Finally an original idea for listening to music without isolating from the environment, but it will need to keep evolving.
Sony had recently 'beaten' noise cancellation in its wireless earbuds lineups, with both the over-ear WH-1000XM4 and the in-ear WF-1000XM4 (and to be honest, they had already done it with their predecessors). With these two product ranges mastered, it was only natural for the Japanese manufacturer to want to seek innovation in a field that has been at a standstill for years: the open-ear earbuds. That is, instead of pursuing the maximum isolation and the best active noise cancellation, they mean just the opposite: to find a new way to deliver the so-called 'ambient awareness', allowing you to hear surrounding sound while reproducing music or podcasts.
To achieve that, they have devoted many hours at the design board to come up with the concept of the Sony LinkBuds (WF-L900/WM), one that is certainly innovative. The main premise here seems as simple as it is clever: let the sound pass through a hole. Literally. Thus, each unit, both quite tiny, consists of two circular parts: a spherical one where the electronics and the grip tips are located, and a ring-shaped one, with an empty diaphragm at its centre.
Do they work? Mostly, the idea works, but logically it has its implications at several levels.
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Before playing some music, the first thing you notice is that the LinkBuds are really small and light. Weighing about four grams, we can tell the difference right after taking them out of their case (which is also more discreet than usual) and especially when putting them on the ear. If you get a firm and comfortable grip, you can say that it is like you weren't wearing them.
The point is that, due to their peculiar design, achieving that perfect grip could be a little complicated. Obviously, in our reviews it's worth remembering that this is a very personal and important matter, and that is why we recommend you try the wireless earbuds and their different earcup sizes for a couple of hours before buying them. We know that it is not easy, but that is one of the keys to enjoying these products. The LinkBuds sport an ergonomic yet atypical design, and even with the help of the grip tip, you need to thrust the ring inside of the ear cavity to then insert the rubber tip and rotate the unit forward to secure it.
Again, that depends on each user. In my case, although there were long periods of time when a good grip, comfort and good sound coincided, I must admit that many dips and necessary adjustments during the many hours of testing (the latter sometimes causing unintentional activation of touch controls) and a few times a certain discomfort remained after long periods of use.
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This leads us to another consequence of the 8-shaped design: finding the best sound does not only depend on how much you insert the device, but especially on the transducer ring's angle in relation with the inside of the ear. That is why there may be times when it seems that one or both earbuds are not loud enough, even making you think that there is a weird balance in the song you are playing.
In addition, both the ring-shaped design (which doesn't penetrate the ear that much) and the space available on the unit prevent the device from including drivers with the placement or the size needed to produce impressive bass, which clearly is the main drawback that we can find about their otherwise clear and acceptable sound quality given the tiny space. The voice quality during calls is also surprisingly good, considering how other headphones with better microphones usually fail in that regard.
For this review we have tested the LinkBuds in quiet interiors, taking a walk on a windy day, on a plane or while working. It is true that you can perceive ambient sound at a medium volume, but the best sound is achieved with a high volume and in a quiet environment, as long as you keep the right angle. Also, the last consequence of the ring-shaped design is that people surrounding you can easily hear them too, which is known as sound leak. Of course, the minuscule size means a shorter battery life, too.
In sum, if you want to become aware of what is happening in your surroundings while listening to music or podcasts, it must be acknowledged that Sony's idea with the LinkBuds is really fresh and functional and, if you can try them out and they fit you well, their size and lightness make them significantly tempting. That being said, do not expect Flea's bass to hit your temples with the Red Hot Chili Peppers' latest album, and obviously they are not the best choice if public transport noise annoys you. Looking at their recommended price (180 euros, but if you're lucky you may find them at around 150 euros), what you are paying for here is the invention, because it is a novelty costing the same as way more complex earbuds. However, as it happened with ANC, maybe the second or third iteration of this new Sony line-up will be the one to set a new standard.
NOTE: If you are looking for non-intrusive background music and you don't demand the best sound quality and finesse, perhaps you should give the bone conduction earbuds a try, as they make the inside of the ear canal vibrate while resting on the tragus and skipping the eardrum, leaving the ear entrance completely uncovered.