sony linkbuds s 1

Earlier this year, Sony launched the $179 LinkBuds, a unique pair of hole-punched wireless earbuds designed to help keep you fully aware of the outside world while you wear them. They have their charms, but let’s be real: Most of us need to drown out our surroundings at least some of the time. That’s why the company quickly followed up with the more traditional $199 LinkBuds S.

The LinkBuds S have an ambient sound mode for amplifying nearby noise, some strong active noise cancelation for blocking it out and the unique ability to seamlessly switch between the two based on your surroundings. This makes the LinkBuds S a great companion for outdoor walks or workouts, long WFH sessions and noisy subway rides alike. But with some occasional fit and connectivity issues — not to mention very strong competition at this price — they’re not quite the best true wireless earbuds for everybody. Here are the pros and cons I’ve found after a week of living with Sony’s latest buds.

Good ANC earbuds with supersmart features

The $199 Sony LinkBuds S offer excellent sound, strong noise cancellation and some of the smartest features we've seen on a pair of earbuds. They're a good buy for iOS and Android users alike, though some users will be better off with the AirPods Pro or Galaxy Buds Pro.

What we liked

Good sound and style

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I love a pair of low-profile earbuds, and the LinkBuds S are exactly that. Available in black, white or a Best Buy-exclusive Desert Sand, these buds sport a simple, spherical design that brings the similarly understated Pixel Buds and Galaxy Buds 2 to mind. There aren’t any dangling stems like you’ll find on the AirPods or AirPods Pro, nor is there a jarring donut hole like on the standard LinkBuds — just a small circle that sits unassumingly in your ear. The earbuds’ touch controls were mostly reliable, allowing me to pause and play tracks or switch between different noise modes with a gentle tap.

The LinkBuds S’ slick style is backed up by some pretty great sound, enough so that I was happy to make them my main music headphones for close to a week. The crunchy guitars and layered vocals of my favorite pop-punk tracks sounded full and bright, and I was especially impressed by how clearly the bass came through.

The AirPods Pro sounded a bit crisper overall when comparing the two side by side, but the LinkBuds S offered more powerful, head-bobbing low end. And unlike Apple’s buds, Sony’s Headphones Connect app lets you customize the LinkBuds S’ sound to your liking using a variety of equalizer settings that include options like bright, mellow, treble boost and bass boost. Though I appreciated the Sony bud’s sound out of the box, the bright setting was a welcome option for highlighting vocals and guitars.

Supersmart software and impressive noise control

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I was thrilled to see that the LinkBuds S come with Adaptive Sound Control functionality, one of my favorite features on the Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones I recently reviewed. With this option enabled, Sony’s earbuds can automatically switch between active noise cancellation (ANC) and ambient noise based on your activity and location, and in my experience, it actually works.

For example, the LinkBuds S were smart enough to automatically enable ambient sound when I went for a walk before quickly reverting to ANC once I was sitting down at home. And like on Sony’s over-ear headphones, there’s a handy Speak-to-Chat function that will automatically pause your music once you start speaking to someone. You can also take advantage of the Auto Play app (available now on Android, coming in June to iOS), which you can program to automatically play specific playlists for when you’re walking or sitting.

These cutting-edge smart capabilities let you easily go about your day without having to constantly fumble with on-ear or in-app controls, and give Sony’s earbuds a big advantage over the competition. The AirPods Pro have no automatic noise control functionality, and while the Galaxy Buds Pro can activate ambient noise and lower your music when they sense you’re talking, they won’t pause it for you.

Whether you’re adjusting things manually or letting Adaptive Sound Control do its thing, the LinkBuds S’ noise modes are about as good as what you’ll get from Apple and Samsung. The earbuds’ ANC is some of the most suppressive I’ve heard at this price, doing a good job dampening the sounds of car alarms and neighborhood chatter on my busy Queens street. Likewise, ambient sound was reliable, allowing me to hear vehicles when out for a walk or nearby shoppers while at the grocery store. The LinkBuds S’ ANC and ambient sound modes were comparable to what the AirPods Pro and Galaxy Buds Pro offer but did a better job in certain scenarios, such as when I walked by a loud construction site or sat amidst lots of talking and traffic on my balcony.

Long battery life and reliable call quality

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The LinkBuds S are rated for six hours of continuous battery life and a total of 20 hours with the charging case, and my testing largely matches that — if not slightly exceeding it. I was able to use Sony’s buds for about four straight days without having to charge the case, and out of the 29 total hours I’ve used them, I only plugged in the case twice.

In addition to their long battery life, Sony’s newest buds got me through plenty of phone calls without any complaints, and the voice recordings I captured on them sounded impressively clear.

What we didn’t like

Finding the right fit can be hard — and connectivity isn’t always perfect

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While the LinkBuds S are lightweight and mostly comfortable (Sony calls them the lightest ANC earbuds out there, and they sure feel like it), I sometimes had a hard time getting them to fit securely in my ear. You have to twist them slightly into your ear canal to make a secure seal, and even then, there were plenty of occasions where I found myself needing to adjust them during a walk — and sometimes accidentally triggering the touch controls while doing so. That said, I still found them to be more comfortable and secure than the standard LinkBuds, which have an open design that don’t nestle in your ear quite as much.

I also had some minor connectivity issues when using the LinkBuds S, as one or both of the buds would briefly disconnect for a second at a time when I was in motion. Though it wasn’t frequent enough to be a deal breaker, it was still annoying. And it’s certainly not something I’ve dealt with much on my other go-to buds like the Beats Fit Pro and Jabra Elite 4 Active, which have cut out for me occasionally but far less often.

A cheap-feeling case with no wireless charging

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For $199, the LinkBuds S’ plastic case feels pretty cheap, and it accrued a significant amount of smudges and scuffs after only a few days in my pocket. What’s more disappointing is that the case doesn’t offer wireless charging, something you’ll find on comparable models like the AirPods Pro and even cheaper options like the Galaxy Buds 2 and EarFun Air Pro 2.

Bottom line

The Sony LinkBuds S are a very good pair of $199 earbuds, offering great sound, solid noise cancellation and, unlike many competitors, the unique and useful ability to switch sound modes based on what you’re up to. The problem is, there are a ton of great alternatives at this price.

Apple users should consider the Beats Fit Pro or oft-discounted AirPods Pro, which offer a more secure fit and more stable connectivity. The same goes for the Galaxy Buds Pro for those on team Android. But if you want a platform-agnostic pair of buds that can block out or amplify the outside world exactly when you need them to — often without you having to even touch them — the LinkBuds S serve their niche extremely well.

How the LinkBuds S compare to other wireless earbuds we tested

Active noise cancellation

Yes

No

Yes

Yes

Ambient sound

Yes

Yes (via open design)

Yes

Yes

Weight

0.17 ounces

0.14 ounces

0.19 ounces

0.22 ounces

Water resistance

IPX4

IPX4

IPX4

IPX7

Colors

White, Black, Desert Sand (Best Buy only)

White, Gray

White

White, Phantom Silver, Phantom Black, Phantom Violet

Battery life (rated)

6 hours (earbuds only), 20 hours (with case)

5.5 hours (earbuds only), 17.5 hours (with case)

4.5 hours (earbuds only), 24 hours (with case)

5 hours (earbuds only), 18 hours (with case)

Wireless charging

No

No

Yes

Yes

Price $199.99 $178 $197 $199