weight and smaller size. I also could never wear the Mark 4s while running or working out because the heavy ends tended to move the earbuds, and they would pop out while exercising. Those earbuds are not really designed for exercise as they focus on noise cancellation, calls, and long battery life. The LinkBuds S have proven to stay in place while running, but I still prefer the LinkBuds for the open center and safety considerations.

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I personally prefer the design of the LinkBuds (top) instead of the standard LinkBuds S (bottom)

Matthew Miller/ZDNet

Music sounds fantastic through the LinkBuds S with solid bass, clear vocals, and audio that matches actors perfectly while viewing video content. In addition, phone calls sounded great on both ends of the call, so you can wear the earbuds all day for audio enjoyment and calling.

I spend most of my time listening to music and podcasts through Spotify, so the Spotify Tap and Auto Play are perfect for me. It’s convenient to pop open the lid on the earbuds, put them in, and start enjoying my Spotify content with no effort on my part. This is the way audio, smartphone, and earbuds should work with modern technology.

Bottom line

The Sony LinkBuds S has competition in the $200 ANC space with the likes of the Jabra Elite 7 Pro, Samsung Galaxy Buds 2 and Apple AirPods Pro (on sale for less than $200 at Amazon) all sporting ANC and other advanced features. ANC is fairly subtle in all of these, except for the AirPods Pro, and you have to jump up to something like the WF-1000XM4 for strong noise cancellation. 

I recommend the LinkBuds S for those looking for very comfortable earbuds with extensive Sony software support and subtle ANC, but the battery life is less than some of these other options, so it is not an easy purchase decision to make.

Alternatives to consider

Jabra Elite 7 Pro review: Buy for outstanding phone calls, not for ANC 

Sony WF-1000XM4 earbuds review: Superb noise cancellation, clear calls, and long battery life 

Apple AirPods 3 vs. AirPods Pro: Which wireless earbuds should you buy? 

Samsung Galaxy Buds 2 review: Packed with features 

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