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Nothing Ear (a) review: mellow yellow earbuds to herald Nothing’s purple patch
1:24 pm | April 18, 2024

Author: admin | Category: Audio Computers Earbuds & Airpods Gadgets Headphones | Tags: , , | Comments: Off

Nothing Ear (a): Two-minute review

When it comes to Nothing's earbuds output, it's hard to stop oneself from playing a game of Spot the Difference. That's quite a fun game here, though, since almost all of the differences are vast improvements over anything Nothing has achieved before. All these incremental gains become especially impressive when you consider that this entry-level option from Nothing comes in at $50 / £30 cheaper than the company's last effort. 

For the money, these are some of the best noise-cancelling earbuds of the year thus far. Their closest rival? That would be Sony's class-leading WF-C700N. While there's no 360 Reality Audio support in the Ear (a) and a few Sony-specific features are, of course, off the menu, the Nothing earbuds look more premium and feel more foxy. Their noise cancellation is a touch more robust and the sound is every bit as energetic, detailed and zealous, and (dare we say it?) a tad more expansive to boot. Did I mention that the battery life is also impressive, although admittedly it's a lot better without the superb ANC processing deployed? 

I have to admit that the Nothing Ear (a) performed far more admirably than I'd anticipated. I enjoyed them more and more as the listening tests cruised by. Gone is the fidget spinner case idea: my review sample might be a fun English mustard-yellow hue, but the Ear (a) is serious about bringing you music – proof that Carl Pei's 2020 startup finally hit its purple patch. The sound is incrementally better than the Nothing Ear (2), and it's backed up by a Nothing X app that's easier to navigate and offers plenty of scope for tweaking things to your liking, including via the newer pinch-control stems. 

OK, let's get that moniker out of the way, shall we? I advise you to view Nothing's naming structure with a simple shrug and the raise of an eyebrow, but I'll try to explain it succinctly. Ear (a) is the model you're reading about now, Nothing's 2024 entry-level offering released in conjunction with the more expensive (by $50 / £30) Ear. Nothing tells me that the Ear (a) is effectively the upgrade for the Ear (Stick), while the Ear is the upgrade on the Ear (2). Good intel, but I'd say it does Nothing's newest entry-level earbuds a disservice because the Ear (a) are streets ahead of the Ear (Stick) in every regard. 

Both the Ear (a) and Ear were unveiled simultaneously in April 2024. They supersede the inaugural July 2021 Nothing Ear (1), the October 2022 follow-up Nothing Ear (Stick), and the March 2023 Nothing Ear (2). So, aside from a few minor updates (including a Nothing Ear (1) Black Edition, which fared much better than the troublesome originals) the Ear (a) can also be considered the company's joint-fourth Nothing-branded release. That is, if we're not counting the super-cheap CMF by Nothing Buds, which arrived barely a month before the model we're reviewing here. Got it? Well done. (You're doing great, by the way.)

If you take nothing else away from this Nothing Ear (a) review, know that at $99 / £99 (or around AU$192) you'll not be disappointed with these lovely little yellow earbuds.

Nothing Ear (a) next to the Nothing Ear (2) earbuds

Nothing Ear (a) on the left, Ear (2) on the right. Yes, there are key differences (Image credit: Future)

Nothing Ear (a) review: Price & release date

  • Released on April 18, 2024 (hitting shelves on April 22, 2024)
  • Priced $99 / £99 / around AU$192

If the price above made you think 'Hang on, isn't that less than the older Ear (2)?' well done for paying attention. The Nothing Ear (a) are priced to sell – and sure as eggs is eggs, sell they will. 

The Ear (a) earbuds come in three colorways – a warm yellow alongside the more ubiquitous shiny black or white finishes. Why go with yellow? It's a primary color, which Nothing says aligns with its stripped-back, transparent-wherever-possible design language (yes, the stems still feature see-through plastic too). 

At this level, the Ear (a)'s closest competition aside from Sony's WF-C700N is perhaps the slightly more expensive Sony LinkBuds S, because remember, the class-leading Technics EAH-AZ80 come in at $299 / £259 / AU$499, and Apple's AirPods Pro 2 retail for $249 / £249 / AU$399. 

Of course, that's hardly a fair comparison, since those two options offer premium perks, including triple device connectivity (Technics) and remarkably accurate head-tracked spatial audio from an iOS device (Apple). 

That said, Nothing's relatively humble asking price is tempting, particularly when you consider the expressive sound quality and solid noise-nixing they can serve up. 

Nothing Ear (a) held in a hand, with the case in the background

Hello, yellow!  (Image credit: Future)

Nothing Ear (a) review: Specs

Three screenshots of the Nothing X App

The Nothing X App is a fuss-free, wholly positive experience  (Image credit: Nothing)

Nothing Ear (a) review: Features

  • Bluetooth 5.3 with LDAC support
  • Greatly improved ANC
  • Pinch-to-speak ChatGPT integration coming, with Nothing Phones

The nominal price of these earbuds is listed above, so I won't keep banging on about it. But if you want listening gear that does the basics – good sound, great noise cancellation, clear calls, easy comfort, a bit of EQ wizardry, and reliable on-ear controls – and does them very well indeed, these are that gear. Also, they're a bit of a conversation starter if you want that, miles away from the black and gray pebble-like options often seen at their level.

Want something better than the basics? Well, Nothing's got an ace up its sleeve here too. Although I was unable to test it in my not-yet-public version of the Nothing X app (rollout will be gradual across Phone (2) followed by Phone (1) and Phone (2a) for the Nothing Ear and Ear (a) in the weeks after April 18, 2024) Nothing tells me it has integrated both Nothing earbuds and Nothing OS with ChatGPT, to offer users instant access to the chatbot directly from its devices. What this means is that users with the latest Nothing OS and ChatGPT installed on their Nothing phones should soon be able to pinch-to-speak to the popular consumer AI tool, directly from these entry level Ear (a) earbuds. However comfortable you feel with AI, it certainly adds value at the level. 

Nothing X app screens showing AI voice integration using Nothing earbuds

Voice AI using ChatGPT is coming using Nothing Ear (a) using your Nothing smartphone…  (Image credit: Nothing )

Back to the Ear (a) specifically and call handling is far better this time around, with recipients telling me my voice was unusually clear, which checks out when you see that the Clear Voice Technology has been upped from v2.0 in the Ear (2) – or 1.0 with Bass Lock software in the Ear (Stick) – to 3.0 here. 

You're getting Bluetooth v5.3 and LDAC support for hi-res audio (the Sony-developed codec that lets you stream high-resolution audio up to 32-bit/96kHz over Bluetooth at up to 990kbps, if your device supports it and the file is up to scratch), which is a valuable inclusion at this level. 

There's no onboard spatial audio wizardry and you don't get the Ear (2)'s splendid personalized hearing tests. However, you do get in-ear detection (to pause music when they're out and resume it when they're in), a low lag toggle for gaming, issue-free multipoint to two devices, an ear tip fit test and a Find My Earbuds feature, which issues a rattlesnake-style sound from whichever bud you're trying to locate. 

Now, the noise cancellation. After deploying ANC (rather than 'Transparency' or 'Off'), you can select from High, Mid, Low, and Adaptive profiles. High is very good: the hairdryer we use in our meticulous and methodical testing was largely nixed. I can see why it drops the battery life from 9.5 hours without ANC to 5.5 with it, but when the near bubble-of-silence outcome is this good, it's a hit I'm willing to take. The quoted improvement is 45dB over 40dB of ambient noise nixing and if that's hard to quantify, let me tell you that when I sat down to do some work at home wearing Ear (a) with ANC on High, I didn't realize the oven extractor fan was on (my other half was making breakfast), but as soon as I switched to Ear (2) it became perceptible. 

Heading over to the Transparency option, this is signified by a woman exhaling, which is fun. Although there's no slider to tweak the level of ambient sound you're letting in, it's perfectly acceptable and means voices can be heard without removing the Ear (a). 

The Nothing X app takes the reins and it too is much improved, never faltering and always serving me what I need, without going round the houses to get there. The EQ tab is essentially a three-band offering presented in what I like to call a splodge, rather than sliders for each – think Nura True Pro's visual depictions rather than a mixing desk, with four presets for more bass, more treble, voice focus or a balanced sound – but of course, you can create your own. It's not the most fully-featured offering Nothing has in its arsenal (for that you'd have to opt for the Nothing Ear) but it certainly works. 

Anything missing where it should be? Nothing. No sir. 

  • Features score: 5/5

Nothing Ear (a) next to the Nothing Ear (2), on a brown sofa

The new Ear (a) next to the Ear (2): a fun game of Spot the Difference  (Image credit: Future)

Nothing Ear (a) review: Sound quality

  • LDAC handled very well indeed 
  • Fun and zealous sound
  • Unusually expansive for this type of in-ear

If you've read the star rating at the top of this review and come this far (thank you for sticking with me), it will come as no surprise to learn that the Ear (a) doesn't lack in the sonic department.

Those with a Sony smartphone (I used the Sony Xperia 1 IV) will find LDAC codec files are delivered with expanse and pinpoint accuracy when it comes to the placement of each sonic article. In Aerosmith's Going Down / Love In an Elevator, a shaker sits comfortably in the well of my right ear as backing vocals come in through the left. When the heavily processed "Going down" vocal bridge sweeps across the soundstage like a freight train, it grazes the back of my brain en route. 

Even when I stream lossy Spotify tracks (or much better Apple Music songs) the Nothing Ear (a) buds handle them admirably, with ample texture and space around Elton John's Rocket Man vocal, in a cohesive mix that brings forward the synths and bass plucks other earbuds at this price can't reach. 

For dynamic build and nuance, the Nothing Ear (a) are best described as meaty and arresting. It's not that they lack refinement exactly, just that they prioritize fun and energy over that integrated hi-fi listen some might prefer. For me, there's so much here to celebrate sonically that I cannot pick fault. No, they're not better than something at nearly three times the price (such as the Technics EAH-AZ80, for example), but for the money, Nothing has tweaked its recipe to near perfection here. 

Want to see what I mean? Play the intro of The Who's Substitute. Tell me those guitar strings and shaker aren't every bit as jangly and expressive as you could ever wish for at $99… 

  • Sound quality score: 5/5

Nothing Ear (a) earbud on the left, Nothing Ear (2) on the right

See how Ear (a) is just slightly bigger than Ear (2), across the board?  (Image credit: Future)

Nothing Ear (a) review: Design

  • Smaller and more pocketable case
  • Pinch stems work really well, even when wearing gloves
  • Nothing's design language is beautifully realized 

Holding the Nothing Ear (a) earpiece next to the Nothing Ear (2) is a fresh surprise. Nothing has tried hard to keep its popular design language constant, but these two earpieces are actually very different beasts. I've placed the Ear (2) next to the new Ear (a) in the images below to prove that the earpiece is just slightly bigger across the board – 1.5mm taller, 0.2mm wider, and 0.8mm deeper, to be exact. The Ear (a) earbud is also 0.3g heavier than the Ear (2), although the case is 12.3g lighter and quite a bit shallower.

I mention these facts and figures only to highlight that it is emphatically not a case of 'same buds, different box' from Nothing. They're different. They're better. Perhaps the only potentially disappointing stat here is the size of the driver, which is now 11mm – down from 11.6mm in the Ear (2) and 12.6mm in the Ear (Stick) – and the 11mm driver in the flagship Ear is ceramic, while this one isn't. Not so fast, though, as Nothing tells me that through tweaks to the dual chamber design under the hood, which now includes two extra vents for improved airflow, it's extracted 10%-15% more from Ear (a)'s driver. However Nothing has achieved it, I certainly agree that the sound from said driver is greatly improved.

After switching out to the smaller ear tips (you get three in total), I find the Ear (a) a breeze to wear – although if you've particularly small ears you may need to try before you buy, and my guide to the best earbuds for small ears is worth consulting. 

The new case makes a lot of sense. It flips open as easily as it slips into and out of my pocket, and the earbuds are some of the easiest to retrieve I've ever tested – Nothing's right-red, left-white dots also help you match the colors for charging. You don't get wireless charging support at this price, but the IPX2 rating of this charging nest (for mild water resistance) is more than you get with plenty of pricier options. The earbuds themselves boast an IP55 rating, which is the same as Nothing's new Ear earbuds, although the Ear's case has an IP55 rating – so it's essentially dust- and water-resistant. 

Nothing's pinch stems also work really well. You can customize what the morse code short- and long-press combinations do for each stem – yes, including volume. These stem-squeeze controls also work with gloves on, unlike many touch-capacitive solutions. 

  • Design score: 5/5

Nothing Ear (a) earbuds on a brown sofa, in their closed case – with transparent lid

Rarely have I had so many colleagues strike up a conversation with me over a set of earbuds  (Image credit: Future)

Nothing Ear (a) review: Value

  • As good-looking as any earbuds can be for this money
  • Winning ANC at the level 
  • LDAC for extra sound-per-pound value 

I've sprinkled this liberally throughout the review, but I'll say it again, design-wise there's nothing better at the level. But don't be mistaken, these aren't style over substance: the sound quality is very good, and for noise-cancellation specifically, they're extremely hard to beat for the money. 

As always, it's important to state that if you're prepared to spend $299 / £279 / AU$429 (aka three times the money) there's better noise-cancellation available in the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds 2, but that's hardly fair. 

Prior to testing the Nothing Ear (a), for this price point, I would nudge you towards the Sony WF-C700N, but in my honest opinion, these entry-level Nothings give those a solid run for their money, across the board. And for premium looks for budget money, there's really no contest… 

  • Value score: 5/5

Should I buy the Nothing Ear (a)?

Buy them if...

Don't buy them if...

Nothing Ear (a) review: Also consider

How I tested the Nothing Ear (a)

Nothing Ear (a) held in a hand, on brown background

USB-C for juicing up, but there's no wireless charging (Image credit: Future)
  • Tested for two weeks, listened against the Sony WF-C700N, Bose QuietComfort Earbuds 2 and Technics EAH-AZ80
  • Listened at work (in the office, walking through Dorset, on a train) and at home
  • Listened to Tidal Masters, Apple Music Lossless tracks and Spotify on an iPhone 12 Pro, MacBook Pro and Sony Xperia 1 IV

The Nothing Ear (a) became my primary musical companions for five days – after a thorough 48-hour run-in period. 

They accompanied me to work (walking brusquely to a train into our Paddington office or on the London Underground to various events) and on a flight to Copenhagen (I know, get me).

To better test the comfort levels (and battery life claims), I followed TechRadar's meticulous methodology testing. 

To check the audio quality across the frequencies, I listened to TechRadar's reference playlist (spanning everything from pop to classical) on Apple Music and Tidal, and also my own musical selections and podcasts. I also wore them to watch YouTube tutorials (mostly about silversmithing: finessing bezel settings and working with art clay silver, since you ask) from my MacBook Pro. 

I’ve been testing audio products for well over five years. As a dancer, aerialist and musical theater performer in another life, sound quality, fit, and user experience have always taken priority for me personally, but having heard how wonderful ANC can be when done well, I know what I'm listening to here also. 

Read more about how we test earbuds at TechRadar

  • First reviewed: April 2024
Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000 review: a high-end hi-res digital audio player
6:00 pm | December 24, 2023

Author: admin | Category: Audio Computers Gadgets Portable Media Players | Tags: | Comments: Off

Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000: One-minute review

The Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000 is the most expensive digital audio player in a product portfolio full of expensive digital audio players. It’s specified without compromise (full independent balanced and unbalanced audio circuits? Half a dozen DACs taking care of business? These are just a couple of highlights) and it’s finished to the sort of standard that wouldn’t shame any of the world’s leading couture jewellery companies.

Best of all, though, is the way it sounds. It’s remarkably agnostic about the stuff you like to listen to, the sort of standard of digital file in which it’s contained, and the headphones you use too – and when you give it the best stuff to work with, the sound it’s capable of producing is almost humbling in its fidelity. Be in no doubt, this is the best digital audio player – aka best MP3 player – when it comes to sound quality you can currently buy. Which, when you look again at how much it costs, is about the least it needs to be. 

Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000 review: Price and release date

Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000

(Image credit: Future)
  • Priced at $3,699 / £3,799 / AU$5,499

The Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000 (which I think we should agree to call ‘SP3000’ from here on out) is on sale now, and in the United Kingdom it costs a not-inconsiderable £3799. In the United States, it’s a barely-more-acceptable $3699, and in Australia you’ll have to part with AU$5499.

Need I say with undue emphasis that this is quite a lot of money for a digital audio player? I’ve reviewed very decent digital audio players (DAP) from the likes of Sony for TechRadar that cost about 10% of this asking price – so why on Earth would you spend ‘Holiday of a Lifetime’ money on something that doesn’t do anything your smartphone can’t do? 

Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000 review: Features

Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000

(Image credit: Future)
  • Bluetooth 5.0 with aptX HD and LDAC
  • Native 32bit/784kHz and DSD512 playback
  • Discrete balanced and unbalanced audio circuits

Admittedly, when Astell & Kern says the SP3000 is “the pinnacle of audio players”, that seems a rather subjective statement. When it says this is “the world’s first DAP with independent audio circuitry”, that’s simply a statement of fact.

That independent audio circuitry keeps the signal path for the balanced and unbalanced outputs entirely separated, and it also includes independent digital and analogue signal processing. Astell & Kern calls the overall arrangement ‘HEXA-Audio’ – and it includes four of the new, top-of-the-shop AKM AK4499EX DAC chipsets along with a couple of the very-nearly-top-of-the-shop AK4191EQ DACs from the same company. When you add in a single system-on-chip to take care of CPU, memory and wireless connectivity, it becomes apparent Astell & Kern has chosen not to compromise where technical specification is concerned. And that’s before we get to ‘Teraton X’... this is a bespoke A&K-designed processor that minimises noise derived from both the power supply and the numerous DACs, and provides amplification that’s as clean and efficient as any digital audio player has ever enjoyed. 

The upshot is a player that supports every worthwhile digital audio format, can handle sample rates of up to 32bit/784kHz and DSD512 natively, and has Bluetooth 5.0 wireless connectivity with SBC, AAC, aptX HD and LDAC codec compatibility. A player that features half-a-dozen DAC filters for you to investigate, and that can upsample the rate of any given digital audio file in an effort to deliver optimal sound quality. And if you want to enjoy the sound as if it originates from a pair of loudspeakers rather than headphones, the SP3000 has a ‘Crossfeed’ feature that mixes part of the signal from one channel into the other (with time-adjustment to centre the audio image) in an effort to do just that.

Features score: 5 / 5

Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000 review: Sound quality

Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000

(Image credit: Future)
  • Insightful, engaging and convincing sound
  • Not too fussy about file sizes
  • Only slightly fussy about headphones

Some digital audio players are quite picky about what goes into them and how it comes out again - but happily, the SP3000 is not among them. Obviously it performs to its fullest when given big, information-rich digital audio files to work with and is connected to appropriately talented headphones – but it’s not about to have a hissy fit if that’s not the case.

So no matter if you listen to a big 24bit/192kHz FLAC file of Old Man by Neil Young or a bog-standard 320kbps MP3 file of Cool About It by boygenius, the SP3000 is unflappable. It doesn’t matter if you connect £50-worth of Final Audio E3000 via the 3.5mm socket or a pair of £1299 Sennheiser IE900 into the 4.4mm socket, the Astell & Kern will make the best of the situation.

In each and every circumstance, the SP3000 is an uncomplicated pleasure to listen to. Its overall presentation is almost instinctively correct, positive without being pushy, and utterly convincing. 10 hours of battery life looks perfectly adequate when written down, but in practice it’s nothing like long enough. I could listen to this Astell & Kern almost indefinitely.

Detail levels are high in the same way that The Shard is tall. No element of a recording is too minor, too peripheral or too transient to elude the SP3000 - it extracts every scrap of information from a digital audio file and organises it confidently. There’s nothing uptight or fussy about the way this player puts you in the picture, though – everything is contextualised and serves only to ensure you’re fully informed. 

Control, from the top of the frequency range to the bottom, is unarguable. The attack and decay of bass sounds, in particular, is so well-managed that rhythmic expression is completely natural and momentum is maintained in all circumstances, despite the considerable weight and substance of the low end. There’s similarly well-supervised attack at the top of the frequency range, and in between the Astell & Kern communicates eloquently through the midrange.

Dynamic headroom is extensive, so big shifts in intensity and/or volume are made plain. Lower-key dynamic variations in voices or harmonics are made absolutely plain, too. Tonality is never anything but balanced and naturalistic, and the SP3000 knits the whole frequency range together smoothly. The soundstage it’s capable of generating is well-defined and expansive – even dense or complex recordings have more than enough elbow-room to let every element express itself without hindrance. And the SP3000 achieves this without losing sight of the fact that it’s presenting a performance – the unity and togetherness of its presentation is direct and unequivocal.    

You can fiddle around the edges of the way the Astell & Kern performs by investigating your DAC filter options, sure - but in broad terms, its methodology doesn’t really change. It’s precise and meticulous, but it's no dry tool of analysis. It hits very hard through the low frequencies, but it never gets bogged down under its own weight. It’s spacious and open, but it’s seamlessly unified. 

Sound quality score: 5 / 5

Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000 review: Design

Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000

(Image credit: Future)
  • 904L stainless steel chassis 
  • 493g; 139 x 82 x 18mm (HxWxD)
  • 1080 x 1920 touchscreen

‘Portable’, of course, is a relative term. The SP3000 is not the most portable product of its type around – it weighs very nearly half a kilo and is 139 x 82 x 18mm (HxWxD) – but if you can slip it into a bag then I guess it must count as ‘portable’. Its pointy corners count against it too, though – and while it comes with a protective case sourced from French tanners ALRA, the fact it’s made of goatskin is not going to appeal to everyone. 

To be fair, the body of the SP3000 isn’t as aggressively angular as some A&K designs. And the fact that it’s built from 904L stainless steel goes a long way to establishing the SP3000’s credentials as a luxury ‘accessory’ (in the manner of a watch or some other jewellery) as well as a functional device. 904L stainless steel resists corrosion like nobody’s business, and it can also accept a very high polish - which is why the likes of Rolex make use of it. I’m confident you’ve never seen such a shiny digital audio player.

The front and rear faces of the SP3000 are glass - and on the front it makes up a 5.4in 1080 x 1920 touch-screen. The Snapdragon octa-core CPU that’s in charge means it’s an extremely responsive touch-screen, too.  

On the top right edge of the chassis there’s the familiar ‘crown’ control wheel - which is another design feature that ups the SP3000’s desirability. It feels as good as it looks, and the circular light that sits behind it glows in one of a number of different colours to indicate the size of the digital audio file that’s playing. The opposite edge has three small, much less exciting, control buttons that work perfectly well but have none of the control wheel’s visual drama or tactile appeal.

The top of the SP3000 is home to three headphone sockets. There’s a 3.5mm unbalanced output, and two balanced alternatives – 2.5mm (which works with four-pole connections) and 4.4mm (which supports five-pole connections). On the bottom edge, meanwhile, there’s a USB-C socket for charging the internal battery - battery life is around 10 hours in normal circumstances, and a full charge from ‘flat’ takes around three hours. There’s also a micro-SD card slot down here, which can be used to boost the player’s 256GB of memory by up to 1TB. 

Design score: 5 / 5 

Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000 review: Value

Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000

(Image credit: Future)

In absolute terms, of course, $3,699 / £3,799 / AU$5,499 for a digital audio player is nonsense. The law of diminishing returns is at work here as surely as it is anywhere else - and you can get a big serving of the SP3000’s talents by spending less than half of its asking price (mostly, but not exclusively, by spending it with Astell & Kern itself). But if you want absolutely, positively the best-sounding DAP around, and you are fortunate enough to be able to justify the cost to yourself, well, this player is currently number one in a field of one.

Should I buy the Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000?

Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000

(Image credit: Future)

Buy it if... 

Don't buy it if... 

Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000 review: Also consider

How I tested the Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000

Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000

(Image credit: Future)
  • Tested for over a week
  • Tested indoors and out
  • Tested with wired and wireless headphones

I loaded the internal memory of the Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000 with quite a lot of high-resolution digital audio files, and I also installed the Tidal app – so ultimately I was able to lot of different types of music via a lot of different audio file types and sizes. 

I listened to the player in my home and while out and about (listening outdoors made me quite anxious at first, I don’t mind admitting – it’s an expensive device, after all). And I listened to it using a selection of wired and wireless headphones – generally, headphones able to do some justice to the SP3000’s unarguable quality. I mostly used the Sennheiser IE900 via the 4.4mm balanced input and the Bowers & Wilkins’ Px8 via Bluetooth. 

  • First reviewed in December 2023
Technics EAH-AZ80 wireless earbuds review: feature-rich but up against tough rivals
4:27 pm | June 2, 2023

Author: admin | Category: Computers Gadgets | Tags: , | Comments: Off

Technics EAH-AZ80: Two-minute review

The Technics EAH-AZ80 earbuds outside their case

The units look bulky, but they fit well (Image credit: Simon Lucas)

There are a lot choices when it comes to picking the best wireless earbuds. So in a move of either supreme corporate confidence or utter corporate hubris, Technics has decided to join the fray with the EAH-AZ80.

And in virtually every respect, the EAH-AZ80 make a strong case for themselves. The triple-point connectivity (a first in a product of this type) proves stable and useful, and thanks to ‘Just My Voice’ technology these earbuds are far less prone to wind-noise interference than any number of rivals. The sound they make is also accomplished – it's both swift and accurate, as well as balanced and detailed.

It’s not the most energetic sound you've ever heard though. And marginal shortcomings related to battery life and the effectiveness of the active noise-cancellation confirm that Technics has missed the bull’s-eye by a tiny margin with the EAH-AZ80. They will be absolutely perfect for some customers looking for the best noise-cancelling earbuds, mind you…  

Technics EAH-AZ80: Price and release date

  • Release date: on sale now
  • Price: $299; £259; AU$499

The price of the Technics EAH-AZ80 is that of a premium product, for sure – but happily, so is the specification. They have Bluetooth 5.3 with LDAC compatibility, triple-point connectivity, big and serious drivers doing the audio business, sound telephony functionality and noise-cancellation, a thoughtful and comfortable design. Honestly, it’s hard to know what more Technics could have done.

The issue is this: at that price, their closest competition is the Sony WF-1000XM4 (which launched at $279 / £250 / AU$449.95 but are slightly discounted these days owing to a 2021 release date) and the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds 2 ($299 / £279 / AU$429). Anyone familiar with either product will know that to call these earbuds stiff competition is an understatement. 

Technics EAH-AZ80: Specs

Technics EAH-AZ80: Features

Technics EAH-AZ80 app triple screens on gray background

Technics' Audio Connect app is clean, stable and logical, with plenty of functionality and no flashy graphics to distract you (Image credit: Future)
  • Bluetooth 5.3 with triple-point connectivity
  • SBC, AAC and LDAC codec compatibility
  • 10mm full-range dynamic drivers

When it comes to the business of a) getting audio information on board and b) making the best of it, Technics has gone to considerable lengths with the EAH-AZ80. Really, it’s hard to identify a gap in the specification here.

Wireless connectivity, for example, is handled by Bluetooth 5.3, and there’s high-resolution LDAC codec compatibility as well as the more prosaic SBC and AAC alternatives. And in what the company confidently claims is a world’s first, the AZ80 have triple-point connectivity, which means that for those of us who can’t possibly manage without our earbuds being simultaneously connected to our laptop, smartphone or tablet, can switch seamlessly between them.

No matter the source of your digital audio information though, Technics delivers the sound to your ears via a pair of 10mm full-range, free-edge aluminium dynamic drivers. These work in conjunction with an internal acoustic control chamber and harmoniser to serve up a frequency response of 20Hz to 40kHz. And thanks to an IPX4 rating, you should be able to enjoy these full-range sounds in any realistic environment.

Each earbud is fitted with four mics: ‘talk’, ‘voice detection’ ‘feed back’ and ‘feed forward’. Technics wants the EAH-AZ80 to be your go-to earbud when it comes to communication. Its ‘Just My Voice’ technology is designed to enhance vocal clarity in unhelpful environments and suppress those external sounds that can impact on in-call intelligibility. The mic array also deals with the ‘dual hybrid’ active noise-cancellation, of course - and in addition to the ‘feed forward’ and ‘feed back’ noise-cancellation, the AZ80 have a software filter dealing with digital signal processing and a hardware filter for the analogue equivalent.

The charging case has a USB-C slot for connection to mains power, and the Technics are compatible with any Qi-certified charging pad too. From ‘flat’ to ‘full’ takes around two hours, and 15 minutes in the juice should be good for more than an hour’s action. Battery life can be anything from a quite acceptable seven hours in the ‘buds and 25 in the charging case (if you’re listening to AAC files with the ANC switched off) to a rather less impressive four hours (earbuds) and 16 hours (charging case) if you switch the ANC on and stream hefty LDAC files.

Where control is concerned, you’ve a number of options. The capacitive touch surface on each earbud is large and responsive, and you can reliably control ‘play/pause’, ‘volume up/down’, ‘skip forwards/backwards’, ‘answer/end/reject call’ and ‘cycle through ANC options’ this way. The fact that the number of taps or presses each function requires can be user-defined is very welcome, too.

You can define the controls in the ‘Audio Connect’ app that’s free for iOS and Android. It’s a clean, stable and logical app, with plenty of functionality and no flashy graphics to distract you – altering the intensity of the active noise-cancellation (or dialling the amount of ambient noise you hear up or down), setting custom EQ levels, and checking for firmware updates are among the highlights.

That quite complex arrangement of mics comes into its own where voice-control is concerned. The EAH-AZ80 are compatible with all native voice-assistants except Bixby, and your interactions with the assistant are reliable and responsive. 

  • Feature quality score: 5/5

Technics EAH-AZ80: Design

The Technics EAHAZ80 inside their case with the lid closed

The case is compact; the branding suitably understated – and we'd expect nothing less (Image credit: Simon Lucas)
  • 7g per earbud 
  • Careful ergonomic shape
  • Milled aluminium touch surface 

Obviously Technics didn’t tear up the rulebook where the design of true wireless in-ear headphones is concerned when it finalised the EAH-AZ80. But as well as giving a necessarily small and discreet product a hint of ‘premium’, it’s also created an earbud that manages to be both more comfortable and more stable than the norm.

The basic look is good – the fairly large milled aluminium touch surface on each earbud looks and feels good. The same is true of the charging case in which they travel in. Each part of the product has a confidently understated ‘Technics’ logo stamped on it, which isn't too obstructive. 

The plastics that constitute the majority of the product are sturdy and feel robust, despite the earbuds weighing a svelte-enough 7g each – the charging case is an equally trim 50g. Build quality hasn’t been compromised in order to keep the weight down though – the EAH-AZ80 feels like a product that will last for the long haul.

Technics has included a moulded extrusion into the otherwise-unremarkable drop-shaped body of each earbud. The company calls this shape ‘concha-fit’, and it’s designed to fit as naturally and unobtrusively as possible into the ear. It also distributes the weight of the earbuds as evenly as possible once they're in situ. And to further maximise the comfort of the AZ80, Technics provides seven different sizes of silicone earbud in the packaging – the accuracy of the fit is all-important when wearing in-ear headphones, of course, and Technics isn’t shy about pointing out your ears may not be identically sized. That’s why it’s given you as good a chance as possible to get the ideal fit for both your ears. 

  • Design quality score: 5/5

Technics EAH-AZ80: Sound quality

The Technics EAHAZ80 earbuds one facing up and the other down

That 'concha-fit' shape might look a little big, but the weight distribution is bang on (Image credit: Simon Lucas)
  • Detailed, natural and neutral (though not the most exciting sound)
  • Excellent telephony 
  • Average active noise-cancellation 

Where audio quality is concerned – and let’s face it, that’s what most of us are here for most of the time – the Technics EAH-AZ80 are a vexatious combination of really impressive and slightly underwhelming.

A track that played to their strengths was a Tidal Masters file, Grapevine by Weyes Blood, which offered lots to admire. The whole frequency range is really nicely balanced and coherent from top to bottom and very even-handed from the (deep, nicely textured) bass to the (clean, politely attacking) treble. The midrange is eloquent and informative, thanks to impressively high detail levels, and the journey from floor to ceiling and back again is smooth and seamless.

Control of the lowest frequencies is good, with nice straight edges to the attack of sounds and no discernible overhang to the decay. This helps the AZ80 remain nice and positive when it comes to rhythmic expression, and it means that the midrange is never in any danger of being swamped or dragged at by overconfident bass. The opposite end of the frequency range is equally well controlled, though in ultimate terms the Technics could do with a little more substance and shine to those treble sounds.

The sky-high detail levels means no harmonic variation or minor dynamic discrepancy goes astray, and the AZ80 are just as capable when it comes to barrelling through the big dynamic shifts in a recording too. Their soundstage is spacious and well organised, so even complicated or instrument-heavy recordings are solidly laid out and easy to follow. And even though every element of a recording gets sufficient space in which to express itself, the Technics properly unify recordings into a convincing whole, into an actual performance.

They’re not the most exciting sounding earbuds you ever heard though, it has to be said. For all of their precision and insight, the AZ80 are just a little short of the sort of drive and animation that can turn listening into an invigorating, exciting experience. There’s no denying the admirable nature of their even handedness and realism, of course – but some music demands the sort of bite and attack that the Technics don’t seem especially comfortable with delivering.

And there’s a similar diffidence to the way their active noise-cancellation is implemented. The problem for the EAH-AZ80, of course, is the problem that all true wireless in-ear headphones have when it comes to ANC: the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II. Compared to the best in class, the AZ80 can rescue overall noise, do an especially worthwhile job on high-frequency stuff – but they’re unable to do a complete job on all the external distractions you might encounter. In the opposite direction, though, their amplification of external sounds when using ‘ambient sound’ is impressive.

The way they handle connectivity and communication needs no caveats, though. The triple-point system provides seemingly unbreakable connections to your three nominated devices, and multitasking is a breeze as a result. And the ‘Just My Voice’ technology works well too - wind-noise is dramatically reduced, and voices are far more prominent as a result. They sound slightly less than ‘natural’, it’s true - but that’s infinitely preferable to wind interference when you’re trying to hold a conversation. 

  • Sound quality score: 4/5

Technics EAH-AZ80: Value

The Technics EAHAZ80 inside their case

Shiny, jewel-like buds which look pricey – and they are (Image credit: Simon Lucas)
  • Properly built with premium materials
  • Many performance positives
  • But not an across-the-board success

Around the edges, the Technics EAH-AZ80 represent great value. They look and feel every bit of the asking price, all their clever functions are implemented flawlessly, and they give that ineffable pride of ownership that so many alternative designs strive in vain for. And in many ways, they sound great too, especially if you value accuracy and neutrality of sound above all else. But their slight lack of animation is compounded by second-tier ANC and battery life, which means they can’t quite score full marks. 

  • Sound quality score: 4/5

Should you buy the Technics EAH-AZ80?

Buy them if...

You intend to wear your earbuds all day
Some carefully considered design, along with a lavish selection of silicone ear tips, means the EAH-AZ80 should stay comfortable no matter the size or shape of your ears.

You want to switch between devices
Triple-point connectivity is a world-first in a product like this, and it’s brilliantly convenient for those of us who surround themselves with sources of audio.

You prefer a neutral, lifelike sound
There’s nothing artificial about the way the Technics EAH-AZ80 sound, they offer convincingly realistic and coherent listening in all circumstances.

Don't buy them if...

You intend to wear your earbuds all day
Even at its best, the battery life available here is nothing special – long-haul flights are a non-starter, unless you want to recharge halfway through.

You have a lot of external noise to block out
While it’s true to say there are less capable noise-cancelling true wireless earbuds around, it’s equally true to point out that there are more capable alternatives too. 

You prefer an animated, exciting sound
For all of their poise, balance and accuracy, the Technics EAH-AZ80 don’t produce the most out-and-out animated sound you ever heard.

Technics EAH-AZ80: Also consider

How I tested the Technics EAH-AZ80

The Technics EAH-AZ80 inside their case

(Image credit: Simon Lucas)
  • Tested for a week or more
  • Used in a home office, on the street and on public transport 
  • Apple iPhone 14 Pro and Nothing Phone (1) as source players

The benefits of the Technics EAH-AZ80 are obvious. They stay comfortable for easily as long as their battery lasts, they connected to all the sources of music I could stash on me at once and they’re simple to use for phone calls even in a wind-tunnel. 

If it wasn’t for the fact that I could hear some of the sounds around me, especially on the train, and the fact that I know some of the music I listened to should sound fiercer, I’d give them a wholehearted five star recommendation.   

Read more about how we test

First reviewed June 2023

Realme Buds Air 5 Pro arrive with ANC, LDAC support and 40 hours of playback
8:11 pm | May 10, 2023

Author: admin | Category: Mobile phones news | Tags: , | Comments: Off

Alongside the Realme 11 series, we also got the latest member of the Buds Air family – Realme Buds Air 5 Pro. The new flagship wireless earbuds from Realme bring 11mm woofers and 6mm planar drivers, active noise cancelation (ANC) and support for the high-bitrate LDAC codec. Buds Air 5 Pro in Sunrise City and Starry Night Black The earbuds pair over Bluetooth 5.3 and are IPX5 splashproof. Realme claims its ANC system can drown out up to 50dB of noise around you thanks to the six microphones split between the two buds. Battery life is rated at up to 11 hours on the buds with ANC off...

Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII review
7:47 pm | June 16, 2022

Author: admin | Category: Audio Computers Gadgets Portable Media Players | Tags: | Comments: Off

Editor's Note

• Original review date: June 2022
Launch price: $749 / £699 / AU$1,099
• Target price: still $749 / £699 / AU$1,099

Update: February 2024. The Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII is still the revered hi-res audio specialist's most entry-level player – and emphatically still one of the best MP3 players in existence – but it's important to note that in November 2023 it was superseded by A&K's newer (and slightly more expensive) Astell & Kern A&norma SR35. The nitty gritty of it is this: the SR35 is now billed as A&K's entry-level option and under intense review the newer player edges it (just), but you'll need to pay a $50 / £100 / AU$200 surcharge for that newness. Now, one could argue that if you're prepared to shell out $700 for a dedicated hi-res audio player, you may as well throw another $50 or so down, but I'm not so sure. Honestly, if this is where your budget maxes out, A&K's second-generation November 2021-issue SR25 remains an excellent option. Deals owing to its relative age? Unlikely, this is Astell & Kern, not Amazon. That said, it's not unheard of… 
The rest of this review remains as previously published.

Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII: two-minute review

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and one man's trash is another's treasure. Anyone invested in portable hi-res audio, for instance, will surely view the Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII as a thing of beauty both sonically and visually; the very sight of an A&K player emerging from its owner's pocket signifies their ascension to a very select group of music lovers. 

To others, the off-kilter screen may seem a hindrance, the name long-winded, the edges a little sharp, the unmarked buttons somewhat unhelpful and the pricing prohibitive – even though for Astell & Kern, this is budget territory. 

Whatever your opinion on the above, the level of features, connectivity, file support and sound quality incorporated here is, as the dynamic '80s cartoon heroin Jem once said, truly truly truly outrageous.

What you need to know is that the music you've been playing from your phone or laptop is going to sound constricted, muddied, compressed and altogether beige after you've heard music on this. And even if the original (and very talented) SR25 is well-known to you, this model sounds that little bit better – and as such, it just became one of the best MP3 players on the market. 

The A&K A&norma SR25 MKII digital audio player takes and celebrates virtually any digital audio file size or type, and it will now happily accept balanced headphones with 4.4 or 2.5mm headphone jacks as well as 'regular' 3.5mm unbalanced models.

Elsewhere, the touch-screen is bright and responsive and the battery life, at 20 hours, walks all over the company's A&ultima SP2000T at only 9 hours. And did we mention how expressive, detailed, regimented and faithfully neutral it sounds? 

The A&norma SR25 MKII is a gifted digital audio player and it will reignite your love of music. And unlike many of the company's more pricey players, this one is small enough to put in a pocket and will keep you streaming, pinging or downloading once-treasured songs to it, just to see what it makes of them. 

If the current financial climate still facilitates your consideration of such a purchase, you won't be disappointed with this talented little player. 

Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII on black background

The A&K's rotary volume dial is a thing of beauty (Image credit: TechRadar)

Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII review: Price and release date

  • Released in November 2021
  • $749 / £699 / AU$1,099

The Astell & Kern A&norma SR 25 MKII comes with asking price that may have some moving swiftly on given the current cost of living challenges. Others may still pause to hear more though – because unlike the majority of Astell & Kern's ouevre, it doesn't actually cost thousands. 

In the United Kingdom it sells for a pound short of £700. American customers hoping to snag one will need to put seven hundred-dollar bills and one fifty aside, while in Australia you’re looking at over a grand. 

Can such a product make a case for itself outside of the niche audiophile world when good-quality music streaming and downloading capabilities are so readily available on contract smartphones? If you ask us, yes. 

Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII detail of headphone ports on black background

A&K has added a 4.4 balanced headphone jack for extra connectivity (Image credit: TechRadar)

Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII review: Features

  • Supports both 24-bit Bluetooth wireless codecs LDAC and aptXHD
  • Comprehensive wired hi-res chops to DSD256 and 32-bit/384KHz PCM 
  • Replay Gain automatically adjusts volume playback from sound sources up to 24-bit/192kHz

The features we need to get through here give even the best MP3 players a run for their money, so strap in. 

Astell & Kern states that every aspect its customers admired in the original SR25 is retained here, but that this new model improves on the audio performance even further. How? With its latest audio architecture, that's how, which promises more detail, clearly defined upper and lower ranges, and a deeper, more rounded sound. (More on this later.) 

What is not new is the implementation of two Cirrus Logic CS43198 DACs, because it is the same dual DAC chip setup as the previous SR15, which is a few years old now. Then again, that player was excellent sonically and if it ain't broke, etc…

As well as a new 4.4mm headphone jack, the MKII unit also boasts a new Replay Gain function to uniformly adjust volume playback from sound sources up to 24-bit/192 kHz. You're also getting AK File Drop (first introduced in the pricier A&futura SE180 player) for easier wireless file transfers; BT Sink function for simpler connection of the SR25 MKII to an external Bluetooth device (essentially, music from an external device such as a smartphone can be played back in high-quality on the SR25 MKII using it) and extra internal silver-plated shielding to protect from electromagnetic interference, first seen in the thrice-the-price A&ultima SP2000T.

Although it hasn't been shouted about, upon going through the settings of the SR25 MKII, four new, interesting and quite different-sounding DAC filters also present themselves, which will work if listening in 24-bit/192kHz or less PCM (although they won't work in MQA and DSD formats) and they certainly add value and scope for customization at the level. 

As with the first-generation model, the SR25 MKII easily handles a huge array of high-resolution music formats and sample rates, including support for native playback of DSD256 and 32-bit/384KHz PCM high-resolution audio

And should you want to listen to your favourite hi-res music over a wireless connection (and why shouldn't you, given the excellent wireless headphones available in this day and age?), the SR25 MKII features the high-quality LDAC and aptX HD Bluetooth wireless codecs too, plus wi-fi for access to streaming services including Tidal, which is happily waiting to be discovered in the 'services' tab. 

I tried the SR25 MKII using several true wireless price-compatible earbuds, including the NuraTrue and Cambridge Audio's Melomania 1+ (both of which support aptX) and found the Bluetooth connection rock-solid.

In terms of wired connections, the power output here is standard rather than exceptional, although the SR25 MKII drove my hefty Austrian Audio Hi-X55 over-ears over a (regular 3.5mm) unbalanced connection admirably. 

  • Features score: 5/5

Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII review: Design

  • Bright and responsive touch-screen 
  • Angular but nicely pocketable
  • Glorious trademark A&K rotary volume dial

Astell & Kern is known for its trademark brutalist aesthetic and it’s not about to switch tack any time soon. So the A&norma SR 25 MKII is all angles and pointy bits – some of them glassy. Look at it and you know it's made by A&K. 

The slanted screen may be slightly jarring for some (yes, if the display simply fit the measurements, it could've been bigger) but it does allow for the inclusion of a lovely clicking rotary volume dial in the top right corner, for which all Astell & Kern players are now known. This one is bigger than that sported by its predecessor and it looks even more like a blown up Swiss chronograph watch dial – but we mean that in the best possible way.

There are four unmarked pill-shaped buttons along the top left edge of the player as you look at the screen, which handle (from top to bottom) power, track skips backwards, play/pausing and forwarding to the next track. While unmarked, they are intuitive and once you know, you know – again, if you don't like it, A&K does not care. 

In terms of dimensions it's a fair bit deeper than your smartphone but thinner and shorter and, at 178g it actually weighs 26g less than the iPhone 13 Pro (and 62g less than the iPhone 13 Pro Max). 

The touch-screen may be a tad fiddly for those with larger fingers – it may take a few goes to key in your Tidal password, for example – but it's more than worth persisting because the trade off is a nippy, happy and talented little player that you can actually put in your pocket without feeling like you're listing to one side. 

The slightly moodier new 'Mercury Dark Silver' colorway is another improvement on the older model, which is lighter in terms of finish. Our only slight gripe with the build is the glass panel on the back of the unit; even though it's supposed to resist fingerprints, we find it collects ours. 

  • Design score: 4.5/5

Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII playback button detail

Unmarked, brutalist buttons. But once you know, you know (Image credit: TechRadar)

Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII review: Audio performance

  • Open, spacious soundstage
  • Assured timing and oodles of detail
  • Zealous, fun presentation

Give the A&K your music, sit back and relax. It takes only a cursory listen to Radiohead's OK Computer (in 24-bit FLAC) to understand that this is a gifted little belter of a DAP. Throughout Airbag, the SR25 MKII seems to separate and celebrate each sonic article and inflection, but never to the detriment of the track as a whole. Bass passages other players cannot reach are offered like musical treats on a shelf to be enjoyed in passing, while synths and jingles soar through the upper registers. 

Switching to Tidal, Coheed and Cambria's Good Apollo, I'm Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness brims with detail thanks to an incredibly open and three-dimensional soundstage, from the initial strings coming in all around us to the child playing quietly over by our right earlobe as the guitar joins centrally.  

Lower frequencies are deep, snappy and held resolutely in a cohesive and controlled mix. Mids come alive as we listen to Melissa Etheridge's No Souvenirs, realizing as we do so that rarely has her textured, emotive, belted vocal sounded so expressive and present.  

Timing and dynamic build here are both poised and secure; the SR25 MKII takes every recording you give it, relays it faithfully, dutifully and with an extra ounce of detail both rhythmically and across the frequencies but – and this part is where other such players often fall down – it manages to keep the overall sonic experience zealous, energetic and fun rather than analytical to a fault. 

Any negatives? Really, no – although if you scale up to A&K's A&futura line you'll see a step up in terms of power and detail yet again. But for this money, the A&norma SR25 MKII cannot be beaten sonically. 

  • Audio performance score: 5/5

Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII with Radiohead playing, on white background

The angled screen may not suit larger fingers (Image credit: TechRadar)

Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII: Value

  • A&K's entry-level player – if $749/£699 is 'entry-level' to you
  • Tech from models thrice the price 
  • For a premium player, this is the least you'll pay

This is a tricky one, because you can pick up a portable audio player made by Sony for a tenth of the price of this hi-res player. That said, this is upper echelon territory; Astell & Kern's top-tier Ultima model sells for $2,399 / £1,999 / AU$3,599. 

Astell & Kern actually calls the SR 25 MKII a "true mass premium product", which just about sums it up. To clarify, for this money you're still getting A&K's core (and frankly, 'cor!) values: exceptional audio performance for a diverse range of musical tastes and that trademark brutalist build, plus tech such as AK File Drop, access to streaming platforms, DAC filters and the BT Sink function trickled down from the company's flagship players, but without the four-figure price tag. 

Will most of us still need to pass on "mass premium" players given the cost of living crisis? Perhaps. But that is a shame, since this one really does represent value for money – if you have it, and expressly want to spend it on a dedicated, talented, hi-res digital audio player. 

  • Value: 4.5/5

Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII: Should you buy it?

Astell & Kern A&Norma SR25 MKII USB-C port and SD-card slot detail

It's all angles and edges, but with its SD card slot (and supplied cover) you can level up the storage, too (Image credit: TechRadar)

Buy it if...

Don't buy it if...

Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII: Also consider

  • First reviewed June 2022
Sony WH-1000XM5 Wireless Headphones review
7:00 pm | May 12, 2022

Author: admin | Category: Audio Computers Gadgets Headphones Wireless Headphones | Tags: , , , | Comments: Off

Editor's Note

• Original review date: May 2022
• Still Sony's flagship headphones
• Launch price: $399 / £380 / AU$649
• Regular price now: $329 / £319 / AU$549

Update: February 2024. The Sony WH-1000XM5 remain as Sony's best-ever headphones in terms of what they can do: rich and detailed sound, superb active noise cancellation, great smart features and a comfortable fit. However, their competition has grown more fierce over time, and while they've had a general price cut that helps keep them competitive, they're no longer our absolute first choice among the best noise-cancelling headphones in their range. The Sennheiser Momentum 4 Wireless offer better sound quality, double the battery life, great noise cancellation, some some even smarter app-based features, usually for a cheaper price than the Sony. If noise cancellation is your priority, spend a little more on the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones, which are the best in class for this, and also sound clearly better than the Sony. To be clear, we love the Sony WH-1000XM5, and if you like to stick with Sony cans, as many do, we recommend them – but they've been pipped in the headphones race. The rest of this review remains as previously published.

The Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones have one of the most revered family trees in modern audio history. Following two best-in-class over ear noise cancelling predecessors, the WH-1000XM5 land with a level of anticipation that is unusual in the world of personal audio.

TechRadar deservedly awarded the Sony WH-1000XM3 and Sony WH-1000XM4 top marks in their respective reviews, and so the expectation is that the WH-1000XM5 will follow in those perfect audio footsteps. 

In terms of specs and performance, they mostly do follow in their predecessors' footsteps (a little too closely) but in terms of design, the Sony WH-1000XM5 cans represent the biggest departure that the line has seen since its conception. Still, we enjoyed reviewing them, which is why they're one of our top picks in our best wireless headphones guide. 

So are the differences in design enough to raise the already-high bar Sony has set for itself? Read on for our full Sony WH-1000XM5 review.

Sony WH-1000XM5 review: Price and release date

  • Price: $399 in the US
  • Price: £380 in the UK
  • Price: AU$649 in Australia
  • Released in May 2022

On sale now, the Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones will begin to ship from May 20, 2022, priced at £380 / $399 / AU$649 – a significant step up above the £350 / $349 / AU$549 asking price of the previous-generation Sony WH-1000XM4. 

At launch, you’re looking at around a £30 / $50 savings by choosing the older – and still very good – Sony WH-1000XM4. It’s a sizable chunk of change and, more importantly, it’s a gap that could widen as the year goes on and we drift towards the big shopping holidays like Black Friday and Cyber Monday. At some point in the future, we’re likely to see the Sony WH-1000XM4 dip below the $300 mark before plummeting to half-price – and, at that price, the Sony WH-1000XM4 is a no-brainer.

They're still a fair sight cheaper than Apple’s alternative though, with the AirPods Max still commanding a $549 / £549 / AU$899 price tag when bought direct from Apple.

The noise-cancelling Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones

(Image credit: Future)

Sony WH-1000XM5 review: Design

  • All-new design
  • Comfortable for long listening sessions
  • Design prevents wind distortion – but no longer folds into a compact shape
  • Still no water resistance

After two generations of largely-identical over-ear headphone designs, the WH-1000XM5 headphones are a significant departure from their predecessors.

The best way to quickly describe the WH-1000XM5 headphones is that they’re a bit curvier than their predecessors. It’s all a bit tidier, a bit sleeker – there are fewer visible points of articulation, more discreet noise-cancelling mic ports, and a slimmer headband with additional leather-look covering to hide away its joins and extension points. The cavity for your ears to sit in is a slightly different shape too – a more squat ovoid than the oval of the WH-1000XM3 and WH-1000XM4. Though we’ve not stress tested them to their absolute limits, the slide-out extension points feel sturdier than earlier designs too, with fewer pressure points that could snap away – a complaint of well-used previous models.

The noise-cancelling Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones

The XM5 headphones on the left, and the older XM3 headphones (which have a near-identical design to the XM4 headphones) on the right. (Image credit: Future)

But there are some changes that may not be so welcome. Frustratingly, there’s still no water resistance of any kind featured here. As the headphones can no longer fold in on themselves, they’re not quite as portable as they once were. And while the headband is better hidden and integrated into the overall design aesthetic, it feels as if it has less padding than previous Sony headphones in the line. 

That may be a slightly moot point though – in our experience, they’re no less comfortable as a result, and will happily sit on your head for long listening sessions. There’s ample padding around the ears, and the cups twist and pivot to suit all sizes, with just the right amount of clamp pressure exerted from the band to keep them in place without squeezing your brain out through your ears. That headband now smoothly extends too, rather than using the stepped extension of earlier versions.

The noise-cancelling Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones

(Image credit: Future)

Controls are largely the same as the 1000XM4 headphones. Smart context-aware auto controls aside (which we’ll discuss in the ‘Features’ section of this review), there are two physical buttons on the left ear cup edge. The first cycles between noise cancelling and ambient awareness settings, and you can now use a couple or trio of taps of the ANC button to activate Spotify Tap, letting you fire up and play from the music streamer without getting your phone out of your pocket. The second is the power button, which you can keep held down to activate Bluetooth pairing mode. You’ll also find the exterior to the right ear cup is touch sensitive: swipe up and down on it to change the volume, double tap it to pause audio and answer calls, and cover it with your palm to instantly jump to an ambient awareness mode that funnels in exterior sound. There’s also still a USB-C charging port on the right cup, and a 3.5mm headphone jack on the left cup.

The noise-cancelling Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones

(Image credit: Future)

So, of the obvious exterior changes and additions, what’s going on and why? 

First up, that curvier design is intended to reduce wind-drag across the headphones, which can cause that annoying distortion in noise-cancelling performance when out and about on a windy day. A more aerodynamic design here should help reduce that effect, and while we’ve not run head on into the path of a hurricane, that claim held up on a breezy London day exploring Greenwich park.

The second obvious addition is a doubling of the amount of microphone points housed on the headphones. This provides the onboard noise cancelling processors (yes, there's two inside the headphones) more audio data to to anaylze and improve active noise cancelling performance with, as well as doubling the amount of beamforming mics near a user’s mouth for calls up from two on the WH-1000XM4s to four on the WH-1000XM5s. Call quality, according to our critical buddies, was crystal clear.

Despite these additions, the headphones are actually lighter than the previous model, weighing just 250g – 4 grams lighter than the last version. On top of this, they use ABS plastics in their construction (as does the packaging), made of recycled car parts to up their green credentials.

The noise-cancelling Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones

(Image credit: Future)

Again, there’s a much-welcome included carry case with these latest Sony over-ears. Made of a grey fabric, it’s somewhat collapsible, offering a little more bag space when you’re using your headphones. Just don’t expect it to flatten down to a paper-thin size, as an inner pocket for cable storage keeps it a little beefier. It’s not a like-for-like assessment, but the surface area of the new case is larger than that of the earlier models, even if you can squeeze its cubic area down.

Sony WH-1000XM5 review: Features

  • The best active noise-cancelling in the business
  • Smart ambient awareness options
  • Allows a connection to two devices at once
  • App has features to protect your hearing

Active noise-cancellation features have long been the hallmark of the Sony WH range, and the WH-1000XM5 headphones continue in that fine tradition. It must have been difficult to top the superb performance of previous generations and, admittedly, it’s not a world apart from the WH-1000XM4 model. But there is a definite, if slight, improvement.

The WH-1000XM4 already effectively wiped out low-frequency sounds (the din of public transport, or a plane’s rumbling engines), but the XM5s work harder at the higher frequency zone. That’s in part thanks to the new 30mm driver design that, while smaller than the 40mm design of old, makes use of a high rigidity dome and soft edge to take some of the bite off of higher-pitched sounds. Indeed, walking through London’s Paddington Station, a hive of scum and villainy (and sounds of all kinds), I could barely hear a thing, even with the volume of my music dialled back to a minimum. It was very impressive.

The noise-cancelling Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones

(Image credit: Future)

Active noise cancellation is the headline act among a whole bunch of smart features Sony includes with the WH-1000XM5 headphones, many of which automatically kick in without you needing to do anything, improving the overall listening experience without you having to lift a finger.

First up is location awareness. By pairing with your smartphone, the WH-1000XM5 headphones can learn your daily routine, and adjust Ambient Sound Control settings according to your location. If the headphones spot that you’re sat still at home, they might jump to a less intense level of noise cancellation compared to while you’re sat in the office, based on your preferences. And if you’re out for a walk, it may pipe in more exterior audio to keep you safe while crossing the street.

Speak-to-Chat is another handy feature. As its name suggests, if you begin talking while listening to the headphones, they’ll halt playback and pump in ambient sound so you can have a conversation without taking the cans off. But like the WH-1000XM4s before them, they come with an unfortunate side effect – it’ll stop playback if you begin singing when the feature is switched on. Thankfully, it’s an optional feature, so if you too are a wannabe Pavarotti, you’ll still be able to stretch those lungs when listening.

A more immediately useful and intuitive feature is the fact the WH-1000XM5s will automatically pause audio when removed from your head, thanks to a hidden sensor in the ear cup. Leave them off for a little longer, and they’ll automatically switch off completely, saving your battery life. You’ve also got the option of connecting to two devices at once, switching between the two depending on what’s happening on each, such as to prioritise a notification.

Finally, there’s better support for voice assistants and their wake words. Alexa and Google Assistant can be activated hands-free by their respective trigger commands, and can then be used to do everything from place and answer calls to reading incoming text messages and notifications, as well as controlling music.

The noise-cancelling Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones

(Image credit: Future)

Lots of these features can be tweaked an customised by the accompanying app, which is far more useful than similar supporting software of this ilk. There’s a responsive EQ, with a bass boosting function, that makes a genuine impact on the sound profile of the headphones (though we were very happy with the default tuning), an ear analyzer for optimising the effect of Sony’s proprietary 360 reality audio spatial sound format), and lots of options when it comes to customising noise cancelling levels and the location-aware settings that the app can be set to automatically configure based on your usage and surroundings.

A nice touch which I never realised I’d appreciate before having it presented to me was the “Safe Listening” section of the app. The headphones are constantly logging the decibel level and sound pressure of your listening sessions and lets you know how close you’re coming to the recommended weekly loud noises allowance as defined by WHO. For someone who regularly enjoys drowning out the world at ear-blistering levels, it was a wake up call to have the potential damage I was doing to my ears visualised. The app also tracks the amount of time you’ve spent listening to the headphones too, which is a nice touch for life-loggers, and awards gamified for badges for using the different features of the headphones over time. It’s a shame then that it seems only possible to log time used when connected to a device with the app running, rather than keeping this data onboard the headphones – you won’t get a log of time spent listening to a connected laptop, for instance. 

Sony WH-1000XM5 review: Audio quality

  • Spacious soundstage
  • Spatial audio support
  • LDAC and DSEE Extreme perform well
  • Well balanced, with powerful bass and eye-opening detail 

The jump from a 40mm driver in the WH-1000XM4 headphones to the new 30mm driver in the latest WH-1000XM5 headphones had us initially raise our eyebrows – would the signature dynamism and space of the WH line be lost with the smaller driver? Thankfully those fears were unfounded – they sound pretty much just as good as the exemplary XM4s, though we must admit they don’t sound dramatically better, either.

Sony’s again leaning on a one-two punch of both LDAC codec and DSEE Extreme support here to offer the best possible sound quality from your connected devices. LDAC is your hi-resolution audio option, compressing and decompressing tracks on the fly to deliver much greater wireless bandwidth than a standard Bluetooth connection could conjure. But even if you’re on a lowly standard-resolution streaming service over Bluetooth, DSEE Extreme ekes out a little more detail by using AI upscaling techniques to restore some of the audio data which would otherwise be lost. Both do a great job.  

The noise-cancelling Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones

(Image credit: Future)

Even with the driver change, the soundstage remains spacious and capable of giving all elements of a mix room to breathe and shine. Take the mighty solo section of Metallica’s classic One, for instance – all thrash metal riffing and double bass drum madness, but Kirk Hammett’s blistering high-register finger tapping cuts through and shines. In a more sedate but layered tune like Jeff Buckley’s Grace, the acoustic strum percussively rattles below the harmonised vocals and chorus-pedal guitar line, but there’s room for a walking bassline to sit alongside soaring strings too. Everything finds its place with the Sony WH-1000XM5s, and the effect is a wonderful enveloping of sound, even outside of the 360 Reality Audio spatial settings.

If you’re looking for a test of the tightness of the bass, there’s little better than Rage Against the Machine’s Bullet in the Head, where the bass work of Tim Commerford runs like a… well a piston-powered machine through the track. The WH-1000XM5s let the bassline kick behind the trebley guitar riff with real power without flattening everything else. If you want to see how low the cans can go without losing definition, Massive Attack’s brooding Angel sees the WH-1000XM5s retain musicality and detail at even the lowest frequencies.

At the other end of the mood spectrum, jumping into Prince’s joyous Raspberry Beret revealed details previously missed. It’s Prince’s 80s “more-is-more” production at its pomp, with snapping snares and hand claps piercing the wizard-like mix of synths, strings and guitars. I may be mistaken, but is that a harpsichord sitting beneath it all? If it is, it’s the first time I’ve noticed it in my 35 years of listening to the song.

The noise-cancelling Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones

(Image credit: Future)

And, if you want to listen to the clarity of a wonderfully realised vocal performance while having a good cry, pop on the Prince-penned, Sinead O’Connor-performed Nothing Compares 2 U – she might as well be in the room with you, from forceful chorus to trembling bridge, O’Connor runs the gamut from anger to heartbreak, with the Sony cans picking up each inflection and sibilant cry with wondrous effect.

There’s very little sound leakage too. Sat in the office next to a colleague, they didn’t register any sound even with the volume ramped up to its highest setting, which is an improvement over last year’s version based on what those around me said at the time.

Sony WH-1000XM5 review: Battery life

There weren’t many areas that the Sony WH-1000XM5s could have improved over their 1000XM4 predecessors, so many had hoped that one area that could have seen a jump in performance was battery life. Sony is claiming a slight improvement here – while the 30 hours with noise cancelling activated matches the predecessor, 40 hours with noise cancelling switched off is a two hour improvement over the WH-1000XM4s. That may be a little disappointing for some readers, as competitors are beginning to squeeze out more battery life per charge. But the quality of the other features offset any loss to the competition here, particularly in terms of noise-cancelling abilities, and 30-40 hours of playback is more than respectable enough regardless.

Do Sony’s playback estimates hold true? From our experience, we’d say they’re broadly true – we appeared not to quite reach the advertised 30 hours with ANC switched on, but also tend to crank the volume up louder than the average person would (or the recommended safe level is, even), and thus would expect to see the battery drain faster in line with the high volume.

Sony’s definitely put effort into the charging experience generally though – using the USB-PD standard, you’ll get three hours of playback from just a three minute charge of the headphones, getting you out the door and into your tunes as quickly as possible.

The noise-cancelling Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones

(Image credit: Future)

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Sony WH-1000XM5 review: Also consider

First reviewed: May 2022

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