Apple, Sony and Bose are all competing to cover your ears with their high-end noise-canceling headphones. The $549, $379 and $349 all share the same basic functions, but have subtle differences in connectivity, sound quality and design that may weigh more heavily than price alone. I’ve spent several weeks testing all three of these headphones and evaluated them in five different categories to help you decide which one is right for you.
You can also check out our full list of best noise-canceling headphones of 2021 if these options don’t suit your needs.
The AirPods Max are ideal for iPhone users wanting seamless integration with iOS devices. On top of great sound quality, they also have excellent noise canceling and a transparency mode to let in audio from the outside world that sounds the most natural out of the three. They also have spatial audio, always-on Siri and quick switching features so you can easily swap the headphones between Apple devices. But they are heavier than the other two headphones, so do take that into consideration if you are considering longer listening sessions or are sensitive to weight on your head. Unlike the Bose and Sony, the AirPods Max haven’t seen any discounts to the $549 price since launch. Plus they probably aren’t the best choice if you are an Android user.
The Bose 700 headphones sound fantastic, with the signature Bose profile that delivers rich bass and clear vocals. These headphones also had the best performance for phone calls in my testing, with clear audio and great sounding mic that blocked out ambient noise for the person on the other end. And you can summon Alexa hands-free without reaching for your phone. You can usually find them for around $300 discounted. They don’t fold into themselves for easy storing like their predecessors, the QuietComfort 35 II, but their stainless steel headband and soft cushioned speakers make them comfortable to wear for extended periods of time.
When it comes to battery life, Sony’s WH-1000XM4 takes the crown, giving you up to 30 hours of listening time. They are the best bang-for-your-buck option, offering the same great features at a lower price than the other two headphones on this list, and they’re regularly discounted so you can find them under $300. The Sony XM4’s sound warm and inviting with satisfying bass, excellent noise cancellation and a flexible adaptive sound mode. Like the Bose 700, the Sony app (iOS and Android) has an equalizer so you can change the sound profile to your liking.
AirPods Max look and feel premium, but Bose and Sony are lighter
The AirPods Max weigh in at 13.6 ounces (384 grams) compared to around 9 oz (255 grams) for Bose’s and Sony’s headphones. They also have a mesh panel to distribute the weight of the headphones on your head, but I found I couldn’t wear them for more than an hour or two at a time. The Sony XM4 edged out the Bose for the most comfortable headphone for me as they were the lightest overall.
That said, the AirPods Max look higher-end, thanks to aluminum cups and a stainless steel, telescopic headband. The Bose 700 and Sony XM4 both have a plastic construction, although the Bose has a stainless steel headband. All three headphones have padded cups, and the AirPods Max have removable, swappable magnetic cups.
Both the Sony and the Bose have touch panels on the right ear cup so you can swipe to change volume and tracks, plus physical buttons for Bluetooth pairing or the voice assistant. The AirPods Max have a digital crown for volume and track control, plus a button for switching between noise canceling and transparency mode.
Winner: Sony WH-1000XM4 for all-day comfort
Sound quality and noise cancellation
All three headphones have excellent sound quality. I listened to a variety of genres in different apps, including Apple Music and Spotify when streaming, plus wired listening from a computer, and all of them sounded great overall.
The Bose 700 offers deep bass, well-defined mids and trebles and to me struck an excellent balance between the default sound profile, without being too over the top. The Bose Music app on iOS and Android has an adjustable equalizer to change the sound property to your liking.
The Sony XM4 have the most pronounced bass, with a very warm and inviting sound profile that did a great job of making me feel closer to the music than the other two. You can also turn on the digital sound enhancement engine (DSEE) in the Sony Headphones app to boost the quality of streaming audio and adjust the equalizer like on the Bose.
The AirPods Max have the cleanest sound stage of all three headphones with excellent separation across frequencies. The bass wasn’t too booming, and nothing I listened to ever sounded muddy or lost in the mix. These are the closest to a more neutral sound profile and worked well for pretty much every genre of music I chose. They also have an adaptive equalizer that adjusts the sound dynamically, although you can tweak an equalizer separately in your favorite music app if you prefer.
As for active noise cancellation, all three are very close. I haven’t been able to try them out on a plane, but I was able to recreate some white noise with a loud overhead heating unit. While all three were excellent, the AirPods Max just barely edged out the rest when it came to drowning out the noise, as they had the least amount of hiss when I wasn’t listening to music.
Transparency mode on the AirPods Max, or ambient sound modes on the Bose and Sony let in sounds from the outside world to keep you more aware of your surroundings. Again, the AirPods Max had the most natural sounding effect, which let me have a full conversation with someone without needing to take the headphones off. The Sony headphones let you adjust the amount of ambient noise coming in and can also automatically detect your location to work out which sound mode to choose. The Bose 700 let you adjust the level of noise cancelation in the app.
Winner: AirPods Max for ANC and transparency, Sony WH-1000XM4 for overall sound for the price and app flexibility
Call quality is clearest on Bose, but AirPods Max are best for Zoom
The Bose 700 did the best overall when it came to picking up my voice during phone calls in all sorts of environments. The microphones isolated my voice regardless of what was going on in the background, and to the caller on the other end I sounded like I was talking directly into the phone. But for calls on Zoom on a MacBook, or when recording into a camera app on the phone, the AirPods Max actually sounded the cleanest overall on both iOS and Android. You can listen to some mic samples in the video on this page.
Winner: Bose 700
Battery life is a slam-dunk for the Sony WH-1000XM4
All three headphones will last you at least two days between charges if you wear them constantly, but the Sony XM4 will net you close to 30 hours of listening time at a moderate volume with ANC turned on before you need to charge. The Bose 700 and AirPods Max are closer to 20 hours of listening time with the same parameters.
But the Bose and Sony also let you listen to music even when your battery is depleted with wired listening in a passive mode. The AirPods Max won’t let you listen with the wired audio cable unless you have battery.
Winner: Sony WH-1000XM4
What is the best noise-canceling wireless headphone?
Choosing the right headphone for you really comes down to your budget. The AirPods Max are easy to recommend for iPhone users because of their mix of quality and compatibility. They’ve got a solid build and great overall sound profile, but cost at least $150 more than the other two. The Bose 700 work well across iOS and Android and are the best overall for voice calls. They also have a great sound profile that’s not too overpowering for any genre. At $350, the Sony WH-1000XM4 offer the best value for your money, a comfortable fit for prolonged listening, unbeatable battery life plus flexibility across Android and iOS.
You can find a full breakdown of what each headphone comes with in the box, plus connectivity tests, a run-through of all the major features including codec and multidevice support plus lots more in the video on this page.