Sony Linkbuds S Lightning Review: Almost A “Lite” Variant Of The WF-1000XM4

Sony Linkbuds S lightning review

Linkbuds is a new audio line that Sony introduced earlier this year which, for now, consists mainly of TWS earbuds. The first from the series featured a unique open ear design, with an emphasis of promoting situational awareness for the user, and was originally thought to be a standalone product. However, the company then caught all of us by surprise when it launched a second model just a couple months after.

Unlike its earlier family member, the newly introduced Sony Linkbuds S ditches the “donut” form altogether, instead featuring a traditional earbuds design. So what makes this variant special, and how does it differ from the company’s other TWS offerings? But importantly, how well does it perform?

What is it?

Though designed differently, the Sony Linkbuds S still focuses on providing users with the ability to immediately pay attention to their surroundings. Unlike the original, which depended on its open ear design for this purpose, the newer model relies on its active noise cancelling (ANC) capabilities instead. In addition, it also makes use of your phone’s positioning system to power its more advanced functions, but we’ll get to that later.

Furthermore, its traditional yet familiar design also allowed Sony to add in better audio drivers, touch-based controls, and larger batteries. In fact, the device strongly resembles the brand’s mainstream earbuds, the WF-1000XM4, which isn’t a bad thing whatsoever.

Is It Any Good?

The Linkbuds S is one of the lightest earbuds I’ve ever used, coming in at only 4.8 g. Needless to say, this makes it incredibly comfortable to wear, even after several hours of use. By default, it comes with medium-sized eartips which suits me perfectly, though rest assured that Sony has included three other sizes in the box if you wish to change them to suit your own personal preference.

And as advertised, the earbuds are able to last over six hours of non-stop use on a single charge with ANC enabled – even longer with the feature turned off. Charging each bud is pretty swift, and you can expect a combined total of around 14 hours of use when using the extra charges provided by its case. Meanwhile, fully charging the case itself will take a couple of hours, but that’s a given.

Besides that, the touch controls on the earbuds are very responsive, while its onboard active noise cancelling (ANC) system does well enough to filter out most external noises in order to ensure a pleasant music listening experience. However, I do have some gripes to point out regarding these, but I’ll save them for the later part of my review.

The Sound Quality. Speak To Me.

Surprisingly, the Sony Linkbuds S excels pretty well in audio delivery. So much so that it could easily land a spot between the brand’s high-end and mid-range earbuds in terms of ranking, at least in my personal opinion.

More often than not, I would tinker around with a device’s equaliser to find a setting that’s ideal for my liking, but that’s not the case for the LinkBuds S. In fact, its default preset (dubbed as “Excited” by Sony’s Headphones app) offers a nice distribution across all frequencies while also giving some extra kick to the earbuds’ bass output. This results in a balanced and clear sound delivery, with an extremely satisfying bass feedback for most music tracks I’ve used for testing.

Even with just 5mm drivers, the Linkbuds S produces excellent audio clarity and its soundstaging is definitely above average – providing an ample surround sound experience. While it does provide enough depth to give each music layer some definitive presence, there are times that they can sound a bit too close to each other. This is something that I often experience when listening to tracks with intense moments or choruses, such as The Impression That I Get by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones.

The Bad Stuff. Tell Me.

As much as I appreciate the ANC capabilities on the Linkbuds S, it does have some issues that I want to point out. Firstly, switching between on and off modes is not as seamless as I would have hoped it would be. Strangely enough, activating ANC will take close to a second for it to kick in, but deactivating the feature will take two seconds instead. The latter is very inconvenient especially whenever I want to tune in to a conversation, or when responding to someone.

For a product that focuses on the user’s situational awareness, this is a setback that should not have been overlooked during development. Since this seems like a software issue, hopefully Sony will be able to sort this out via a firmware update.

Secondly, I personally feel that the Adaptive Sound Control feature is too gimmicky for my liking. There’s actually two ways to utilise this, though both will require you to have the Sony Headphones mobile app installed on your phone. 

The first method might not sit well with privacy conscious users as it needs you to allow the Headphones app to track your whereabouts via GPS. Doing so will enable it to study your listening preferences based on the locations that you visit so that it can automatically determine when to activate or deactivate the ANC feature, as well as to increase or decrease audio volume accordingly. However, in my experience, this rarely works accurately – even after several weeks of using the earbuds.

Sony Linkbuds S lightning review

Meanwhile, the other option lets you skip on location tracking and rely on your phone’s gyroscope sensor instead. Basically, all this does is turn off the earbuds’ ANC whenever you’re in motion, except for times when the app identifies that you’re moving faster than you’re supposed to (ie: on a bus or train). After deactivating ANC, the Headphones apps will then wait a couple of seconds to confirm your current activity to determine whether to switch it back on or not. Again, like location tracking, this version is also inaccurate at times, which ends up becoming an annoyance rather than a convenience.

My advice? Just switch off Adaptive Sound Control and control the earbuds’ ANC manually. Or at least until the feature’s novelty wears off for you.

Another gripe I have about the Linkbuds S is that there’s no way to customise its touch controls. Instead, you’re stuck with several presets that will take some abilities away from you if you choose one over the other. Chief being the ability to activate/deactivate ANC, which is only accessible via the default Ambient Sound Control preset. This option lacks functions that lets you cycle back tracks or to adjust the earbuds’ volume output – both of which are only available via their own respective presets, by the way. It’s baffling to why Sony is limiting the user’s convenience, but I do hope that this – again – is something the company would consider fixing via an update.

Should I Buy It?

Sony Linkbuds S lightning review

Coming in at RM 929, recommending the Sony Linkbuds S is going to be tough, and I’m not determining this based on its sound quality or flaws. Rather, its price point is actually just shy of RM 170 from the company’s flagship earbuds, the WF-1000XM4, which is currently priced at RM 1,099. If it had been offered any cheaper – say, around the RM 700 to RM 800 mark – then I would’ve recommended it to anyone without hesitation. 

That being said, the Linkbuds S is still a worthwhile consideration if you’re planning to upgrade from a different brand or even from older Sony earbuds. This is especially when taking into account its comfortable design and its above average audio capabilities.

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