Ladies and gentlemen, we have a new contender for the title of best noise-cancelling headphones: the Apple AirPods Max. After months, nay years, of speculation, Apple has finally announced its first pair of over-ear headphones. And compared to the current competition, they’re mighty expensive, too. So how do they stack up against the best currently on offer?
Here we’ve pitted them against two of the finest of their kind – the Sony WH-1000XM4 and Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700. We’ve covered all the main points to consider – like price, design, features, and so on – to give you an idea of how they compare.
Ready? Let’s block out all outside noise and focus on comparing these headphones.
AirPods Max vs Sony 1000XM4 vs Bose 700: price
First, the elephant in the room. The Apple AirPods Max are pricey. They retail at £549 ($549, AU$899), which is a lot more than either the Sony WH-1000XM4 (£350, $350, AU$550) or Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 (£350, $399, AU$599). Outrageous. Or is it?
Here we argue that the AirPods Max could offer iPhone owners an unparalleled experience – particularly from the all-important usability perspective. And as we all know, that’s one area where Apple shines.
Of course they have to sound great too – at least as good as the competition; perhaps better. Until we’ve had a review unit to test, we’ll reserve judgement.
Of the other two, the Bose cans tend to dip a bit lower come sales time, so are worth watching out for if your budget is a little tight. The Sonys are newer so discounts have so far been rarer.
AirPods Max vs Sony 1000XM4 vs Bose 700: battery life
For the AirPods Max, Apple stipulates a run time of “up to 20 hours” with both noise-cancelling and spatial audio (Apple’s immersive audio processing technology) enabled. That matches the Bose 700’s 20-hour battery life with Bluetooth and noise-cancelling switched on. Both are decent, but by no means class-leading.
The Sony WH-1000XM4, meanwhile, last around 30 hours (or 38 hours if you switch off noise-cancelling), which is impressive.
Stepping out in a hurry? The Bose cans’ quick-charge function returns 3.5 hours from a 15-minute charge. Respectable, but Sony will get you out of the door quicker – the WH-1000XM4 provide five hours play from just 10 minutes charging. And Apple? A five-minute charge gets you an hour and a half of playback time.
Looks like a clear victory for Sony in this round.
AirPods Max vs Sony 1000XM4 vs Bose 700: design
The AirPods Max, with their five colour options (space grey, silver, sky blue, green and pink), are undoubtedly the most eye-catching of the three. But their design flourishes go beyond just a pretty paint job.
The plush, chunky memory foam earpads that should be comfy enough to wear for hours, and an adjustable headband also looks suitable for all-day listening sessions. The ear cups attach using magnets, so should be easy to remove and reattach – handy for stowing in your bag when not in use.
One neat design quirk is that they are controlled via Apple’s Digital Crown, a dial first seen on the Apple Watch. This will let you alter volume, control playback and summon Siri.
But of course Sony and Bose’s efforts are no slouch on the design front.
The Sony XM4 look almost identical to their predecessors, the WH-1000XM3, although they feature slightly larger earpads, an improved fit and a tweaked design that looks a little more seamless. Thanks to their plush pads and rock-solid build quality, they’re some of the most comfortable headphones we’ve ever tested. If ‘sleek and grown-up’ (and yes, pretty understated) is your style, you’ll like the WH-1000XM4.
The Bose 700 have a more elegant, slender design that is arguably easier on the eye and looks more premium. The combination of ‘invisible’ hinges and a swooping stainless steel headband inject some real wow factor into proceedings, and we’re fans of the Bose’s predilection for touch controls over physical buttons.
Both are a lot more aesthetically subdued than the AirPods Max, mind. The more traditional-looking Sony XM4 come in black and silver finishes, while the stylish Bose 700 come in black, silver and limited edition ‘Soapstone’.
The AirPods Max look more fun, the Boses more elegant and the Sonys more sleek. Whichever you choose, you’re guaranteed a beautifully engineered design.
AirPods Max vs Sony 1000XM4 vs Bose 700: features
As you would expect for the asking price, the AirPods Max are not short of features.
Like the Sony and Bose models, they’re wireless and have active noise-cancellation. Apple’s H1 chip is also onboard, alongside its Adaptive EQ and spatial audio technologies.
Apple has designed its own 40mm dynamic driver for the AirPods Max, promising “rich, deep bass, accurate mid-ranges, and crisp, clean high-frequency extension”. Apple claims that its neodymium ring magnet motor maintains total harmonic distortion of less than one per cent across the frequency range – even at maximum volume. That’s a bold claim.
The H1 chip in each of the ear cups supposedly has ten audio ‘cores’ capable of nine billion operations per second, and it’s here that Apple powers its audio technologies. Adaptive EQ works to adjust the sound to the fit and seal of the ear cushions by measuring (and adjusting) the sound signal in real-time, while spatial audio aims to deliver an immersive soundstage for content recorded in 5.1, 7.1 and Dolby Atmos surround sound by using the headphones’ gyroscope and accelerometer to track the motion of a user’s head and remap the audio field accordingly.
Like a lot of other headphones of this type, there’s also a Transparency mode, which lets you simultaneously listen to music while still hearing the environment around you.
Audio Sharing lets you share audio between two sets of AirPods (whether that be the AirPods Max, AirPods Pro or AirPods) on iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, or Apple TV 4K. And again, like a lot of other headphones, they automatically play and pause audio when they are placed on or removed from one’s head respectively.
They’re controlled via the aforementioned Digital Crown control dial, which we can’t wait to try. And they come with a Smart Case (pictured above) that puts AirPods Max in an “ultra-low” power state to help preserve battery charge when they aren’t in use. And yes, it does look a bit like a bra.
But the old guard have some pretty impressive tricks up their sleeves.
Sony’s noise-cancelling headphones contain a new DSEE Extreme audio processor that upscales compressed audio to near-hi-res quality and also uses artificial intelligence to analyse music in real-time to reproduce a more accurate sound.
The Sonys also have Speak-to-Chat, which automatically pauses your music when you start talking. It’s not perfect but does come in handy as it means you don’t have to remove your headphones to chat with a co-worker or flight attendant. The Bose 700 feature a similar ‘Conversation mode’, but you have to manually press a button to activate it.
The Sony headphones also have Adaptive Smart Control, which learns your favourite locations and automatically adjust the sound settings accordingly. Then there’s ‘Wearing Detection’, which means they automatically pause music when you take them off and resume playback when you put them on. Sony’s bag of tricks continues with Atmospheric Pressure Optimiser, too, which tweaks their sound for high altitude – perfect if you happen to lead a jet-setting lifestyle.
The Bose 700s support Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, and either can be activated with a press of the bottom button on the right earcup. But most of its claims in the feature department can be made in its sophisticated noise-cancelling system, which we’ve delved into below.
On paper, Apple’s proposition has a more impressive feature set than either Sony’s or Bose’s – particularly for owners of other Apple devices. But how these features actually work in the real world is another question entirely…
AirPods Max vs Sony 1000XM4 vs Bose 700: noise-cancelling
All three pairs naturally offer noise-cancelling. Of course, it’s one of the main selling points of this style of headphone.
The AirPods Max have four mics in each ear cup to deliver noise cancellation – there are three outward-facing to detect environmental noise, and one inside to monitor the sound reaching the listener’s ear. Apple has no doubt learned a lot from its AirPods Pro true wireless earbuds, its first set of noise-cancelling headphones. There, the noise-cancellation was incredibly effective, thanks to it being adjusted 200 times per second to compensate for outside noise, so we’re expecting the AirPods Max to handle noise-cancellation similarly well.
They have their work cut out. Both the Sony and Bose pairs are some of the best noise-cancelling headphones we’ve tested, so to say competition is fierce would be an understatement.
The 700 make the most of the Bose’s next-generation noise-cancelling chip, which provides 11 degrees of noise-cancelling intensity, ranging from full isolation to total transparency. You can scroll through levels in the companion Bose Music App and adjust it to your liking. The 700 essentially use six mics to cancel the noise around you, plus four mics to improve the clarity of your voice. In short, the tech works brilliantly and helps deliver crystal clear call quality, too. Overall noise-cancelling performance is truly breathtaking – the best around.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 hold their own against the Bose, though, thanks to their advanced HD Noise Cancelling Processor QN1, which uses a special algorithm and Bluetooth System on Chip (SoC) to monitor audio and ambient noise, making precise adjustments 700 times a second to optimise their noise-cancelling. And, as with the 700, you can adjust the intensity via Sony’s companion app.
AirPods Max vs Sony 1000XM4 vs Bose 700: sound quality
It’s too early to say how Apple’s AirPods Max will sound. On the basis of Apple’s AirPods and AirPods Pro, we’re sure they will pull no punches on the audio front. But it will be a first for Apple headphones if the Max prove class leaders in their field; the two true wireless earbuds both sound decent, but don’t have the transparency of the best.
The AirPods Max have an uphill battle to climb. After all, both Sony and Bose have been in the noise-cancelling sphere for years, each time improving the sound-per-pound they offer. The Bose 700 display a superb level of musicality and clarity, direct-sounding, dynamic and detailed.
That said, they can’t quite compete with the depth of bass and detail offered by the Sony WH-1000XM4. The Sonys sound that bit more composed and are confident, punchy and poised. Their timing is brilliant, too.
None of the headphones support aptX HD, but the XM4 do boast LDAC, Sony’s own codec which allows for higher-quality files to be played wirelessly from a compatible source.
Lastly, it’s also worth noting that the Sony Headphones Connect app allows for broader customisation of EQ settings, compared to the Bose Music app. That extra layer of usability adds to the appeal of the XM4.
AirPods Max vs Sony 1000XM4 vs Bose 700: verdict
The AirPods Max look like a very tempting pair of headphones indeed. But they certainly have their work cut out if they are to sit at the top of the pecking order.
Sony and Bose make some of the very, very best noise-cancelling headphones around, so Apple is entering a fiercely competitive market. And that price! It piles on the pressure.
But if any company is capable of justifying such a price tag, arguably it’s Apple. The firm has a track record of dominating many product categories it enters, and its recent focus on sound quality has led to some stunning results. Think not just the AirPods and AirPods Pro, but the HomePod and recent HomePod mini too – all of which have earned four- or five-star reviews.
The AirPods Max have been a long time coming, but as with Apple’s other headphones they could well prove worth the wait. We’re sure Sony and Bose aren’t too worried. Both firms have a long history of producing stellar headphones with superb sound quality, and the differentials in price will keep the competition separate for many people. For the minted Apple fan looking for a seamless user experience, though, the AirPods Max might prove preferable. Watch this space.
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