Pros

  • Excellent sound (planar magnetic drivers)

  • Low latency for gaming

  • Connect to multiple devices at the same time

  • Very good voice call performance

Cons

  • No noise cancellation

  • A little bulky

Most gamers I know still use headphones, whether on consoles or PCs. But in recent years, we've been seeing more low-latency gaming headsets from the likes of JBL, Razer, HyperX, and others. Now Sony has entered the fray with its $200 bundle Pulse Explore buttons, which are special mainly because they feature planar magnetic driversa speaker technology typically found in high-end audiophile headphones, but rarely in headphones.

Read more: The best wireless headphones right now

Unique design

Somewhat bulky and a little strange-looking to the ears, they're designed to be used with Sony's PS5 gaming console and its new PlayStation Portal Remote Player, as well as Windows and Mac computers (the included PlayStation Link USB adapter is required for use on PS5 and Nintendo Switch). Plus, like most other wireless gaming headsets, the Pulse Explore can be paired with your smartphone via Bluetooth.

The fact that they are good gaming headphones is not surprising. However, the fact that they are so good for listening to music is a revelation. In fact, they sound clearer and more articulate than Sony's flagship WF-1000XM5 headphones, with powerful and compact bass. That doesn't necessarily mean they sound better than the XM5s, which sound a little fuller. But I didn't expect them to compete with the XM5s in music listening.

playstation-portal-com-pulse-explore-buds playstation-portal-com-pulse-explore-buds

The buttons match the PlayStation Portal perfectly. I swapped out my own larger ear tips to get an even better fit.

David Carnoy/CNET

As I said, the reason for this sound seems largely due to the buds' planar magnetic drivers. Sony recently acquired Audezewhich is known for its planar magnetic drivers and in 2021 produced a pair of $1,299 wired planar magnetic headphones called the Euclid which are currently listed as “out of stock”. Planar magnetic drivers are valued for their sonic precision and for being less prone to distortion. They are typically larger than the standard dynamic drivers found in most headphones and are more difficult to control.

I can't say that the Pulse Explore looks like high-end headphones. Entirely made of plastic, they are relatively light for their size. The charging case, which has a sliding lid, is also large, but I liked it. It was easy to put the buttons in and out of the box.

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See this: Sony Pulse Explore headphones: setup and hands-on

The Pulse Explore earbuds come with four sets of ear tips, so you should find a set that fits your ears well. But like all noise-isolating buds, if you don't get an airtight seal, the sound quality will suffer, and I suspect that users who posted negative reactions to its sound probably didn't adapt well.

Overall, I found them comfortable to wear for long periods. (The earbuds have five hours of battery life at moderate volume levels with two extra charges in their charging case.) While I was able to get an airtight seal with the larger set of eartips, I ended up switching to another set with a more conical shape that fits my ears even better. Since I test a lot of headphones, I have a lot of extra tips to choose from, but most people don't have that luxury.

The Pulse Explore looks a little funky, but is comfortable to wear The Pulse Explore looks a little funky, but is comfortable to wear

The buds look a little funky and stick out of the ears, but they are comfortable to wear.

David Carnoy/CNET

Dual device connectivity

It was simple to connect the headphones to the PS5. You plug the PlayStation Link USB adapter into the PS5's USB-A port and press the Link button on the case while the headphones are still in the case. What's also nice is that you can simultaneously connect to your phone via Bluetooth and answer a call while you're playing. While you can pair them with a PC via Bluetooth, you'll probably want to use the PlayStation Link USB Adapter with your Mac or Windows PC, as it creates a low-latency, lossless connection to the buds. With the Nintendo Switch, you'll need a USB-C to USB-A adapter to connect the dongle, but no dongle is needed for the PlayStation Portal remote player. (It's a shame you need a dongle for the PS5, as it's unclear why the technology can't be integrated into the unit like it can with the Portal.)

Sony Pulse Explore headphones include a USB dongle Sony Pulse Explore headphones include a USB dongle

The buttons with your USB dongle, which you plug into the PS5's USB-A port. (You can also connect it to your computer.)

David Carnoy/CNET

To test gaming features, I split my time between a PS5 and a PlayStation Portal. After connecting to the Portal (or PS5), the headphones will automatically reconnect to the device when you take them out of the box, remaining connected to your phone. In my roughly 10 hours of gaming testing, I didn't notice any lag and they sounded great, offering an immersive audio experience similar to what I'm used to from a decent headset.

The headphones are compatible with games with Sony 3D audio support (I played Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater), and Sony says they will “improve your perception in PS5 games with 3D audio support, because the audio cues are positioned with an incredible degree of precision in all three dimensions.” Microphone performance seemed very good for multiplayer games, and the built-in volume controls worked flawlessly while I was connected to the PS5 and PlayStation Portal.

Limited features, but get the headphone basics right

Headphones in this price range typically have a pretty robust feature set. By comparison, the Pulse Explore buds have no active noise cancellation (aka ANC), no ear detection sensor that automatically pauses music when you take the headphones off, and no companion apps with equalizers or other features (which I I know). These are truly entry-level headphones. In fact, the volume control buttons only worked when I used the headphones with my PS5 and PlayStation Portal, and there were no controls for skipping tracks when I used the buttons with an iPhone 15 and Google Pixel 7.

I spent more time listening to music than playing games because I was surprised by how good they sounded. Unfortunately, they don't support Sony's highly regarded LDAC audio codec for Bluetooth streaming. They support the AAC audio codec.

While they may not offer the same sound quality as high-end planar magnetic headphones, they exhibit some of the same sonic characteristics: well-balanced audio that is clear, accurate, and open (wide soundstage), with deep bass but well defined. These are headphones that will make you want to dive deep into your music library to hear how they sound across multiple tracks. While they can be a little harder to drive, I didn't have any issues with the volume they play on my iPhone 15. (The volume was a little lower with the Pixel 7.) The WF-1000XM5 buds play louder, and like me said, sound a little fuller with bigger bass.

sony-pulse-explore-headphones-1 sony-pulse-explore-headphones-1

The Pulse Explore earbuds have volume controls, but they don't work when you use them with your phone.

David Carnoy/CNET

I was also impressed with its voice calling capabilities. Callers told me they did a great job suppressing background noise while my voice came through relatively clearly, even on the noisy streets of New York. They are in the upper echelon of voice calling headphones.

Pulse Explore final considerations

Normally, I'd say $200 for a pair of gaming headsets — especially ones like the Pulse Explore, which don't exactly have a premium feel — is too expensive. But the fact that Sony and presumably Audeze brought planar magnetic driver technology to $200 headphones is kind of wild. And Sony's upcoming $150 Pulse Elite headphones, due out on February 21, also feature planar magnetic drivers.

As noted, the Pulse Explore headphones are lacking in the features department when it comes to what people expect from headphones that cost $200, the street price of Apple AirPods Pro 2. But if you can get an airtight seal, the passive noise isolation is good (a fair amount of ambient noise is muffled), and the headphones sound great and work well for making calls, which is all many people are looking for. Of course, many people use their gaming headsets as everyday headphones, particularly while working at their desks. But the Pulse Explore makes a strong case for being your everyday headphones, despite its glaring lack of features. They exceeded my expectations.



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