Sony's LinkBuds S are the company's latest earbuds, fitting into a lineup that consists of the flagship WF-1000XM4s, the very unique LinkBuds, and the entry-level WF. The LinkBuds have a name that is similar to the conventional design of the earbuds, but they have silicone tips in the ear. It is possible for them to include active noise cancellation, which the regular LinkBuds don't, thanks to this.

They cost less than LinkBuds at $199.99. The two products have different purposes. LinkBuds are fully open, meaning you will hear ambient noise at all times. People who don't like traditional ear tips might like this. The LinkBuds are some of the best-performing earbuds I have ever tested.

The LinkBuds S attempt to toe the line between the LinkBuds and 1000XM4s and deliver the best of both worlds: they are more comfortable for extended listening than the pricier flagship earbuds. Sony's transparency mode is better than ever, and it is an open design for natural ambient sound. The sound quality and noise cancellation are not as good as the 1000XM4s, but they are still good enough for many people.

I have been testing the black LinkBuds S, which has a textured finish that is almost coarse. It is similar to the sandstone texture from early OnePlus phones. The case and earbuds are impervious to fingerprints, and I came to like the in-hand feel. I think both the LinkBuds S and the set of white LinkBuds are equally sharp, even though the hardware feels a bit different.

The LinkBuds S are small and light, making them feel airy when you remove them from the case. The buds weigh 7.3 grams and the Pro weighs 5.4 grams. It almost seems like you are holding an empty shell with these. The size reduction is very noticeable and substantial when looking at the LinkBuds S side by side with the 1000XM4s. There are four pairs of ear tips in the box. Even though I usually reach for the large tips right away, the default medium tips gave me a great seal. The shape and structure of the earbud hardware can be a difference maker, as shown by the fact that all earbuds are different.

I wore the LinkBuds S for hours at a time, and they were comfortable. They stayed in my ears while I ate and talked. I only wish that Sony had a way to alleviate ear pressure. Even though they are light, you can still experience that. There is no wireless charging in the charging case, but it is pocketable. It's difficult to accept for $200.

Sony’s family of earbuds: the WF-C500, LinkBuds, LinkBuds S, and WF-1000XM4.

The LinkBuds S is no match for the 1000XM4s in terms of noise cancellation, but it is competent and did the trick when I was working from my local coffee shop. Sony is making improvements to its transparency mode, and it sounds more natural. It's still not the level of the AirPods, but it is a far cry from the over-processed ambient sound modes that were the norm a couple years ago. You can control the LinkBuds S with taps on the earbuds: the left bud has ANC and ambient mode, and the right bud has track controls. It's very standard to tap once to play/pause, twice to skip tracks, and three times to go back. You can add a shortcut to start music on your phone. If you don't have the app open on your phone, you will get an error message.

If there is one reality check for the LinkBuds S, it is sound performance. The weight and compact dimensions of Sony had to be achieved with 5-millimeter drivers. In my review of the WH-1000XM5 headphones, I said that driver size isn't everything, and Sony has found ways to cheat physics and squeeze out impressive bass from those even when some competitors use larger drivers. Both at the high end and with lower frequencies, their audio sounds slightly reined in.

There’s mesh covering the external microphones.
The LinkBuds S have ear detection sensors for auto-pause.

They sound good. When it comes to mids and vocals, clarity is excellent. HAIM shows how well these earbuds can showcase vocals and tracks with many layers. All the acoustic instruments on Molly Tuttle come through with pleasant warmth and jangle. I could have used a kick behind the driving rhythm of Orville Peck.

The LinkBuds S blew away the regular LinkBuds in this department, so I was satisfied with them more often than not. They did not meet my expectations for $200 earbuds. Their soundstage is on the narrower side, and everything sounds in the middle of your head, whereas true wireless earbuds with richer audio (like the 1000XM4s) are more immersive and enveloping. If you have an Android phone, LDAC can help bring out more detail, and Sony says that the LinkBuds S will support LE Audio in the future.

Sony’s LinkBuds and LinkBuds S have completely different designs.

The S in LinkBuds S is supposed to stand for smarts. One of Sony's slogans is "never off," and the company envisions people wearing them throughout the day, with the buds automatically reacting to different activities, changes in location, and so on. Sony's headphones have been able to apply custom noise cancellation and transparency settings to places you frequent or if they detect movement.

The LinkBuds S attempt to step this up with new features likewear to play, where the earbuds will immediately begin playing music as soon as you put them in. You can have them start up aSpotify after you finish a teleconferencing call. The tricks are exclusive to the operating system. They require multiple app installations and only support audio from Endel, a service that helps with concentration.

Every smart device now requires you to agree to a series of terms and conditions before you can use it. It is impossible for us to read and analyze all of these agreements. We started counting how many times you have to agree to use devices when we review them.

Like any headphones, Sony's LinkBuds S can be used without clicking through any agreements. If you want to use the Headphones Connect app, you have to agree to the following.

  • Sony’s end user license agreement
  • Sony’s privacy policy

Sony collects data from your usage of the Headphones Connect app in order to improve its products and services.

You get three optional agreements together.

The tried and true Sony features like adaptive sound control, EQ customization, and even Speak to chat continue to work just fine, but the new extras are half-baked. It seems like Sony is starting to hit a ceiling for what it can pull off in terms of bonus functions when it doesn't have control over a whole product ecosystems like Apple,Samsung, or Google. There is no answer for tricks like head- tracking spatial audio. The LinkBuds S don't have multipoint wireless. Adding this would help up the convenience factor and allow for better multitasking, so I hope it shows up in Sony's next generation of earbuds.

Sony’s LinkBuds S are incredibly light and comfortable.
They’re significantly smaller than the 1000XM4s.

Even if they can't duplicate the wow factor of the open-style model, voice call performance on the LinkBuds S has been very good. A mesh covering over the outer microphones helps avoid wind distortion, and they still did well at separating my voice in noisy environments. The LinkBuds S has an estimated battery life of 6 hours with ANC enabled and 20 hours with case charges. The numbers seem to be on the mark, and I don't think you could expect much more given their size and weight. As with the rest of Sony's line, they are rated IPX4 for water resistance, making them suitable for exercise.

The LinkBuds S are the most comfortable earbuds that Sony has ever made, but they don't come cheap. There is no shortage of competition in their price range. You can get better noise cancellation with some alternatives. The LinkBuds S might not last as long in the battery life as others. Sony's latest earbuds face an uphill battle to prove their worth when so many people already use them.

I will keep them in my earbuds for situations where I need all-day comfort, strong voice call performance, and capable noise cancellation. There is room for improvement, but I don't know when I'm wearing these buds. Maybe the same will be true for you, because that's music to my ears.

Chris Welch is a photographer.