Whether you're looking for great active noise cancellation, deep audio quality, an expansive soundstage or just a set of headphones built to last, shopping more towards the high end is the way to go – and these are three key candidates in that mid-to-high market right now.
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Sony's ANC dominance is truly on show in its latest XM over-ears, so the Sony WH-1000XM4s need to be on everyone's short list. The Bose NCH 700 cans come from the originator of noise cancelling tech, and slather themselves with some of the curviest design we've ever seen – it's no question they deserve a look.
And then there's Apple, which has fired itself out of the headphone launch cannon with its customary marketing explosion. But can the AirPods Max really enter the same conversation as their cheaper rivals, or are they truly something special and worthy of that price tag? Let's find out how they stack up.
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AirPods Max vs Sony WH-1000XM4 vs Bose NCH 700: Price
Painful part first, then: none of these noise-cancelling cans is particularly kind to your wallet. In the UK, both the Sony WH-1000XM4 and Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 are listed at £350, though things vary a little in the USA: Sony's cans are $350, while Bose asks $380. Wherever you live, you're unlikely to pay that price, though; you can see the current lowest prices on all these headphones just below.
Apple's new headphones have raised a few eyebrows with a rather steep asking price: the AirPods Max are listed at £549/$549, and Apple being Apple you're unlikely to see much of a discount. Find the right deal on a rival set, and you might be able to pick up two for the price of a single pair of AirPods Max.
That's a big ask. But Apple has never been shy of reaching out to premium buyers with premium technology – AirPods Max make some lofty claims about audio quality that might make them feel worth the extra money. After all, truly high-end headphones can cost much, much more even than that…
AirPods Max vs Sony WH-1000XM4 vs Bose NCH 700: Comfort
Ideally, ANC headphones will be wearable for long periods. Maybe you'll use them to block out commuter noise, maybe they'll put you in your own world on a long flight, perhaps you just want 10 minutes' blissful peace from your noisy family or housemates. Whatever the reason, they need to be comfortable. Put too much weight on your neck, add too much tension to the band, and headphone fatigue rears its ugly head.
We don't know the tension of Apple's AirPods Max as yet. It's fair to say they're unlikely to squeeze your head like a strongman crushing a coconut, but we can't rate them on that metric until we've had them on for some time. We do, though, know the weight: 384.8 grams (13.6 ounces) puts these on the heavier end of the spectrum, and not by a small amount.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 weighs in at 254g (8.95 oz), and the Bose NCH 700 matches that precisely on weight. In fact, there's a lot that's similar between those two. Both sets are super-comfortable, feeling lightweight on the head, and not crushing your cranium even slightly. Honestly, there's nothing between them.
The AirPods are a little more complex, with a breathable mesh knit that sits below their stainless steel headband, which should help to distribute the weight and reduce on-head pressure, and memory foam ear cushions with a slightly different mesh textile. They seem like they'll be comfy, particularly with the pivoting action of their ear cups, which Apple promises uniquely distributes pressure evenly on the sides of the head. The question is just whether the extra weight can be felt even through a comfortable fit.
AirPods Max vs Sony WH-1000XM4 vs Bose NCH 700: Design
All three have earpieces which turn to allow them to go flat, helping them sit comfortably against your collarbones rather than cutting off the blood supply when they're resting around your neck.
Sony's wireless cans are notable here for being the only pair to actually fold up neatly into a compact protective case. The others include cases too: in the case of the AirPods Max, this is a pouch which covers the ear cups, sending them into a low-power state; for the NCH 700s, it's a sturdier all-over case, with a charging case available if you're happy to shell out extra.
Each has its own artistic appeal. The smooth hinge-free lines of Bose's cans hides all the important positional hardware inside those contoured ear cups, giving the swooping stainless steel headband a look all its own.
Sony's more traditional hinged design isn't flashy, but there's no mistaking that it's built well, and made to last. And Apple? Well, Apple's design team has done the work here, with a split headband supported by mesh, earpieces almost reminiscent of an AirPods case, and a look that won't let you forget this is an Apple product.
All come in a variety of colours, but if you're looking for something distinctive, the AirPods Max certainly take the edge. Whether it's too much of an edge will come down to personal taste.
AirPods Max vs Sony WH-1000XM4 vs Bose NCH 700: Sound quality
Bose's ANC is very good. The company's head-start on its opponents has stood it in good stead, and the NCH 700s pull off a very effective block to outside sound, with Bose's usual EQ-heavy audio breaking through beautifully. There's huge clarity to the output – certainly nothing that disappoints at this price point, though you may find others which dance around music a little more nimbly.
As the sequel to the highly regarded XM3s, the Sony WH-1000XM4 had a high bar to hit. Somehow they sailed over it, with possibly the finest ANC we have ever heard. Really, it's stupendous. Some find the XM4's rather bass-heavy output a bit too much, but that's going to be a very personal thing, and you can tweak the balance using an app. Hi-res support is present and correct, and Sony also includes DSEE, an AI-enabled upscaling engine which promises to pull more detail out of your tunes, even if they're just middling-quality versions from streaming services.
Apple packs a lot into the AirPods Max. It has absolutely gone to town with its audio options. Adaptive EQ makes a return from the AirPods Pro, tweaking audio to suit the shape of your head. Apple's spatial audio is here too, working in tandem with a head-tracking system powered by the H1 processor to deliver positional audio which varies depending on where your head is facing – this will absolutely be a feature to watch in the coming years. It basically means you get true Dolby Atmos 3D sound when watching compatible video.
There's ANC, utilising three outward-facing mics and an inward-facing mic in each ear – Apple has proven to be very capable in the noise-cancelling department before, so we have high hopes. Whether this is a package which deserves the extra investment is something we'll find out in time, but there's certainly a whole lot on offer.
When it comes getting high-quality tunes into the headphones, none of these models supports aptX Bluetooth, but the Bose and Sony have 3.5mm ports for wired connections. The AirPods Max can't do this out of the box, but you can buy a Lightning-to-3.5mm cable separately, so you could plug them into a hi-fi or plane video screen.
AirPods Max vs Sony WH-1000XM4 vs Bose NCH 700: Overall
Technologically, Apple perhaps a slight lead. Sony's ANC is the best we've heard. Bose's sound is fantastic. It's a very tight race. Between the Sony WH-1000XM4 and Bose NCH 700, we'd say it's almost a tie: they're the same weight, they're similarly capable, and while Sony's ANC might edge it, there's very little between them. If you were to make a purely aesthetic choice we absolutely wouldn't blame you.
Apple knows what it is doing with personal audio, and it's constantly experimenting, usually very successfully. The AirPods Max will, we're sure, capture a vast amount of the cachet that in-ear AirPods garnered. You will feel cool wearing them. But just bear this in mind: these are Apple headphones, so they're designed to work best with Apple kit. The AirPods Max can connect to a non-Apple product, but you'll lose some of the functionality – they keep the noise-cancelling, crucially.