Best AirPods Max alternatives Buying Guide: Welcome to What Hi-Fi?'s round-up of the best AirPods Max alternatives you can buy in 2022.
Apple's AirPods Max are some of the finest on-ear headphones money can buy. They boast superb build quality, excellent noise cancelling and awesome sound quality. They also work seamlessly with Apple devices, bringing a range of cutting-edge features like spatial audio to the party.
But they're not the only on-ears around. Similar features can be found elsewhere, and often for less money. So if you're looking to save a bit of cash, you use Android but still want an excellent experience, or you just want a more interesting pair that doesn't mark you out as an Apple fanboy, this is the list for you.
There's plenty to choose from, and most of them are much cheaper than Apple's over-ears. Intrigued? Let's see what's available.
How to choose the best AirPods Max alternatives
Chief among the AirPods Max's skills are wireless connectivity and active noise cancelling (ANC). So any alternative you're looking at will have to offer both of those.
Now, wireless connectivity means the cans will need a battery, and ANC is a real battery drain. The AirPods Max manage 20 hours of run time before needing a recharge – look for a similar battery life from any alternative headphones on your shortlist.
While we're on noise cancelling, some pairs have gradients of noise cancelling (most notably the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700), and some just have two settings: on or off. What's best for you really depends on how much you'll use the noise cancelling, and in which situations.
As well as noise cancelling, Apple's on-ears offer a transparency mode, which allows in outside sound. It's handy if you'd like to hear a station announcement, or have a quick chat with a friend or colleague, and don't want to take your headphones off. Lots of other headphones have the same feature, but it can come under different names (like talk through).
That's what to look for. Now here are some pairs to consider.
If you want superb sound quality and marginally better noice-cancelling than the AirPods Max while paying much less, you want the Sony WH-1000XM5. They're still not cheap, but in terms of value, they're the best noise-cancelling headphones around, which makes them the best AirPods Max alternatives.
They also boast a natty new look, which is a complete redesign from their predecessor, the XM4 (lower down this list).
They might feel a little less premium than the XM4 – and hence a lot less premium than the super plush AirPods Max – but they sound much better than their predecessors. The sound is effortlessly musical, with a newfound precision when it comes to bass notes. The presentation is more open, with greater clarity. And the noise-cancelling is now more seamless, being optimised automatically as you move through different environments.
If you're looking for a pair of serious AirPods Max alternatives, start here.
Read the full Sony WH-1000XM5 review
The S2 follow on from 2020's five-star PX7, promising better sound quality and typically excellent B&W build quality. And they don't disappoint.
The biggest cosmetic change from the PX7 (which are featured further down this list) is a shift away from smooth ovoid earcups to a less bulky, chamfered build that looks remarkably similar to the original PX headphones that were released in 2017. This shaves 3cm off the headphones' dimensions. It also means B&W can return to the 40mm driver after stepping up to a 43.7mm diameter for the previous generation.
The more luxurious arms are also new. But otherwise, the design is largely the same, with a moisture-repellent fabric covering the headband and outer shells and a C-shaped yoke that allows 180 degrees of horizontal rotation. Which is a very good thing.
The ANC is very effective, and the sound quality is marginally more polished, with the top end sounding sweeter and more refined. Some AirPods Max alternatives sound a little more exciting – namely the Sonys above – but at this price, you'll struggle to match such a combination of sonics and aesthetics.
Read the full Bowers & Wilkins Px7 S2 review
Now these don't come close to the AirPods Max in terms of build quality, features or sound quality. But they are a very good pair of noise-cancelling headphones that cost a fraction of the price.
One ear cup has a volume control, the on/off switch for the active noise-cancellation and a blue light that indicates when the ‘ANC’ (active noise-cancelling) feature is in use. The other has the USB input for charging, pause/play/skip track controls, a Bluetooth connection light and a standard wired headphone output. A full charge is good for 15 hours of wireless music, or a little less with the active noise-cancelling.
At this price, you'd be worried about bright treble or booming bass, but instead, the Lindy BNX-60 headphones produce a balanced sound that’s easy to listen to. They also deliver a groove and do a decent job with vocals.
Okay, so they won't outperform the AirPods Max, but for the money, they're a fantastic alternative.
Read the full Lindy BNX-60 review
The Sony XM5 in the number one spot might be better value than the AirPods Max, but they're not exactly cheap. If you want top-notch performance without the price tag, check out this older model, the XM4.
The XM5's predecessors are some of the most popular headphones on the planet, and they more than live up to the hype thanks to their killer combination of great sound quality, comfort and usability.
They may not be quite as feature-packed as the AirPods Max, or have quite the same build quality, but they still have plenty to offer. Such as? There's ANC, a Speak to Chat function (when you start talking, they automatically pause playback and engage the ambient sound mode) and an AirPods Max-trouncing 30 hours of battery life. For the money, you won't find anything better.
Read the full Sony WH-1000XM4 review
Bose invented noise-cancelling for consumer headphones, and this is its most advanced implementation yet.
It uses a new noise-cancelling system with everything from new acoustics to new digital signal processing – all running off Bose’s own NC chip. That includes an eight-microphone system (six to cancel noise, two for voice pick-up) and 11 increments (from 0-10) of noise-cancellation intensity to choose from, allowing you to transition from full isolation to full transparency. Whichever level we use, in whatever environment, the isolating effect is as good as we’ve experienced in a pair of headphones. Take that, AirPods Max!
To listen to, they're bold, clear and upfront, though not quite up there with the AirPods Max alternatives further up this list. The battery life is also a bit lacking compared to the competition. But if you want the most advanced nose-cancelling system around, this is it.
Read the full Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 review
The Sennheiser Momentum 3 Wireless are some of the pricier over-ear headphones around, but they're still more affordable than the AirPods Max. And with the Momentum 4 Wireless due this month, they could soon come down in price.
The third entry in the stellar Momentum Wireless range are every bit as successful as their predecessors. Sonically, they're a cut above – energetic, timely and hugely insightful – while the usability has been improved too.
Just one niggle – the battery life. At 17 hours, it's three hours short of the AirPods Max, and some 13 hours fewer than Sony's XM5 and XM4 further up this list.
Still, if you can live with slightly more frequent recharging, these wireless wonders will do you proud: they're comfortable, convenient (you don't need to pair them before every use), and they automatically pause or play music as you take them off/put them on.
Read the full Sennheiser Momentum 3 Wireless review
B&W’s noise-cancellers cost less than the AirPods Max, but their build quality isn't that far off. As with all Bowers & Wilkins products, they boast effortlessly sophisticated styling and premium materials. But they don't just look great – they're full of cutting-edge tech, too.
There are three tiers of noise-cancelling (low, medium and high), as well as an ambient mode for when you want to allow in outside sound without taking the headphones off (to have a chat, say). On the sonic side, they support aptX Adaptive Bluetooth tech, which improves data rates and reduces latency.
They don't sound quite as good as the Sony XM5 and they have been superseded by the PX7 S2 further up this list, but they do offer the same 30-hour battery life. Add the great sound quality, excellent build and advanced noise cancelling, and you've got a sophisticated pair of AirPods Max alternatives to consider, especially if you value sonic sprightliness and street-cred style.
Read the full Bowers & Wilkins PX7 review
The HD 450BT might look a bit plain, but it's always unwise to underestimate Sennheiser – and so it proves here. Considering the mid-range price, these are solidly built, very comfortable cans that offer a great battery life and solid noise cancellation.
Sound is good, too. Smooth, rich and full-bodied, they provide an effortless listen that's lively enough to be engaging.
Their tonality is a little skewed towards the bottom end, sacrificing the midrange clarity that more neutral rivals, such as the AKG N60NC, are capable of. That may not play into the hands of every music fan, but some will find favour in the Sennheiser’s modest bias.
They're a couple of years old now too, so can be picked up at a healthy discount.
Read the full Sennheiser HD 450BT review
If you want a set of wireless over-ear headphones you can put on, deploy noise-cancelling on your commute or at your desk and largely extinguish the outside world for up to 24 hours, the Bose QC 45 has the edge over most of the competition at the price. And for many, that will be the end of the story.
Sonically, your money can buy better – the Sony WF-1000XM4 further up this list, for example. And if you want extra features like a more tailored noise-cancelling experience, an auto-pause function when you remove them, or sound EQ adjustment, you might be better shopping elsewhere.
We understand the inclination to stick to a winning design recipe, and that attitude has produced another very likeable (if not class-leading) pair of QuietComfort headphones.
Read the full Bose QuietComfort 45 review
The Aonic 50 are a double first for Shure: not only are they its first noise-cancelling headphones, they're its first wireless model too. Talk about ambitious.
They're priced higher than flagship models from Sony, Sennheiser and B&W, so Shure is certainly confident in its approach (they are still cheaper than the AirPods Max, though).
They don't fold down as conveniently as their rivals, but they are still solid, stylish and comfortable. Sound-wise, they're clean, balanced and transparent, just as you'd hope from a pair of Shure headphones. The tight bass is a particular highlight.
The noise-cancelling is a bit of a mixed bag – Standard is a bit too subtle and Max is rather too aggressive – but there's still much to like from the Aonic 50.
Read the full Shure Aonic 50 review
AKG Y-series headphones are normally there-or-thereabouts when it comes to the all-important performance-per-pound ratio. You only have to look at the AKG Y400 to see what we mean – compact, affordable and so impressive in performance terms that we gave them a What Hi-Fi? Award.
The noise-canceling Y600NC aren't quite at the same level, particularly in terms of sonic vim and vigour, but if you value a smooth ride, few sonic surprises and a listenable balance, the Y600NC do enough to warrant being on your radar. Just as long as ‘refinement’ beats 'excitement’ in your book, and you don't expect quite AirPods Max levels of sonic supremacy and plush build quality.
Read the full AKG Y600NC review
How active noise cancellation works
It's all very clever really. Noise-cancelling headphones essentially use two or more tiny microphones on their outer housings to "listen" to the external noise around you and create a mirror image of the compression and rarefaction of the air that it detects.
We can think of the soundwaves around us like peaks and troughs, or ripples in a pond. Plane engine noise is an ideal example since the thrum you hear in the cabin is typically a soundwave of constant amplitude – the height of the peaks and the depths of the troughs are largely continuous.
If you produce another sound wave with the same amplitude but opposite phase – with a peak where the engine sound wave has a trough, and vice versa – you get something called antiphase. Added together, the two sounds cancel each other out. The result: silence. And – voila – you're listening to your music in peace!
- How active noise cancelation works – the in-depth answer!
Passive vs active noise-cancelling
Some manufacturers may say their headphones boast a "noise-isolating design" or "natural noise-cancelling abilities", but that doesn't necessarily mean they are 'proper' active noise-cancelling headphones.
Active noise cancellation is a technology; it's an electrical feature that requires power to work. When you're using it, you'll soon notice ANC will drain your wireless headphones' battery at a faster rate. Toggle ANC on and tiny microphones on your headphones pick up that irksome engine thrum. This is then quickly measured by the headphones' internal electronics to produce an opposite sound, which is fed into your ears. If the tech does a good job, all you'll hear is the chug of the train fading into nothingness.
Passive noise-cancelling – or noise isolation, as it's often referred – is, instead, a physical thing; a term used to describe headphones that block out external sounds and reduce the amount of sound leaking into your ears without the need for power. This is simply achieved through physical design elements.
Closed-back designs, leather earpads, a good in-ear seal, sizing up or down in eartips, a heavier clamping force in the headband (meaning the earcups fit tighter over your ears), dampening in the earcups and even the shape or material of the driver housings all contribute to passive noise isolation. But remember: it's not the same as the active noise-cancelling headphones we've listed above.
How we test AirPods Max alternatives
While we have state-of-the-art testing facilities in London, Reading and Bath, where our team of experienced, in-house reviewers test the majority of hi-fi and AV kit that passes through our door, AirPods Max alternatives are different beasts that require use on the go in different environments.
We use them in an office, in amidst street noise, on public transport and, when we can, even on a plane. We judge a pair's portability, comfort, ease of use and battery life, and of course sound quality is also key in forming our verdicts and star ratings too. Any control apps are also evaluated to get a complete understanding of the features and flexibility on offer.
As What Hi-Fi? is all about comparative testing, each pair we review is compared to the best in its price and style class – whether that's one standout pair or a few we favour the highest among the many models we listen to each year for reviews and What Hi-Fi? Awards judging. We keep class-leading products in our stockrooms so we can always compare new products to rival ones we know and love.
All review verdicts are agreed upon by the team rather than an individual reviewer to eliminate any personal preference and to make sure we're being as thorough as possible, too. There's no input from PR companies or our sales team when it comes to the verdict, with What Hi-Fi? proud of having delivered honest, unbiased reviews for decades.
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