A doughnut in my ear: the Sony Linkbuds

Ever since I saw Techmoan’s video about the new Sony Linkbuds, truly wireless1 earbuds with an open design made possible by virtue of a doughnut-shaped driver, I’ve been enthralled. I always prefer open headphones, which can be tricky when you’re buying things meant to go in your ear. Even within the realm of full-sized, over-the-ear cans, it’s a niche market. People like having a silent, black background. I understand this, but it isn’t for me. For one thing, silence gives me anxiety. For another, the sort of platonic ideal folks tend to have for music – the live performance – is never a silent black box either. Ambient sound exists; even the much-misunderstood 4′33″ by John Cage is more of an exercise in appreciating ambient sound than it is an exercise in silence. Perhaps that’s a pretentious way of looking at things, but this widespread belief that audiophile greatness starts in a vacuum has certainly left the market with a dearth of open designs.

Earbuds themselves are a dying breed. In-ear monitors (IEMs) direct sound through a nozzle directly into the ear canal, where their tips are inserted. This gives a tight physical connection to the sound, and it – once again – isolates the listener from the world better, leading to a more silent experience. I’ve used – and enjoyed – a handful of semi-open IEMs, but… IEM fit is tricky. My ears are different enough in size that I generally need a different tip size for either ear. Even when I do get the ‘right’ fit, it nearly always feels like a delicate balance, and one that requires me to sit a certain way, move very little, and avoid shifting my jaw at all. For quite some time now, I’ve been using Master and Dynamic’s MW-07 Plus. Their design is such that an additional piece of silicone butts up against the back of the ear’s antihelix for additional support, minimizing fit issues significantly. They also sound great. I like these enough that I own three pairs of them2. Getting them seated properly can still be an issue, though, and… they aren’t open. They do provide an ‘ambient listening’ mode that’s sort of a reverse of active noise cancelling – using the inbuilt microphones to pick up ambient noise and inject it into the stream. It’s better than nothing. A new problem has started to manifest with the MW-07s in which that additional piece of silicone doesn’t always fit over the IEM tightly enough, and it obscures the sensor that detects whether or not the IEM is in your ear. The result has been a lot of unintentional pausing, and a lot of frustration.

I spend a fair amount of time listening to a Walkman or a DAP using full-size cans (generally Sennheiser HD-650s), but I also do like the convenience of casual listening from my stupid phone with no headphone jack via Bluetooth. Right now, this means either one of my several pairs of MW-07s, or the weird little doughnuts that are the Sony Linkbuds. I’ve been putting the Linkbuds through their paces for a couple of weeks now, and they’ve quickly become my favorite solution for casual listening. I will get into their caveats – which are not minor – but the TL;DR is that they sound good enough, they fit well, and they’re just… pleasant to use. I know the hot take is to say that Sony lost their flair for innovation and experimentation in the ‘90s or whatever, but they are still doing interesting things. It may not be particularly impressive on a technical level, but someone still had to greenlight the R&D for designing a custom doughnut-shaped driver for the Linkbuds. It’s a shot in the dark for an already-niche product market. These aren’t going to be for everyone, but if the idea of a truly wireless earbud with a gaping hole in the middle to allow ambient sound in is appealing to you – I think Sony did good.

Comfort

To start, the Linkbuds are extremely comfortable. Unlike any IEM I’ve used, they quickly disappear from my ear. If I shake my head, I’ll notice the weight there, but they stay in place fine. Being earbuds instead of IEMs, there are no tips to worry about sizing. But like the MW-07s, there is an additional bit of silicone – in this case, a tiny little hoop that catches behind the top of the antihelix. These are included in five sizes, and they help with positioning enough that choosing the ‘wrong’ size is detrimental to sound and not just the security of the earbud in the ear. They seem too flimsy to do anything, but they’re vital to the fit, and that flimsiness ensures that they remain light and comfortable. Aftermarket manufacturers are selling replacements for these; I’ve acquired some pink ones to make them a bit more me. The amount of silicone contacting the skin is low enough to keep itchiness to a minimum during extended wear – a discomfort that became a reality after wearing the MW-07s for long stretches.

Sound

The Linkbuds are not an audiophile-grade experience. Compared to the MW-07s, they’re… thin. But they don’t sound bad, they don’t sound particularly cheap or tinny. Their sound is rather hard to describe. Some folks have done frequency response charting3 of them, and… yeah the low end rolls off early and it rolls off hard. This can be compensated for quite serviceably with the inbuilt equalizer (more on this shortly), but these are never going to hit you with thick sub-bass. Music that relies heavily on this will sound a bit thin. Occasionally, a piece of pop music like Kero Kero Bonito’s ‘Waking Up’ will surprise me in just how much the production leans on the low-end. But for the most part, the equalizer gets the upper bass present enough that music tends to sound full enough to be satisfying.

There is one really peaky little frequency range somewhere in the 2500Hz band. I first noticed it on µ-Ziq’s ‘Blainville’, the repeating squeal noise was… unbearable. This manifested in a few other tracks as well4, but was also tameable through equalization. Beyond these frequency response issues, it’s tricky to talk about the sound of them. They sound big. Not necessarily in terms of soundstage, but the scope of the reproduced sound itself feels more like it’s coming from large cans firing haphazardly into my ears than tiny little doughnuts resting precisely inside them. I assume this can largely be attributed to the good fit – I’ve used high-end wired earbuds like the Hifiman ES1005, and when they’re properly positioned they sound great… but keeping them properly positioned is tough. Soundstage is fine, imaging is fine. I actually enjoy them quite a bit for well-recorded classical, particularly pieces for chamber ensembles. In a recording like Nexus and Sō Percussion’s performance of Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ, not only do the instruments feel like they exist in a physical space, you can almost sense where on the instrument a given note is being struck.

The app

I’ve mentioned the equalizer twice now, but before I can talk about that, I have to talk about the app. In general, a product is less appealing to me if it involves an app – this tends to mean some functionality only exists in a terribly piece of software that probably won’t exist anymore in three years. This is true of the Linkbuds as well, but two things make me reluctant to care about it: the functionality feels pretty set-it-and-forget-it to me, and they’re already bound to a phone by virtue of design. The app lets you set quite a few things including some strange 3d spatial stuff that I haven’t tested, a listening profile designed to liven up low-bitrate lossy compression, and integration with other apps. This integration is very limited, only supporting Spotify (which you shouldn’t do) and a few other things I hadn’t heard of6. It also lets you set the language for notifications (for low battery and the like), and upgrade the firmware. Then there’s the equalizer – five bands, plus a vague ‘Clear Bass’ slider. I’ve found I’m happiest with the following settings:

Clear Bass 400Hz 1kHz 2.5kHz 6.3kHz 16kHz
+7 +1 ±0 -4 -3 -3

This obviously isn’t going to work miracles with the sub-bass, but it does bring enough bass presence to make for a fuller sound, and it smooths out that peak in the 2.5kHz band. The equalizer has a bunch of presets, and lets you store three of your own presets. Frustratingly, while the app supports a bunch of different Sony headphones, it’s also a different app than the one used for Sony speakers.

A final thing that the app allows for is the setting of the four tap commands that are available to you – twice or thrice on either Linkbud. These are limited to a handful of presets – one plays/pauses and skips to next track, one is volume up/down, one is next/previous track, etc. I wish these were just fully customizable. I find it easier to adjust volume with the physical buttons on my phone, so I’m using pause/next and next/previous. I’d love to tweak this for a couple of reasons – not having a redundant next command, and swapping the order of next and previous. Regardless, this is more useful than the hardcoded two buttons on my MW-07s. And while tapping on the Linkbuds feels silly vs. pressing an actual button… it is much easier.

A few final notes

Battery life is bad. I get it, the shape of them and the fact that half of the unit is a doughnut-shaped driver means there isn’t much room for a battery. But the reality is that the MW-07s last long enough to get through a workday, and the Linkbuds just… won’t. Which sucks, because getting through each new slogging day of work pretty much requires a constant stream of high-energy music. The case they come in doesn’t have a great battery either, and this is less forgivable.

Compared to the MW-07s, I really like the way the case feels. It’s made of the same plastic as the Linkbuds themselves, which just… has a nice feel to it. The case is also just weighted in a very pleasing weeble-wobbly way. The Linkbuds snap into the case very positively, whereas the MW-07’s just kind of flop into place. The Linkbuds’ case has a single LED, which reports the battery status of the case itself when you open it, and each Linkbud when you snap them into place. It only seems to report vague green and orange levels. The MW-07 case, on the other hand, has three LEDs which clearly correspond to case, and left and right MW-07. These LEDs have three vague levels instead of two.

One last silly detail that the Linkbuds get better than the MW-07 is the volume that they use for their own sounds. Tap confirmations and low battery notifications are soft sounds, played at reasonable volumes. The MW-07’s notification for switching on ambient listening mode is just a little too loud, and the low battery notification is absolutely alarming. This is something that a lot of companies seem to neglect – generic units are usually terrible about it. Master and Dynamic certainly tried harder than generic vendors, but Sony did it right. It’s a little thing, but little things add up.

I guess this post largely serves to take away my audiophile cred, but the reality as I age and my life gets more complicated is that there’s listening as an activity and then there’s listening as background. The activity is akin to enjoying a 15-year Macallan Fine Oak while background listening just gets you through the day like a few shots of rail vodka. The Linkbuds serve my casual background listening needs really well, and they sound perfectly fine doing it. They pale in comparison to my Sennheiser IE-800s, but… they’re supposed to. They’re doing a different job. And while my MW-07s may sound better, they’re increasingly not worth the hassle when I want to both listen to music and move my body. I hope Sony makes a second version of these. I want more doughnut-shaped drivers out in the world. I want Sony to really go ham on such an open design. I want Sony to keep being weird. But mostly I just want to know I’ll be able to get a replacement pair a few years down the line, because I think I’m going to want to keep using these for a while.


The low end of the high end

Recently, Techmoan posted a video about his daily driver Walkman. This sort of pushed me to go back and finish this post that I had a half-hearted outline of regarding my daily driver Walkman. I don’t really have an exotic collection; my interesting pieces are along the lines of a My First Sony1 and the WM-EX999, notable for its two playback heads, allowing for precise azimuth settings for both directions of play. I also don’t really take my Walkmans out much; they just hang out near me as I do my day job. What I want out of a ‘daily driver,’ therefore, isn’t something that stands out by being the most compact or affordable. Rather, it’s just reliable, pleasant to use, sounds good, and has the tape select options I need (Dolby B and I/II formulation).

The deck that I’ve ended up on to fill this role is the WM-DD11. Readers familiar with Walkman nomenclature will recognize ‘DD’ as indicative that the deck uses Sony’s Disc Drive mechanism. These mechanisms use a servo-controlled motor that butts up against the capstan via a disc, leaving the sole belt path for the takeup hub. They provide good speed accuracy, largely impervious to rotation and movement of the deck. They’re mechanically simple and quite reliable, with the exception of an infamously fragile piece – the center gear. Made of a deterioration-prone plastic, this gear has failed on essentially every DD Walkman out there. While the decks continue working for some time after the gear cracks, a horrid clicking sound is emitted with every rotation. Some folks fill the inevitable crack with epoxy, buying the gear some time. Replacements are also available. But every DD deck out there either doesn’t work, clicks, or has been repaired in some way or another.

My WM-DD11 does not have any center-gear-related issues, nor has the gear been replaced or repaired. Unlike most DD models2, the WM-DD11 has no center gear. DD models were high-end models, and the WM-DD11 sat in the strange middle-ground of a stripped down, low-end version of a high-end design. This is, to me, what makes the WM-DD11 special. It’s what makes it an interesting conversation piece, and it’s also what makes it a great daily driver. Like most DD models3, it only plays unidirectionally. This is, perhaps, inconvenient for a daily driver, but it also removes the b-side azimuth issue that affects bidirectional models4. Like most DD models, it has manual controls for a couple of tape settings – Dolby B on/off and Type I/Types II & IV. And while it lacks the quartz-lock that some DD models5 had implemented by this point, the standard servo-driven disc drive system is still more accurate and stable than other low-end models of the era.

The similarities largely stop there, though. Pressing ‘play’ on the deck immediately reveals the primary difference – lacking the soft-touch logic controls of most DD models, the WM-DD11 has a mechanical ‘piano-keys’ type transport. Unlike most piano keys, Sony did premium the buttons up a bit by keeping them in the standard DD position, on the face opposite the door. This means there’s a larger mechanical path than if they were positioned directly above the head, though I doubt this complexity really affects reliability much. People often malign mechanical transports, but I rather like the physical connection between button and mechanism. They tend to feel more reliable to me as well; soft-touch mechanisms still have mechanical bits, they just have to be controlled by the integration of some motor.

With the DD models, specifically, this tracks. The cursed gear facilitates things like tape-end detection in the soft-touch DD models. I certainly don’t think Sony knew this plastic was going to deteriorate; I don’t think they knew all the capacitors they were buying in the ‘80s were going to leak after a couple of decades either. But, despite the fact that there are only a handful more internal bits in the soft-touch transport, one of these has a critical fault. The gear itself is odd – a large, donut-shaped thing that goes around a metal core. It wouldn’t surprise me if this design led to the use of a plastic that wasn’t so thoroughly time-tested.

Costs were cut in some other places – the tape head stays with the body and not the door, there are some plasticky bits that certainly don’t have the premium feel of other DD models. But the WM-DD11 fits in a market segment that seems underappreciated to me. It’s high-end in the ways that matter, while being stripped down elsewhere. That middle-ground rarely seems to exist these days, with performance going hand-in-hand with luxury and the low-end solely existing at the bottom of the barrel. It’s a false binary presumably created by the need to sexy up anything decent enough to market.It’s hard to sell half the features, but I wish companies would try. I want the low end of the high-end market to exist. I want products like my reliable, simple, yet still very performant WM-DD11 to exist.


Sony's resin tubes

Sony has a history of making ‘lifestyle’ consumer electronics alongside their more boring, everyday items. From the 1980s My First Sony line designed to indoctrinate children into brand loyalty1 to the beautiful clutch-like Vaio P palmtop, the company has never been afraid to experiment with form, function, and fashion. Occasionally, they’ll release wild products like the XEL-1 which read like concepts but actually get released, albeit at silly prices. One such item was the made-to-order NSA-PF1 ‘Sountina’, a six-foot tall speaker released in or around 2008.

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