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Sound and Vision: We’ve hit the apex of true wireless performance

OPINION: As you’ve probably gleaned by now, the Sony WF-1000XM5 true wireless earbuds are out, and on the whole, they’ve gleaned positive notices from reviewers.

In my review I gave the WF-1000XM5 five stars – though I did point out that these new earphones were more evolution than revolution. It is fascinating to see how far true wireless earbuds have come given that seven/eight years ago they weren’t really on the headphone landscape.

The Sony WF-1000XM5 are packed full of convenient smart features, boasts excellent noise-cancellation and sound even better than the WF-1000XM4. When I reviewed the WF-1000XM4, I thought it’d be a high bar for any future true wireless to surpass, but as always that bar is constantly moving and what I thought was great can eventually be surpassed. Good thing I’m not an audio engineer.

But in the wake of the WF-1000XM5 launching, I’ve got those pangs of scepticism again. Given how good they are, where can they go next? We’re effectively at the end of a cycle with big true wireless launches. The Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II launched in 2022, as did the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 3 and AirPods Pro 2. The next entries aren’t likely to come until 2024 if you view these wireless buds as on a two-year development cycle. The question is where they go next.

Sony WF-1000XM5 pickup from case
Sony WF-1000XM5

As good as the WF-1000XM5 are at noise-cancelling, I (and several other reviewers) find the Bose to be slightly better. But we are talking fractions – a little more suppression here and there – that allows the QuietComfort Earbuds to eke ahead.

Sony’s more balanced approach to audio sounds excellent, to the point where I wonder where it could go next. The feature-set on the earphones is extensive – no other brand offers quite as many features as Sony does with the premium headphones to the point where I’m scratching my head as to what you could really add that would feel substantial and not just an add-on.

Of course, I’m not a soothsayer, I can’t predict where things will go and what new innovations will occur. Perhaps Apple will actually integrate the health features that have been rumoured for years, and possibly Bose and Sennheiser could link more of their hearing aid technologies into the headphones (though from a regulatory perspective, they wouldn’t be able to call them hearing aids unless they were certified to be so).

And there’s always the possibility of fitting Auracast technology that could change how we interact with other devices in public spaces. Bluetooth is a limiting factor in terms of audio quality, but some earbuds already claim lossless playback with the right kit and sources, so it’s not as if higher quality audio is out of reach. Personal audio customisation could be expanded on but again this isn’t something that’s new.

There are still areas where there’s scope, mainly with the charging case, which remains a charging cradle, but Bowers & Wilkins has shown imagination with the Pi7 series with the case being able to retransmit audio from a wired-in source – say in-flight entertainment on an aeroplane or a portable games console like the Switch – to your earphones.

A black Sony playstation PS Vita displaying a game with gaming controls on either side, a jack connected to it and other end connected to a speaker, showcasing Bowers and Wilkins P17 audio transmission
Pi7

It feels like we’ve hit the ceiling for true wireless performance. Everyone has converged on similar designs, similar approaches to noise-cancelling features and even similar prices.

And that makes me intrigued by where the next generation can go. With differences in performance few and far between, it needs something out of the blue to move true wireless earbuds forward.

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