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Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones vs Apple AirPods Max

Noise cancelation, no problem.
By

Published onMay 15, 2024

Bose QuietComfort Ultra
MSRP: $429.00
8.5
Check price
Positives
Great ANC
Good passthrough mode
Snapdragon Sound
aptX Lossless
Negatives
Price
No IP rating
Immersive audio
Some channel matching issues
Apple AirPods Max
MSRP: $424.99
8
Check price
Positives
Nice design and solid build quality
Amazing active noise canceling and transparency mode
Comfortable ear pads and fabric headband
Decent battery life
Button and digital crown are great to use
Good sound quality with no distortion
Great connection strength with Bluetooth 5.0
Negatives
No 3.5mm headphone jack becomes a pain
Uses a Lightning connector instead of USB-C
Proximity sensors and voice assistant activation do not work on Android or Windows
No aptX or LDAC high quality codec support
The smart case is absolutely terrible and provides no protection
Microphone quality is just okay

In the pursuit of the best noise canceling headphones, you’ll certainly encounter both the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones and Apple AirPods Max. These two upscale sets of cans have similarities and different philosophical approaches worth investigating. Read on to find out what works best for you, as they’re both certified hits.

Editor’s note: this article was published on May 15, 2024, to add MDAQS results to the section comparing sound quality.

What’s it like to use the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones compared to the Apple AirPods Max?

The Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones have soft padding that is very glasses-friendly.
Austin Kwok / SoundGuys
The Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones have ample padding and feel good with glasses.

Bose isn’t trotting out some radically divergent design with the QuietComfort Ultra Headphones. Rather, it has mostly upgraded the previous QuietComfort 45 (and the current confusingly labeled QuietComfort Headphones) with thicker padding and slightly refined housing. There’s no metal to be seen on these slight 253g headphones, which prioritize light weight and greater comfort. You won’t find them particularly breathable, but they feel good.

With the Bose headphones, you get an actual carry case, a charging cable, and a cable with a headphone jack. Increasing the notion that you might want the QuietComfort Ultra Headphones on a flight, they have folding hinges and articulating ear cups to stow away compactly.

The Apple AirPods Max and Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) together on a wooden slab.
The AirPods Max share some design similarities with AirPods Pro earbuds.

In 2020, when Apple released the Apple AirPods Max, it was similar to how the Apple AirPods altered what we thought earbuds ought to look like. Tipping the scales at a heavier 385g, the AirPods Max are made of quite a lot of metal. The mesh crown does a decent job of distributing the weight, while the breathable mesh ear cups manage to both isolate noise and get air flow to your ears. You’ll want to watch out because the mesh along the crown can stretch out.

The AirPods Max slip into an included Smart Case, which doesn’t fully cover, let alone protect, your investment. For most people who take their headphones on the go, you’ll want a better case. The ear cups can articulate flat, but the arms do not have hinges to fold down. While connecting is easy with the AirPods Max to an iPhone, you can’t force things like updates, and you’ll only want to use the AirPods Max with Apple products to get the most out of them.

How do you control the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones and Apple AirPods Max?

A man wears the Apple AirPods Max and adjusting volume via the digital crown.
The Digital Crown is located on the top right.

Bose implements buttons mainly for controlling the QuietComfort Ultra Headphones, except for a capacitive volume strip. All buttons are found along the button side of the ear cups. You can customize them to some extent in the Bose Music app, but most of the functions are baked in, as below.

ActionMulti-function buttonBluetooth / Power buttonVolume strip
Action
Single tap
Multi-function button
Play / pause
Bluetooth / Power button
Battery level check
Volume strip
N/A
Action
Double tap
Multi-function button
Track forward
Bluetooth / Power button
N/A
Volume strip
N/A
Action
Triple tap
Multi-function button
Track backward
Bluetooth / Power button
N/A
Volume strip
N/A
Action
Long press
Multi-function button
ANC mode change
Bluetooth / Power button
On / off
Volume strip
Shortcut (define in app)
Action
Swipe
Multi-function button
N/A
Bluetooth / Power button
N/A
Volume strip
Volume up / down

Similarly, the AirPods Max has a dedicated Digital Crown, which can rotate or actuate, and a noise control button. These are located at the top of the ear cups rather than along the bottom.

ActionMedia controlsCall controls
Action
Noise control button
Media controls
Toggle ANC and Transparency mode
Call controls

Action
Headset: remove/wear
Media controls
Auto-pause/play
Call controls

Action
Digital Crown: rotate
Media controls
Adjust volume
Call controls

Action
Digital Crown: one press
Media controls
Play/pause
Call controls
Answer/end call; answer incoming call and put current call on hold
Action
Digital Crown: two presses
Media controls
Skip track
Call controls
Reject incoming call; answer incoming call and end current call
Action
Digital Crown: three presses
Media controls
Previous track
Call controls

Action
Digital Crown: hold
Media controls

Call controls
Reject second incoming call
Action
Customizable controls?
Media controls
Yes, ANC toggle only
Call controls
No

Should you use the apps of either Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones or Apple AirPods Max?

The spatial audio pop-up on an iPad Pro.
Apple’s version of surround sound is available on the AirPods Max.

The Bose Music app for the QuietComfort Ultra Headphones works for iOS and Android. With it, you have access to firmware updates, and Bose tends to roll out significant updates. You will trade your personal data for these features. There’s a somewhat rudimentary EQ at your disposal, some control remapping, and access to immersive audio, which is the Bose version of surround sound. Overall, the Bose Music app works fine.

If you have an iPhone or an iPad, you already have the app for the AirPods Max. Like virtually all Apple-branded headphones and earbuds, the app is reserved for Apple devices. You’ll find it in Settings. Don’t buy the AirPods Max if you have an Android phone, as you’ll miss out on some features, including updates. The AirPods Max have spatial audio, Find My AirPods, and listening modes, alongside automatic updates.

How do the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones and Apple AirPods Max connect?

The Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones have only two buttons to control calls and playback.
Austin Kwok / SoundGuys
There’s a pairing button to make life easier.

For starters, the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones use Bluetooth 5.3 and connect over standard AAC and SBC codecs, in addition to a 2.5mm to 3.5mm TRS cable for headphone jacks. Notably, however, Bose packs the headphones with Snapdragon Sound and can use Qualcomm’s aptX Lossless codec for allegedly CD-quality audio. However, that feature comes with some caveats; you’ll need an Android device with Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 or later. The headphones do not have USB-C listening.

Apple AirPods Max utilizes the H1 chip and Bluetooth 5.0 to pair with your device. Bluetooth codecs on deck are the basic AAC and SBC, which makes sense because AAC is Apple’s preferred codec. This is one of the reasons AirPods Max doesn’t make much sense to buy if you have an Android device because that’s a lot of cash to lay down and not get a higher quality codec like aptX. There’s no cable included for wired listening, but you can buy a separate Lightning to 3.5mm cable. You might have noticed that Apple has begun phasing out Lightning ports for USB-C ports, so while Lightning works fine, it’s less ubiquitous, and typically the cables are costlier to replace than USB-C cables.

Is battery life better on the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones or Apple AirPods Max?

Close-up of the Lightning connector for the Apple AirPods Max as they lay next to a newspaper.
The Apple AirPods Max charge via Lightning.

With active noise canceling enabled, the QuietComfort Ultra Headphones reach 27 hours and 37 minutes of playback. Tested under the same conditions, the Apple AirPods Max battery lasts about 21 hours when connected to an iPhone or iPad.

Annoyingly, you can’t just power off the AirPods Max; they will stay in a low power mode for hours when not in use before automatically powering off. The fact users can’t simply turn off the AirPods Max is frankly an absurd waste of battery life — batteries that you can’t really replace. Sure, you could argue that the battery is scarcely impacted by remaining in low-power mode, but it’s a needless waste. Bose, like most other headphones manufacturers, lets you just press a button to turn off the Ultra.

Do the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones or Apple AirPods Max block noise better?

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One of Bose’s strengths is the lineage of noise canceling headphones, and the QuietComfort Ultra Headphones continue that. The ANC onboard the Ultra Headphones attenuates an impressive 30dB of very low frequency noises where most headphones taper off the ANC. In addition, there are almost no significant gaps where the noise canceling would be ineffective. The isolation performance reaches up to 50dB of stopping power of the highest-pitched noise.

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It’s a tight race, as the AirPods Max have had class-redefining noise canceling since they were released in 2020, and today, the ANC is still no slouch. The isolation also reaches 50dB of attenuation in the highest highs, like the Bose. The ANC works pretty consistently to reduce how much low-pitched noise will reach your ears and works better than the Bose on noises higher pitched than 150Hz.

Do the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones sound better than the Apple AirPods Max?

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By default, both the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones and AirPods Max sound good to most listeners, and compare favorably with our headphone preference curve. The QuietComfort Ultra Headphones exaggerate bass frequencies (although not overwhelmingly so), scoop mids ever so slightly, and under-emphasize treble except between 7500Hz and 9500Hz. Overall, this leads to a somewhat bass-forward sound.

The Apple AirPods Max in white on a gray felt deskmat.
You can pop off the magnetically attached ear pads.

Comparatively, the AirPods Max frequency response matches our preference from the bass up through 1kHz. Between roughly 1kHz and 6kHz, the output is about 5dB below our preference curve, with more output above 6kHz.

Multi-Dimensional Audio Quality Scores (MDAQS)

The chart below shows how the sound of the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones and Apple AirPods Max were assessed by the Multi-Dimensional Audio Quality Score (MDAQS) algorithm from HEAD acoustics.

The simulated panel of listeners MDAQS represents rates both headphones fairly high across the board.

  • Timbre (MOS-T) represents how faithfully the earbuds reproduce the frequency spectrum and temporal resolution (timing information).
  • Distortion (MOS-D) represents non-linearities and added noise: higher scores mean cleaner reproduction.
  • Immersiveness (MOS-I) represents perceived source width and positioning: how well virtual sound sources are defined in three-dimensional space.

See here for an explanation of MDAQS, how it works, and how it was developed.

Do the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones or Apple AirPods Max have a better microphone?

The Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones have a matte exterior.
Austin Kwok / SoundGuys
The Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones look notably more subdued than AirPods Max.

As headphones without boom microphones go, the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones perform well for calls. When compared with the Apple AirPods Max, they both capture your voice well. In ideal conditions, your speech sounds pretty close to accurate with either set. While both reject noise relatively well, the QuietComfort Ultra Headphones arguably do a better job without losing portions of speech. The office samples below demonstrate this, as do the wind samples.

Tell us what you think.

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones microphone demo (Ideal conditions):

Apple AirPods Max microphone demo (Ideal conditions):

Which microphone sounds best to you?

983 votes

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones microphone demo (Office conditions):

Apple AirPods Max microphone demo (Office conditions):

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones microphone demo (Street conditions):

Apple AirPods Max microphone demo (Street conditions):

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones microphone demo (Windy conditions):

Apple AirPods Max microphone demo (Windy conditions):

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones microphone demo (Reverberant space):

Apple AirPods Max microphone demo (Reverberant space):

 

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones vs Apple AirPods Max: Price and availability

The Apple AirPods Max in white on a coffee table next to a newspaper.
The headphones are built well and connect nicely to any iOS device.

At $429, the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones are premium-priced. You can find them on sale at the usual suspects, particularly around holidays. In typical Apple fashion, the AirPods Max retail for even more money, $549. They’re pretty widely available, and occasionally, you’ll find a sale, but they still tend to cost more than the Bose.

Should you get the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones or Apple AirPods Max?

The Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones lying atop a wood slab.
Austin Kwok / SoundGuys
No metal doesn’t make these cheap.

Unless you snag a killer deal, you should wait for an Apple AirPods Max sequel if you can, rather than consider the original AirPods Max. A new AirPods Max version will likely drop the AirPods Max price, making it far more accessible. Rather than speculate too much on that, let’s consider the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones which do a lot of the same things as the AirPods Max, for less money. You still get spatial audio with head tracking, a better battery life, some futureproofing over connectivity, and excellent noise canceling.

You’ll gain some of the niceties of Apple products with the AirPods Max, like device switching (with the same iCloud account) and full integration with iOS. Besides the ANC performing a little bit better than the QuietComfort Ultra Headphones, there’s not enough to justify the $120 upcharge for the Apple headphones for most folks. Plus, the QuietComfort Ultra Headphones will work regardless of which phone you own and do not require additional accessory costs. Honestly, they’re both good headphones, so you’re sure to enjoy either set.

See price at Amazon
Bose QuietComfort Ultra
Bose QuietComfort Ultra
Great battery life
Advanced audio experience
See price at Amazon
Apple AirPods Max
14%off
Apple AirPods Max
One of the best ANC
20-hour battery life
Well-built pads

Frequently asked questions

Nope, neither the QuietComfort Ultra Headphones nor AirPods Max are waterproof. Don’t take these to the gym.

Technically, you can use the Apple AirPods Max with any Bluetooth-capable device, but you probably don’t want to do so. You’ll miss out on the updates, spatial audio with head tracking, device switching, and a myriad of other Apple-specific features if you use a non-Apple device.

Bose headphones, like the QuietComfort Ultra, work very well with Apple products like iPhones, iPads, and Macbooks. The Bose Music app works just fine on iOS.

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