Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones vs Apple AirPods Max: what are the differences?

Apple AirPods Max vs Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones
(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

Bose has some new over-ear headphones. The QuietComfort Ultra Headphones replace the Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 as Bose's range-toppers, and if our hands-on is anything to go by, they look mighty impressive.

But can they compete with the five-star Apple AirPods Max? This is what we're here to find out.

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones vs Apple AirPods Max: price

The Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones are pitched as a premium pair, and priced accordingly. They will cost £450 / $429 (AU$649) when they go on sale in October. That's still a fair bit cheaper than the AirPods Max, which retail for £549 / $549 / AU$899. But there's a twist...

Namely that the AirPods Max are three years old now, and so do go on sale for a price much closer to the QuietComfort Ultra. At the time of writing, there's only £50 in it. And we've seen them drop as low as £420 / $450 / AU$800 in the past. So don't – ahem – discount the AirPods Max.

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones vs AirPods Max: design

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones vs AirPods Max: which noise-cancelling headphones are best?

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

Bose has had plenty of experience making premium wireless headphones, and it shows. The Ultra combine tactile surfaces and premium materials in a very attractive package. But there's function as well as form – they fold flat and get even smaller thanks to their hinges. Stick them in the carry case and they'll take up minimal space in your bag. Which is not something that can be said about the AirPods Max.

The Bose headphones are comfortable, being relatively lightweight and with a grip that's not too tight. And the headband has plenty of room for adjustments.

You control them using a capacitive touch strip, which is nice and responsive, and a button to which you can assign different functions like switching listening modes and answering calls.

The headphones come in either a Black or White Smoke finish.

That's far fewer than the AirPods Max, which boast five different colour options: Silver, Space Grey, Sky Blue, Pink and Green. The Max are also more impressive in terms of materials, with pristinely machined, single-piece anodised aluminium ear cups, a stainless-steel headband and memory-foam cushions. All this does make them quite heavy, at 385g, though it's distributed so evenly that they never feel weighty or uncomfortable.

Controls? You get a button for switching between noise-cancelling modes and a dial inspired by the Apple Watch's Digital Crown. Typical for an Apple product, they're a delight to use.

Less so the case. Not only does it look ridiculous, it also does a poor job of protecting the headphones. Not ideal when you've spent this amount of money.

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones vs AirPods Max: features

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones vs AirPods Max: which noise-cancelling headphones are best?

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

So what makes these Bose headphones so Ultra? They're the first with Bose's Immersive Audio tech, which is its own take on spatial audio. The idea is to make the audio sound less like it's being piped into your ears and more like it's coming from a pair of speakers.

You get two modes: Still and Motion. Still is for when you're in one place and want the music in a fixed position. Motion keeps you immersed while on the move.

Qualcomm's higher-quality aptX Adaptive codec is onboard, as is multipoint Bluetooth for connecting to – and switching between – multiple sources simultaneously. Battery life is 24 hours with Immersive Audio turned off and 18 hours with it turned on.

That's just under the 20 hours of the AirPods Max, but both headphones offer less than the 30 hours of rivals Sony WH-1000XM5 and B&W Px8, and around a third of the 60 hours delivered by the Sennheiser Momentum Wireless 4.

The AirPods Max feature an Apple-made 40mm driver with a dual neodymium ring magnet motor. Apple claims that this design allows the AirPods Max to maintain total harmonic distortion of less than one per cent across the entire audible range. 

Each earcup features an Apple H1 chip to analyse information coming in from eight microphones around and inside the headphones (a ninth microphone picks up your voice). This not only helps the noise cancellation, but it also adjusts the sound 200 times a second to the fit and seal around your ears.

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones vs AirPods Max: noise cancelling

Apple AirPods Max in case

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

ANC is a major feature of both headphones. Bose's include the company's CustomTune calibration and Aware Mode with ActiveSense, which automatically adjusts the amount of ANC you’re hearing based on your surroundings, so your music isn’t drowned out by particularly loud noises.

Bose claims to have improved call quality in the over-ears too, with more advanced microphones in a beamform array that reduces the impact of external noise. Each earpiece has five microphones, up from four in the NC 700.

The noise cancelling seems impressive. During our brief hands-on demo, a band played music that was mixed live and transmitted straight to the QuietComfort Ultra Headphones. When Bose fed external noise into the room, the ANC ramped up, keeping the band front and centre. But we'll reserve our final judgement until we've given them a full review (the headphones, not the band).

We have fully tested the AirPods Max's noise cancelling, and can confidently say that it's excellent. While others (like the Sony XM5) are better at blocking constants like engine noise, the Max still let very little through, and they're marginally better at inconsistent irritants like chitchat (and its awful cousin, banter). The ANC does flatten the dynamics and slightly soften the punch too though, so we would advise leaving it switched off until you need it.

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones vs AirPods Max: sound

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones vs AirPods Max: which noise-cancelling headphones are best?

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

We haven't fully tested the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones, so can't comment definitively on their sound quality. But in our hands-on session, first impressions were promising.

Bose was keen to show off its new Immersive Audio tech, which took up the bulk of the demo time. The Still mode gave a greater sense of immersion with a fuller soundfield, a more open presentation and more spacious feel. Turning Immersive Audio off, stereo seemed to sound a little flatter by contrast.

Overall, the cans seem to deliver a decent amount of detail, weighty bass and good dynamics. But we'll need to spend some proper review time with these headphones before we can deliver a final verdict.

No such issues with the AirPods Max – we've been living with them for nigh-on three years now, and they sound as impressive now as they did when they first launched back in 2020. 

They have clarity and energy in spades, and it's all delivered with Apple's neutral sonic balance. The openness and spaciousness make it sound as if you’re sitting in the room as the musicians play around you. They don't shy away from showing up poor recordings, particularly in the high end thanks to their superb treble. 

They're great for movies too, with spatial audio providing a virtual surround sound experience from 5.1, 7.1 and even Dolby Atmos content. Not only that, but built-in head tracking means that the sound is always relative to the screen, even when you move your head or the iPhone or iPad on which you’re watching.

All told, the effect is superb. The whole presentation is very open, spacious and convincing, and the tracking is amazingly smooth and accurate as you move your head.

Android user? Knock at least a star off the AirPods Max's score, as certain iOS-only features aren't available to you.

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones vs Apple AirPods Max: early verdict

We're yet to test the Bose properly – the closest we've come is a hands-on demo. But they certainly look exciting on paper. They're cheaper than the AirPods Max, offer Bose's new take on spatial audio, and feature an upgraded version of Bose's noise cancelling, which was already one of the best offerings around. If Bose can nail the sound quality, they could be a fantastic, not to mention cheaper alternative to the AirPods Max.

We'll update this page once we've given the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones a full review.


Read our first impressions of the new Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones

Bose QuietComfort 45 vs Bose 700: Bose's outgoing wireless noise-cancelling headphones compared

Apple spatial audio: what is it? How do you get it? And is it like Dolby Atmos?

I switched from the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II to the Sony XM5 and... I’m torn

Joe Svetlik

Joe has been writing about tech for 17 years, first on staff at T3 magazine, then in a freelance capacity for Stuff, The Sunday Times Travel Magazine, Men's Health, GQ, The Mirror, Trusted Reviews, TechRadar and many more (including What Hi-Fi?). His specialities include all things mobile, headphones and speakers that he can't justifying spending money on.