Sony WH-1000XM5 vs. Apple AirPods Max: which ANC wireless headphones are best?

Sony's brilliant new headphones raise the bar, but do they have Apple's best AirPods beat?

Sony WH-1000XM5 ANC wireless headphones
(Image credit: Sony)

There's a new king in town: Sony's brilliant WH-1000XM5 headphones are the best noise cancelling headphones you can buy right now, replacing the previous best: Sony's WH-1000XM4.

But the new model is more expensive than before, and that means it's closer in price to Apple's AirPods Max – especially now we're seeing lots of discounting on Apple's most expensive AirPods. So which pair delivers headphone heaven?

Let's see how these two pairs of premium active noise cancelling wireless headphones compare.

Sony WH-1000XM5 wireless headphones resting on an office desk

(Image credit: Sony)

Sony WH-1000XM5 vs. AirPods Max: price and street price

The WH-1000XM5 are $399 / £379 / AU$649, and that means they're more expensive than many high-end rivals – but not Apple. The AirPods Max are $549 / £549 / AU$899. However the AirPods Max have been around for a while now and that means there's more discounting: at the time of writing I can see some respectable retailers offering them for £368 in the UK and $469 in the US. It'll be a while before the new Sonys start being discounted so in the short term at least the prices are quite similar.

Be very, very cynical if you see discounts that seem too good to be true, especially if you can't verify the source: there are some very convincing-looking fake AirPods Max coming out of China.

Apple AirPods Max being worn by a woman looking at an iPad

(Image credit: Apple)

Sony WH-1000XM5 vs. AirPods Max: design and comfort

The AirPods Max are very comfortable headphones but the Sonys are slightly better, and they're lighter too – something you'll appreciate if you're wearing them for long periods. Design-wise it really comes down to personal preference: I really love the AirPods Max colours and think they resemble giant Apple Watches; other people hate the AirPods Max colours and don't want to strap giant Apple Watches to their heads. They're certainly making more of a statement than the Sonys, which are considerably less look-at-me. And their carrying case, which resembles some kind of headphone bra, looks stupid and barely offers any protection.

The design of the Sonys has been changed significantly with this version: they're slimmer, simpler and with a narrower headband. I don't think anyone would call them pretty, but as they're for listening to rather than looking at that's hardly a problem. They look like what they are: premium headphones.

We're expecting to see new AirPods Max later this year, but reports so far suggest that they'll be new colours rather than new models.

Sony WH-1000XM5 in white being used by a woman drinking a coffee

(Image credit: Sony)

Sony WH-1000XM5 vs. AirPods Max: sound quality

These are both incredible-sounding headphones no matter what genre of music you're listening to, but only Sony lets you adjust their EQ; with Apple, you have Adaptive EQ instead. That analyses the fit and seal of the ear cups and optimises the sound accordingly. I can't say I've ever wanted to change the EQ with well recorded tracks on Apple Music, but I do miss it when I'm listening to lower quality tracks or too-boomy podcasts. 

Before the new Sonys came along, AirPods had the edge with their inclusion of Spatial Audio, which is fun in music and really great in movies. Sony now offers its own 360 Reality Audio, but it only works with certain streaming services. Both headphones support the standard SBC codec and the better sounding AAC codec, and Sony also supports its own LDAC for even higher quality streaming from compatible phones. 

Apple AirPods Max

(Image credit: Future)

Sony WH-1000XM5 vs. AirPods Max: smart features

The Sonys have Alexa and Google Assistant while the AirPods Max have Siri. Apple's headphones have Apple's H1 chip inside for instant pairing and effortless switching between devices, and they also work with the Find My app if you misplace them. The Sonys aren't as fancy but they do pair easily to both iOS and Android devices, although there's no equivalent for Find My.

One of the best features in the Sonys is Speak To Chat. This detects when you're talking and automatically pauses your music so you can chat. 

Sony WH-1000XM5 sat on grass

(Image credit: Future / Simon Lucas)

Sony WH-1000XM5 vs. AirPods Max: noise cancelling

This is the big one. The AirPods Max's noise cancelling is really good. But the Sony's noise cancelling is great. It learns your locations and can automatically adjust the noise cancelling according to where you are, and its ambient sound feature can help you hear external sounds more clearly. And as we said in our Sony WH-1000XM5 review, "Sony has delivered a pair of headphones that can deal with virtually any external sound short of an HGV moving off from the lights. And it can do so without affecting the audio performance, without leaving any artificiality or impression of counter-signal in its wake, without introducing that ‘cabin pressure’ sensation into the earcups".

Sony WH-1000XM5 being worn by an adult woman

(Image credit: Sony)

Sony WH-1000XM5 vs Apple AirPods Max: which ones should you buy?

These are both exceptional noise cancelling headphones that deliver incredibly good sound, and as much as I love my AirPods Max I have to say that the Sonys are the better buys. Their noise cancelling is better, they can stream even higher quality audio (provided you have a device that supports LDAC), they're less likely to attract muggers and they're cheaper too. They're also more compatible: some of the AirPods Max's features, such as proximity sensing and quick pairing, doesn't work if you're connected to a Windows or Android device. 

I don't regret buying my AirPods, and if you're an Apple user you won't regret it if you buy them either: they're really great headphones. But they're also very expensive headphones unless you get a big discount, and I think for the vast majority of people the new Sonys do more for less money.

Carrie Marshall

Writer, musician and broadcaster Carrie Marshall has been covering technology since 1998 and is particularly interested in how tech can help us live our best lives. Her CV is a who’s who of magazines, newspapers, websites and radio programmes ranging from T3, Techradar and MacFormat to the BBC, Sunday Post and People’s Friend. Carrie has written more than a dozen books, ghost-wrote two more and co-wrote seven more books and a Radio 2 documentary series. When she’s not scribbling, she’s the singer in Glaswegian rock band HAVR (