Open-back headphones are familiar to over-the-ear headphone fans like me; open-back earbuds like the Sony LinkBuds are a different story. Both types of headphones allow sound from the outside world to freely mingle with whatever music you’re listening to, giving you better situational awareness when out and about.
With the Sony LinkBuds, Sony achieved this by making the section of the earbud that rests over your canal round with a hole punched out—they resemble doughnuts in your ear. This isn’t Sony’s first effort at a ring-based driver, but it is the first that the corporation has aggressively promoted to the general public. The Sony LinkBuds are available for $179.99 and come with a number of persuasive reasons to buy them. Although Sony has done a lot of things right with the LinkBuds, and I’ve had a great time with them, there are simply too many little flaws that prevent me from recommending them without reservations.
Why use earphones with an open back?
Before I go into the specifics of the Sony LinkBuds, I’d want to address a concern that many of you may have: why would someone desire an open-back design? Most popular earbuds, such as the Apple AirPods Pro and the Samsung GalaxyBuds 2, have a sealed off “closed” experience, but there are several reasons why an open design might be advantageous. I prefer an open style, particularly while I’m out and about. It provides considerably better situational awareness and security in situations where I need to be more aware of incoming vehicles or announcements on an airport or railway station’s public address system.
And, of course, it allows me to talk with someone without having to take out an earpiece to completely hear what they’re saying. Yes, most earbuds have an electronic passthrough mode that employs the inbuilt microphones to blend in ambient sound with the music you’re listening to. And while it may sound natural, it isn’t the same sensation. Nothing compares to the actual passthrough that the LinkBuds provide. I should point out that the Sony LinkBuds do filter some incoming noise, so it’s not a fully transparent listening experience, but I’d estimate that roughly 90% of the natural sound passes through unaltered.
The other main benefit of open architecture is sound staging, which appeals to audiophiles. Soundstaging, in general, aids in perceiving the position, size, and distance of the sound being generated. When you use earbuds or headphones, they physically rest against your ears, but each type gives the stage of what you’re listening to a distinct experience. The open design offers more staging options. Personally, I dislike the sensation of speakers being in my ears and prefer for the music to blend in with the surroundings. Some may see this as a disadvantage, but I see it as a benefit. As a result, choosing open-backed headphones is a highly personal decision.
The hardware and design of LinkBuds
Let’s start with the LinkBuds’ one-of-a-kind hardware. Each earbud is divided into two sections: The electrical components, such as the battery and microphone, are housed in a bulbous portion, while the driver is housed in a doughnut-shaped segment. The driver ring fits over your canal, and the bulbous portion is put in the bigger, recessed part of the outer ear when installed (the concha cavum, to be precise). A silicon ring pulls over the bulbous portion of the earbud and presses against the top section of the concha cavum to keep it in place. Sony includes numerous sets of silicone rings, each with a different-sized extension, to accommodate various ear sizes. I went with the medium, but there are two sizes in each direction, for a total of five.
In comparison to ordinary earphones, it’s a strangely formed and fitting mechanism. I was wearing the large-sized silicone rings for the first two weeks of my testing, but I immediately observed the bulbous part protruding more than I expected. The headphones stayed in place quite well until I moved to the medium size ring, and they put less strain on my ears. My wife was really thrilled to test out the Sony LinkBuds, but she was quickly disappointed since the earbuds just would not fit properly in her small ears, even without the silicone ring. Because ear shapes are so diverse, it’s difficult to recommend the LinkBuds without cautioning that you might not find a perfect match.
Although the sound-producing half of the Linkbuds is small, the total size of the earbuds is equivalent to that of other in-ear headphones such as the Samsung Galaxy Buds and the OnePlus Buds Pro. However, unlike those other headphones, the LinkBuds are limited in battery life owing to their unusual form, which leaves little room for a battery. The earbuds should last 5.5 hours on their own, with the charging case providing a further 12 hours. But, more than with any other earbud I’ve tested, I found myself wondering, “Low battery on the case already?” I would have gladly sacrificed a larger casing for a larger battery because the case is one of the tiniest I’ve seen. One more remark about the case: I enjoy a good fidget item, but I didn’t have much fun fiddling with the LinkBuds’ case lock.
Sony’s headphone software is outstanding.
Sony’s Headphones Connect software is dependably good, offering a wide range of customising choices in a user-friendly interface. Sony has introduced activity monitoring since my WH-1000XM4 over-ear headphone review, which is a useful feature—especially for a reviewer like me. There’s also a 5-band EQ with presets, an option to halt music when the earphones are removed, auto power-off, and more. Sony’s 360 Reality Audio, DSEE (AI upsampling), and Speak-to-Chat are all supported by the LinkBuds (which pauses the music when you start talking). These provide you with new methods to listen to your music, but I’ve found them to be nothing more than gimmicks that don’t add much value.
The Sony LinkBuds include a new Wide Area Tap option that is toggled on by default, in addition to the usual customisable tap controls that can activate everything from Google Assistant to play and stop. When you enable Wide Area Tap, the earbuds detect taps in the fronts of your ear, such as on the top of your jaw and cheekbone, in addition to touching the actual earbud. It’s a clever idea, and it worked well enough that I never had to tap the earpiece itself. Unfortunately, it is far too effective. Eating would record a tap almost every day–maybe I had particularly powerful jaws or a hollow head; anyway, it was really irritating. Furthermore, I find myself pressing on the earphones to get them back into position, which sadly engages the assistant 50% of the time (by default).
Audio and call quality on Sony LinkBuds
So, how do the LinkBuds sound after all this discussion about their distinctive design? They do, however, sound rather natural. As I previously stated, the open-back design allows for excellent sound staging, which aids in instrument placement and separation. It doesn’t have the forward projection that I prefer from over-ear headphones, but it’s miles ahead of most earbuds and faux surround-sound software. However, I couldn’t find anything to adore musically when using the LinkBuds. They generally lack low-end thud, which is another open-back characteristic. There’s simply not enough power in these tiny speakers to push low frequencies, and there’s no bass building since it’s not sealed off; open-back headphones will always suffer from this. Surprisingly, I also noticed a loss of top-end clarity—the frequencies that give instruments crystal-clear definition—as well as boosted mids. I was able to compensate for part of this by tweaking the EQ settings in the Headphones Connect app, but it was only a band-aid; I could never get a sound that I loved.
Jimmy Page’s acoustic guitar performance in the Led Zeppelin classic “Stairway to Heaven,” for example, has some extremely delicate plucking and strumming that doesn’t come across properly on the LinkBuds. The instrumentation is present, but it is difficult to discern, and the subtlety is gone. A similar issue is evident in Miles Davis’ “So What.” The delicate high-hat clicks, snare brush, and upright bass pulls don’t seem to come to life. The piano and horns shine through in the midrange and are pushed forward in the mix, but this makes those parts stand out more than they should.
On the low end, the DJ Snake/Lil Jon duet “Turn Down for What” lacks the thunder and thrust I expect from a tune like this. The slap from the bass strike is apparent, but it lacks follow-through and is unsatisfying. Big Freedia’s “N.O. Bounce” is similarly flat; the mid-range is crowded, and there’s no bottom end to move the rhythm forward, resulting in a jumbled presentation.
I could go on with more instances from my hearing exams, but I believe you get the picture. The spoken word recordings are where the Sony LinkBuds shine, owing to their fine-tuning and open design. I listen to hours of podcasts every week, and these earbuds were a fantastic match for that, as well as audiobooks, owing to the mid-range increase and more realistic soundstage. This feature also improves the quality of phone calls, as I was able to hear the person on the other end with incredible clarity and presence. It seemed as if they were in the same room as me. The LinkBud’s microphones, on the other hand, were not up to par, being particularly vulnerable to wind noise, although this isn’t a problem specific to these earphones.
Final thoughts on the Sony LinkBuds
My LinkBuds recommendation comes with a lot of limitations when it comes to buying advice. While I loved wearing them, I recognise that not everyone appreciates open-back headphone designs and listens to a lot of podcasts like I do. I expected a higher-quality audio experience from these earbuds for $180, and I wish the fit wasn’t so finicky.