Sony delivers a drastic redesign, and the result remains good.
While there are of course a number of headphones that are relatively easy to recommend to the casual enthusiast, experts seem to be in relative agreement that the crowned king of the last few years has been Sony, who first with the WH-1000XM3 and then the successor XM4 managed to deliver excellent active noise cancellation, solid build quality and all the many features that connoisseurs expect.
Although Sony has sat comfortably on the throne, they are not resting because the brand new WH-1000XM5 is quite different from its predecessors. It starts with the construction itself, because although they come in the same colours, these new ones don't fold up, but sit, like Bose's NC700, with the cups folded inwards in a therefore enlarged and less portable case. It's a slightly quirky design philosophy, now that they've moved past previous space-saving designs.
The new design seems cleaner though, and while not exactly "small", they are surprisingly light at 249 grams, and that's by switching to an all-plastic construction. That makes them flexible and lightweight, but compared to other competing models, it's perhaps a little too much function over form. After all, you're paying £380 for these, so perhaps a little aluminium, or canvas, or even faux leather would have been preferable.
So, we seem to have got off to a bit of a weird start, because while they're nice to look at, the whole thing is a bit too simple, and the lack of a portable folding design is an annoying step backwards. But that is, until you put them on.
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Looking at the specs it looks disappointing at first, because Sony has actually downgraded from 40 millimetre neodymium drivers to 30 millimetres, but it actually turns out to deliver quite a different profile. Gone is the sometimes heavy bass of the XM3 and XM4, and what Sony's sound engineers have done is construct the cleanest soundstage we've heard outside of Apple's AirPods Max. There's a pretty wild tonal balance between all the layers, and it really is a joy to listen to. However, it's worth stating that if you're a "fan" of the XM4s, for example, then the XM5 won't necessarily feel like a natural evolution - they're quite different.
There's still the same great active noise cancellation across the board, which is still done via a combination of feedback and feedforward microphones that capture noise inside and outside the ear respectively. There are now two QN1 chips instead of one, and it's now noticeable. It's hard to judge other ANC headphones after trying the AirPods Max, but god are these effective, and you don't have to live with Apple's rather wild limitations either.
The touch-based controls work in the same way, and is relatively efficient overall. In addition, there are now four dedicated microphones for conversations, and the ones we tested on calls work just as well as having the phone itself up to your ear. Add about 30 hours of battery life, and you've got a headset that does just about everything.
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The WH-1000XM5 isn't a traditional successor, and it doesn't feel like it's coming from a manufacturer that knows it's already the one to beat. No, instead this is a little more bold, and it's rare to see such big differences between two generations in the same product line. But impressive it is, and you'll find one of the cleanest soundscapes and the best ANC, no doubt about it, even though there's now an extra limitation or two.