The title of best noise-cancelling headphones has been long fought over by Sony and Bose (and Sennheiser), and more recently by Apple.
The Apple and Bose pairs are the current premium models the companies offer, though do note that the Sony XM4 have now been replaced by the (incrementally better and pricier) Sony XM5. (And if you'd like, you can read our Sony XM5 vs Bose 700 and Sony XM5 vs AirPods Max comparison articles instead.)
That said, all three pairs we have here are very much still available to buy, so this three-way remains valid a few years on from when we first penned it. So which offers the best bang for your buck? Is one pair more comfortable than another? Do they all work with iOS and Android phones?
The full and frank Apple vs Sony vs Bose comparison below covers all the big considerations – price, design, features and of course sound quality – so you can make the right choice at the checkout.
AirPods Max vs Sony XM4 vs Bose 700: price
First, the elephant in the room. The AirPods Max are really quite expensive. They launched at £549 / $549 / AU$899, which is a lot more than the original RRP of the Sony WH-1000XM4 (£350 / $350 / AU$550) and Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 (£350 / $399 / AU$599).
All three pairs have since fallen in price, which is to be expected considering they have been around for a few years now, and in the case of the Sony XM4 also succeeded by a newer model. At the time of writing, the AirPods Max can be picked up for £499 / $480 / AU$775; the Sony XM4 cost £250 / $325 / AU$420; and the Bose 700 are priced £240 / $379 / AU$350.
Below are today's best prices on all three pairs.
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, fairly decent.
However, the Sony WH-1000XM last around 30 hours (or 38 hours if you switch off noise-cancelling), which is mighty impressive. No wonder it's been carried over into the Sony XM5 too.
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 of play from just 10 minutes of charging. And Apple? An hour and a half of playback from just 5 minutes of 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 the 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 pricier 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 new WH-1000XM5 boast a slimmer, more seamless design but all told, they don't feel quite 'premium' as the XM4.
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 realtime.
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 its 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 adjusts 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. The new XM5 promise better call quality, but that's probably not going to be a deal-breaker.
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 its most impressive claims in the feature department can be made in its sophisticated noise-cancelling system, which we'll delve into next.
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, meanwhile, make the most of 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 them 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 just about hold their own against the Bose, thanks to their advanced HD Noise Cancelling Processor QN1, which uses a unique 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.
But wait: the AirPods Max offer excellent noise-cancelling, too. Ultimately, while the Sony WH-1000XM4 seem 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.
All three are excellent at noise-cancelling, but the level of adjustability in the Bose is unrivalled.
AirPods Max vs Sony XM4 vs Bose 700: sound quality
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 even the new Sony XM5, if you were wondering). And they needed to, given the significant price difference. But they're worth it – it really is a jump from wireless audio to wireless hi-fi.
It's a very impressive achievement considering 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. But 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 confident, punchy and poised. Their timing is brilliant, too.
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 multi-Award-winning Sony XM4 still deliver a superb wireless noise-cancelling experience at their lower price point if you're looking for something a little more affordable, or for those who don't own an iPhone. And between the two, the Sony XM4 are definitely better all-rounders.
**Overall winner** Apple AirPods Max
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