Sony interview: How LinkBuds let you hear your surroundings


Sony has taken a whole new direction with the LinkBuds, which concentrate on allowing noise in while you wear them rather than the more traditional feature of keeping it out.

These earbuds’ donut-hole ring creates constant, transparent sound that makes it easy to keep them in your ears while you do things like talk to folks, listen for your flights at the airport or work out outside. And though they may not be for everyone, they deserve a look if you value the ability to hear what’s going on around you as much as you do sound quality.

You can see our full review of the LinkBuds here, but to better understand where they fit in the broader audio environment, I spoke with Hiroshi Nakamura, head of mobile product business division, HES Business Group, Sony Corporation. Here’s what he had to say about where the idea came from and where you might end up using this unique tech in the future.

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“I wanted to create a new form factor of headphones to create [a] new lifestyle,” says Nakamura. “The key is to link online and offline, and then the question was how to realize it.” And indeed, LinkBuds feature a unique design unlike any other earbuds currently on the market.

The result is a literal hole with a ring-shaped driver to gently allow that offline noise in. But, in addition to the freedom this always-on sound transparency offers, Nakamura was quick to talk about what kind of technology these earbuds could power in the future.

One of the experiences Sony is particularly excited about is what Nakamara calls sound AR (augmented reality), which has the potential to overlay online sounds into the real world. “For example [with] navigation, you may use Apple Maps or Google Maps on your smartphone and when it says to turn right, sound AR will allow the sound to come from the right side of the headphone.”

Layered on top of the LinkBuds open sound environment, this could be extremely helpful for city dwellers and tourists especially. Not only will you be able to hear things like traffic, but you’ll also have that additional direction if you’re not paying full attention (like most of us, most of the time). And, from an accessibility standpoint, sound AR could help those with sight and hearing deficits.

Another example Nakamura discussed was gaming, specifically with Niantic’s Pokemon Go — a game that overlays Pokemon onto the real world you view through your phone.. LinkBuds can help you better pinpoint where the characters are coming from, since they have gyro-sensors built into each bud. Developers could tap into these sensors to create similar spatially aware experiences.

It’s not Sony’s first foray into positional audio — 360 Reality Audio, a separate standard from Apple’s Spatial Audio, performs a similar feat.. For example, you might get drums on the left and behind you, but vocals on the right and in front of you. To a degree it’s mathematically mixing the audio and placing it around you, almost to give off the effect of a surround system.

Could LinkBuds expand?

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Nakamura notes that the original concept behind LinkBuds came from Sony’s WH-1000XM4 over-ear headphones, which uses a speak-to-chat feature that amplifies outside noises once you start talking.

In our testing on the 1000XM4s, we found that Sony’s headphones allowed us to clearly hear all kinds of environmental sounds (like people speaking, a knock on the door or a even robot vacuum roving around) in the earcups. It’s effectively a smart transparency mode that turned on when we started speaking.

But how does Nakamara see the future of LinkBuds and a potential expansion of this technology into other areas?

“We will keep focusing on the concept of linking online and offline so we are looking for the best form-factor for this concept, especially with always-on.”

It’s not guaranteed that we’ll see a pair of over-ear headphones with a similar hole in the earcup, but this is clearly an area that Sony wants to play in.

Lastly, LinkBuds aren’t replacing Sony’s other earbuds and are meant to be a new option for people to pick from. At $179.99, they focus on letting you hear the world around you with crisp, rich audio in a comfortable, lightweight build. And while they undercut the 1000X series in terms of price, those are moreso focused on great sound and equally great noise canceling to block out the world around you. We’ve ranked the $279 WF-1000XM4 earbuds and $349 WH-1000XM4 headphones as the top in their respective categories.

After weeks of testing, Sony LinkBuds are really the opposite of noise canceling earbuds. They have the unique ability to offer an always-on transparency mode and for those who like to hear their surroundings, they fit the bill. Keeping with the rest of Sony’s line, they offer rich audio and quick connectivity. Transparency is definitely the killer feature, and we’re waiting to see how these AR-like experiences come to fruition from Sony and its partners.

For now, we won’t be using a smart navigation experience just yet, but we can safely walk at night and hear our surroundings, work from home without worrying about missing a knock on the door and still rock out to some good tunes with LinkBuds in.



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