When designing a pair of noise-canceling headphones like the Sony WH-1000XM5, there are a million considerations to take into account. For starters, you need to design around sound quality with quality drivers and built-in amplifiers. You need at least a single processor to decode incoming information over Bluetooth and handle the intricacies of listening for ambient noise and calculating counterwaves to cancel it out. You’ll need a battery to power it all up, obviously, and an app that can talk to the headphones.
The Sony WH-1000XM5 has all of these things, many of which are among the highest quality we’ve seen in a pair of wireless headphones, perhaps only rivaled by Sony’s previous flagship headphones, the Sony WH-1000XM4 and the Bose QuietComfort 45.
It may seem, at first glance, that Sony has painted itself into a corner. By producing such a great pair of headphones last year – and again this year – it has inadvertently made it difficult to truly innovate year after year.
But how do you become quieter than pure silence? What happens when you’ve reached the limits of sound reproduction with wireless connectivity? These are now the issues facing Sony.
How does noise cancellation work and why is Sony so good at it?
Noise cancellation technology is nothing new and works on a fairly simple mathematical principle – sound, in wave form, has a wavelength and to “cancel” incoming sound, whatever you you have to do is generate a second sound wave that is phase reversed by 180 degrees to block out unwanted noise.
The effectiveness of a pair of headphones in this regard depends on the accuracy of the microphones that pick up incoming ambient noise, the speed and strength of a counter-wave that can be generated from the headphones, and the quality of the seal created by the headphones with the ear to eliminate incoming or outgoing sound leakage.
To make its noise cancellation class-leading, Sony has doubled the number of microphones in the Sony WH-1000XM5 from four to eight and added a dedicated second processor in the form of the Sony V1. Two processors working in tandem help to significantly reduce the amount of audible noise in the midrange and high-end audio spectrum while keeping low-end noise like jet engines at bay.
That doesn’t mean the Sony WH-1000XM5 can create perfect silence – they can’t. If you wear them outside when mowing the grass, you will still be able to hear the mower at your feet. If you’re wearing them and someone is playing an instrument right next to you (for example, a ukulele that you use to annoy your girlfriend while she’s working), you’ll still be able to hear that instrument over that music.
Sony hasn’t quite reached pure silent yet, but in the next few years it will be awfully close and then, finally, it will have to blaze a new trail for noise-canceling headphones.
To look forward
As we get closer and closer to perfect noise cancellation, Sony will have to look elsewhere for innovation, potentially in better sound reproduction, comfort, utility and functionality. So where does Sony go next? From what we’ve seen over the past year, business innovation has taken many forms.
For its line of true wireless headphones, the idea of noise cancellation is completely done away with with Sony’s LinkBuds. These fully open true wireless headphones allow users to hear what’s going on around them rather than blocking out incoming noise. It’s a different direction than Sony’s noise-canceling WF-1000XM4, and it’s Sony’s way of showing it’s ready to think outside the box.
For spatial audio, Sony has invested a lot of money in 360 Reality Audio, a proprietary format created by Sony that is specifically designed to work with compatible Sony speakers (like the Sony SRS-RA5000) and soundbars. like the Sony HT-A7000.
Spatial audio integration seems to be high on Sony’s list of future headphones – the Sony WH-1000XM4 and new WH-1000XM5 already support the format – but the increased strength and the convenience of using 360 Reality Audio are two places where the company could still improve in the future.
Finally, Sony will have to figure out how to push sound quality ahead of wireless standards. A few years ago at CES, Sony unveiled LDAC, a new codex that could dramatically increase the amount of data transmitted over Bluetooth. The standard SBC available on all Bluetooth devices only supports a maximum bandwidth of 320 kbps, but the LDAC – available only on Sony devices – increases the bandwidth to 990 kbps.
While LDAC has been a huge boon to Sony’s flagship headphones, it’s still not where CDs are (1411 kbps) or anywhere near the limit for recording 24-bit files. /192 kHz which have a bit rate of 9216 kbps. LDAC is the starting point for something bigger, but there is clearly still more room to grow.
To that end, while Sony has brought better noise cancellation with each new iteration of its earphones and will soon approach the limit of the technology, it still has other areas that can be improved to keep its WH-1000X series the best. king of the castle for a few more years.