I love running while listening to a podcast or a Taylor Swift playlist, but I’m always worried my earbuds are going to block out too many sounds and leave me splattered on the hood of a Ford F150. This means picking the right pair of headphones to wear outdoors is critical. Sony’s new LinkBuds let everything in — no, really. These wireless earbuds have literal holes in the middle of each bud so you can hear all the ambient sounds around you.
They’re far from the first headphones to try to integrate the real and digital worlds, but they are the best I’ve used thus far. For the first time, I’m finding few reasons to remove a bud — or even pause my music — when I’m wandering around. Now that’s what I call augmented reality.
The key to the LinksBuds’ success is their shape. They are tiny, round earbuds with silver-lined halos that sit in your ear canal, suspended in your ears via comfortable (and interchangeable) silicone ear loops. A rounded upper section is where you’ll find the battery and processors.
They come in either dark gray or off-white, with a variety of loops to fit different ear shapes and sizes, which is good because the buds are so small I had to size up the band to keep ’em in my ears. This is a boon for anyone with smaller ears, like WIRED’s very own senior associate editor, Adrienne So, who constantly complains about bulky earbuds that never stay in. Their small size also helps them mostly disappear into your ears, though you will feel the grippy plastic on the outside of each bud in your ear canal – no cozy silicone ear tips here.
Here’s the LinkBuds’ main trick: Instead of using bone conduction drivers or microphones to pump in sound from the world around you — the most common approach on any earbuds with some type of “transparency” feature — the donut-shaped drivers of the LinkBuds let the sounds of the world in through the hole in the middle of the bud, and the digital sounds from your paired phone or computer come in through the inside of the ring.
At low volumes, you mostly hear ambient sounds and very little music, but crank up the volume and your tunes enjoy more of a 70/30 blend — you’ll hear a car horn or person screaming, but not much else. Fair warning to anyone with embarrassing taste: At high volumes, folks around you will hear what’s coming out of the LinkBuds.
The simplest solutions, in my experience, are passive ones like this. I haven’t struggled with wind noise on bike rides or ski runs using the LinkBuds, which is a common problem with earbuds that use built-in microphones to pull in ambient sounds. I can still be a part of loud environments and hear my music.
I took the LinkBuds on a ski trip, on runs, and to the supermarket. They’re much better than most wireless earbuds in instances when you need to quickly pause your music — like when someone asks you a question or you want to hear an announcement.
I like that you can use the Android or iOS app to have the buds automatically adjust the volume based on your environment. But the way you actually control the earbuds is pretty clever. You tap the area on your head right in front of the buds twice to play or pause a song, meaning you barely ever need to touch the LinkBuds themselves. I love these controls. They make you feel like a Star Trek character with cybernetic implants. That said, the controls did not always work perfectly.