Sony WF-1000XM5 vs Apple AirPods Pro 2: which premium earbuds are better?

Sony and Apple are two of the biggest players in the wireless earbuds market right now. Apple with its AirPods ubiquity and terrific integration with iOS hardware; Sony with its incredible track record of delivering fantastic sound quality with its recent headphones.

Sony's current flagship wireless earbuds, the WF-1000XM5, have made quite the five-star impression. With a streamlined design, improved noise-cancelling, more user-friendly features and an impressive new sound signature, they're the most accomplished pair Sony has made yet.

Apple's flagship AirPods Pro 2nd Generation are the first in-ear AirPods model to get a five-star review from our review team; such is the musical talent on display. They have excellent features, work intuitively with iPhones and deliver a spacious, dynamic sound that is easy and entertaining to listen to.

We wouldn't hesitate to recommend both; in fact, both buds feature on our official list of the best wireless earbuds. So how do these two flagship models fare against each other? Both models offer different features, a different design and a different sonic profile, and we've tried and tested all these aspects to find out which offers the best performance for your money.

Price

Sony WF-1000XM5 vs AirPods Pro 2: price

Apple surprised us when the new AirPods Pro 2 with Lightning connector launched in September 2022 at the exact same £249 / $249 / AU$399 pricing as the original Pro pair (which launched in 2019). They surprised us even more when 2023's version of the AirPods Pro 2nd generation with the USB-C connector launched at a lower price in the UK for £229. The earbuds themselves are the same, but the charging case with the USB-C model is the current official one sold through Apple. Both versions, however, can still be bought at various retailers across all territories, often at decent discounts. 

The Sony WF-1000XM5 are a tad pricier than the AirPods Pro 2, launching in August 2023 for £259 / $299 / AU$419. It's not the hugest price difference by far, and we've seen the Sony's price drop down to £219 during the holiday shopping season. But if you're counting your pennies (and this is still admittedly a significant amount to pay for a pair of wireless earbuds) and want the best deal right now, the AirPods Pro 2 just about edge it over the XM5 in pure price terms.

**Winner: Apple AirPods Pro 2**

Design & comfort

Sony WF-1000XM5 vs AirPods Pro 2: design and comfort

Sony WF-1000XM5 and Apple AirPods Pro 2 placed next to each other on a denim blue background

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

Here's where it gets interesting, because the Sony and AirPods subscribe to completely different design profiles. The XM5 have a fully rounded body that nestles in your ear's concha fully, while Apple's bud-and-stem design for its AirPods is now iconic and much-imitated.

Both have merits and quibbles, and a huge chunk of your decision on which pair to buy will start with which design fits you better. We find both the XM5 and AirPods Pro 2 to be a comfortable fit and easy to wear over long listening periods. Both models come with four sizes of eartips in the box (XS, S, M, L) to cover a wider range of ears, too. However, the same views aren't shared by all: some on the What Hi-Fi? team don't get along with the AirPods' design, while others have found the Sony XM5 to be not quite as secure a fit as they'd like. It really depends on your personal preference (and the shape of your ears!). We'd recommend using the handy ear-tip fit test in the accompanying app settings to ensure you've got the best seal for fit and sound. 

We can't find fault with the build quality, however, as being premium flagship buds, both are made to a high standard. Apple's all-white-only finish is neat and sturdy, while the XM5's newly glossy finish is sleek and feels more premium than before.

The AirPods Pro 2 are smaller and lighter (each bud weighs 5.3g compared to the XM5's 5.9g), but we have to applaud Sony for making the XM5 approximately 20 per cent lighter and approximately 25 per cent smaller than the older WF-1000XM4. It makes a huge difference to the new, slimmer profile and they don't protrude out of the ears as much, either.

The charging case for Sony has been reduced in size too. Apple's is very pocketable as well, and has nifty features like a speaker that emits chimes to indicate charging or when using precision finding to locate them, a lanyard loop and the ability to engrave a Memoji onto it. Sony is less frivolous, but it does offer the XM5 in more colour options: black and silver.

Sony WF-1000XM5 and Apple AirPods Pro 2 charging cases held in hand

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

What about controls? Apple finally added on-ear volume controls to its AirPods line with the Pro 2nd generation, which involves swiping up or down on the touch-capacitive stems. You can also pinch those stems to swap between ANC and Transparency modes (or switch off entirely), skip tracks, play/pause, accept calls, summon Siri and more. 

Sony XM5, meanwhile, houses all touch controls on buds, and you can adjust playback, sound modes and volume all at the same time through various taps on the buds. You can configure this all through the Sony Headphones Connect app and we find all controls are responsive, just as they are on the AirPods Pro 2. You can also use gestures (shake or nod your head) to accept or reject an incoming phone call on the XM5, which works well but might make you feel rather ridiculous.

For the slightly more premium design and extra features and colours, we'll give this round to the Sony XM5, but we can't stress enough just how seamless the AirPods Pro 2 are to use, especially with iOS devices.

**Winner: Sony WF-1000XM5**

Features

Sony WF-1000XM5 vs AirPods Pro 2: features

Screenshots of the settings and controls in the Apple AirPods Pro 2 app

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

Many of Apple's key features found in the AirPods Pro 2 are locked into its own ecosystem: if you have an iPhone and use Apple Music to stream tunes, you'll get the very best results out of the Pro 2. These include the various customisation features you can adjust through the iPhone's settings, the near-instant pairing, Audio Sharing (the ability to play audio simultaneously through two sets of AirPods), FindMy location, Siri voice control and playing spatial audio with dynamic head tracking when listening to Dolby Atmos tracks in Apple Music. Compatibility with Android devices is much better than before, but users don't quite get the full complement of flagship features.

That's not the case with the Sony XM5, whose detailed Headphones Connect app is fully furnished with all customisation options for both Apple and Android users. There are a handful of XM5 features that are locked into specific services and devices, though, mainly where they concern 360 Reality Audio and LDAC codec compatibility. 

Sony’s own 360 Reality Audio immersive tracks (an alternative to Apple's Spatial Audio) are available on streaming services such as Tidal and Deezer, but the XM5 now adds Head Tracking abilities for the first time, although this new feature is only available to Android users.

Screenshots of the settings in the Sony Headphones Connect app

(Image credit: Sony)

The Sony XM5 also continue to support Sony's own LDAC format, which allows hi-res audio files up to 32-bit/96kHz to be transmitted at data rates of up to 990kbps – that's higher than standard SBC or AAC codecs, or aptX HD (Sony doesn't support any aptX codecs). Note that this only works when streamed over Bluetooth from a compatible source, such as Sony Walkmans, select Android phones and portable hi-res players.

Additionally, the XM5 use Sony's DSEE Extreme audio processor to upscale low-bitrate music to near hi-res quality. Meanwhile, the AirPods Pro 2 still don't support any higher-quality codecs, sticking with the standard Bluetooth codecs despite Apple Music offering lossless 24-bit tracks. We found during our test that this doesn't diminish the sound quality of Apple's performance, however, as you'll see in the Sound quality section below.

Outside of that, Sony brings back plenty of features we enjoyed in the XM4 for all. Speak-to-Chat and Quick Attention return, which drops the volume or pauses songs to let you have a conversation without removing the buds entirely. The AirPods Pro 2nd Gen have a similar Conversation Awareness mode, and both buds pause playback of any song when an earbud is removed, and resume playing when placed back in. 

It's no surprise both these flagship wireless earbuds are packed with the very best and latest features, but by offering a more agnostic approach for all users, Sony wins this round.

**Winner: Sony WF-1000XM5**

Top Tip
Kashfia Kabir
Top Tip
Kashfia Kabir

I've used and lived with both the Apple and Sony earbuds for many months now, and I can genuinely say they're both a breeze to use in everyday situations. It's all about the little things and your preferences: you can easily toggle off any features you don't want to use and keep only the essentials on. For example, I turn Apple's Conversation Awareness and Adaptive Audio modes on during my morning commute, but I turn both off when listening to music at home. It only takes a second to make those changes. And with the Sony buds, I can easily configure the various touch controls to how it feels natural for me to use them.

Battery life

Sony WF-1000XM5 vs AirPods Pro 2: Battery life

Apple AirPods Pro 2 next to an iPhone 12 on a wooden table

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

Battery life on the Sony WF-1000XM5 buds lasts an impressive eight hours on a single charge with ANC turned on, with a total of 24 hours available with the charging case. There's been no increase here: these are the same battery life numbers as the older XM4 model and that might be disappointing for those wanting more – but it's competitive at this level.

The AirPods Pro 2 offer six hours in the buds by comparison, but you get a longer 30 hours in total from the charging case. Those extra hours will no doubt come in handy for longer journeys (and save us from having to charge up the buds too frequently). Both buds support wireless and wired charging. Just make sure to check with Apple charging case version you're buying: it's the 2022 model for the Lightning connector, and the recent 2023 model for the USB-C connection.

**Winner: Apple AirPods Pro 2**

Call quality

Sony WF-1000XM5 vs AirPods Pro 2: Call quality

Sony WF-1000XM5 and Apple AirPods Pro 2 earbuds placed next to each other

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

One of the biggest acoustic design changes Apple made in the AirPods Pro 2 was to reposition the mics and vents for improved airflow. This affected the effectiveness of ANC and overall sound quality, as well as call quality. The inward-facing mic was also redesigned, with voice enhancement algorithms added in to ensure your voice sounds more natural when on a call – and it certainly does so during our tests.

In the new XM5, Sony has done even more work to ensure clearer voice call quality, especially in windy environments. The design itself incorporates a wind noise reduction structure, an AI machine learning-enhanced noise reduction engine that helps maintain clarity, and there's even a bone conduction sensor that detects when you're speaking. Phew.

All that means is that, in practice, wind noise is greatly subdued and our voice sounds very detailed and clear to the person on the other line, even more so than when using the AirPods Pro 2 in similarly busy and windy conditions when outdoors.

**Winner: Sony WF-1000XM5**

ANC

Sony WF-1000XM5 vs AirPods Pro 2: noise-cancellation

Apple AirPods Pro 2 placed on a book on a plane seat's table

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

Both Apple and Sony have promised to improve noise-cancelling over their previous generations and they succeed to our ears. For Sony, a new integrated processor V2 and HD Noise Cancelling processor QN2e aim to reduce outside noise by a 20 per cent improvement over the XM4. The WF-1000XM5 has three mics rather than two on each bud and focuses on reducing low-frequency noise even more.

With Apple, it promises ANC that's twice as effective over the original Pro model. The new H2 chip powering the AirPods Pro 2 combines with the new 'optimised' placement of the acoustic vents and mic that improves airflow, to deliver a more comfortable noise-cancelling effect.

Both earbuds offer an effective dimming of outside noise when ANC is activated. Background noise is reduced to a mere murmur on the AirPods Pro 2, while XM5 manages to suppress just a bit more low-level noise when outdoors. Both also offer an Aware/Transparency mode that lets you be more aware of your surroundings.

You can adjust the level of Ambient noise in the XM5, and Sony additionally offers an Adaptive Sound Control feature. This learns and adjusts the level of noise-cancelling and ambient sound depending on how you use them and in which locations you regularly visit. It's a clever bit of technology that's worth investigating.

Apple has a slightly different approach by offering Adaptive Audio, which adjusts the level of ANC dynamically in response to real-time noise levels in your surrounding area. It's a nice blend of full ANC and Transparency Mode (especially when it still won't allow us to manually adjust the level of ANC), and we find it's nicely reactive and effective.

We also like how Apple and Sony offer less of that vacuum-like feeling that you normally hear in ANC buds – the AirPods Pro 2 offer a more 'airy' feeling when ANC is deployed than the XM5, so that's one to consider if you're after a more subtle noise-cancelling effect. However, those wanting a more severe silencer would be better served by the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds.

**Winner: Sony WF-1000XM5 (just)**

Sound quality

Sony WF-1000XM5 vs AirPods Pro 2: sound quality

Sony WF-1000XM5 earbuds and case held in hand

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

Here comes the real difference-maker: sound. The AirPods Pro 2 are the first in-ear Apple buds to earn five stars from us, and enthusiastically so. It's a far more grown-up, rhythmically adept and powerful sound than we've heard before from the AirPods line. Apple's intention was to deliver the excellent premium AirPods Max over-ear headphones sound in a pocketable form, and has done so with success in the Pro 2. It's a neutral sound profile, with natural clarity and warmth to voices, all peppered with greater weight, detail and more dynamic subtlety. 

Inside each bud is a custom low-distortion, high-excursion driver, and the aforementioned repositioned vents go a long way in adding a more open, airy sense of space. It's a very likeable and engaging sound from the start, with richness and a great sense of drive and agility – we actually preferred these aspects in the AirPods Pro 2 compared with our old Sony XM4 favourites. 

But how do they compare with the new Sony WF-1000XM5? Sony uses a completely new driver here, called Dynamic Driver X, which is larger (8.4mm compared to 6.4mm on the older XM4) and uses two different materials for the high and low frequencies. Sony says the larger size means the driver doesn't need to move as much as the smaller driver, which helps reduce mechanical noise. 

Sonically, the XM5 are terrifically accomplished. There's a stupendous sense of power and drive, the timing is spot-on, and dynamic shifts are handled with subtlety and aplomb in equal measure. The edges of notes are precisely and crisply delivered, making easy work of more complex arrangements (Radiohead, Rachmaninov) while also delivering plenty of nuance and texture in a sombre Nick Cave track.

There is a newfound level of detail that's really quite special. The XM5 are more analytical than any other earbud we've heard, and it's an approach that might come at the expense of fluid musicality that might be preferable to some. Having spent plenty of time with the XM5 now, we would also highlight that these buds do become more dynamic and engaging over time – the more running in/listening time they get, the better they perform. 

Additionally, the XM5 show a tremendous sense of control and authority, with a larger sound and more weight to the bass. The AirPods Pro 2 still have plenty of energy and their less demanding presentation makes for an easier listen, but the treble is a touch rolled off in comparison and they can't quite reach the same heights as the new XM5. 

While the AirPods Pro 2 are still an enjoyable, fun and easy-to-listen pair, the XM5 are a clear step ahead when it comes to outright clarity, detail resolution and precision.

**Winner: Sony WF-1000XM5**

Verdict

Sony WF-1000XM5 vs AirPods Pro 2: verdict

Sony WF-1000XM5 and Apple AirPods Pro 2 placed next to each other against a colourful background

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

If it's the absolute best-sounding wireless earbuds you want for your money, the answer is clear: the Sony WF-1000XM5's sonic performance really impressed us, snagging a 2023 What Hi-Fi? Award win and raising the bar for what you can expect from a pair of earbuds.

The XM5 have a greater set of features that work for a wider range of devices, too, but we can't emphasise enough how the AirPods Pro 2 offer a convincing, seamless performance for those that are locked into the iOS ecosystem. The fit, features set and noise-cancelling are generally on par across the board with both models; it just depends on which flavour appeals to your preferences. The Apple buds are the (slightly) cheaper pair, but both buds can be snagged at decent discounts at various moments throughout the year.

If you're able to plumb for the very best performance at this premium price range, however, the Sony XM5 won't disappoint at all.

**Overall winner: Sony WF-1000XM5**

MORE:

Read our full Sony WF-1000XM5 review

And our Apple AirPods Pro 2 review

Want the best sound from the XM5? Here are 5 sound settings you shouldn't ignore

Looking for an alternative? These are the best wireless earbuds you can buy

I spoke to Sony's audio experts about how they tune the WF-1000XM5 earbuds' stunning sound

Kashfia Kabir
Hi-Fi and Audio Editor

Kashfia is the Hi-Fi and Audio Editor of What Hi-Fi? and first joined the brand over 10 years ago. During her time in the consumer tech industry, she has reviewed hundreds of products (including speakers, amplifiers and headphones), been to countless trade shows across the world and fallen in love with hi-fi kit much bigger than her. In her spare time, Kash can be found tending to an ever-growing houseplant collection and shooing her cat Jolene away from spinning records.