The Sony WH-1000XM4 have long reigned as our pick for the best over-ear headphones, thanks to impeccable sound quality, battery life and active noise cancellation. So how do you improve on near-perfection? It’s a tall task, but one that the new Sony WH-1000XM5 manages to pull off.

Sony’s latest flagship wireless headphones bring some notable refinements to noise cancellation, call quality and charging speed, all packed into a sleeker frame that’s a joy to wear for days on end. But is that enough to justify its higher $399 price tag? I spent a week working, walking and commuting with the Sony WH-1000XM5 on — and listening to a lot of music in the process. Here’s what you should know.

The best ANC headphones get better

The Sony WH-10000XM5 improve on the best over-ear headphones you can buy with a slimmer design and refined noise-canceling microphones. XM4 owners have little reason to upgrade, but if you don’t mind the higher price, the XM5s are the new high-end headphones to get.

What we liked

Excellent comfort, style and sound

Mike Andronico/CNN

The Sony WH-1000XM5 have been on my head for the better part of last week, and I won’t be taking them off anytime soon. I’m not big on over-ear headphones, but the Mark 5’s supple, spacious faux-leather earcups and lightweight frame have made them a delight to wear throughout walks, subway rides and full days of work in my home office.

They also look great, with an understated design in either black or silver that slims down the headband from the previous-gen model. It’s only a fraction of a pound lighter, but the entire design is much sleeker overall. I’m especially fond of the cans’ stylish and slim mesh carrying case, which kept the WH-1000XM5 safe in my bag without taking up too much space.

But attractive headphones are useless without great sound, and unsurprisingly, Sony continues to hit this mark. Listening to music was an absolute joy on the WH-1000XM5, which pumped out rich, balanced sound that highlighted the tiniest details of my favorite songs across a number of genres.

The beefy distorted guitars and guttural yells of Silverstein’s newest album sounded appropriately urgent on Sony’s headphones, and I could hear every tiny guitar pluck and string arrangement hover around my head in stereo when listening to Phoebe Bridgers’ quiet indie rock. The WH-1000XM5 consistently delivered head-thumpingly satisfying bass, but never to the point where it was overwhelming. As an earbuds user, I constantly found myself noticing new sonic details in songs I’ve heard dozens of times — particularly when listening to hi-res audio in apps like Tidal. It’s going to be very hard to go back.

Sony’s latest headphones sound great out of the box, but you can customize them to your liking via the Sony headphones app for iOS or Android. The app’s equalizer lets you choose from a number of presets (which do things like boost the bass or provide a quieter mix), and those willing to get into the nitty gritty can also make their own sound profiles. You can also take advantage of immersive 360 Reality Audio — Sony’s proprietary spatial audio tech that places sound all around you — on supported apps such as Tidal, Deezer and Amazon Music.

Superb noise canceling and transparency

Mike Andronico/CNN

Sony has held the top spot on our best noise-canceling headphones rankings for years now, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. The WH-1000XM5’s active noise cancellation (ANC) continues to be some of the best around, turning most of the audible chaos of everyday life into a blissfully quiet hum.

Chatty subway cars, crowded grocery stores, noisy construction sites and my dog’s piercingly loud bark were all no match for Sony’s headphones, which made it easy to block out the outside world while I got lost in a great album or caught up on podcasts. And when I did need to hear the outside world during my daily dog walks, the Mark 5’s excellent ambient noise functionality did a great job amplifying the sounds of nearby cars and pedestrians without completely drowning out my music. But the real magic of Sony’s headphones is how these two features work together.

If you enable Adaptive Sound Control in the app, the WH-1000XM5 can automatically switch between active noise cancellation and ambient sound by using a variety of sensors (as well as your location) to figure out what you’re up to. For example, the headphones will stay in noise cancellation mode if the app senses that you’re sitting or riding the subway, but can automatically engage ambient sound if you head out for a walk. This worked seamlessly in my testing, as the headphones would automatically switch to ANC when I stood on a train for a while, before quickly reverting to ambient sound once I left my car. And when I needed to manually switch sound modes, all I had to do was click a single button on the left earcup.

I also appreciate the optional Speak-to-Chat feature, which will automatically pause your music and enable ambient noise as soon as you start speaking. This allowed me to have a quick conversation with a friend on the street and immediately get back to my music afterwards, all without having to grab my phone or fumble with any on-ear controls.

In addition to excellent noise cancellation and transparency, Sony’s latest headphones continue to support multipoint connectivity for pairing to two devices at once. This was handy for seamlessly transitioning from listening to music from my phone to watching a YouTube video on my Windows desktop, and the feature has a lot of utility for any work from home setup.

Awesome battery life

Mike Andronico/CNN

You’ll also get stellar battery life, with enough juice to endure a weekend trip (or multiple days in the office) on a single charge. The WH-1000XM5 lasted me five straight days of heavy use — including long hours of working, commuting and hopping on calls using a mix of sound modes — before the battery finally gave out.

According to the Headphones app, I got around 34 hours of total listening time before having to recharge, which eclipses the 30 hours they’re rated for. That’s about on par with what we got from the previous generation WH-1000XM4, and still notably better than Sony’s close competitor in the Bose 700. The XM5s also juice up quickly, with fast-charge capabilities that will get you about three hours of listening time from a three minute charge.

What we didn’t like

Touch controls, detection and call quality are hit-or-miss

Mike Andronico/CNN

The WH-1000XM5’s on-ear touch controls are simple — just double-tap on the right earcup to pause and play, and perform various swipes to do things like skip tracks or adjust the volume. But as someone relatively new to Sony’s headphones, these took some getting used to. My double-taps occasionally didn’t register, and it took me a few days to get comfortable holding and swiping to navigate my playlists. This wasn’t a dealbreaker, but it did lead to me pulling my phone out more often than I’d like.

Another small gripe I have is with the headphones’ wearing detection, which is designed to automatically pause your music any time you take them off. While this worked reliably about 90% of the time, there were some frustrating instances in which my music continued to play when I rested the headphones on my neck or put them down on a table.

The WH-1000XM5 got me through plenty of phone calls and work meetings just fine, though one person pointed out that my voice had a slight echo to it — something I also noticed on my voice recordings. You can still count on them or everyday calling, but those who want to sound as clear as possible during an important video conference might still want to spring for headphones with a dedicated microphone.

They’re more expensive than before

Mike Andronico/CNN

Sony’s best-in-class noise canceling and superb audio has never come cheap, and that’s especially true of the WH-1000XM5. These headphones cost a whopping $399, which is a $50 price bump over the previous-generation WH-1000XM4. What’s more perplexing is that the Mark 4 model is staying in Sony’s lineup, and isn’t getting any sort of price cut (yet).

So what do you get for the extra $50? The XM5’s key advantages are an improved processor and set of microphones for active noise cancellation, improved call quality, slightly faster charging time, automatic ANC optimization and a slightly sleeker design. But you’ll still get the same core audio experience, special features and great noise cancellation on the cheaper Mark 4 models — which we’ve seen go on sale often for as low as $248.

Bottom line

Mike Andronico/CNN

The Sony WH-1000XM5 bring useful improvements to what have long been the best over-ear headphones you can buy. These cans’ audio quality, battery life and noise cancellation continue to be in a class of their own, and it’s all packed into a sleeker design that has slightly better noise cancellation, faster charging and smarter, adaptive ANC.

But at $399, Sony’s flagship headphones are more expensive than ever. The previous-gen WH-1000XM4 are still available for a cheaper $349 (and often go on sale), and considering you’ll get similarly great sound, ANC and special features, are still a great buy. And if you already own Sony’s Mark 4 headphones, there aren’t a ton of reasons to upgrade. But if you want the best of the best — and are willing to pay up for it — the $399 Sony WH-1000XM5 are well worth the premium price.

How it compares to other headphones we tested

 

Sony WH-1000XM4

 

Bose Noise Canceling 700 Over-Ear Headphones

 

AirPods Max

 

Battery life 30 hours 30 hours 20 hours 20 hours
Fast charging 3 hours of playback in 3 minutes 5 hours of playback in 10 minutes 3.5 hours of playback in 15 minutes 1.5 hours of playback in 5 minutes
Weight 0.55 pounds 0.56 pounds 0.56 pounds 0.85 pounds
Microphones 8 (for ANC), 4 (for phone calls) 4 (for ANC), no dedicated calling mic 6 (for ANC), 4 (for phone calls) 8 (for ANC), 3 (for phone calls)
Multi-device pairing Yes (two devices) Yes (two devices) Yes (two devices) Yes (two devices)
Colors Black, White Black, White, Blue Black, Luxe Silver Space Gray, Silver, Green, Pink, Sky Blue
Price

$398



$348



$379



$479

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