Sony WH-1000XM5 vs Apple AirPods Max: which wireless headphones are better?

For years, Sony has consistently produced some of the best noise-cancelling headphones we've tested. The company's latest model in the premium wireless over-ear market, the WH-1000XM5, blew us away with their sensational sonic clarity and have now won the What Hi-Fi? Award in their category two years on the trot.

But Sony has always faced plenty of competition: Sennheiser and Bose have always knocked on the door. And in recent years, so has Apple. The iPhone maker boldly released its first over-ear headphones, the AirPods Max, in 2020 at a considerably higher price point, and if you like exquisite design and cinematic spatial audio, they won't disappoint.

So, here we have two pairs of top-class wireless headphones – but which is best for you? Having tested and lived with both pairs since their respective release dates, we can certainly point you in the right direction...

Black Sony WH-1000XM5 vs green AirPods Max graphic

(Image credit: Future / Apple / Sony)

Sony WH-1000XM5 vs AirPods Max: price

The AirPods Max are – and probably always will be – the pricier pair. They launched in 20202 at £549 / $549 / AU$899, and despite their age that price has held up pretty well. We have seen them discounted by as much as £/$/AU$100 during sales events such as Black Friday (November) and Amazon Prime Day (July), but typically they can be picked up for around 10 per cent less than their original RRP.

The AirPods Max are due a successor – rumour has it that the AirPods Max 2 could appear this year or early next. So if that's the case we could see the final stock of the originals drop to new low prices in the proceeding months.

The Sony WH-1000XM5 are significantly more affordable, having launched more in line with previous WH-1000XM models and rivals from Sennheiser and Bose. They launched in 2022 at £380 / $399 / AU$550 but are now often available for around £280 / $320 / AU$500.

Today's best prices currently for both pairs are below.

Do the AirPods Max justify their high price tag with their features? Or are the Sonys better bang for your buck? Next up: design.

**Winner: Sony WH-1000XM5**

Sony WH-1000XM5 vs AirPods Max: design

Charcoal-coloured AirPods Max in the hand

The AirPods Max are some of the nicest-looking headphones we've come across (Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

The Sony WH-1000XM5 are very different to their predecessors, the multi-award-winning WH-1000XM4. Their radical revamp incorporates a "noiseless design" (old joints and hinges have been removed to create a seamless look) and eco-friendly plastic formed from recycled car parts. We can't fault their precision or comfort, though they do look less premium than the older pair.

In fact, the Sonys look and feel almost cheap compared with the AirPods Max, which 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 very effective seal.

Apple's extroverted styling may not be to everyone’s tastes, but hand someone a pair of AirPods Max and they will have no trouble believing that they cost a fair more than the Sony XM5.

Apple's use of premium materials means that the AirPods Max are significantly heavier than many wireless headphones. At 385g, they weigh 135g more than the Sonys. But, such is the effectiveness of the weight-distributing design, they don’t feel heavy on the head.

The Sonys are controlled using touch gestures on the surface of the right ear cup. You can tap and swipe to play/pause, adjust the volume and skip to the next track. It all works a treat.

Apple, meanwhile, has resisted the urge to integrate touch controls into the design of the AirPods Max. Instead, it uses physical controls: a button for switching between noise-cancelling modes and a volume dial inspired by the digital crown of the Apple Watch. The latter is an elegant solution, although it is a little too easy to knock when adjusting the headphones.

If style is important to you, you'll be pleased to hear that the Apple AirPods Max are available in five colours (Space Grey, Silver, Pink, Green, and Sky Blue). Sony XM5 buyers are limited to just two rather sober finishes (black and silver).

The only design area where the Sonys pip the Apples is with the supplied case. The WH-1000XM5 come with a decent, practical carrying case while the AirPods Max come with a daft 'slip' case that barely covers the headphones.

**Winner: Apple AirPods Max**

Sony WH-1000XM5 vs AirPods Max: battery life

Black Sony WH-1000XM5 on red fabric

The Sony WH-1000XM5 can hold plenty of juice (Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

The Sony XM5 manage an impressive 30 hours of use with noise-cancelling enabled. Switch noise-cancelling off, and you should be able to squeeze 40 hours out of them. Those are increasingly common figures in the wireless headphones market – even at the more budget end.

For the AirPods Max, Apple stipulates a run time of "up to 20 hours" with both noise-cancelling and spatial audio (Apple's immersive audio processing technology) enabled. That feels a little scanty nowadays, and something we hope Apple improves on for the AirPods Max 2.

Stepping out in a hurry? The Sonys will get you out the door quickest, too. They provide three hours of playback from a three-minute charge, while the Apples offer 1.5 hours of playback from a five-minute charge.

**Winner: Sony WH-1000XM5**

Sony WH-1000XM5 vs AirPods Max: features

Apple AirPods Max on a desktop next to plants

The AirPod Max's USP is spatial audio technology (Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

Both pairs have sophisticated processors that drive an impressive set of features. The WH-1000XM5 boast Sony's DSEE Extreme processing engine, which does a fabulous job of upscaling compressed music tracks to near hi-res quality. Not to be outdone, the AirPods Max boast an Apple H1 chip in each ear cup, enabling them to make 200 adjustments per second to optimise noise-cancelling effectiveness.

One of the AirPods Max's USPs is their support for spatial audio, which provides a virtual surround sound experience from 5.1, 7.1 and even Dolby Atmos video content, and with music via Apple Music. The effect is truly stunning, but you'll need an iPhone or iPad to experience it through the Max.

The WH-1000XM5 support the more fledgling Sony 360 Reality Audio immersive (music-only) format, but the effect isn't quite as compelling. More useful is their Adaptive Sound Control technology, which automatically switches noise-cancelling listening modes depending on your location (more on that below), and their Speak-to-Chat feature, which allows you to talk to someone while the headphones are still on your head. 

The Sonys also support LDAC Bluetooth for high-quality wireless transmission with a compatible (LDAC-supporting) Android device. The AirPods only support AAC transmission, which is a lower-quality Bluetooth codec. Neither pair, however, supports the popular, high-quality aptX codecs.

The Sony XM5 also have Bluetooth Multipoint so they can be paired with two devices simultaneously – ideal if you want to connect a laptop for playing music and a phone for taking calls. The Apple AirPods Max don't support Bluetooth Multipoint, although they can switch between multiple Apple devices.

Lastly, the Sonys charge via USB-C while the Apples use the Lightning connector (the rumoured AirPods Max 2 will almost certainly sport USB-C), and the Sonys can be used as wired headphones when they're out of battery, whereas the Apples require power even for wired listening (and don't come with an audio cable).

**Winner: draw**

Sony WH-1000XM5 vs AirPods Max: noise-cancelling

Sony WH-1000XM5 on a yellow cushion

The Sony's Adaptive Sound Control feature is well worth having (Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

Both pairs offer active noise cancellation. Ultimately, the Sony WH-1000XM5 seem to be marginally better at blocking constant, consistent noise (engine sounds, for example). That said, the AirPods Max let very little through and are a touch better when it comes to combating loud conversations.

There is one key difference to note, however. The Sony XM5 have an AI-powered feature called Adaptive Sound Control which allows the headphones to learn your behaviour and recognise your frequently visited locations. It uses this data to automatically tailor the noise-cancelling levels to your current surrounding. For example, the XM5 will crank up the sound-blocking effect when you step into your local railway station, and then dial it back down again when you're cruising along on a relatively quiet train. It's a seriously smart feature, and well worth having. 

**Winner: Sony WH-1000XM5**

Sony WH-1000XM5 vs AirPods Max: sound quality

Apple AirPods Max with iPhone 12, next to plants

The AirPods Max 2 justify their higher asking price with superior sound quality (Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

Those are the features dealt with, and now we get to the most pertinent question of all: what are these headphones like to listen to? Very good, as you would expect from flagship pairs from two marquee brands.

In terms of acoustic engineering, the Sonys sport all-new 30mm carbon fibre drivers that have been specially made to be lightweight and yet extremely rigid, whereas the Apples have 40mm drivers that are said to maintain total harmonic distortion of "less than one per cent across the entire audible range".

The Sony XM5 excel sonically at their price point, delivering an effortlessly musical sound. The XM4 were our favourite-sounding headphones at this level, but the XM5 made a significant leap in overall quality. They're more open and considerably clearer. Bass notes are rendered with newfound precision, and the level of detail these cans dig up is astonishing. Dynamic shifts are conveyed with aplomb, while their sense of timing is exemplary. You won't find a more compelling performance from wireless over-ear headphones at their price.

But stretch to the AirPods Max's asking price, and you will be rewarded with superior sound quality. There’s a degree of clarity and energy here that even the Sonys can’t match, and overall they sound more engaging and authentic. Lighter on their feet, even more precise and exciting, they feel like a significant step up in terms of sonic sophistication. Movie performance is excellent too, particularly when it comes to spatial audio virtual surround sound. The whole presentation is very open, spacious and convincing.

Ultimately, we believe the AirPods Max justify their premium over the Sonys in terms of sound quality, even if in our minds the Sonys are the better value pair, all things considered.

That said, those who want (and can afford) the very best wireless headphone sound quality available should note that there are now pairs that perform even better than the AirPods Max, such as the higher-priced Mark Levinson No.5909Focal BathysBowers & Wilkins Px8 and T+A Solitaire T.

**Winner: Apple AirPods Max**

Sony WH-1000XM5 vs AirPods Max: verdict

Apple's AirPods Max look and sound spectacular and provide a truly stunning spatial audio experience when paired with iPhone and iPad devices. There's no denying that iOS users with deep pockets should strongly consider them. But when it comes to outright value – and, indeed, non-Apple users – Sony's WH-1000XM5 are our number one recommendation. Hence their current What Hi-Fi? Award.

They are more accessible, boast some fantastically advanced features such as the ability to upscale audio and optimise noise-cancelling according to your location, all while delivering a wonderfully engaging and detailed sound that is sure to impress most people. They also offer a longer battery life, support a higher-quality Bluetooth codec, and work well with both iOS and Android devices. 


How do Sonos's new wireless headphones fare? Read our Sonos Ace review

See our Sony WH-1000XM5 tips, tricks and FAQ answers

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Tom is a journalist, copywriter and content designer based in the UK. He has written articles for T3, ShortList, The Sun, The Mail on Sunday, The Daily Telegraph, Elle Deco, The Sunday Times, Men's Health, Mr Porter, Oracle and many more (including What Hi-Fi?). His specialities include mobile technology, electric vehicles and video streaming.

With contributions from