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Apple AirPods Max vs Bose QuietComfort 45

Sure, these headphones look different, but they perform very similarly.
By
March 17, 2021
On the left side is the Apple AirPods Max and on the right is the Bose QuietComfort 45. Text overlaid reads, "Apple AirPods Max VS Bose QuietComfort 45".

We have a couple of heavy hitter headphones to duke it out: the Apple AirPods Max and the Bose QuietComfort 45. They might not look alike, but they have more common with each other than you’d think. With oodles of active noise cancellation (ANC) on tap and legions of fans on either side surrounding the ring, let’s see if Apple or Bose takes the crown.

Editor’s note: this versus article was updated on August 18, 2022, to include updated ANC/isolation charts, update formatting, and include the Sony WH-1000XM5 as an alternative.

Is the Bose QuietComfort 45 more comfortable than the Apple AirPods Max?

A man uses the control cluster on the back of the Bose QuietComfort 45.
The Bose QC 45 makes use of tactile buttons.

As design philosophies go, apart from prioritizing comfort, Apple and Bose can seem antithetical at a glance. Apple focuses on a futuristic aesthetic design with sleek metal housing and mesh cushions, while Bose rests on its laurels with a functional design that basically refines the successful QuietComfort 35 II.

Bose uses synthetic leather for its memory foam ear pads, while Apple uses a tightly knit mesh textile to wrap the ear cushions. Apple’s futuristic headset uses a digital crown to control the playback and volume, while the QC 45 relies on buttons to operate basic functions. With the QC 45, you get a dedicated action button that toggles between ANC and audio passthrough modes. The AirPods Max has a noise control button that lets you cycle through ANC, Transparency, and off (configurable on iOS devices).

The Apple AirPods Max in white on a gray felt deskmat.
The ear cups are magnetically attached and can easily pop off to be replaced, but they cost $69 to replace.

The AirPods Max has sensors built into the headphones, which automatically detect when you remove and replace the headset for auto-pause/play functionality (Apple hardware only). With the Bose QC 45, you must press the multi-function button to pause playback, and press it again to resume.

With its mostly plastic build, the QC 45 weighs only 240g, which is great for long sessions. The AirPods Max, on the other hand, is significantly heavier at 386g of mainly aluminum and stainless steel. Meanwhile, the QC 45 folds up for better portability with a zippered case, which the AirPods Max does not do. Instead, the AirPods Max case barely protects it. Should you choose the AirPods Max route, try some of these cases instead to protect your investment.

How is the Bose QC 45 experience on the Bose Music app different from the Apple AirPods Max experience?

Three screenshots of the February 2022 update of the Bose Music app with the Bose QuietComfort 45 connected showing from left to right a neutral EQ, the home screen with a new EQ button visible, and the EQ with Treble Reducer activated.
The Bose QuietComfort 45 added an in-app EQ in February 2022 to the Bose Music app via a software update. The far right image shows our suggested equalizer setting.

The Bose Music app recently updated so it now has an equalizer and it’s totally worth downloading. Other features include toggling ANC on or Aware mode. There’s no standard listening mode, which is sort of annoying and arguably a waste of battery if you’re just at home alone. However, the app performs updates, which Bose historically does well, so it’s possible the Bose Music app will see other improvements.

Apple integrates the AirPods Max experience into the rest of the iOS experience. Features like updates happen through the iOS Bluetooth settings. Like the QC 45, unfortunately, there is no custom equalizer. You can switch Apple devices and pair by holding the headphones close to an iPhone, and you can listen from the same Apple device as a friend simultaneously. With the AirPods Max, you also get spatial audio, which is Apple’s version of 3D sound that works with Dolby Atmos, 5.1, and 7.1 mixed content.

The spatial audio pop-up on an iPad Pro.
It might still be limited, but AirPods Max is compatible with Apple’s own spatial audio.

Unlike the QC 45, the AirPods Max lets you can toggle between ANC, Transparency mode, or a standard mode (ANC off, Transparency off). In the iOS Settings app under Bluetooth, you can customize the noise control button so it only affects two of the three noise settings. Both headsets allow you to access a virtual assistant, but only the AirPods Max supports hands-free access to Siri. You can also press and hold the digital crown to perform the same function. To do so on the Bose QC 45 headset, press and hold the multi-function button.

But both companies offer updates to make improvements, justifying the prices better with the support. Apple definitely still has the advantage through utilizing the H1 chip features and seamless iOS functionality, but the QC 45 EQ is a key addition.

Does the Bose QuietComfort 45 have better noise cancelling than the Apple AirPods Max?

Charts shows noise cancelling performance of the Apple AirPods Max versus the Bose QuietComfort 45.
The AirPods Max has more consistent noise cancellation, and the QC 45 isolates better in the high frequencies.

Both headsets have excellent noise cancelling technology. With the QC 45, you get excellent overall attenuation from the combined passive isolation and ANC. It effectively mutes sounds from 2-11kHz. As you can see in the above direct comparison, which shows combined isolation and ANC, each set of headphones has its strength. However, that’s not the whole story.

While the QC 45 better quiets those highs, the Apple AirPods Max filters out lows more effectively. The AirPods Max attenuates around 5dB more in the lows than the QC 45. At around the 1kHz mark, the AirPods Max attenuates around 10dB more than the QC 45 (making 1kHz noises sound half as loud with the AirPods Max compared to the Bose QuietComfort 45). In the highs, it’s less of a contest, with the QC 45 sealing the victory (and your ears) with over 10dB more noise cancelling and isolation.

The Bose QuietComfort 45 headphones on a statue head.
The QuietComfort 45 looks nearly indistinguishable from the QC 35 II.

Typically ANC works best on mids and bassy repetitive noises below 1kHz. That means below 1kHz the Apple AirPods Max performs better than the QC 45. Regardless of which you choose, it’s important to make sure you get a proper fit to achieve the best performance, and it’s worth your time to figure out which of the best ANC headphones suits your needs.

Does the Bose QuietComfort 45 sound better than Apple AirPods Max?

Charts shows a comparison of Apple AirPods Max, Bose QuietComfort 45 and the house curve.
The yellow line denotes the QC 45 which has a significant treble boost compared to the AirPods Max (in cyan), and the house curve (in pink).

Audio output is more accurate overall on the AirPods Max. Through the bass and mids, the AirPods Max closely follows our house curve, which is also true on the Bose QuietComfort 45. Determining which frequency response is best boils down to the highs, where neither headset performs perfectly, but the AirPods Max is more reasonable in its treble dosage.

While the AirPods Max under-emphasizes high frequencies, the QC 45 over-emphasizes them to an unpleasant degree. Podcasts fare better by virtue of having no competing frequencies, just one voice at a time usually.

The Apple AirPods Max in white on a coffee table next to a newspaper.
No headphone jack here means you need to purchase a separate Lightning to 3.5mm dongle.

By contrast, the highs are less emphasized with the AirPods Max, falling below our ideal target curve (shown in pink) until around 6kHz. It might inhibit your ability to hear quietly mixed treble notes, but you can still hear everything and not suffer any treble-related ear fatigue with the AirPods Max.

Fortunately, we tested the new equalizer in the Bose Music app and found that it can get quite close to our target curve without much effort at all.

With this latest update, if you utilize the EQ, the QC 45 takes the win. If you just want out of the box better sound without any adjustments, then it’s the AirPods Max, but honestly adjusting EQ takes two minutes or less.

Which headset has the better microphone?

A photo of the back of the Bose QuietComfort 45's ear cups, along with the control cluster.
Playback controls can be found on the back of the headphones.

The winner for the most consistent results goes to the Bose QuietComfort 45, which has a good microphone system. You can use it for phone calls and conference calls. You might hear some slight sibilant sounds, but it’s still reasonably accurate.

By contrast, the Apple AirPods Max gets the award for most inconsistent mic performance. Results appear to largely depend on the device it’s paired with, which makes it difficult to offer a definitive answer. Overall, the AirPods Max works okay for personal calls, but it isn’t especially great at accurately reproducing voices.

Take a listen to the samples below and help other readers by casting your vote!

Bose QuietComfort 45 microphone demo (Ideal):

Apple AirPods Max microphone demo (Ideal):

Which microphone sounds better to you?

1124 votes

Which Bluetooth codecs does the Bose QC 45 and Apple AirPods Max support?

A man wears the Apple AirPods Max and adjusting volume via the digital crown.
AAC codecs on both AirPods Max and QC 45 means they both work basically just as well as each other.

Both the Apple AirPods Max and Bose QuietComfort 45 utilize the same Bluetooth codec portfolio: AAC and SBC. iPhone users benefit from the high quality of AAC, while Android users tend to get less reliable results with AAC than SBC. Even though AAC theoretically ought to yield higher quality audio, it can behave inconsistently across different Android devices. This is all to say, try SBC if you use Android.

The Bose QuietComfort 45 uses Bluetooth 5.1, which is slightly more efficient than the AirPods Max’s Bluetooth 5.0. You won’t see a huge performance difference though, and battery life depends more on volume output and listening modes than Bluetooth versions.

Yes, you can use a wired connection with either headset.

For the best possible audio quality, go wired—the QC 45 has a 2.5mm-to-3.5mm headphone cable, and the AirPods Max lacks a headphone jack. You can, however, use a Lightning-to-3.5mm audio cable for wired playback. You’ll also still need a 3.5mm-to-Lightning dongle adapter to listen to hardwire the AirPods Max to an iPhone 7 or later.

Does the Bose QuietComfort 45 have better battery life than the Apple AirPods Max?

A photo of the USB-C port of the Bose QuietComfort 45.
The USB-C input is more universal (and cheaper to buy new cables for) than Lightning on the AirPods Max.

The Bose QuietComfort 45 has a longer battery life than the Apple AirPods Max. Officially the battery life is 24 hours on the QuietComfort 45, while AirPods Max yields 20 hours.

With noise cancelling on, our testing showed the Bose QuietComfort 45 lasts 24 hours, 49 minutes, surpassing Bose’s quoted battery life for the headset. Also of note: Bose lets you turn off the headphones and Apple does not. Placing the AirPods Max in its included case sets it to low power mode, but does not shut it off completely. Leaving your AirPods Max unused and out of the case for 5 minutes sends it into low power mode. Even so, one wonders why Apple didn’t just put a power button somewhere on the headset.

The Apple AirPods Max and its smart case on a white desk.
The AirPods Max comes with its smart case and a charging cable, and nothing else.

While in our objective tests the QC 45 has a longer battery life with ANC on, if like a lot of people you switch between ANC and normal listening modes, you might get more life out of the AirPods Max. This is because the QC 45 only lets you choose ANC on or passthrough audio, without any normal listening mode that would stretch out a battery life.

Bose uses a standard USB-C cable for charging. Whereas Apple ships its headphones with a Lightning to USB-C cable, which is less universal and more expensive to replace. In this respect, the QC 45 overall performs better than the AirPods Max, apart from the quick charge stats.

Yes, both pairs of headphones support fast charging.

Charging the QC 45 for 15 minutes lends 180 minutes of juice. Charging the AirPods Max for 5 minutes gets you 90 minutes of audio.

Bose QuietComfort 45 vs Apple AirPods Max: Which should you get?

The Bose QuietComfort 45 resting atop a plastic head.
The Bose QC 45 is much more affordable than the AirPods Max.

First off, do you have an extra $200 USD? That could determine which set of headphones you ought to choose. The Apple AirPods Max is more expensive than the Bose QuietComfort 45. In a competition that otherwise is pretty tight, it’s a fair question to pose. Considering that the Bose QuietComfort 45 does not require any extras to get the most out of it, and the AirPods Max can benefit from some additional dongles that will add to what is already a wallet-destroying price tag, it makes sense if you pick the QC 45.

If you’ve got an Apple iPhone you’re in luck: you can get the most out of both headsets. If you’re using Android you’ll miss out on some of the premium features of the AirPods Max, which might urge you in the direction of the QC 45 due to its OS-agnostic nature.

In the category of noise cancellation it’s a close race. For commutes and noisy workspaces, it might depend a little on the kinds of noises you want to block out. The passive isolation on the QC 45 basically mutes clanging dishes, but the AirPods Max does a slightly better job with low rumbles like HVAC hum.

The Apple AirPods Max noise cancelling headphones in white against an off-white background.
Apple AirPods Max
All prices listed in USD unless otherwise specified. Prices may change over time, and vary by region. Unfortunately, we cannot list Amazon prices on the site, as they vary greatly by currency.

Sound quality is pretty similar, unless you employ the EQ in the Bose Music app, in which case the QC 45 sounds better. Less high frequency emphasis on the AirPods Max sounds more natural than the default exaggeration on the QC 45.

In terms of overall comfort, the Bose QuietComfort 45 is significantly lighter than the AirPods Max, and more portable. With that said, the replaceable mesh ear cups on the AirPods Max breathe better, and both headsets distribute weight well.

Product shot of Bose QuietComfort 45 headset from the side.
Bose QuietComfort 45
All prices listed in USD unless otherwise specified. Prices may change over time, and vary by region. Unfortunately, we cannot list Amazon prices on the site, as they vary greatly by currency.

The question of how you like to use your headphones might act as a good determining factor: those belonging to the Apple ecosystem gain H1 chip features and Apple spatial audio. Do you like the idea of a dial (AirPods Max) or dedicated buttons (QC 45)? Do you want the subdued Bose visual style or the metal-clad design of Apple? Ask yourself if you want to buy it and be done (QC 45), or if you are okay with purchasing dongles and a case (AirPods Max).

What should you get instead of the Bose QC 45 and Apple AirPods Max?

If the price of the AirPods Max puts you off, and the aesthetic of the QC 45 bores you, consider the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700. The NCH 700 keeps pace with the newer QC 45 and AirPods Max, and the NCH 700 has a custom EQ to complement its already good sound profile.

Side-on view of Sony WH-1000XM5 beside the AirPods Max hanging over a white horizontal pipe
The WH-1000XM5 (left) is much friendlier to those who switch between operating systems than the AirPods Max (right).

The Sony WH-1000XM5 is another possibility, particularly for Android users, who can benefit from the better LDAC codec. iPhone users still get the AAC codec. The headset has a good default frequency response, though notably more low-end emphasis than the Apple or Bose offerings. It comes with EQ app support and Sony 360 reality audio. In terms of ANC, it blows away the competition, and it worthy of a look if you have the cash.

Finally, the elephant in the room is the Bose QuietComfort 35 II, which sounds better than the default setting on the QC 45. Both headsets look by and large alike. The QC35 II runs cheaper than the QC 45, and if you can live with the inconvenience of microUSB charging, it might be a worthy budget-saving option. You can also check out other Bose offerings.

Frequently asked questions about Apple AirPods Max vs Bose QuietComfort 45

Most small issues can be sorted by restarting the QC 45. To restart, plug in the USB-C cable (but don’t plug it into a power source yet), and then slide the Power button to the right. Hold it there while you plug the other end of the cable into a wall charger.

Unfortunately you can’t turn off the AirPods Max. By placing it in its case it goes into a sleep mode, which is battery preserving, but it won’t turn off.