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AirPods Max vs Sony WH-1000 XM4: Which should you buy?

By Nadeem Sarwar January 11, 2021, 8:00 am
airpods max vs sonywh1000xm4 title

Apple’s AirPods Max headphones have hit the shelves, and boy have they divided the opinion of tech experts and potential buyers alike. On one hand, everyone appears to be in love with the audio quality and the design to some extent, but their a-little-too-handsome asking price of $549 is proving to be a major deterrent when it comes to recommending Apple’s stylish headphones. Rival-in-chief Sony WH-1000XM4 costs significantly lesser and have already received almost universal acclaim. So, how does Apple’s luxurious offering stacks up against Sony’s best? If you’re torn between the two as your next work-from-home companion, our Apple AirPods Max vs Sony WH-1000XM4 comparison might be of some help. And oh, it’s going to be a long one!


Design and build

Now, this is going to be a huge deciding factor. Apple’s AirPods Max follow the company’s signature industrial design aesthetics, so you are essentially getting a mix of minimalism and a very distinct aura of luxury. I am not going to mince words here – the AirPods Max look fantastic, and they’ll definitely make a lasting fashion statement. On top of that, the material quality is terrific as well. As for the color options, you can choose between Silver, Space Gray, Sky Blue, Pink, and Green. 

AirPods Max
Image: Apple

Terrific build quality, appealing design and a lot of colors

Apple relies on stainless steel for the headband frame, while the earcups are made out of anodized aluminum. The telescopic arms offer an acceptable degree of movement while the upper band is made out of breathable knit mesh to reduce any pressure on the head. Many users have pointed out that the AirPods Design is extremely flexible, and that they will fit just fine even if you have a larger than average head. In my personal experience, I found that to be true.

The ear cushions employ acoustic memory foam that has a breathable mesh layer. These are sufficiently large, while the mesh fabric will hopefully help with the sweat situation on warmer days – something that remains a huge issue with leather ear cushions. More importantly, the AirPods Max’s ear cushions are extremely comfortable and attach magnetically. You can swap them too, but at $69 a pair. 

Sony WH-1000XM4
Image: Sony

However, I couldn’t help but notice that the AirPods Max clamp a little too tightly around the ears in a bid to fully cover the area and isolate noise. While the objective is good, I am not too sure how comfortable they’ll be for long hours of usage such as flights or a marathon work session.

That case design is divisive

There’s a crown (akin to the Apple Watch) for volume controls and a dedicated button for enabling the transparency mode that lets ambient noise through. But I strongly feel that the button placement could’ve been better, especially for the crown, which is located at the top and makes for an uncomfortable volume adjustment or playback control experience.

Overall, the AirPods Max looks extremely stylish, but the case Apple ships with them is nothing short of an abomination from a design standpoint. The headphones enter a low-energy mode to save battery when you put them in the purse case. But let me put it in crystal clear words – The bra-butt hybrid design of the case is ugly. And on top of that, the open design doesn’t really much confidence when it comes to actually protecting the AirPods Max against scratches or other forms of physical damage.

AirPods Max Case
Image: Apple

But the biggest issue with Apple’s headphones is the weight of the AirPods Max. The tip the scale at 385 grams, which means you’re definitely going to feel their heft. And if you plan on wearing them on a long flight or throughout the day, you should try them on first at a store or borrow them from a friend before shelling out. In comparison, the Sony WH-1000XM4 weighs 254 grams and the Bose 700 noise-canceling headphones are 249 grams. And oh, these are not waterproof. 

No waterproofing on either product

Coming to the Sony WH-1000XM4, they look identical to their acclaimed predecessor – the WH-1000XM4. But hey, why fix something that ain’t broken. Sony’s cans rely on high-quality plastic and a generous amount of leather padding. The earcups are angular with an egg-shaped outline. Compared to the AirPods Max, the over-ear fit is a tad more comfortable, and the weight difference clearly becomes apparent here.

Sony WH-1000XM4 charging case
Image: Sony

As for the cushion, Sony has used what it calls pressure-relieving earpads in foamed urethane that offer a snug fit and ensure an even pressure distribution. But just like the AirPods Max, there is no waterproofing of any kind here. It is one of the biggest drawbacks of an otherwise excellent pair of noise-canceling headphones that are deemed the top dog.

Capacitive controls are excellent on the Sony headphones

The rest of the package is also familiar. The power/pairing and noise-canceling button is still located in the lower portion of the earcup, and there is a 3.5mm USB Type-C jack as well. The outer earcup has a capacitive surface that can be used for playback control and even enabling the ambient mode temporarily by covering one of the earcups with your hands to let in external sound.

Capacitive controls are a godsend gift, and make it much easier to execute a wide array of tasks, rather than awkwardly reaching for the crown on AirPods Max. For a $549 price tag, I think capacitive controls should have been a part of the package as I sorely missed the convenience.

AirPods Max Blue
Image: Apple

And in case you’re wondering, Sony bundles the WH-1000XM4 with a case that looks premium and also includes a cable for a wired listening experience. Nothing beats wired playback when it comes to enjoying high-resolution music. In Apple’s case, you’ll have to spend an extra $35 to buy the Lightning-to-3.5mm cable for wired listening. Yes, you pay separately for a cable for wired listening when you purchase Apple’s $549 cans. 

Internals and features

On the AirPods Max, each earcup comes equipped with the in-house H1 headphone chip, while the audio output is handled by a 40-mm dynamic driver. There’s a dual neodymium ring magnet motor that is claimed to reduce harmonic distortions and deliver a clear playback experience even at full volume. Inside the Sony WH-10000XM4 is the QN1 HD noise-canceling processor accompanied by a new Bluetooth audio chip.

There are a total of nine mics on the AirPods Max. On the other hand, the Sony cans have two mics on each earcup for its dual noise sensor technology while the speak-to-chat feature uses all five mics in tandem. Now, there are a lot of features shared between the two competing headphones.

Sony WH-1000XM4 folding design
Image: Sony

Let’s start with 3D audio. Apple’s iteration on the AirPods Max is called Spatial Audio, which employs gyroscopes and accelerometers for head-tracking to offer a theater-like experience. Sony’s version is called 360 Reality Sound and it also uses spatial audio technology. However, you can only take advantage of this feature with a select few streaming services such as Tidal and Deezer that offer high-resolution music playback support. 

Apple has Spatial Audio, Sony offers 360 Reality Sound

Both the AirPods Max and the Sony WH-1000XM4 can detect when you put the headphones on or take them off, and accordingly pause or resume playback. Additionally, both the headphones support multi-device connection.  So, if you have connected the AirPods Max with an iPhone and a Mac, it will seamlessly switch from the Mac to the iPhone on which you are attending a voice call. 

There is an ambient mode on both headphones too. Apple calls it Transparency mode, and it can be enabled by tapping the dedicated noise-canceling button. However, the Sony offering has a few more tricks up its sleeve. You can control the level of background sound you want to hear using the Headphones Connect app. Plus, placing your hands over the earcup instantly lowers the music and allows external sound through. 

AirPods Max
Image: Apple

One-tap pairing on the AirPods Max is great

The AirPods Max, on the other hand, allows users to share audio between two AirPods linked to an iPhone, iPod, iPad, or an Apple TV 4K. However, a major convenience that is exclusive to Apple is the one-tap setup. All you have to is place the AirPods Max near your device and select the connection prompt on the screen. 

Sony, on the other hand, still relies on the usual Bluetooth pairing process. On the bright side, the WH-1000XM4 offers some audio-centric conveniences such as LDAC transmission (up to 990 kbps) for enjoying hi-res music. Additionally, the Sony headphones also support the DSEE (Digital Sound Enhancement Engine) Extreme technology that upscales compressed music files in real-time to deliver a richer audio experience. 

Adjustable EQ settings are available on both Apple and Sony’s headphones, but there’s a huge difference here. Apple does it all automatically without offering any manual controls, while Sony’s companion app offers a ton of granular control to let users fine-tune the audio output to their liking. This is something folks who are serious about their music listening experience should know.

Sony WH-1000XM4 earcups folded
Image: Sony

Another extremely convenient and cool feature that the WH-1000XM4 headphones bring to the table is Speak-to-Chat. This feature relies on the Precise Voice Pickup Technology that uses five mics to recognize and react to the user’s voice. On the surface, it automatically stops the music playback and allows ambient sound through the headphones as soon as users speak, enabling them to engage in a conversation without having to take off the headphones or performing a gesture. You just speak and the music playback automatically stops. How cool is that?

Speak-to-Chat is one of the best Sony WH-1000XM4 tricks

Then there is Atmospheric Pressure Optimization on the Sony WH-1000XM4 that makes adjustments for high-altitude and is tailored for flights. Another trick is the Personal Noise-Canceling Optimizer, which takes into account attributes such as glasses, the size of head and hair to tweak the sound output.

The AirPods Max, on the other hand, relies on computational audio courtesy of the 10-core H1 chip to tune the sound output by blocking external noise and adapting the sonic balance based on the seal and fit of the ear cushions. An always-on assistant is also at your disposal, with the AirPods Max relying on Siri, while the WH-1000XM4 bank on Google Assistant and Alexa for some AI smarts. 

Sound quality

Sony WH-1000XM4 audio quality
Image: Sony

Now, I’ve only had a brief experience with the Sony WH-1000XM4 (which I borrowed from a friend) and tested the AirPods Max for merely a couple of hours after leasing them briefly from an audio equipment store whose owner get a couple of units imported from the US. While I could get a taste of the raw sound output in my brief experience, I couldn’t assess the mic quality in detail. 

Raw audio quality and noise cancellation on AirPods Max is top notch

Right off the bat, I noticed that the soundstage of the AirPods Max is narrower than those on the Sony WH-1000XM4, but not too much. However, the difference can also be attributed to the varying sonic signature of each device. The bass is tight, and the mids, highs, and lows are handled really well. I couldn’t help but come out with the impression that the audio output is immersive and high on clarity. The AirPods Max takes a very balanced approach to automatic EQ adjustments, and it reflects in how they handle a wide range of instruments ranging from acoustic guitars to thumping bass plates.

The AirPods Max also excels at noise cancellation. In fact, they sit right there at the top alongside Sony and Bose’s best, if not better. I enjoyed a few instrumental, classical Indian, jazz, and R&B songs in a store that was continuously music blasting ads and occasional Drake tracks from all directions, but the AirPods Max excelled at isolating the external noise. The Transparency mode also works like a charm. In fact, it is definitely among the best iterations of an ambient mode I’ve experienced so far.

AirPods Max audio quality
Image: Apple

However, there is only so far that the AirPods Max can go with all that hardware and computation tricks. The maximum you can achieve is Dolby Atmos if you want to go beyond standard music listening over Bluetooth. Apple Music doesn’t offer a hi-res audio tier like Tidal, so you have to stick with the regular 256kbps AAC stream. There is no aptX or aptX HD compatibility either.

Sony WH-1000XM4 offer more audiophile capabilities

This is one area where the Sony WH-1000XM4 leaves the Sony far behind. You get LDAC support that brings a CD-like music experience to your ears. In terms of quality, the sonic signature of the WH-1000XM4 is pleasing. But if you want a more refined bass output with a noticeable thump, the Sony WH-1000XM4 appears to be the better option – at least to my ears. Of course, noise cancellation quality is top-notch here, with almost no discernible superiority (or inferiority) over the AirPods Max. 

Battery and power

Apple says that the AirPods Max can last up to 20 hours of listening time with ANC or Transparency mode enabled, and those numbers are not too shabby. The company also touts 20 hours of movie playback or calling on a single charge. Plus, 5 minutes of charging time will be good enough for 1.5 hours of playtime, which is nothing short of amazing.

Sony WH-1000XM4 battery life
Image: Sony

However, there is no wireless charging support here. Yes, you don’t get this convenience on Apple’s $549 headphones, but AirPods Pro earbuds that cost less than half offer this convenience. Bewildering, to say the least, and disappointing too.

No wireless charging, and still a Lightning port

Another major disappointment is how wired charging works. Again, for reasons only known to Apple, the company is sticking with the Lightning port, instead of using the USB Type-C port. Why on earth does the Lightning port exist even in 2021? So yeah, always carry the lightning cable around to charge your AirPods Max.

The Sony WH-1000XM4 can last up to 30 hours on a single charge with noise-cancellation while disabling ANC extends that number to 38 hours. Fully charging these takes up to 3 hours, but thankfully, Sony has opted for the USB-C standard.

AirPods Max vs Sony WH-1000XM4: Verdict

AirPods Max Jaime Rivera pocketnow closeup

The AirPods Max is Apple’s best. Be it audio quality, noise cancellation, or smart features, they nail every aspect. But they are not vastly superior to the Sony WH-1000XM4 either. You really have to ask whether the Apple ecosystem-locked features such as Spatial Audio and always-on Siri assistance are extremely important to you before shelling out $549 on the AirPods Max. Plus, they are huge and heavy, even though they look gorgeous and rock arguably the best build quality you can come across on a pair of over-the-ear headphones out there. 

If not, the Sony WH-1000XM4 will offer you a best-in-class audio experience for $200 less. And oh, you don’t have to spend extra on a cable for wired listening, and won’t have to live with an ugly case either. Plus, you won’t be losing any major features switching between an iPhone or an Android device with them. 

Personally, I just can’t get this idea out of my head that I can buy both the Sony WH-1000XM4 and the AirPods Pro for less than the AirPods Max. And that’s where the comparison and the whole point of debating merits-demerits effectively end for me.

AirPods Max hero

AirPods Max

AirPods Max personify the best of what Apple has to offer from its audio technology prowess. They offer a great sound output, top-notch noise cancellation and a terrific transparency mode that is easily among the best out there.

sony wh1000xm4

Sony WH-1000XM4

Sony WH-1000XM4 improve upon a wildly popular predecessor and add some neat tricks such as Speak to Chat. Noise-cancellation is a strong suite of Sony’s offering, the ambient mode works fine and the sound output is worth every penny.


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