Sonos Ace vs Apple AirPods Max: which should you buy?

The Sonos Ace wireless headphones must be one of the most rumoured, most anticipated pairs in the history of personal audio. And now they are here, ready to take on the best of the competition.

Now, as anyone taking even a cursory look at our best noise-cancelling headphones list will know, the talent in this space is huge, and the Sonos Ace need to deliver in every area to compete with the best.

Among that talent are the Apple AirPods Max. From the similarly slick design to the premium price point, they seem to be very much in the Sonos Ace’s sights – but now we've put them both through their paces in our full reviews, how do they compare head to head? Let's find out...

Sonos Ace vs AirPods Max: price

Sonos Ace in their case next to the Apple AirPods Max in their case

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

The Sonos Ace cost a reassuringly expensive £449 / $449 / AU$699 – undoubtedly a premium price for a pair of wireless headphones, particularly when Sonos kit rarely budges from RRP.

The Apple AirPods Max launched a while back, in December 2020, and at the time were the most expensive wireless headphones we had tested at £549 / $549 / AU$899. They’re getting on a bit now – in fact, we are expecting their successors, the AirPods Max 2, at some point soon – so the more recent price drop in some territories seems fair. You can now pick them up for around £500 / $500, but Australia is currently holding strong at RRP.

That means that while the Ace are more expensive than most wireless headphones, Sonos has still carefully undercut one of its biggest competitors despite being considerably newer.

** Winner: Sonos Ace **

Sonos Ace vs AirPods Max: design

Sonos Ace lying next to the Apple AirPods Max

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

Take one look at the Sonos Ace and you can’t help but be reminded of the Apple AirPods Max. The seamless and minimalist over-ear cup design of the Ace is a touch smaller and more rounded than those on the Max, and a little less shiny too, but it’s not worlds apart. 

However, unlike the Max, which our in-house reviews team has used comfortably without issue for a few years now, some members did find the smaller earcups of the Ace a touch too small.  This, they said, led to the feeling of them heating up quite quickly during wear – though this was not something that those with smaller ears felt was a problem.

This suggests that those with larger ears may well be better served by the bigger earcups on the Max.

There is a slight difference here, though – the AirPods Max go for fabric on their earpads, while Sonos has opted for vegan leather on the Ace. We overall prefer the cushioning on the Max, which is just a little thicker, but there's not really much in it.

The Sonos Ace are noticeably lighter than the AirPods Max, at 312g vs 385g, but both sit really nicely on our heads with a low clamping force that we don’t find at all fatiguing.

Just like the AirPods Max, the earcups on the Ace swivel to sit flat to make them easier for travelling, while keeping hinges very much hidden – an appealing design choice for anyone who has ever caught their hair in a pesky exposed hinge before. 

As with most other Sonos devices, the Ace come in a choice of Black or Soft White matte finishes, while AirPods Max have a few more – and shinier – options: Silver, Space Grey, Sky Blue, Pink or Green.

With the Sonos Ace you get a matching travel case with a smaller travel pouch that can hold all necessary cables. There's a USB-C charging cable and USB-C to 3.5mm audio cable included in the box. 

The Apple AirPods Max, on the other hand, come with a pretty flimsy protective cover for the earpads only and there are no audio cables included, which feels a bit stingy at the price. 

** Winner: Apple AirPods Max **

Sonos Ace vs AirPods Max: features

A close up of the Sonos Ace and Apple AirPods Max buttons

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

Sonos has decided to take a similar route as the AirPods Max when it comes to controlling playback and noise cancellation and has swerved touch controls on the Ace.

While the Max really do keep things minimal with just a button and a dial for controlling volume, the Sonos Ace use a couple more – there is a button for power and Bluetooth pairing on the left cup, and a button to cycle through the noise cancelling and aware modes on the right, plus a multi-functional slider (or “elongated content key”, according to Sonos) for volume and playback that works brilliantly.

Just like the Max, the Sonos Ace are purely Bluetooth headphones and don’t feature wi-fi as once predicted – that may come in a later version, according to Sonos, but not just yet.

Instead, they use the latest Bluetooth 5.4 and are capable of playing lossless audio from compatible sources thanks to Snapdragon Sound’s aptX Lossless and Apple’s ALAC codecs support. There's currently no support for next-gen Bluetooth technologies like Auracast or LE Audio, but we don't think they will be missed at this point.

The AirPods Max, on the other hand, don’t support lossless playback at all – only supporting Apple's AAC format – and feature Bluetooth 5.0, since they are that little bit older.

Both do, however, offer spatial audio with dynamic head tracking across Dolby Atmos or 360 Reality Audio music and movies, though this is limited to iOS only on the AirPods Max. 

They also both feature a wear sensor for pausing and restarting your music automatically when you remove and replace an earcup, and include Bluetooth Multipoint for moving between two devices with ease.

The Sonos Ace do have a big advantage over the AirPods Max in that they manage 30 hours of playback from a full charge, and can get a three-hour boost from three minutes of charge. Apple's headphones can manage only 20 hours from a single charge, with one-and-a-half hours of extra playback from five minutes plugged in –albeit only if you fork out an extra £19 ($19 / AU$29) for Apple's 20W charger.

Apple's headphones are fairly low on other bells and whistles (and any it does have are limited to iOS users), but if you have a Sonos Arc soundbar and an iOS device (Android support is coming soon, apparently), the Ace headphones do have one more trick up their sleeve for you: TV Audio Swap. That means you can play the sound from your soundbar through your headphones with a single button press. 

Annoyingly, in practice, we found that this potentially useful feature (for, admittedly, a fairly niche group of people) had some pretty frustrating teething troubles, resulting in crackles, distortion and lip-syncing issues. Disconnecting and reconnecting usually fixed them, but it does mean this key USP isn't quite the homerun it could be... until a firmware update fixes them, anyway.

There's also a rather promising TrueCinema calibration feature, which will analyse your room and adjust the audio in the headphones to sound like you're listening through a home cinema system instead, but this won't roll out until later in the year.

** Winner: Sonos Ace **

Sonos Ace vs AirPods Max: noise cancellation and call quality

Sonos Ace leaning up against a colourful background, next to the Apple AirPods Max

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

Both the Sonos Ace and the AirPods Max use eight microphones to help with noise cancellation, and while neither can bother the likes of the Bose QuietComfort Ultra for absolute silence from their surroundings, we found that both did a decent enough job at knocking the wind out of a lot of the major background noise.

However, if pushed, we do notice a little less consistency in the cancelling out of mid and higher frequencies on the Ace, and find the Max do a better job at cutting out office chit-chat. If you need to let that sort of stuff in though, we do prefer Transparency mode on the Ace, and found the Max have a bit of a synthetic quality to them by comparison.

When it comes to calls though, the Max are back on top. They sound a lot clearer than the Ace do, which we found could make our voice sound quite muffled – particularly with wind noise outside. There was also quite a lot of variation in how much background noise our callers could hear, depending on whether we were static or walking around.

However, it is worth noting that we heard a reduction in sound quality when noise cancelling is switched on with the AirPods Max – something we didn't notice with the Sonos Ace. This means you will have to decide which is most important every time you listen, which is just something to consider.

** Winner: Draw **

Sonos Ace vs AirPods Max: sound

A hand holding the Sonos Ace in white and the Apple AirPods Max in black

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

Sadly, while the AirPods Max and the Sonos Ace may have exchanged blows pretty closely throughout this head-to-head so far, when it comes to sound, the Sonos Ace fall flat on their face. 

While their sound is far from offensive, it simply doesn't inspire. Sure there's weight and solidity, yes they're rich and relatively detailed, but it's all been played a bit too safe – a bit too simple. Their sound lacks excitement and is a bit congested too, so you don't get a good idea of space in a mix, nor distinction between instruments. It's all just a bit blurry, confused and undistinguished. 

The AirPods Max, on the other hand, pack in clarity, spaciousness and energy by the bucketload. They're as precise as they are exciting, and they don't gloss over a single detail for their level. Even with their lack of lossless playback, they trump the Sonos for sound quality in pretty much every way, with music at least. In every area that the Sonos struggle, the AirPods Max show them how it's done, and then some.

It's a bit more of an even keel with movies, with both offering a satisfyingly wide and open soundstage and a great experience from spatial audio. It'll be interesting how this is (we hope) improved further on the Ace once TrueCinema is available.

** Winner: Apple AirPods Max **

Sonos Ace vs AirPods Max: verdict

Apple AirPods Max, Sonos Ace

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

While the Sonos Ace look nice enough, have plenty of features (though some are yet to arrive, or be available/useful for all owners) and put up a decent fight in the noise-cancelling department, sonically they just can't compete with the Apple AirPods Max. And while the rest of the stuff is important in a well-rounded pair of headphones, sound quality is naturally the most important.

For that reason, we would recommend the AirPods Max over the Sonos Ace every time – as long as you're an iOS user, anyway. Just be aware that at three-and-a-half years old and with lots of rumours swirling, they could have successors just around the corner...


Read our Sonos Ace review

Check out our comparison of the Sonos Ace vs Sony WH-1000XM5

Or perhaps the Sonos Ace vs Bose QuietComfort Ultra

Verity Burns

Verity is a freelance technology journalist and former Multimedia Editor at What Hi-Fi?. 

Having chalked up more than 15 years in the industry, she has covered the highs and lows across the breadth of consumer tech, sometimes travelling to the other side of the world to do so. With a specialism in audio and TV, however, it means she's managed to spend a lot of time watching films and listening to music in the name of "work".

You'll occasionally catch her on BBC Radio commenting on the latest tech news stories, and always find her in the living room, tweaking terrible TV settings at parties.