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

Sony makes some of the best noise-cancelling headphones we've tested. The company's most recent flagship cans, the WH-1000XM5, blew us away with their sensational sonic clarity and picked up a gong at the 2022 What Hi-Fi? Awards.

But the Japanese giant has competition – from Apple no less. The iPhone maker released its first over-ear headphones, the AirPods Max, in 2020. If you like exquisite design and cinematic spatial audio, the 2021 What Hi-Fi? Award-winners won't disappoint.

So, two pairs of top-drawer noise-cancelling headphones – but which is best for you? Having tested both pairs extensively, we should be able to point you in the right direction...

Sony WH-1000XM5 vs AirPods Max

(Image credit: Future / Apple / Sony)

Sony WH-1000XM5 vs AirPods Max: price

The Apple AirPods are the more expensive option here, available for £549 / $549 / AU$899. Deals can be sporadic but keep an eye on our best headphones deals page and you never know your luck.

The Sony WH-1000XM5 are significantly cheaper. They launched at £380 / $399 / AU$550 and tend to drop in price around Prime Day and Black Friday. We've listed today's lowest prices below.

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

**Winner: Sony WH-1000XM5**

Sony WH-1000XM5 vs AirPods Max: design

Apple AirPods Max

(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.

That said, the Sonys look and feel almost cheap compared with the (much pricier) Apple 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 lot 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.

Like the XM4, the Sony WH-1000XM5 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, Sky Blue). Sony XM5 buyers are limited to just two, rather sober, finishes (black, silver).

**Winner: Apple AirPods Max**

Sony WH-1000XM5 vs AirPods Max: battery life

Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones in silver

(Image credit: Sony)

The Sony XM5 manage an impressive 30 hours of use with noise-cancelling enabled. Switch noise-cancelling off, and you can squeeze 40 hours out of them.

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. 

Stepping out in a hurry? The Sonys will get you out the door quickest. They provide 3 hours' playback from a 3-minute charge; the Apples offer 1.5 hours' playback from a 5-minute charge.

**Winner: Sony WH-1000XM5**

Sony WH-1000XM5 vs AirPods Max: features

Apple AirPods Max

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

The Sony WH-1000XM5 boast Sony's DSEE Extreme 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. This enables the upmarket cans to make 200 adjustments per second to optimise noise-cancelling effectiveness.

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".

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 content. The effect is truly stunning, but you'll need an iPhone or iPad to experience it.

The Sony WH-1000XM5 are loaded with advanced features including Adaptive Sound Control, Speak-to-Chat and support for Sony's 360 Reality Audio format. Most of which work with iOS and Android devices (only LDAC support is limited to Android devices).

Other things worth noting: the Sonys charge via USB-C while the Apples use Lightning. The Sonys can be used as wired headphones, whereas the Apples cannot. The Sonys come with a decent carrying case that provides plenty of room for headphones and cables; the Apples come with a daft 'slip' case that barely covers the headphones and does not adequately protect them from knocks and scratches.

Finally, the Sony XM5 have Bluetooth multipoint so they can be paired with two devices simultaneously. The Apple AirPods Max don't have Bluetooth multipoint, although they can switch between multiple Apple devices.

**Winner: draw**

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

Sony WH-1000XM5

(Image credit: Future)

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 tailor the level noise-cancelling to suit. For example, the XM5 will crank up the noise-cancelling when you step into your local railway station... then dial it back down again when 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

Apple AirPods Max with iPhone 12

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

That's the features dealt with. But what are these headphones like to listen to?

Very good, as you would expect from flagship pairs from two marquee brands. The Sony XM5 excel sonically, with an effortlessly musical sound. The XM4 were our favourite-sounding headphones at this price, but the XM5 have actually come on leaps and bounds.

Theirs is a more open sound with greater clarity. 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.

The AirPods Max are very special indeed. There’s a degree of clarity and energy that even the Sonys can’t match, and 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, as well as build quality. Movie performance is excellent too, particularly when it comes to spatial audio virtual surround sound. The whole presentation is very open, spacious and convincing.

Still, while the AirPods Max absolutely justify their price over the Sonys in terms of sound quality, it should be noted that premium rivals such as the  Mark Levinson No.5909Focal Bathys and Bowers & Wilkins Px8 do just the same to the Apples.

**Winner: Apple AirPods Max**

Sony WH-1000XM5 vs AirPods Max: verdict

Apple's AirPods Max are spectacular but, all things considered, Sony's WH-1000XM5 are the best all-rounders here. 

The Sonys are much lighter, less pricey, and boast some fantastically-advanced features such as the ability to upscale audio and optimise noise-cancelling according to your location. They also offer longer battery life, sound wonderfully musical, and work well with iOS and Android devices.   

Then again, there's no denying that iOS users with deeper pockets should consider the AirPods Max. They're built to last, sound even better than the Sonys, and provide a truly stunning spatial audio experience when paired with iPhone and iPad devices. 


Sonys go head to head: Sony WH-1000XM5 vs WH-1000XM4: which are better?

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

And two Bose: Bose QuietComfort 45 vs Bose 700: Bose's wireless noise-cancelling headphones compared

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

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.