Sony LinkBuds S review: Fun colors but sound leaves a lot to be desired

Not Sony's strongest outing

Sony LinkBuds S
(Image: © Tammy Rogers/ iMore)

iMore Verdict

These aren't the ones. They look great, but the sound quality leaves a lot to be desired.

Pros

  • +

    Some cool colors are available

  • +

    They are tiny

Cons

  • -

    Sound quality isn't the best

  • -

    Build could be better

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Small in-ear Bluetooth wireless headphones are roughly a dime a dozen at the moment, with approximately 1,600,456 different varieties available when you do a quick Amazon search. As with most audio gear, while there are some surprise hits from companies you’ve never heard of, you’re often most likely to find the top-quality stuff from the big established names. The Sony Linkbuds S are one such pair of headphones — a pair of tiny little in-ears with noise canceling.

They’re not quite as impressive as their bigger sibling, the Sony WF1000-XM4, however, they still have their own feature set that might drag your eyes away from the more expensive AirPods Pro 2. But do they stack up? Are those features worth the asking price? How do they go compared to their competitors? Let's find out.

Sony Linkbuds S: Price and availability

Sony LinkBuds S

(Image credit: Tammy Rogers)

When they’re full price, you can nab a pair of the Sony Linkbuds S for around $200. You can go to pretty much any big box retailer to get yourself a pair, although our preferred place would be Amazon, where they are frequently discounted.

There is currently a $70 discount at the moment, making the little buds $128. That's a pretty special price for some accomplished little earbuds.

They’re available in three different colors: Black, White, Blue, and the Ecru that is reviewed here. While I got to play with the Ecru, it was the blue that really caught my eye. It’s not a color you often see represented in earbuds.

Sony LinkBuds S: What I liked

Sony LinkBuds S

(Image credit: Tammy Rogers/ iMore)

So when I popped them out of the box, I was instantly surprised by their size. They are tiny. They’re smaller than any pair of AirPods I can think of and are fairly comparable to the equally tiny Beats Studio Buds. Considering there’s an entire touch capacitive touch panel, a battery, Bluetooth guts, driver, and a proximity sensor, it’s almost like black magic how Sony has managed to pack everything in.

Also fairly small is the charging case. It’s a little wider than some others, including the AirPods Pro and the Beats studio buds. It’s still small enough to fit into a Skinny jean pocket, however, which is all that really matters to me. The buds click into the top to charge kept in place, as always with some magnets. Those magnets are strong and keep the buds nicely in place. It's a relatively nice case that gives reasonable battery life as well.

You’ll get 6 hours from the buds alone (plenty for a decent-length train journey) and then an extra 14 hours from the carry case. This is decent, but not spectacular. The AirPods Pro 2, for example, provide roughly 10 additional hours in the case, and Sony’s own WF-1000XM4 give you a total of 24 hours of battery life. In the long run, the battery life of the Sony LinkBuds S is pretty good, however. In my testing, I found that real-world numbers are fairly similar to those claimed by Sony, and I never found myself wanting for extra.

It’s still small enough to fit into a Skinny jean pocket, however, which is all that really matters to me

One of my favorite parts of these buds is their environmental credentials. They’re made of recycled plastic, and it lends a really nice texture to the buds and the charging case. It also makes me feel a little bit better about using them, given I know that less new plastic was used in their construction.

The sound is acceptable here. They are best described as ‘analytical’ rather than ‘fun’ or 'dynamic’, with a strong focus on higher frequencies. Those highs are clear and precise, making them a very vocal forward headphone. Bass is present and smooth, and the mids are accounted for and pleasing to the ear. There is lots of detail here — listening to Behemoth’s ‘Off to War’ and you’ll hear every element of the band working towards the onslaught of sound. It doesn’t get the blood pumping like it perhaps should, but it’s an interesting way to listen to tracks you might be familiar with.

Dua Lipa was a particularly strong point with the LinkBuds S, with tracks like ‘Levitating’ fitting well with the headphones tuning. Again, some dynamism was lost to the focus on the higher register, but Lipa’s dulcet tones come through to the forefront with uncommon smoothness. The disco bassline was well represented, again analytical, adding up not to a perfect listening experience but a pleasing one.

Sony LinkBuds S: What I didn’t like

Sony LinkBuds S

(Image credit: Tammy Rogers/ iMore)

So that environmentally conscious design decision I liked, it’s not all good. That case doesn’t feel particularly sturdy, with a weak hinge and some give to the plastic. The texture is nice, but it doesn’t feel durable. Considering I’m often tossing these little guys into a bag or my pocket, I’d like them to feel a little better built.

The touch controls also leave a lot to be desired. They’re clumsy, irritating, and I leave them off. When I go to adjust my headphones, I don’t want to activate and deactivate noise canceling thirteen times. That leaves me to change tracks, volume, and noise-canceling activation on my phone, which feels slightly like a step back.

Especially because some of those functions have to be done on Sony’s ‘headphones’ app. It’s not the worst app in the world, but it is definitely not the best. Finding functions can be tricky, given that things like noise-canceling are called ‘ambient noise control’. Everything is there and you’ll soon get used to it, but it’s still a bugbear of mine. Connecting to the app can also be a pain, as it refuses to admit that the headphones are connected via Bluetooth. Given the app has been around for years now, you’d expect it to be a more solid experience.

Sibilance is also a problem with the LinkBuds S, and it comes from their over-reliance on the upper register

Unfortunately, while there are lots of positives about the sound quality, it’s just not quite up to snuff. While clear and precise, they lack a certain amount of bounce. Listening to Kendrick Lamar's ‘Humble’, the dynamic mixing becomes lost in a tonal flatness that pervades music that's supposed to be fun. Lamar’s rapping is as clever and sharp as ever, but the feeling is lost to otherwise very boring sound reproduction. Similarly, jump on over to BlackPink’s ‘Shut Down’ and the Girls sound bored rather than intimidating, the playful bravado diluted to the point of not being present at all.

Sibilance is also a problem with the LinkBuds S, and it comes from their over-reliance on the upper register. Esses and Ts often have too much emphasis, making longer listening sessions fatiguing. This lends a thinness to the sound as well, and really takes away from the overall experience of the buds. Where they try too hard to be more analytical and detailed they become a much less fun listen than their competitors like the AirPods or the Beats Studio Buds.

Are the SonyLink Buds S bad? No, not all — but they are disappointing.

Sony LinkBuds S: Should you buy them?

Sony Linkbuds S

(Image credit: Tammy Rogers/ iMore)

You should buy the LinkBuds S if you:

  • Want some tiny, tiny earbuds
  • You want to be friendly to the environment
  • You don’t want warm-sounding headphones

You shouldn’t buy the LinkBuds S if you:

  • Want an easy listening experience
  • Don’t like touch controls

Sony LinkBuds S: Wrapping up

There is a lot to like with the Sony LinkBuds S. They are small, with good battery life and some really funky colors. Those environmental credentials are also a cool extra, making them a little more guilt-free compared to those they might share a shelf with. The biggest thing that might tempt you over at the moment is the price. They are less than the AirPods Pro 2 and the Sony WF-1000XM4 and offer roughly the same kind of features.

What you won’t get here, however, is particularly stellar sound quality. They are detailed, yes, although they can be fatiguing in the long run. Sound is not the reason to pick these up. Neither is build quality. I’m not super impressed with the feel of the case, and the package doesn’t feel like it will last very long. I would love to be proved wrong, but initial feeling doesn’t fill me with confidence.

All in all, I wouldn’t recommend you try these little headphones. They’re not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but they aren’t as good even as earbuds that cost almost $50 less. Look instead at the Beats Studio Buds, or spend a little more on the Sony WF-1000XM4.

Tammy Rogers
Buying Guides and Deals Writer

As the Buying Guides and Deals writer for iMore, Tammy puts over a decade of experience in finding the best prices of Apple products to work, helping you save money on the equipment that you want. An audiophile at heart, she loves all things audio and visual, but you’ll also find her drooling over the latest Macs and MacBooks. With a Masters in screenwriting, Tammy likes to spend her free time writing feature-length and TV screenplays or driving digital cars around virtual circuits, to varying degrees of success. Just don't ask her about AirPods Max - you probably won't like her answer.