Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones vs Apple AirPods Max: which are better?

Bose has a long history of making great over-ear headphones. So imagine its annoyance when Apple entered the fray. 

The AirPods Max earned five stars from us, thanks to their peerless build quality and obsessive attention to detail, married with a super sound and effortless usability. But then Bose shot back, with its latest range-toppers, the QuietComfort Ultra Headphones, also earning five stars.

Both are excellent headphones in their own right, but which would be better for you? That's 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 cost £450 / $429 (AU$649) when they launched in October, and bar the odd sale, have stuck to their original asking price. That's a fair bit cheaper than the AirPods Max, which launched at £549 / $549 / AU$899. But there's a twist...

Namely that the AirPods Max are over three years old now, and sell for a price much closer to the QuietComfort Ultra. At the time of writing, there's only £49 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.

Winner: Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones vs AirPods Max: design

Apple AirPods Max on a sideboard surrounded by pot plants

(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.

Winner: Apple AirPods Max

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones vs AirPods Max: features

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones held in front of a leather sofa

(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.

Winner: Apple AirPods Max

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 is impressive. It dramatically reduces background rumbles while out and about, and the London Underground is rendered a mere background murmur during our commute. One occasional quirk did surprise us, though – the noise cancelling somehow enhanced the clunk of the train doors closing instead of subduing it. This is more of a curiosity than a genuine annoyance.

The AirPods Max are no slouch in this area. 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.

Winner: Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones vs AirPods Max: sound

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones on a table

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

Sonically, the QC Ultras do very well indeed. At first, they sound a little uptight and forward, but once given time to bed in they're a hugely entertaining pair. They have a precise, punchy delivery, and theirs is an enthusiasm that knows no bounds.

Notes are well defined with plenty of texture, and there's a sense of richness and refinement to the whole performance. They're equally comfortable with dynamic fare as they are more intimate productions. All in all, a treat for the ears.

But less so with Bose's Immersive Audio. This is Bose's take on spatial audio, and while it works well with some tracks, it really doesn't with others. When it works, it adds space to the soundscape, but when it doesn't, it sounds too processed. It will be a case of trial and error as to which in your library feel the benefit.

There's another niggle, too. The Motion mode within Immersive Audio is plagued by delay and phase issues as the processing tries to catch up with your head movements. Distracting.

As with the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds, you have to weigh up whether the Immersive Audio's added spaciousness and listening issues are worth the sacrifice in battery life (with the QC Ultra Headphones, it lops six hours off the total battery life).

The AirPods Max remain a joy to listen to, even over three years after we first heard them. 

They have clarity and energy in spades, and it's all delivered with Apple's neutral sonic balance. The openness and spaciousness beats teh Bose and 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? We're afraid you're out of luck, as certain iOS-only features aren't available to you.

Winner: Apple AirPods Max

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones vs Apple AirPods Max: verdict

So, the Bose are cheaper than the AirPods Max (though not by much), have slightly better noise cancelling but inferior spatial audio. They also come in fewer finishes, while sound-wise, Apple edges it.

The AirPods Max have design and spatial audio licked, but they are, of course primarily aimed at Apple users. If you pair them with an Android phone, you will have a much less rewarding experience.

Non-Apple users will be served extremely well by the Bose, then, but on balance, Apple's AirPods Max do just enough to get over the finish line.

 Winner: Apple AirPods Max


Read our Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones review

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones vs Sony WH-1000XM5: which is better?

Bose’s spatial audio tech is a nice idea for headphones but it’s too hit-and-miss

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.