Ladies and gentlemen, we have a new contender for the title of best noise-cancelling headphones: the Apple AirPods Max. After years of speculation, Apple finally launched its first pair of over-ear headphones at the end of 2020. But is their high price justified? And how do they stack up against their rivals?
We've covered all the main points to consider – price, design, features and of course sound quality – to help you decide which pair is right for you. Ready? Let's get to it: Apple vs Sony vs Bose.
- For a more in-depth look, check out our Apple AirPods Max review
AirPods Max vs Sony XM4 vs Bose 700: price
First, the elephant in the room. The AirPods Max are really quite expensive compared to the current class-leaders.
The AirPods Max price is £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).
But right from launch, we could already see how the AirPods Max price could make sense. After all, nothing can offer iPhone users as complete an experience as a pair of Apple headphones. And based on the usability and audio quality of the AirPods Pro, HomePod (which has since been retired) and HomePod Mini, we can see how the AirPods Max justify their price. More on that later.
Of the other two options, the Bose 700 tend to dip a bit lower come sales time, so might prove the better bet if your budget is a little tight. The Sony XM4 headphones are newer so discounts have so far been rarer, but not unheard of.
- Further reading: Sony WH-1000XM4 vs Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700: which are better?
- And don't miss Sony WH-1000XM3 vs Sony WH-1000XM4: which are better?
AirPods Max vs Sony XM4 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. From our time with the headphones, we think that's a conservative estimate and we can't imagine anyone being disappointed by the battery life.
The Bose 700 headphones also boast a 20-hour battery life with Bluetooth and noise-cancelling switched on. Again, decent.
However, the Sony WH-1000XM last around 30 hours (or 38 hours if you switch off noise-cancelling), which is mighty 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 5 hours play from just 10 minutes charging. And Apple? An hour and a half of playback from just 5 minutes charging.
Looks like a victory for Sony in this round.
**Winner** Sony WH-1000XM4
AirPods Max vs Sony XM4 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 are comfy enough to wear for hours, and an adjustable headband is also 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 lets you alter volume, control playback and summon Siri. It's pleasant to use, if initially a little easy to knock unintentionally.
All told, the AirPods Max build and design is undeniably Apple at its best. There is no question these are the most premium in feel and appearance, fully justifying their outlay.
Of course, Sony and Bose's efforts are no slouch on the design front – even if they can't come close to the overall sense of high-end quality that you get from the AirPods Max.
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. Think sleek and understated.
The Bose 700 have a more elegant, slender design that is arguably easier on the eye and looks more premium compared to the XM4 headphones. The combination of 'invisible' hinges and a swooping stainless steel headband give them the wow factor, and we're fans of the touch controls.
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'.
Prepared to pay for the highest quality design and styling? Hand your money over to Apple.
**Winner** Apple AirPods Max
AirPods Max vs Sony XM4 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 also designed its own 40mm dynamic driver for the AirPods Max, while our chums in Cupertino claim 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.
There's also spatial audio for an immersive soundstage from content recorded in 5.1, 7.1 and Dolby Atmos surround sound, using the headphones' gyroscope and accelerometer to track the motion of a user’s head and remap the audio field accordingly. And this works like a charm – movies on an iPad have never sounded so good.
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. And of course Siri is here for all your voice assistant needs.
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 works well once you get familiar with it. 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. Yes, it does look a bit like a bra. And no, we don't like it very much either – we're not convinced it really does a great job of protecting the headphones, which strikes us as Job Number One. We suggest looking out for a third-party compatible case at some point.
So that's the AirPods Max, in a nutshell. But not to be outdone, 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 (tricky during a pandemic).
The Bose 700 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.
Apple delivers a whole host of extra features that deliver extra enjoyment for everyone... who has an iPhone. Let's be clear: you're really not going to get the most out of the AirPods Max unless you're already an Apple user. The lack of supplied headphone cable is a little frustrating (if not surprising), as is the fact that they won't work at all when they're out of battery – unlike rivals, you can't use them in passive mode. Ultimately, we think we need to call this one a draw.
AirPods Max vs Sony XM4 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
The Bose 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 – and hard to beat.
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.
But wait: the AirPods Max offer excellent noise-cancelling, too. Ultimately, while the Sony WH-1000XM4 seem to be just marginally better at blocking constant, consistent noise (the engine on an airplane, say), the AirPods Max are just a touch better at combatting background voices – something that’s much harder to do. Ultimately, the Apples do a very good job of limiting how much external noise makes it through to your ears.
Again, it's too close to call. But that's a good thing – all three are excellent at noise-cancelling.
AirPods Max vs Sony XM4 vs Bose 700: sound quality
Of course for us, this category is the big one. And – spoiler alert – we've been blown away by the AirPods Max. They really do take sound quality for wireless, noise-cancelling headphones to a whole new level compared to the Bose and Sony. And they needed to, given the price difference. But they're worth it – it really is a jump from wireless audio to wireless hi-fi.
And that's a very impressive achievement. After all, both Sony and Bose have been in the noise-cancelling game for years, each time improving the sound-per-pound they offer. The Bose 700 display a superb level of musicality and clarity, sounding direct, 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. Sony's LDAC codec also allows for higher-quality files to be played wirelessly from a compatible source.
But listening to the Apple AirPods Max, we’re instantly thrilled by the super-crisp and spacious delivery. There’s a degree of clarity and energy that even the Sonys can’t match, and they sound more engaging and authentic. More precise and exciting, they feel like a significant step-up in terms of sonic sophistication.
Of course, switch from music to movies and the AirPods Max have a trick up their sleeve in the form of spatial audio, which provides a virtual surround sound experience from 5.1, 7.1 and even Dolby Atmos content. The effect is superb. The presentation is open, spacious and convincing, and the head-tracking, which ensures the audio is always relative to the screen as you move your head, is amazingly smooth and accurate. Even allowing for the extra outlay, we have a clear winner.
**Winner** Apple AirPods Max
AirPods Max vs Sony XM4 vs Bose 700: verdict
The AirPods Max are a very tempting pair of headphones indeed. Sony and Bose have delivered the best wireless noise-cancelling over-ear headphones in recent years, so Apple had its work cut out entering this market. But, just as we thought might be the case, the AirPods Max have more than delivered.
If you're an iPhone user and you're prepared to pay a premium for the best build, design, features and sound quality, look no further than the AirPods Max. They do deliver everything we hoped, and then some.
But perhaps the best news is that the Bose 700 and Award-winning Sony XM4 still deliver a superb wireless noise-cancelling experience if you're looking for something a little more affordable, or for those who don't own an iPhone. As always, the choice is yours...
**Winner** Apple AirPods Max
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