Sony WH1000XM5 Noise Cancelling Headphones – best of the best? (review)


Active noise cancelling (ANC) headphones are a must-have for anyone who wants to enjoy their music on the go. They’re also great for working from home, video conferencing, and making calls. Sony’s WH1000XM range of ANC headphones are very popular; a quick look around an airline cabin and you’ll see plenty of the WH-1000XM4 (we’ll call this the ‘M4’) model on heads, and for good reason. The M4 sounds fantastic, while still managing impressive noise cancellation to drown out jet engines, a crying baby, or somebody’s overly loud chewing. And now that the eagerly awaited WH-1000XM5 or ‘M5’ model is out, we couldn’t help but take them on a tour from Sydney to San Francisco to Toronto and back to see what they can do. 

Price $548 (was $649) 
Product page Sony Australia 
Warranty 12 months 
Support Manual, Software 

Sony WH1000XM5 – what’s changed? 

When Sony updated its M3 to the M4 version, the successor benefited from better audio and noise cancellation, but still looked nearly identical. The M5 has noticeable visual and design changes, however, just like a Porsche never really changes that much from its predecessors, the M5 is cut from the same cloth. Apart from looks, there are a few other updates, which include:  

  • Improved active noise cancellation (ANC) 
  • Better calling capabilities 
  • Higher fidelity sound support 
  • Lighter weight 
  • Fast charging 
  • Longer battery life 

At the launch event, Sony said that the M5 now has 8 microphones, which helps provide a 50% improvement in active noise cancellation. There are two processors dedicated to the system, and these can auto-optimise the cancellation strength for your environment. Sony also says that mid-high frequencies are especially improved, meaning better cancellation for loud voices. 

old and new sony headphones on table
Sony’s popular M4s on the left, the M5s on right

Moving on to call quality, there are four pick-up mics and a new artificial intelligence algorithm to isolate your voice from noisy environments. There are wind-noise reduction tweaks too, so you can worry less about where you make a call, be it a busy street, packed train, noisy café or at home with a crying baby. 

On the sound front, the M5 gains the ability to play high-resolution (HD) music files as well as 360-degree spatial audio. This is possible without wires thanks to support for Sony’s LDAC codec. There’s also a DSEE Extreme mode that upscales lower resolution music in real-time. With music libraries like Tidal and Amazon adding to their HD / lossless collections, and Apple Music now onboard, it’s great to see built-in support for higher resolution music. 

The M5 also drops a bit of weight, but not much – it’s just 4 grams less than the M4. Still, its lightweight 250 grams means greater comfort during extended listening periods. The travel case also sees some changes. It’s now flatter, so easier to pack into bags, and the headphones are less of a puzzle to fit in. The aeroplane adaptor isn’t included anymore, but this might not be missed as many plane seats now have 3.5mm audio jacks. 

For battery and charging, the new Fast Charge feature means you can get three hours of playback with just three minutes of charge time. Total battery life is 30 hours, which is the same as the M4 model. 

Sony headphones on desk
The new headband and hinge set the M5 apart from older models

In terms of design, the new synthetic leather feels good to the touch, and the overall aesthetic is streamlined and minimalist. The main visual change from the M4 is where the headband attaches to the earcups. The M4 headband is uninterrupted, while the M5 has a small, metal segment in-between. 

Apart from the above, the M5 supports plenty of other goodies, some of which appeared on the M4 and even the M3. Some of our favourites include: 

  • Gesture based volume/play/pause/FFD/RWD controls on right earcup 
  • Support for Google’s Fast Pair feature 
  • Packaging made from recycled materials 
  • Noise Cancellation / Transparency button 
  • Quick Access Button that can be assigned to Spotify 
  • Speak to Chat feature that pauses the music when you talk 
  • Google Assistant and Alexa compatible 
  • Pair with two devices over Bluetooth 
  • Adaptive Sound Control that reacts to your location 

Fit and comfort 

earcup cushion comparison
The earcup cushions are quite slim on the M5s compared to the Bose 700s

Thanks to its 250 gram weight, the M5 can be worn for hours on end. However, despite the synthetic soft-fit leather, they did start to get a little uncomfortable around the ears about six hours into the Sydney to San Francisco leg of our trip. The earcup cushions are about half the thickness of the M4 and Bose’s Noise Cancelling 700s, and you do notice this over time. While the M5 will fold flat, helping make the carrying case more compact, we wonder if the flatter earcup cushions are to reduce their overall height? Softer cushions would be helpful to fit around glasses as well.  

The headband has been redesigned with a noiseless slider that pulls out from each end, whereas the M4 telescoped outwards from a piece that rests on the top of your head. While the difference doesn’t seem to impact comfort, looks-wise, the M4 headband is uninterrupted all the way to the earcups, while the M5 has the hinge in-between. We think the M4 looks better as it creates the impression of being made from a single piece. Your tastes may vary of course. Otherwise, the M5 earcups can hinge and swivel and can be readily adjusted to fit most head shapes. 

Charge time 

We started our journey on about a quarter battery charge, so we needed to top them up in-flight. While the Fast Charge feature should have given us another three hours life in 3 minutes, this didn’t happen. There must be a minimum wattage needed to enable Fast Charge, which the in-seat charger didn’t reach. Still, after two hours plugged in, we were able to see the remainder of the 12 hour leg. Otherwise, you can still use them without noise cancelling while connected via the 3.5mm jack. Once the battery was fully charged, we made it all the way back to Sydney from Toronto without needing another top-up. 

Connections and controls 

We tested the M5 with an iPhone 13 Max and Google Pixel 6 Pro, and had no connection issues pairing for the first time using Sony’s Headphones Connect app. There isn’t an NFC connection option like on the M4, where you can tap the earcup with your phone to initiate a connection, but perhaps it isn’t really needed. 

The two physical buttons are located on the left earcup: a power/Bluetooth button and a multi-purpose button that can be a noise cancellation toggle or Spotify shortcut. We found that the location of the power button near the bottom of the earcup made it easy to accidentally switch off when pulling the earcups to adjust the headband. Placing the power button higher up would have avoided this.  

Our multi-function button was set in the app for ANC on/off, however, it would be good if the headphones would use a voice to tell you what mode you’ve selected like the Bose 700HS, rather than just a chime. The multi-purpose button can otherwise only open Spotify, however, we expect to see other functions added later with a software update.  

Most of your controls are via the touch sensor on the flat surface of the right earcup. Here you can swipe up or down for volume, left or right to advance or go back tracks. Overall, it works well once you get accustomed to it, but you might prefer the directness of a volume wheel for quick adjustments. 

While you can activate Alexa and Google Assistant by saying the appropriate wake word, it would be great to see Apple’s Siri included too. 

Cable-wise, there is a 3.5mm jack on the bottom of the left earcup and USB-C charge port on the right. You can’t charge the headphones and listen at the same time, however. 

Headphones Connect App 

Sony’s Headphones Connect App is where you manage all your settings. While the user interface could be better, it has improved over the years. Here you can check the status of your M5, including the sound pressure on your ears. You can adjust your EQ settings, choose between quality or stability Bluetooth connections and enable the DSEE Extreme option. You can also access your headphone settings, including selecting your voice assistant and disabling the earcup touch controls. 

Speak to Chat 

A new feature that we love is the ‘Speak to Chat’ feature, where the headphones sense your voice and pause playback. This is great for an impromptu conversation where you don’t’ need to remove your headphones. Playback resumes after a set time that you control via the app. You can also place your hand over the right earcup to engage full transparency mode – where you can hear what’s going on around you. 

We also love the M5’s ability to stop playback when you remove the headphones and resume once back on your head. Oddly, the sensor is only in the left earcup (unless ours was defective), so pausing doesn’t happen if you lift the right cup away from your head, only the left. At this price-point, it would be thoughtful to have this function from either ear.  

How do they sound? 

For audio quality tests, we played a number reference tracks, along with YouTube videos and Stranger Things Season 4 from Netflix. Tests were in a noisy aeroplane or airport environment, and in a quiet office. We used both an iPhone 13 Pro Max and Google Pixel 6 Pro to test audio compression over Bluetooth. We also used a THX Onyx DAC and 3.5mm cable connection for a true lossless experience. Audio sources included Tidal for Master quality tracks and spatial audio, as well as Apple Music playing lossless (ALAC) and standard (AAC) music 

As the Sony Headphones Connect App has a number of EQ pre-sets, plus some custom settings, you can adjust the sound to how you like it – Bright, Excited, Mellow, Relaxed, Vocal, Bass Boost, etc. We tested and compared music with other headphones (more below) with standard EQ settings, and tried others to see how they sounded. 

inside of headphones
View from the inside

Across all of our our listening sessions, audio quality from the M5 was very impressive. The headphones deliver a full, rich sound, with lots of bass punch, plenty of detail in mids and highs, and noticeable left and right separation. They were especially suited to music with energetic baselines, such as Jack Harlow’s First Class or anything from Drake. We loved the clarity and detail of Maggie Roger’s soulful vocals in Alaska, adding emotion and depth. Basslines were thick but we did notice some fuzziness in Kendrick Lamar’s Silent Hill. Settling in with a few Stranger Things episodes and the M5s on the plane was fantastic, with loads of enjoyable immersion thanks to ANC, plus lots of detail with vocals during rising audio scores, explosions and loud sound effects. 

Making calls 

We both made and answered phone calls on a busy street. Hearing our callers was easy thanks to the ANC, and we didn’t hear any outside wind picking up on the four mics. Voice clarity, according to our callers was quite good, and they did’t realise we were making the calls outside. 

Active Noise Cancellation 

While it would have been nice to take a selection of headphones with us around the world, this was a little impractical, so we performed a post-tour comparison of the M5 with three popular alternatives: Bose’s Noise Cancelling 700, Sony’s WH-1000XM4s (M4) and Apple’s AirPods Max

At first, Adaptive Sound Control ion the M5 seemed to take a bit of time to realise we were in an aircraft, and it wasn’t clear via the app if we were getting the maximum cancellation effect. It did kick in after a bit of time, and overall, the ANC did an admirable job reducing the jet engine noise as well as loud conversations.  

The Adaptive Sound Control can make adjustments based on ambient noise, by location or different modes like sitting, walking, travelling, etc. There is a slider in the app where you can increase or decrease the ambient noise piped into your earcups, so you can decide if you want to hear everything around you or just a bit. There’s also a tick-box that lets you focus on voices in your ambient environment. 

4 different headphones on desk
Top left – Sony M5s, top right – Apple AirPods Max, bottom left, Sony M4s, bottom right – Bose 700s

Drill test 

We also tested each headphone’s ability to dull the sound of construction workers drilling a concrete wall in another room of our office. Needless to say, the drilling was quite overpowering, so it was interesting to see how the various headphones took the edge off the noise. We checked the ANC quality with and without music playing.  

Here, the M5 dulled the drilling sound, both passively and actively, making it possible to get some work done without too much distraction from the noise. This was especially true with music playing, where certain times, you couldn’t even hear the drilling at all. 

Bose NC700 HP $449.95 (was $599) 

Starting with sound quality, we found the NC700 HP to be quite similar to the M5s, but with less of the meaty bass punch. Otherwise, the Bose were clear, dynamic, defined and with slightly more treble when using standard EQ settings. Noise cancellation was also similar to the M5, but we found it dulled the high-pitched drilling slightly more. In terms of comfort, the earcups were softer and had thicker cushions, with a similar weight. Wearing glasses was fine and the earcups sealed around them snugly. We liked the dedicated Noise Cancellation button being separated from the rest of the controls on the other earcup. 

Apple AirPods Max $899 

The Apple AirPods Max are more expensive than the two other headphones in our sample, so we expected better performance. The Max weigh quite a bit more than the others thanks to the metal earcup covers, however, the headband design and cup cushions made them very comfortable to wear over long periods. We didn’t love the long earcup design, or the carrying case. Sound wise, these were at another level, with amazing dynamic range, full bass, fantastic clarity and fidelity. Noise cancellation on the drill test was also the best, possibly due to better passive dampening thanks to the metal earcups, as well as an excellent ANC system. 

GadgetGuy’s take 

We were very impressed with Sony’s WH-1000XM5, and there’s little more you could want in a pair of noise cancelling headphones. They have a fantastic-bass loving sound, with plenty of EQ pre-sets and lots of adjustability. The active noise cancelling is effective for many environments, especially voices, while maintaining the quality of what you’re listening to. Travelling with them is a breeze thanks to a long battery life, fast charging (with the right wattage) and flatter carrying case. Also, built-in smarts like Adaptive Sound Control, Speak to Chat, and earcup touch controls make them easy to live with. We do wonder, though, as the M4 is so good already and will sell alongside the M5 for $153 less, is the upgrade worth the extra money? For current M4 owners, probably not. However, if you’re in the market for a fantastic new set of cans, Sony’s latest are hard to beat.

More headphone news and reviews on GadgetGuy

Sony WH-1000XM5 noise cancelling headphones
The new M5s are a step up from the M4s, with improved sound, voice capabilities and noise cancellation. A new design rounds out the improvements, along with a flattery carrying case. However, for those with the M4s, you don't need to upgrade for what you get for the money.
Value for money
Ease of use
Impressively rich and dynamic sound
Great noise cancellation with adaptive controls
Sleek new look and flatter carrying case
Long battery life and fast charge option
Speak to chat feature works well and is convenient
Earcup cushions are a bit thin and get get uncomfortable over a long period
Premium price means Sony's very good M4s may be a better option