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Apple AirPods Max vs Sony WH-1000XM4: Which is the better option?

The Sony WH-1000XM4 surpassed the already great WH-1000XM3, but the headphone market stops for no one. There are plenty of contenders looking to knock them off their perch – one such opponent being the new Apple AirPods Max.

We’ve been anticipating the AirPods Max since 2018, and after a number of delays they’re finally available. How well do the AirPods Max fare against a headphone considered to be one of the best in the game?

Sony WH-1000XM4 vs AirPods Max – Price

Like previous efforts in the 1000X range, Sony nabbed the price of £349. That’s been the price many premium wireless headphones start at.

But not the Apple AirPods Max. They cost £549.

If it’s a straight shoot-out in terms of price, then the Sony would be the easy winner. Considering how infrequent Apple products drop in price, we’re not waiting for a discount any time soon.

AirPods Max vs Sony WH-1000XM4  — Design

The Sony WH-1000XM4 are almost identical to the WH-1000XM3, but Sony has made some subtle changes.

The material the headphones use is less glossy and more abrasive for better grip when held in the hand. The earpad cushions have more volume for what is a cushier, softer fit than previous 1000XM headphones. The headband structure has been modified to fit on a wider range of heads, and the design has been tidied up for a streamlined look. The collapsible design allows the headphones to be packed away when not used.

Much like the XM3, operation is via a touch panel on the right earcup that allows for tap and swipe gestures, as well as a hold to enable Quick Attention mode. There are physical buttons on the left ear cup (power and a custom button), plus a USB-C port and 3.5mm jack. The touch controls are responsive, and the experience of using the XM4s is a very simple one.

White Sony WH1000 XM4 leaning on it's white case resting on a white background

Apple, on other hand, has gone for a more distinctive look. Given how distinctive it looks, you may feel they attract attention when outside compared to the Sony’s more anonymous appearance. The headband is made out of a breathable knit mesh canopy that distributes weight across the head to reduce pressure. Like the Sony, the headband should allow the Max to fit a wider range of head shapes and sizes.

Apple says the ear cup’s connection to the headband allows it to balance and distribute ear cup pressure for greater comfort and despite the 384g weight, the AirPods Max feel comfortable to wear. The AirPods Max can’t be folded though

Control is done through the Apple Watch-inspired Digital Crown. It’s a multi-function dial that can be used for the volume, playback, skipping tracks, activating Siri and phone calls, and in practice it works really well, offering a precise and tactile feel to operation. The Noise Control button switches between ANC and Transparency Mode. You get five colours compared to the two that the Sony comes in.

The Apple headphones certainly are more distinctive, but the Sony headphones are more portable. It depends on what you want from a pair of headphones. If it’s portability then the Sonys win out; if you’re after something that’s off-piste (and pulls it off), the AirPods Max have appeal.

Apple AirPods Max

AirPods Max vs Sony WH-1000XM4 — Features

The Sony WH-1000XM4 blaze a trail with their smart features. They come with a new Bluetooth Audio SoC that can adjust music and noise at over 700 times per second. They also supports Multi-point connection for two Bluetooth devices at once.

Speak-to-Chat detects when you’re talking and pauses audio – useful for when you need to talk but don’t want to take your headphones off. Adaptive Smart Control learns the locations you frequent most (or you can tell it which locations to look out for in the app), and remembers the settings you’ve picked to adjust noise-cancelling on the fly.

Sony WH-1000XM4

Other features carried over from the XM3 include the Quick Attention Mode and HD Noise Cancelling Processor QN1 chip (boasting a new algorithm), for an ANC performance that we found to be one of the best on the market. Battery life is 30 hours, Bluetooth 5.0 is the connection of choice and the XM4 supports AAC, SBC and LDAC, the latter for high-res wireless audio.

The adaptive ANC performance of the AirPods Max, proves to be just as good as the Sonys, if not better. It’s hard to tell which of the two is better as there’s little difference between the two. There’s room for customising the ANC on the Apple headphones, while the Sonys leave you free to choose to tailor it however you want. The Transparency Mode on both headphones is excellent, too. However you look at it, these two cans are at the top of their game where noise cancelling is concerned.

Apple AirPods Max

Bluetooth is 5.0, while battery life is only 20 hours, 10 less than the Sonys. The Max have an Adaptive EQ feature to adjust low- and mid-frequency sound to the fit and seal of the ear cups so you don’t lose detail in your music. Spatial Audio works with 5.1, 7.1 and Dolby Atmos content, placing sounds ‘virtually’ within the soundfield for a more immersive effect, and we found during testing that they offered a genuinely impressive sense of immersion.

Other features are iOS-centric such as Auto Switching (jump instantly between iOS devices), Audio Sharing (for sharing audio between two sets of AirPods) and Siri voice integration.

The features the AirPods Max are restricted to the Apple ecosystem. The Sonys have more of a consideration in terms of smarts (Speak-to-Chat and Adaptive Smart Control). Out of the two, the Sonys have wider appeal to both iOS and Android users: the battery life is longer for the Sonys, while it’s hard to tell the difference between the two in terms of ANC. Another draw then, but if you’re in the iOS ecosystem then the AirPods Max are tailored for Apple users.

AirPods Max vs Sony WH-1000XM4 — Sound

The WH-1000XM4 made a big step forward with its audio performance, with an extra layer of refinement and clarity over its predecessor. The more boisterous nature of the XM3 was toned down, and the result was more of an audiophile sound that’s more articulate.

Treble frequencies are given more space, while the Sony continues its impressive knack for low-end control. It also extracts more detail out of the midrange with better definition, clarity and separation. It’s an incredibly well-balanced performer, and with the DSEE Extreme engine it also removes a lot of noise from tracks for a dramatically improved audio with lower-quality sources.

The AirPods have  40mm custom drivers for what Apple calls a performance that offers “rich, deep bass, accurate mid-ranges, and crisp, clean high-frequency extension”. Apple says they’re designed for those who use music streaming services or download content from iTunes to listen to.

The AirPods Max pursue a balanced and versatile sound, a sound profile that sounds great with a number of musical genres. There’s plenty of bass for the Max to call upon, but even with bass-heavy tracks there’s a sense of refinement that allows the midrange to shine instead of it being overwhelmed. Treble frequencies avoid sounding harsh, offering a refined all-round sound quality. Is it definitively better than the WH-1000XM4? No – some songs sound better on the Apple, others on the Sony – both sound excellent. In our opinion, it’s another draw.

AirPods Max vs Sony WH-1000XM4 — Verdict

The Sony WH-1000XM4 is the cheaper option, the noise-cancelling is terrific and its smart features work across a range of devices.

Apple’s approach sees them maximise the synergy between its products and devices. In this sense, if you’re an iOS user who gets plenty of benefits out of the Apple ecosystem, the AirPods Max are the best fit. Both sound great, both have excellent noise-cancellation. The AirPods Max have more flair in the design department, but are you willing to pair a premium of £200 for that?

The Sonys offer a similar level of performance for considerably less. If you’re an Apple fan, the AirPods Max are a custom fit – if you don’t mind the expense.

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