It’s official: Apple has created an over-ear version of its AirPods Pro, called the AirPods Max. Considering the popularity and quality of the AirPods Pro, it’s no surprise the AirPods Max is quite good, but there’s one caveat; this noise cancelling headset costs $550 USD. Let’s see how Apple’s headphones compare to the Sony WH-1000XM4, which, as of September 26, 2021, retails for under $400 USD and is among the best active noise cancelling headphones around.
Does the AirPods Max warrant the expense, or are you better off with the Sony WH-1000XM4 and a hefty chunk of change?
Editor’s note: this article was updated on December 13, 2021, to include standardized microphone samples.
Apple AirPods Max vs. Sony WH-1000XM4: Design and build
The AirPods Max is a very comfortable pair of headphones. It has plush ear pads and a mesh headband, but the skeleton of the headphones is made out of metal, which is really heavy. The build feels durable—it could withstand a bit of wear and tear—and you can replace the ear pads if they break down over time.
Start here: Ultimate headphone buying guide
Though the AirPods Max feels luxurious, it’s designed to be portable Bluetooth headphones, so you might expect it to be a little more, well, portable. You can’t fold the ear cups for easy transportation and the included AirPods Max Smart Case doesn’t protect the headset from anything beyond nicks and scratches. These headphones lack any IP rating, so if you’re like any of us at SoundGuys and live in a place where it’s always raining, you may have to consider a more weatherproof pair of headphones. If you plan to use the AirPods Max exclusively in your house, you should find that it’s more than adequate.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 is the more portable headset.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 is a bit more portable and a bit less comfortable than the AirPods Max, though comfort can be subjective since everyone’s heads and ears are different. You can compact the headset by folding the ear cups toward the headband, and throw it into the hardshell carrying case. Just like the AirPods Max, the Sony WH-1000XM4 doesn’t have any official IP rating so you’ll want to keep it far away from water or sweat. It is decently lightweight though and has a very sturdy plastic build.
Which headset has greater connection stability?
The AirPods Max and Sony WH-1000XM4 use Bluetooth 5.0 and support the SBC and AAC Bluetooth codecs. Sony’s headphones also support its LDAC codec which is very good, but not necessarily hi-res. The AirPods Max doesn’t have Bluetooth multipoint, but it can seamlessly switch between all your Apple devices through your iCloud account. The Sony WH-1000XM4 has Bluetooth multipoint, but it only works if all the devices are connected to the headphones using the AAC codec.
Learn more: What is Bluetooth multipoint?
The Apple AirPods Max doesn’t have a 3.5mm port, which isn’t a huge surprise since the company was quick to ditch the headphone jack, but if you want to listen to wired audio you can buy a Lightning-to-3.5mm cable from Apple. Remember, if you want to listen with wires on your iPhone, you also need a 3.5mm to Lightning dongle. The Sony WH-1000XM4 includes a 3.5mm cable, which comes in handy when the headphones run out of battery.
Are the AirPods Max or Sony WH-1000XM4 software features cooler?
The pairs of headphones in question are operated in fairly different ways. You can control the AirPods Max via the Digital Crown dial and noise cancelling button at the top of the right headphone. The headset also has auto-pause and auto-resume functionality, as long as it’s connected to an iPhone. The rotating crown immediately registers your input—if anything it’s a little too sensitive. If you want to talk to your smart assistant you can either say “Hey, Siri” while wearing the headphones or give it a long-press. None of us should be surprised, however, that you cannot use your voice to access a non-Siri smart assistant through the AirPods Max.
To access many of the AirPods Max features, including firmware updates, you need an Apple device.
Apple products always have an impressive lineup of features, and the AirPods Max is no different. Transparency mode is actually available to any user, whether or not they’re intimately familiar with Apple’s devices. Transparency mode on the AirPods Max works very well. It uses the same microphones for ANC to pick up environmental sound and amplify it, so you can remain aware of your surroundings while listening to your music. Another feature of the AirPods Max is Spatial Audio, which mimics the effects of surround sound inside your headphones, but this feature is only for those with Apple devices.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 is operated via touch controls on the headphones, but they don’t always work very well. It’s more reliable to just remove the headset to initiate auto-pause, rather than using the touch panels. Sony also has its own ambient sound mode, which is similar to Apple’s Transparency mode, but instead of hitting a button, you cup one hand over the Sony WH-1000XM4’s right ear cup to enable it. When ambient sound mode is on, it also lowers the volume of the media.
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Some of the Sony WH-1000XM4 features aren’t available until you download the Sony Headphones Connect app, available for both iOS and Android. The app lets you access Sony’s Speak-to-Chat function, which automatically detects when you are speaking and pauses your music accordingly. However, it can be very sensitive to non-speech sounds and others speaking nearby, so it may not be the best feature to use on public transit. The app also unlocks Sony 360 Reality Audio, which can be used with Hi-Fi streaming services like Tidal or Deezer—it’s a lot like Apple’s Spatial Audio.
Apple AirPods Max vs Sony WH-1000XM4: Battery life
The AirPods Max headset does not power on or off—weird, right? Instead of having a power button, it enters a low power mode when placed into the case. Unfortunately, this means if you don’t bring the Smart Case everywhere (and we wouldn’t blame you for leaving it at home) the battery will deplete for several hours before it enters sleep mode. The battery supposedly lasts 20 hours with the active noise cancelling turned on, but we’ve yet to put this claim to the test. For now, you either have to take Apple’s word for it or wait a bit for our test results. The AirPods Max annoyingly charges via Lightning to USB-C, and Apple doesn’t include a USB-C power brick.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 charges via USB-C, as it should. This headset lasts 19 hours, 59 minutes on a single charge with ANC turned on which is quite a bit shorter than what Sony claims its battery life to be, but it’s still fine. You can fast charge the WH-1000XM4; 10 minutes of charging time affords 5 hours of listening time.
The active noise cancelling performance on both headphones is great
The two main things you need to know about the AirPods Max’s active noise cancelling are this: it is truly insane how effective it is, and if you don’t have an iPhone it can never be disabled. That’s right, Android owners can only toggle between ANC and Transparency mode. The roomy AirPods Max ear cups facilitate exceptional passive isolation. When you combine passive isolation with active noise cancelling, the outside world is almost completely blocked out. Especially as ANC applies to low-frequency sounds: the AirPods Max cancels noise more effectively than the Sony WH-1000XM4, but this isn’t to say that the ANC on the WH-1000XM4 is bad at all. Quite the contrary, it is also excellent, just ever so slightly less so than the Apple headphones.
Where Sony’s attenuation takes a slight dip around 150Hz, the AirPods Max cancels out low-frequency noise consistently. This frequency range is crucial if you’re trying to hush the rumbling sound of an airplane engine. The AirPods Max will more effectively get rid of these noises, but the Sony WH-1000XM4 will does a more than adequate job as well. Both headsets in question also do a very good job of cancelling out noise in the mid and high-frequency ranges, so constant murmuring crowds will be quieted as well.
Which headphones have better sound quality?
Partially thanks to its ANC performance, and also partially thanks to the tuning of its drivers, the AirPods Max makes music sound beautiful and might even please some audiophiles. The frequency response is neutral across the board, except for a slight bass boost, which makes it easier for you to hear sub-bass notes. They aren’t quite accurate enough to be studio headphones, but they aren’t billed as such. The AirPods Max was tuned using a different mechanical head than the one we used for testing, but we’re currently re-testing these headphones with the same type of mechanical head. The new results will be published soon.
Apple doesn’t allow you to set a customize EQ profile on the AirPods Max, whether you’re an iPhone user or not. Rather, the headphones uses an Adaptive EQ which automatically adjusts the sound signature based on the level of ambient noise around you, and it works very well.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 is also some of the best-sounding Bluetooth headphones money can buy. Unlike the AirPods Max, the Sony headphones doesn’t place much emphasis on the bass notes, which yields a more neutral low-end sound. Though some bass-heads might feel they’re missing out on the rumbles and kicks of bass-heavy music, this type of frequency response allows things like vocals and string instruments to be more audible. Also, the Sony WH-1000XM4 lets you customize the EQ settings in the Sony Headphones Connect app, so you can always boost that bass up to your liking.
Apple AirPods Pro vs. Sony WH-1000XM4: Mic quality
The AirPods Max’s microphone system transmits the best audio when connected to an Apple device. Weirdly enough, however, whether a given non-Apple device will result in poor microphone quality is kind of unpredictable. Based on our testing, this depends on the way the source device handles wireless communication with Bluetooth devices. If you’re using the “wrong” device to talk through the AirPods Max, you might find that your voice is echoing or sounds muffled.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 microphone array is pretty good. It attenuates bass frequencies quite a bit, so people with lower voices may not come across as loudly. This attenuation is intended to remove low-frequency noise to help with speech clarity.
Apple AirPods Max microphone demo (ideal):
Sony WH-1000XM4 mic demo (ideal):
Should you buy the AirPods Max or Sony WH-1000XM4?
Please, do not buy the Apple AirPods Max if you don’t have an iPhone. You’ll miss out on many software features and you won’t have as much control over the device—you just won’t get the full experience. If you’re an Android user, this pair of headphones is not worth your money.
Die-hard Apple fans may be drawn into buying the AirPods Max; after all, this pair of headphones screams luxury. It is a very good pair of headphones in many ways, including its sound quality and active noise cancelling performance, and if drawbacks—like the inability to power the headphones off without the case or the lack of a headphone jack—don’t matter to you, you won’t regret it.
Regardless of if you have an iPhone or an Android phone, the Sony WH-1000XM4 headset is the better bang for your buck. Sony integrated ambient sound mode, Speak-to-Chat functionality, and a software EQ. Oh, and Sony’s headset runs $200 cheaper. The WH-10000XM4 may not quite outperform the AirPods Max in sound quality and ANC, but it’s pretty much tied up in this competition.
The Sony WF-1000XM4 and Apple AirPods Pro are more portable picks
Maybe you really like the idea of the Sony WH-1000XM4 or the Apple AirPods Max, but don’t want to lug around a full-sized headset everywhere you go. Fear not: the Sony WF-1000XM4 and Apple AirPods Pro are two very capable, compact sets of true wireless earphones that can do just about anything.
The Sony WF-1000XM4 includes IPX4-rated earphones with some of the best ANC we’ve ever tested in this category. Battery life is quite good thanks to the Bluetooth 5.2 firmware, and the case can fast charge the earbuds. Sony’s mobile app works on any mobile OS and the experience is uniform across the board, something that can’t be said of Apple’s software features.
While the AirPods Pro has its downsides, mainly because its features are exclusive to Apple hardware, it’s the most obvious and best choice for most iPhone owners. This stemmed pair of earbuds also features an IPX4 rating, and is built to last a bit longer than the competition thanks to Apple’s battery optimization software.
Frequently Asked Questions
Yes, you can listen to the Sony WH-1000XM4 with the 3.5mm cable when the headphones are out of battery. The sound quality will not be quite as good when the headphones are out of battery. This first graph shows the frequency response of the Sony cans (orange line) when the battery is on compared to our house curve (green line).
This next graph shows the frequency response of the Sony cans (orange line) when the battery is off compared to our house curve (green line).
As you can see, there are a few noticeable differences in the response shape when the Sony’s active EQ is no longer in the circuit. Below 1kHz the response is a lot more bumpy, and the bass isn’t boosted as much in the extreme lows. You’ll also lose out on some high frequency energy around 8kHz. The additional bump at around 600Hz will boost a narrow range of the lower mids which isn’t going to sound as refined as the smoothly scooped midrange of the headphone when it’s fully operational.