If you’re going to drop $400 or more on a pair of headphones, you’ll want to make sure you’re getting the right ones for you. That’s certainly the case for anyone choosing between the AirPods Max and the Sony WH-1000XM5, two excellent sets of over-ear headphones that have significant differences you should know about before you spend that cash.
The choice between Apple and Sony’s flagship headphones used to be simpler, as last generation’s $349 Sony WH-1000XM4 (our longtime favorites) were a fraction of the price of the great but wildly expensive $549 AirPods Max. But Sony bumped the price of its new XM5 headphones to $399, and the AirPods Max are almost always discounted down to $499 or less — making the playing field between these two titans more level than ever. Apple’s high-end headphones can also be spotted in the wild more than ever these days, and we can understand why you might want to get in on the trend.
After testing both the WH-1000XM5 and AirPods Max for weeks, we’re ready to help you decide on the right high-end headphones for your needs.
Sony WH-1000XM5 versus AirPods Max at a glance
Space Gray, silver, green, pink, sky blue
3 hours of playback in 3 minutes
1.5 hours of playback in 5 minutes
Adaptive Sound Control, Speak-to-Chat, LDAC high-quality audio support (Android only), 360 Reality Audio (select apps)
Spatial Audio (Apple devices only), Adaptive EQ, Hands-free Siri
AirPods Max wins on design — except for one big flaw
Both of these headphones look and feel great, but you’re getting your extra money’s worth with the AirPods Max. Apple’s headphones sport a luxurious stainless steel design that makes the plastic WH-1000XM5s look somewhat cheap by comparison — especially since the latter’s matte coating is prone to smudges. I also appreciate that the AirPods Max come in a wider range of colors, including Space Gray, silver, green, pink and the attractive sky blue I’ve been rocking. They’re also ripe for customization, with a slew of attractive third-party cover options that let you add your own extra style. By comparison, Sony’s cans are limited to an understated (but still sleek) black or white.
When it comes to controls, I prefer the AirPods Max’s physical buttons over the WH-1000XM5’s touch panels by a mile. Using Apple’s small digital crown dial to adjust volume and playback felt intuitive immediately, as did pressing the discrete noise canceling/transparency button to switch sound modes. By comparison, Sony’s headphones have a touch-sensitive right earcup that you can use to control playback, volume and calls with various taps and swipes, and while it worked well enough, I did notice a few occasions of my inputs not registering.
I’ve worn both of these sets of headphones for hours on end across dog walks, grocery trips and long days of sitting in my home office, and I find them to be practically neck-and-neck when it comes to comfort. The AirPods Max form a more snug, secure seal on my ears thanks to their deeper cups and firm mesh coating, but I like that Sony’s headphones are lighter (0.55 pounds versus 0.85 pounds) and have softer, faux-leather-coated earcups. You should try before you buy if possible, but you’ll likely find both to be very comfortable.
While I prefer the overall look and feel of the AirPods Max, Sony’s the undisputed winner in one important category: the case. The WH-1000XM5 come in a slim and attractive mesh carrying case that provides enough room for the headphones and its requisite cables, keeping the pricey headphones well protected without taking up too much bag space. The AirPods Max, well… come with this. The subject of countless memes and jokes since the moment it was unveiled, Apple’s carrying case barely covers the headphones, instead providing a small layer of protection on top of the outer earcups while forcing you to use the headband as a carrying handle. I appreciate that you can still charge the AirPods Max while the case is on, but it provides so little protection that I often opt to leave my Max at home during longer trips so I don’t scuff them in my bag. AirPods Max buyers are better off springing for a good third-party case, but that adds an extra expense to the already high price tag.
TL;DR: Get the AirPods Max if you want a more luxurious and colorful design with better controls; go with the WH-1000XM5 if you want a better carrying case. Both are supremely comfortable, though Sony’s are lighter.
Sound quality: AirPods Max wins for Apple users, Sony stands out on Android
I used each of these headphones as my daily drivers for around a week, and enjoyed rich, booming sound that highlighted tons of details in my favorite songs that I normally don’t pick up as an earbuds user. No matter which cans you dump your $400-plus on, you’ll be getting great sound quality — though your experience may vary based on your platform and music app of choice.
As an iPhone user, I found the AirPods Max to sound slightly better out of the box. Apple better spotlighted high-frequency sounds, as the buzzing metal riff that kicks off My Chemical Romance’s “Thank You For The Venom” sounded sharper and more immediate on the AirPods Max. The headphones were basically even when it came to preserving the ethereal vocals in Phoebe Bridgers’s “Garden Song” or the bouncy keys and snappy drums in Julien Baker’s “Faith Healer, though Sony’s headphones seemed to pump out more bass by default.
The WH-1000XM5 are the only headphones of the two that feature a customizable equalizer, so you can fire up the Headphones Connect app on iOS or Android and flip through a number of presets that make things bassier, more vocal-focused or quieter, just to name a few. It’s a nice touch for those who want to be able to find just the right sound profile for what they’re listening to — or make their own.
That said, and it should be no surprise, Apple users will get the best quality out of the AirPods Max. Likewise with Android users and the WH-1000XM5. The AirPods Max support spatial audio, Apple’s 360-degree audio tech that places sound at fixed points all around you for more live-sounding music and more immersive movie-binging. It works with apps like Apple Music, Disney+ and Netflix, and can make a big difference — I didn’t know just how layered the vocal harmonies in Turnstile’s “Endless” were until they hit me like a brick wall in Dolby Atmos. The recent iOS 16 update allows you to personalize the spatial audio to your unique ear shape after a quick facial scan, which could potentially make your 360-audio even more immersive.
Meanwhile, the Sony WH-1000XM5 support LDAC, the company’s proprietary encoding tech that allows high-resolution audio (something you typically need wired headphones for) to be transmitted over Bluetooth on Android devices. After switching from my iPhone to my Pixel 5a with the Sonys on, I did notice a slight bump in audio quality. The XM5s have their own answer to spatial audio with Sony’s 360 Reality Audio tech, which is available for both iOS and Android users but is currently limited to a handful of services including Tidal, Amazon Music Unlimited and Deezer.
TL;DR: The AirPods Max sound slightly better in most scenarios, but Apple users will ultimately get the best quality out of them. Same for Android users and the Sony WH-1000XM5.
Similarly great active noise cancellation, but Sony has a secret weapon
The AirPods Max and Sony WH-1000XM5 are almost identically great when it comes to active noise canceling. Both headphones all but silenced the sounds of chirping birds, blaring sirens and noisy cars coming from my balcony, and reduced loud construction sites and bustling grocery stores to a mild hum that allowed me to get lost in my music. When it came time to let in the outside world, the AirPods Max’s transparency mode was just a hair louder and clearer than Sony’s ambient noise functionality. But both made it easy to stay aware of my surroundings whenever I was out for a stroll.
While both of these headphones deliver big on ANC and ambient sound, only the WH-1000XM5 can automatically flip between the two on the fly. One of the XM5’s best features is Adaptive Sound Control, which uses your phone’s sensors and location data to switch between noise cancellation and ambient sound based on where you are and what you’re up to. For example, the headphones would enter ANC mode once I stood still on the train, and then automatically switch to ambient sound when I walked out into my station. Sony’s headphones also have a very handy Speak-to-Chat feature that will automatically pause your music once you start talking.
These features really work as advertised, and kept me from having to touch any controls or pull my phone out as I went about my day. Using the AirPods Max’s on-ear noise control button was easy enough, but I’d love to see Apple’s headphones eventually deliver something similar.
TL;DR: Both these headphones have similarly great active noise cancellation and ambient sound, but the WH-1000XM5 are smart enough to switch between the two when you need them.
The WH-1000XM5 have better battery life, but the AirPods Max get the edge on call quality
If you’re looking for the longest battery life possible, go with Sony’s headphones. The WH-1000XM5 are rated for 30 hours of battery life, which is a whole 10 hours more than the AirPods Max’s promised 20 hours. Those numbers largely mirrored our own testing, as Sony’s headphones got us closer to 34 hours while the AirPods maxed out at around 21. To put that in more basic terms, I was able to use the XM5s for five straight days without having to recharge, whereas the AirPods Max often tapped out a day or two earlier.
I used both of these headphones for plenty of work and personal calls, and got few complaints when using either. However, one person did call out that the XM5s gave a slight echo to my voice, something that was reflected when listening back to my own recordings. While I sounded perfectly audible on both sets of cans, the AirPods Max were slightly clearer and free of the subtle distortion I heard when capturing myself on Sony’s headphones.
TL;DR: The Sony WH-1000XM5 have far better battery life, though you may enjoy clearer calls on the AirPods Max.
Connectivity: Are you on iPhone or Android?
If there’s one thing that keeps me coming back to the AirPods Max, it’s how seamlessly they work with my iPhone. Like with any pair of AirPods or Beats, I was prompted to pair the Max to my iPhone 12 Pro the second I turned them on — no fumbling with Bluetooth settings required. Since then, Apple’s headphones have been smart enough to stop the music as soon as I take them off, and automatically turn on as soon as I put them on my head. And if you’re signed into the same Apple ID across your iPhone, iPad and Mac, the AirPods Max can automatically switch between those devices once you start using them.
My experience with the WH-1000XM5 as an iPhone user has been hit or miss by comparison. I have to manually turn Sony’s headphones on if I leave them idle too long, and they don’t always reliably pause my music when I take them off, leading to some frustrating moments of wasted battery. That said, they do support Google Fast Pair, and while the whole process wasn’t as simple as using my AirPods Max with an iPhone, I didn’t have a hard time setting up Sony’s cans on a Pixel 5a. The WH-1000XM5 can also pair to two devices at once (for example, a phone and a computer), though it takes a few steps in Sony’s app. And unlike Apple’s headphones, the XM5s have a standard 3.5mm headphone jack and included cable for when you want to go wired.
It’s worth noting that the AirPods Max paired just fine to my Android phone, but lots of features were missing. The headphones didn’t automatically pause and resume music when I took them on and off, and you won’t be able to take advantage of Apple-specific perks like spatial audio or summoning Siri for voice commands.
TL;DR: The AirPods Max are optimized for Apple devices, and shouldn’t really be considered by Android users. Sony’s headphones are more platform-agnostic, but they work smoother on Android.
After using both of these sets of cans extensively, I can say that the Sony WH-1000XM5 are the best headphones for the vast majority of people. Their active noise cancellation is as good as Apple’s, they last 10 hours longer, sound nearly as good and are $75 to $150 cheaper, depending on sale pricing. The XM5’s Adaptive Sound Control is a truly useful feature you won’t find anywhere else, and while they have a few Android-exclusive perks, they work well on any type of phone. Plus, Sony’s headphones come with a case that will actually protect them.
Still, if you primarily use Apple products, want to show off your style and aren’t on any kind of budget, you may find the AirPods Max to be better for you. They’ll pair more seamlessly to your iPhone, iPad or Mac; support Apple’s excellent spatial audio tech and sport more intuitive controls. They also sound a little better overall, and have a nicer-looking design in lots of colors. Just be ready to pay extra for those perks.