Bowers & Wilkins Px8 vs Apple AirPods Max: which wireless headphones are better?

Apple's AirPods Max are some of the most premium over-ear wireless noise-cancelling headphones around. But they're not the only game in town. 

Bowers & Wilkins has a storied history in hi-fi speakers, and in recent years has successfully parlayed its knowhow into making fantastic high-end headphones. Its latest are the Px8 – long story short, they're just as plush a pair as Apple's finest.

But which is better? That's what we're here to decide. So let's compare the two category by category and see which come out on top.

Bowers & Wilkins Px8 vs Apple AirPods Max headphones

(Image credit: Future)

Bowers & Wilkins Px8 vs Apple AirPods Max: at a glance

  • The B&W Px8 are more expensive than the AirPods Max
  • Both offer similar features, with noise-cancelling and wireless Bluetooth, though the AirPods Max add spatial audio to the mix
  • Android user? Some of the AirPods Max's features are Apple-only
  • The Px8 sound better than the AirPods Max for precision and clarity

Bowers & Wilkins Px8 vs Apple AirPods Max: price

How much?! That was essentially our reaction when we first saw the AirPods Max. A pair of Apple over-ear headphones had been rumoured for years, but everyone was expecting a slightly more mainstream proposition – something to rival Sony's all-conquering XM range, or Sennheiser's excellent Momentum headphones.

But no. It seems Apple had other ideas. It positioned the AirPods Max as a rival to proper hi-fi cans – staggering, considering it had no prior experience of making over-ear headphones. It would've been arrogant, had they not turned out to be so great.

They sell for £549 / $549 / AU$899 – almost twice the price of the Sonys and Sennheisers mentioned above.

Not to be outdone, B&W has given its latest cans an even higher asking price: £599 / $699 / AU$1150. They're newer too, so less likely to be found on a deal. Make no mistake, neither pair are for anyone on a tight budget.

Winner: Apple AirPods Max

Bowers & Wilkins Px8 vs Apple AirPods Max: design

Bowers & Wilkins Px8 vs Apple AirPods Max: design

(Image credit: Future)

With these kinds of asking prices, these are not your standard headphones. At this money you would expect fine detailing, premium materials and superb build quality. And that's exactly what you get from both.

Apple's pair boast pristinely machined, single-piece anodised aluminium ear cups connected by a stainless-steel headband. Between the cups and your head are memory-foam cushions that easily surround even the largest ears, creating a seal that’s both gentle and surprisingly effective at physically blocking out sound.

Place them side by side with a pair of Sonys, and you can easily see where your extra outlay is going.

At 385g, they're heavier than a lot of wireless headphones (including the B&W Px8, which tip the scales at 320g). But the weight is distributed so well that they never feel like a drag on your head movements. 

Apple's been smart when it comes to controls – the dial (inspired by the digital crown on the Apple Watch) is particularly intuitive. But the case is less of a delight. It looks ridiculous, and doesn't protect large parts of the headphones, though it does put them into an ultra-low-power mode that preserves the charge for months.

Not to be outdone, the B&W Px8 certainly look and feel the part. They stick to the company’s trademark classy aesthetic design that walks a fine line between showy and luxurious. The high price of these headphones is certainly reflected in the quality of the materials, which have taken a big step up over the otherwise similar-looking (and cheaper) Bowers & Wilkins Px7 S2 headphones.

Highlights include soft-to-the-touch Nappa leather on the headband, earcups and earpads, which comes in two finishes – black or tan – and a cast aluminium arm structure that feels precisely engineered.

So which comes out on top? In terms of comfort, it's a dead heat. A minority of users might find the Px8's earpads a little on the small side, but neither pair cooks your ears, making them ideal for long-term listening. But for build quality, B&W has the edge. The Px8 feel more luxurious, especially the Nappa leather sections. But both pairs are above average for suppressing structural noise, especially the type transmitted through the headphones' structure while walking.

Winner: Bowers & Wilkins Px8

Bowers & Wilkins Px8 vs Apple AirPods Max: features

Bowers & Wilkins Px8 vs Apple AirPods Max: features

(Image credit: Apple)

So we know these headphones look amazing and are built to last. But what do they actually do?

Both offer very similar noise-cancellation modes: on, off, or a way of letting in outside sound (Apple calls it Transparency, while B&W goes for the more standard 'passthrough'). But Apple's claims to be a bit more sophisticated – the AirPods Max feature one of Apple's H1 chips in each of its earcups. These analyse information from eight microphones dotted around and inside the headphones (there’s also a ninth microphone for picking up your voice, which comes through very clearly on calls) to not only actively cancel outside noise but also tailor the sound in real-time to the fit and seal around your ears. This active processing is unique to Apple, with 200 adjustments per second.

The Px8 don't have quite as many mics – they use four for noise-cancelling plus another two for voice pick-up in phone calls. But the noise-cancelling effect is much the same.

Rather than buy an off-the-shelf driver for its first pair of over-ear headphones, Apple created its own. The 40mm driver in each earcup features a dual neodymium ring magnet motor – Apple claims this design maintains total harmonic distortion of less than one per cent across the entire audible range.

The Px8 also feature two 40mm drivers, but unlike their cheaper siblings, the Px7 S2, they use cones made from carbon fibre rather than bio-cellulose (or paper, as it's also known). B&W claims this carbon cone is lighter, more rigid and more controlled, reducing distortion while improving transparency.

Being newer, the Px8 feature a later version of Bluetooth (5.2 to the AirPods Max's 5.0) with aptX Adaptive compatibility. But the AirPods Max bring Apple's spatial audio to the party, which delivers surround sound and 3D audio through headphones. Spatial audio has some impressive effects, like dynamic headtracking, which tethers the sound to the source, so if you turn your head while watching something on your iPad, the audio will sound like it's coming from the screen itself rather than your headphones. Very clever.

Both headphones feature physical controls, and both have app support. The Bowers & Wilkins Music app was recently updated to let you adjust the bass and treble, as well as the sensitivity of the wear sensor for wearer detection (where the music pauses when you take the headphones off, and resumes when you don them again). It can now be linked to music services such as Tidal and Qobuz too, bringing all the functionality into one app.

This round is a close one. Both apps are very intuitive, though Apple's feels a little slicker (though it's only for Apple devices, not Android ones). In terms of noise-cancelling, they're similarly evenly matched, though the Px8 suffers a little more from break-through from sudden noises such as traffic, but it's not a massive issue. Still, in the face of fierce competition, that's enough to hand the round to Apple.

Winner: Apple AirPods Max

Bowers & Wilkins Px8 vs Apple AirPods Max: battery life

Bowers & Wilkins Px8 vs Apple AirPods Max: battery life

(Image credit: Future)

Being wireless, both pairs of headphones are powered by an internal battery. Apple's keeps the AirPods Max going for 20 hours before needing a recharge – that's 10 hours less than the Sony WH-1000XM5, which are substantially cheaper. The B&W Px8 match the Sonys at 30 hours, but both are well short of the 60 hours delivered by the Sennheiser Momentum 4 Wireless.

The Px8 have the edge in terms of fast charging, too. Juice them up for 15 minutes, and you'll get seven hours of runtime. The AirPods Max give you around 90 minutes from a five-minute fast charge.

Note: both pairs require charge even when listening through the supplied audio cables. So if your battery dies, you can't listen through them, full stop.

Winner: Bowers & Wilkins Px8

Bowers & Wilkins Px8 vs Apple Airpods Max: sound quality

Bowers & Wilkins Px8 vs Apple AirPods Max: sound quality

(Image credit: Apple)

Now the meat of the issue. What's the sound quality like?

In both cases, it's very good. Though there are some things to note. The AirPods Max sound their best with both noise-cancelling and Transparency mode switched off – these tend to flatten the dynamics and soften the punch somewhat. It shouldn't dissuade you from using either feature, but if you can go without (while listening at home, say), you should.

But wherever you're using them, you're in for a good time. The delivery is spacious and crisp, with a degree of clarity and energy that cheaper headphones can't match. Engaging, authentic, light on their feet... we could go on. Let's just say that sonically, they feel like a significant step up from the likes of the Sony WH-1000XM5 and Bose QuietComfort 45, and as such, they are priced accordingly.

But what's this? The Px8 don't just rival the AirPods Max in terms of sound quality, but outdo them? It's true.

The Px8 offer a level of clarity and insight that's not bettered at this level, while they're notably more precise than their Apple rivals. At lower volumes, the music's energy and sparkle tend to fade, but this is a minor gripe in an otherwise standout performance.

Bass is taut and controlled, the midrange is crisp and clear, while a track's detail is presented in a way that's musically cohesive. There's a good sense of rhythmic drive, impressive agility and plenty of responsiveness to keep things moving. Theirs is a refined listen that never sounds overly smooth.

Apple used to set the standard at this level. And the AirPods Max are still wonderfully detailed, full-bodied and refined, with an especially impressive midrange making voices shine. But the Px8 have moved things on – they're punchier and more agile, with better clarity and precision. They've unseated the AirPods Max as the best-sounding headphone at this price level. No mean feat.

Winner: Bowers & Wilkins Px8

Bowers & Wilkins Px8 vs Apple AirPods Max: verdict

What a battle. Without venturing into bona fide hi-fi territory, only a few over-ear headphones cost more than the AirPods Max, and that list now includes the B&W Px8. But while pricey, the Px8 do offer plenty of bang for their buck: they're beautifully made with luxurious materials, built to last, have a longer battery life and offer a superb sound quality that outdoes Apple's finest.

The AirPods Max are still a fine pair of headphones. And they outdo the Px8 in terms of features (if you're using an Apple device that is; Android owners can cut the features list in half). But if you want a better listening experience, our money is with B&W.

MORE:

Check out our round-up of the best noise-cancelling headphones and best wireless headphones

Our pick of the best noise-canceling headphones

These are the best Apple deals live now 

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.