When it comes to the best over-the-ear Bluetooth headphones, there are three companies that stand at the top. Sony and Bose have been around the block a few times with likes of Bose’s QuietComfort series along with Sony’s WH-1000XM series. But Apple finally joined the fray back in December of 2020 with the AirPods Max. These are Apple’s first over-ear headphones to hit the market, and they became the instant default option for those knee-deep in the Apple ecosystem.
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Since then, Bose has released its QuietComfort 45 headphones, which offer a more familiar design as opposed to the previous Noise Cancelling 700. As for Sony, the company’s WH-1000XM4’s have largely been known as the “best of the best” for those wanting long battery life, a portable design, and excellent noise canceling. The WH-1000XM4’s were released just a few months before the AirPods Max, and have remained one of the best options on the market.
Fast forward to now, and Sony is back at it again, beating both Bose and Apple to the proverbial punch with its launch of the Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones. And if you’re in the market for some new headphones, we’re taking a look at the AirPods Max vs Sony WH-1000XM5 to see which is the best option.
Sony WH-1000XM5 vs AirPods Max: Picking the AirPods Max
The most obvious argument in favor of the AirPods Max is the built-in H1 chip found in each ear cup. This provides the seamless pairing that you’ll enjoy when using these headphones with any of your Apple products, and can switch between them even easier. There are a slew of other sensors packed into the AirPods Max, as you’ll find the following:
- Optical sensor (each ear cup)
- Position sensor (each ear cup)
- Case-detect sensor (each ear cup)
- Accelerometer (each ear cup)
- Gyroscope (left ear cup)
Going even further, Apple has implemented a total of nine microphones, with eight of those being used primarily for Active Noise Cancellation. And three of those microphones are use for voice pickup, so that you can block out the sounds around you, while also being able to make and take phone calls.
Spatial Audio is one of those things that felt like it started out as an industry buzzword. But following Apple’s commitment to Spatial Audio in the way of Apple Music, this couldn’t be further from the truth. We’ve covered how Spatial Audio works many times in the past, but it’s definitely still worth mentioning just because of how wonderful it is.
Moving onto the design, many AirPods Max owners continue to be a bit frustrated. These aren’t exactly the easiest headphones to toss in a bag and take with you. That’s because the headband is made from a combination of stainless steel for the frame along with a “breathable knit mesh” for the canopy. While Apple definitely attempted to focus more on comfort here, it came at the sacrifice of portability, forcing you to consider a third-party case if you want to keep your AirPods Max protected while on the go.
Speaking of cases, this brings us to the battery of the AirPods Max. Apple claims you’ll get about 20 hours of juice before you’ll need to plug them in, and that’s about what we’ve found in our time with these headphones. But there’s something else to be aware of, as you might experience battery drain if you were to just leave the AirPods Max on a headphone stand. Included in the box, you’ll find a rather awkward “carrying” case that features built-in magnets. When activated, these magnets put the headphones into a battery-saving mode of sorts, reducing the potential for battery drain.
It’s far from an ideal solution, but thankfully, there are third-party cases and stands that offer better protection or the ability to use a stand without worrying about drain. Even still, battery life is one of those things that we would like to see Apple improve upon if we ever see a second iteration.
Sony WH-1000XM5 vs AirPods Max: Going With Sony
Now for the WH-1000XM5’s. Looking past Sony’s incredibly awful naming convention, the company’s latest headphones pack a punch in just about every area that you might care about. Active Noise Cancellation has seen the biggest improvement compared to the last generation, as the WH-1000XM5’s features dual Sony QN1 chips. These onboard processors control the eight microphones that are built into the headphones, aiming to deliver the best ANC that you’ve ever experienced. And despite one less microphone, Sony has also tuned its software to use the microphones to improve calls for both you and the person on the other end.
Sony is using the latest Bluetooth 5.2 standard with its WH-1000XM5 headphones, giving a slight edge over the Bluetooth 5.0 found in the AirPods Max. The end result is a more reliable and stable connection between your device and the headphones, while also helping to provide improvements to the audio quality. And here’s a list of the various sensors that are built into Sony’s option:
- Dual HD Noise Cancelling Processor QN1
- V1 Integrated Processor
- Dual Proximity Sensors
- Multi-touch Sensors
While you won’t find Apple’s flavor of Spatial Audio packed into the WH-1000XM5’s, you will be able to enjoy Sony’s 360 Reality Audio. Essentially this is the same experience, as you’ll feel like you’re in the recording studio, but Sony took things a step further. When using the accompanying app, Sony allows you to completely personalize the sound experience, as the app will “capture and analyze your ear shape, allowing these headphones to create your own personal spatial sound field”.
Moving onto battery life, and it seems as though Sony has another winner on its hands. The WH-1000XM5’s are rated to last for up to 30 hours with ANC enabled, or up to 40 hours with the feature turned off. This includes 24 hours of “continuous communication time” with ANC enabled, something that is just absolutely incredible for a set of Bluetooth headphones. But the best part is that you don’t need to worry about battery drain when turned off, as these are a more traditional set of over-the-ear cans. And if you need a bit of a top-off, Sony claims you’ll be able to get three hours of playback when charging for just three minutes using a USB-C cable.
Unfortunately, the portability aspect when comparing the Sony WH-1000XM5 vs AirPods Max is a wash. Sony decided to move away from the foldable ear cups in favor of the same rigid design we find with the AirPods Max and Bose 700 Headphones. And if you do need to travel, the WH-1000XM5s comes with a collapsible case “made for easy storage” in the box.
Sony WH-1000XM5 vs AirPods Max: Which Is Best?
When all is said and done, both the Sony WH-1000XM5 vs AirPods Max are great over-the-ear headphones. Arguably, they are the best in this segment of the market, offering improved audio quality, decent to great battery life, and Active Noise Cancelation. One area that we haven’t touched on is likely where your decision is going to be made, and that’s price.
The Sony WH-1000XM5 is priced at $399.99, with no other configurations available besides being able to choose between the black and silver colors. On the other hand, Apple’s AirPods Max retail for a staggering $549, but are available in five different colors. The AirPods Max also offers the unique ability to swap out the earpads, as they just magnetically attach to the frame.
But before you grab the WH-1000XM5’s based on price and “newness”, it’s worth noting that the AirPods Max are regularly on sale for between $400 and $450. These deals aren’t always available for every color option, but as we stated previously, you can always swap out the earcups if you want something different.
With that in mind, it really comes down to whether you’re entrenched in Apple’s ecosystem and enjoys better audio quality, or you want better Active Noise Canceling and better compatibility with other devices. It’s a tough call, as there are plenty of pros and cons for each. We’ll have to wait until we get our hands (or ears) on the WH-1000XM5’s to see how well they actually perform, but Apple’s definitely got some stiff competition.
Andrew is a freelance writer based on the East Coast of the US.
He has written for a variety of sites over the years, including iMore, Android Central, Phandroid, and a few others. Now, he spends his days working for an HVAC company, while moonlighting as a freelance writer at night.