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Sony’s All-New Flagship Noise-Cancelers Are Still the Best

No product achieves a position of preeminence by accident. It is earned, and when it’s earned in a sector of the consumer electronics market as rabidly competitive as wireless active noise-canceling over-ear headphones, it’s earned the hard way.

Sony’s WH-1000XM4 wireless active noise-canceling headphones launched in 2020, and they’ve been top dog ever since. Just as 2018’s WH-1000XM3 were until they were replaced. Your choice of alternatives has grown exponentially in that time, though, because if imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, Sony has been flattered to within an inch of its life.

So the all-new WH-1000XM5 arrive with high expectations. They’re supposed to be the best pound-for-pound option around, just like the headphones they replace. If they indeed are, well, it won’t be a surprise. If they’re not, though, it’ll be a Manchester United-style fall from grace.

At $399 (£379), the WH-1000XM5 are right at the upper end of what might be considered the mainstream. There are fully credible alternatives from big hitters like Bose and Sennheiser that are quite a lot more affordable—and so already Sony seems to have its work cut out. But it’s worth noting the WH-1000XM4 and XM3 both launched with top-end price tags attached, and both became a lot more affordable in quite short order. So unless one-upmanship is a big part of your purchasing motivation, it may be worth hanging back just a little before committing to XM5 ownership.

If and when you do get around to buying a pair, though, you’ll be buying a design that’s evolved more than a little over the outgoing XM4. Everything’s relative, of course—the XM5 are still recognizably a pair of over-ear headphones. But no one is going to mistake your new Sonys for a pair of the old ones.

Stealthily Bland Eco Design

Photograph: Sony

The WH-1000XM5 are available in black or ecru (which is a Farrow & Ball way of saying “tepid beige”), and they’re featureless to the point of anonymity. Aside from some minimal Sony branding on each hinge, the XM5s are stealthy (or bland, depending on your point of view). They’re made almost entirely from acrylonitrile butadiene styrene. Sony is very keen on ABS at the moment, because it’s a useful material in acoustic terms, and it’s made mostly from recycled plastic and stone, and can be recycled again at the end of the product’s life. 

Indeed, the XM5s arrive in packaging that’s guaranteed plastic-free, is unbleached and unprinted, and again is fully recyclable. Sony, more than most rival brands, is amassing proper eco credentials.

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