Much of the innovation on true wireless earbuds hasn’t included overall design. Sure, companies have extended battery life and added a slew of new features, but the primary exterior advances have been in reducing size rather than drastically changing the aesthetic. Well, Sony would like to have a word. Today, the company announced one of the most unique sets of true wireless earbuds we’ve seen.

Dubbed the LinkBuds ($180), this tiny set features an entirely open wear style that lets outside noise in by design rather than relying on an ambient sound mode. And Sony didn’t just build something that sits outside of your ear either. The company designed a circular driver that is entirely open in the middle, like a donut. As we’ve seen in the past, the always transparent audio presents a number of challenges to sound quality. Has Sony cracked the code or do the LinkBuds prioritize convenience over audio?

Design

This isn’t the first time Sony has tried its hand at an “open-style concept.” Back in 2017, the company debuted what would become known as the Xperia Ear Duo. These true wireless earbuds featured an open ring that sat outside of your ear canal with all of the necessary tech stored in an attached case that sat behind your lobes. They slid on from the bottom and they looked and felt awkward. Since then, Sony has primarily focused on more “traditional” true wireless earbuds with a component that actually goes inside your ear canal with a silicone or foam tip on the end.

The LinkBuds are a massive advance on the Xperia Ear Duo. True wireless tech has come a long way in the last five years, allowing companies like Sony to drastically reduce the overall size of earbuds. Here, there’s an IPX4-rated two-part design with a tiny dome-shaped housing holding the bulk of the components. Attached to it is an open circle that holds the ring-shaped speaker unit. The entire thing is made of hard plastic, save for the flexible “fit supporters” that help hold the LinkBuds in place.

Sony gives its open ring design another shot with the LinkBuds. This time, the company has developed special drivers to fit the shape and packed the earbuds full of its best features. It’s a solid start for a unique product, but a few refinements to things like sound quality could make this a game-changer.
Billy Steele/Engadget

Unlike the Galaxy Buds Live from Samsung or Bose’s Sport Open Earbuds, the Sony LinkBuds open up in the middle of the driver rather than putting a small speaker outside of your ear and not sealing off the canal. Due to this and the chosen materials, the LinkBuds aren’t as comfortable at the Galaxy Buds Live as there actually is something stuck into the opening of your ear. It’s just not shoved in too far like a typical set of earbuds. I don’t know how you could protect the driver and make that area softer, but a little cushion there would go a long way. And slightly more rigid “fit supporters” may help keep the LinkBuds in place slightly better.

Features and software

As we saw on the WF-1000XM4, Sony isn’t afraid to absolutely pack its true wireless earbuds full of tech, and that continues on the LinkBuds. First, the company opted for a touch-based setup for the controls, only you don’t touch the buds to complete the task. You tap right in front of your ear. A forward-facing motion sensor detects vibrations when you do so, allowing you to play/pause, skip tracks (forwards and backwards), adjust volume or summon a voice assistant. However, only double and triple tap gestures are in play here, so you only get four slots – two per side – to pick your most-needed actions. Thankfully, some folks can skip the voice assistant here as the LinkBuds offer hands-free access to Google Assistant (Android only) and Alexa.

Sony calls the technology Wide Area Tap and it’s remarkably reliable when you’re trying to use it as intended. However, I noticed that whenever I was chewing while listening to music or a podcast, the LinkBuds would often be tricked into thinking I just made some taps. That’s likely due to the protrusion of my jaw as I bite down. You can disable Wide Area Tap entirely if this happens to you, but you’ll have to reach for your phone to control the tunes which isn’t a great alternative.

Sony LinkBuds
Wide Area Tap in use.
Sony

The company also brought along some of the best features from the WF-1000XM4, including Speak-to-Chat. This tool automatically pauses the audio when you start talking, so you don’t have to awkwardly tap when someone walks up for a quick convo. Sony has refined the feature a bit too, allowing you to choose between three pause lengths (5, 15 or 30 seconds) before the LinkBuds will pick up where you left off. You can now adjust the voice detect sensitivity with automatic, high and low settings. Adaptive Volume Control also returns, the option that can tweak the level if the sound of your environment gets louder, and then go back once things quiet down.

As always, the Sony Headphones Connect app provides a host of handy items. You’ll get battery levels for individual earbuds and the case right up top on the main screen with media and volume controls underneath. Tap over to the Sound tab and you have the option to enable Speak-to-Chat alongside audio presets and manual EQ settings. There’s also the ability to redo the 360 Reality Audio analysis that personalizes sound based on photos of your ears. Lastly, DSEE is an option you can allow to do its thing automatically. As a refresher, DSEE or Digital Sound Enhancement Engine is Sony’s upscaling tech that attempts to improve compressed audio by restoring the “natural, expansive sound” when it’s enabled.

Sony gives its open ring design another shot with the LinkBuds. This time, the company has developed special drivers to fit the shape and packed the earbuds full of its best features. It’s a solid start for a unique product, but a few refinements to things like sound quality could make this a game-changer.
Billy Steele/Engadget

The System tab is the next option over and it’s where you can activate Adaptive Volume Control, customize/disable Wide Area Tap, adjust the automatic power off duration, disable automatic pausing when you remove an earbud and more. One of the Wide Area Tap options will allow you to automatically pick up on Spotify where you left off. Appropriately named Spotify Tap, the feature can also provide a personalized recommendation with an additional tap.

Sound quality

Sony designed a 12mm ring-shaped driver for the LinkBuds. This is how the part that goes into your ear is able to be open in the middle. It also means that a considerable amount of outside noise is coming in at all times. That convenience is the whole idea, but don’t expect flagship-level audio to accompany your environmental murmur or roar. The LinkBuds certainly allow you to tune into both your location and some music or a podcast, but you don’t necessarily get the best of both worlds.

Overall, the sound is a bit flat and compressed across genres. Chaotic metal like Every Time I DIe’s Radical is subdued, largely because the booming bass and dynamic details in the instruments are both restrained. The bluegrass stylings of Punch Brothers and other acoustic styles sound pretty good, but hip-hop is a mess. The bass on albums like Kendrik Lamar’s DAMN. almost pops instead of bumping. During my tests, I noticed the sound is actually pretty good if I push the LinkBuds further into my ear canals. The problem is they don’t stay here and it’s very uncomfortable. In the spot where the earbuds sit on their own for me, in accordance with Sony’s wear directions, the sound is just… there… for some genres.

Sony gives its open ring design another shot with the LinkBuds. This time, the company has developed special drivers to fit the shape and packed the earbuds full of its best features. It’s a solid start for a unique product, but a few refinements to things like sound quality could make this a game-changer.
Billy Steele/Engadget

LinkBuds support Sony’s 360 Reality Audio. If you’re unfamiliar, the format is designed to be more immersive, with simulated positioning of sound sources and instruments “around” the listener. The issue has always been that content is limited and accessing it requires a hifi music subscription from the likes of Amazon, Tidal or Deezer. Similar to other devices, 360RA tracks on LinkBuds are noticeably louder and have more presence than the same songs on Apple Music and other services. To me they sound better, but I will admit the open nature of these earbuds doesn’t exactly lend itself to listening in spatial audio. It’s an experience best reserved for over-ear headphones or properly equipped speakers.

There’s no ANC here, but not countering noise is the whole point.. Sony made the LinkBuds for constant use, linking “online and offline worlds – hence the name. There’s no effort given to trying to block out the world around, but rather to enable you to be ever present by design. You can counter distractions with volume here, but even then you’ll still be subject to them even when you’re listening to music or a podcast. So if you want earbuds that will help you silence the roar so you can focus or relax, these aren’t them. And again, they aren’t meant to be.

When it comes to calls, Sony says “precise voice pickup technology” employs signal processing and a noise reduction algorithm to quiet ambient rumbling and focus on your speech. Lots of companies make claims about call quality that ultimately don’t pan out, but Sony comes through. Constant background roar like a white noise machine is cut out almost entirely as are distractions like TV dialogue. You still sound like you’re on speakerphone to the person on the other end, but at least the rumble of the room on your end won’t be as much of an issue.

Battery life

Sony promises up to five and a half hours on the LinkBuds themselves, with another 12 hours in the charging case. During my tests, I managed almost six hours of use before having to dock the earbuds, consistently getting around 30 minutes more than advertised. There’s no wireless charging here, but a 10-minute plug-in will give you 90 minutes of use. Honestly, the charging case for the LinkBuds is so small, I’d rather that component remain compact than for Sony to make it larger to fit any Qi-compatible bits.

The competition

Sony isn’t the only company to try the open fit concept on true wireless earbuds. Samsung’s Galaxy Buds Live have an “open type” design that covers your ears, but everything sits on the outside. This model is equipped with ANC, though it doesn’t offer robust sound blocking since your ear canal isn’t sealed off. Audio also isn’t the best, especially at high volumes. However, you get the added comfort of not having something shoved in your ear at all. Combine that with always-on Bixby, wireless charging, iOS integration and customizable controls, and you’ve got a decent set of earbuds. If you can live with the bean jokes, the going rate is around $100.

Another recent take on the open-ear idea are the Bose Sport Open Earbuds. These have a behind-the-ear hook design similar to the Powerbeats Pro and other fitness buds. Despite good battery life, reliable controls and the inherent merits of an open design, these earbuds don’t come with a charging case (it’s more of a dock) and you can’t really customize them to your needs. What’s more, the hard plastic construction means they’re not very comfortable and the design actually hinders sound quality to a degree. Plus, they’re more expensive than Sony’s LinkBuds at $199.

Wrap-up

Sony largely succeeded at what it set out to do: It built a set of true wireless earbuds that offers transparent audio by design rather than relying on microphones to pipe in ambient sound. Indeed, the LinkBuds blend your music, podcasts or videos with whatever is going on around you. There are certainly benefits for this, whether it be the ability to be less of a jerk in the office or to stay safe outdoors.

Even with all of the handy tech Sony packs in, earbuds need to be comfortable enough to wear for long periods of time, and the area around the unique ring-shaped drivers is simply too hard to be accommodating. Consistent audio performance would make a big difference, too. For now, the LinkBuds are an interesting product that could be more compelling with some refinements. Hopefully Sony will do just that, because I’m very much looking forward to version 2.0.

The LinkBuds are available to order today from Amazon and Best Buy in grey and white color options for $180.