There’s always been fierce competition over who makes the best noise-canceling headphones, and now that Apple has thrown its hat into the ring, there’s one more heavyweight contender. Fans of high-end headphones rightfully want to know if the new AirPods Max beat out the two reigning champs in this category: Sony’s WH-1000XM4 and Bose’s Noise Canceling Headphones 700.
Since there’s only one way to find out, let’s get right to it with our three-way noise-canceling headphones comparison.
Note: We have yet to receive the AirPods Max for testing, but will update this story as soon as we do.
Apple always charges a premium for its products, but that premium usually puts it just over the price charged by competitors. Take the AirPods Pro: At $249, they’re only slightly more expensive than the $230 Sony WF-1000XM3, which have a very similar set of features. But at $549, the AirPods Max are $169 more expensive than the $380 Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, and $200 more than the $350 regular price of the Sony WH-1000XM4.
Apple will likely have no problem selling the AirPods Max at that price, but one thing’s for sure: If you’re on a budget, Sony easily takes this category.
Sony rarely strays from a successful formula once it finds one, even if that formula might be a tad conservative. The WH-1000XM4 are proof: Simple and understated in either matte black or sand, these headphones are all about function driving form. Since these headphones have continued to earn accolades year after year, we’d argue it’s a very successful approach that has yielded a set of cans that are supremely comfortable and intuitive to use.
Bose departed from its own headphone design script when it created the Noise Canceling Headphones 700. The single-piece headband and sliding earcups are an elegant combo, but there’s a fairly big gap between the sides of your head and the headband, which not everyone likes. They’re available in four color options.
Apple has undoubtedly done more to push the design envelope with the AirPods Max than any other headphone maker. From its unorthodox mesh headband to the satin-finish aluminum earcups, to the stainless steel sliders that meet the earcups in a seamless pivot joint, the AirPods Max look like no other headphones on the market. And just to seal the deal, they come in five color choices, more than both Sony and Bose.
Bose’s Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 keep things relatively simple. You can adjust their level of active noise cancellation (ANC); configure their voice assistant button to work with Siri, Alexa, or Google Assistant; and sync them with a Bose soundbar for private TV listening. Bluetooth multipoint pairing lets you use them with two devices simultaneously. Conversation mode lets you temporarily access ambient sounds for quick chats. The Bose Music app gives you access to EQ adjustments.
Like all AirPods, the Max fit tightly into Apple’s ecosystem. Many of their standout features, like easy pairing, shared listening, spatial audio, and hands-free Siri access, only work when the headphones are paired with an Apple device. Even the convenient automatic switching feature only works with compatible Apple devices. Features that work regardless of which device you’re using include auto music pause, adjustable ANC, and wired listening using an Apple proprietary Lightning-to-3.5mm audio cable.
Sony has thrown everything at the WH-1000XM4. Auto-pause, Bluetooth multipoint, voice-sensing ambient mode, adjustable ANC and EQ, Sony 360 Reality Audio (when used with compatible music services), and support for LDAC, one of the only Bluetooth codecs that havs been certified as hi-res compatible by the Japanese Audio Society.
While iPhone users will arguably prefer the AirPods Max’s features simply because the two devices work so well together, we think the Sonys win this one.
Battery life may not be top-of-mind for us right now in our travel-restricted pandemic world, but hopefully one day soon we’ll be boarding planes more frequently. When that time comes, which headphones will last the longest? It’s looking like a tie between the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 and the AirPods Max for last place. Apple claims “up to 20 hours of listening time on a single charge with Active Noise Cancellation or transparency mode enabled” for the AirPods Max. We don’t know how long they’ll last when these features are turned off, but if the AirPods Pro are any indication, it won’t make a significant difference.
The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 have an identical rating. Where Apple enjoys a slight edge is in charging speed: Five minutes of charging will get you 1.5 hours of play time on the Max, versus 15 minutes for 3.5 hours on the Bose cans.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 absolutely destroy Apple and Bose on these stats, with 30 hours of play time with ANC on, and 38 hours with it off. To top it off, Sony’s quick charge gets a whopping five extra hours of use with just 10 minutes of charging. It’s no contest at all.
Noise cancellation and transparency
Because we have yet to actually try the AirPods Max, we can’t declare a winner for this category, but we can make an educated guess.
We already know that Bose’s Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 are better than the Sony WH-1000XM4 for ANC as well as voice calls, two areas that Bose has dominated for years. We also know that as awesome as the ANC on Apple’s AirPods Pro is, Bose was able to produce even better results on its recently released QuietComfort Earbuds.
But it’s entirely possible that Apple has one-upped Bose on headphone ANC. Why do we think that? Quite often, the specs tell the story: The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 use a series of six microphones for its ANC functionality, while the AirPods Max use a series of eight mics. Are more mics necessarily better? No, you need great ANC softwar,e too, but since we know Apple understands ANC software, it’s tempting to think the company has chosen this strategy for a reason. Those eight mics are probably going to give Apple an edge when it comes to transparency, too.
This is another one we can’t call without trying out the AirPods Max, but once again, we can leverage what we do know to make a prediction.
The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 sound great — they are easily the best-sounding headphones the company has ever made — however, the Sony WH-1000XM4 deliver fuller, richer sound and impressive dynamic range across all frequencies. The Sonys are rated for hi-res audio when used with a wired connection, which means they have a wider frequency response than either the Bose or Apple cans. With LDAC as an option for Android users — and assuming you have a good source of lossless CD-quality or better-than-CD-quality music, the Sonys definitely have an edge in the audiophile arena.
Still, Apple has made a lot of fuss about the computational audio and adaptive EQ on the AirPods Max, not to mention the Dolby Atmos compatibility of Apple’s spatial audio feature. So even though Apple’s strict adherence to AAC as an audio codec keeps the AirPods Max from entering true hi-res territory, we suspect they’re going to sound excellent when used with the standard 256 Kbps streams favored by Apple Music and Spotify. But if you don’t happen to adore Apple’s tuning of the AirPods Max, there’s little you can do about it. Sony, however, offers abundant EQ adjustments within its Headphones app.
There’s no way we’re going to declare an absolute winner without getting our hands and ears on the Apple AirPods Max, but given what we’ve outlined above, we’d be surprised if Apple’s first over-ear headphones can steal Sony’s crown. But never say never. We’ll be back here to render our final verdict as soon as we can put some of these questions to rest.