Sony and Sennheiser are two companies whose brands are synonymous with great audio products. In recent years both companies have introduced some of the best active noise cancelling headphones around, but in this article we’re going to focus on two of their newest offerings: the Sony WH-1000XM4 and the Sennheiser PXC 550-II. Both were highly anticipated and offer superb active noise cancelling, but which one is right for you?
Editor’s note: this versus article was updated on December 8, 2020, to address the Apple AirPods Max.
Which headphones have better features?
In typical Sennheiser fashion the PXC 550-II focus less on flashy bells and whistles and more on nailing the basics. These aren’t absent of features, though: you can enjoy bells and whistles in the Sennheiser Smart Control app (available on iOS and Google Play). You can assign either Amazon Alexa or the Google Assistant to the dedicated voice assistant button, enable call enhancement, or toggle smart pause functionality. Smart pause automatically pauses and resumes media playback when the headphones are removed or worn. You’re also able to control the basics and can EQ your music and tweak your noise cancelling preferences, but I’ll dig deeper into those features in their appropriate sections below.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones offer most of the same features as the Sennheiser PXC 550-II, and then some. Aside from also having a voice assistant button, an option to EQ your music in the Sony Headphones Connect app, and an auto-pause feature when you remove the headphones, the Sony WH-1000XM4 also have a speak-to-chat feature. When this is enabled, music automatically pauses if the mics detects your voice. In my full review, I found this to be more of a gimmick as it was too sensitive for my liking. Simply chuckling while listening to a podcast caused playback to automatically pause.
The WH-1000XM4 support passthrough listening.
The WH-1000XM4 also supports passthrough mode, which lowers the volume of your music and allows external noise in when you cup your hand to the left ear cup. This is helpful if you’re commuting or on a plane and need to hear an announcement. One cool feature that you’ll only find on the Sony cans is Sonys 360 Reality Audio compatibility. This is similar to Dolby Atmos, and each channel is re-engineered as an audio object that may move freely around you in 3D space. The end result is a more immersive experience. Keep in mind that you need to be subscribed to a high quality streaming service like Tidal or Deezer to take advantage of it.
Both pairs of headphones use a combination of buttons and touch gestures for playback control, which requires some getting used to. Once you get the controls down, you shouldn’t have too many issues or accidental pauses.
Which one has a better connection?
While both headphones offer many of the latest specs, the Sennheiser PXC 550-II headphones have a slight lead when it comes to overall connectivity. Not only are they rocking Bluetooth 5.0, they also support more high-quality Bluetooth codecs than the Sony headphones. If you pick up the PXC 550-II you can expect SBC, aptX, aptX low latency, and AAC support. The Sennheiser PXC 550-II also have Bluetooth multipoint which lets you connect to two devices simultaneously. While it generally works, Lily experienced hiccups while switching between her computer and mobile phone during her full review.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones also use Bluetooth 5.0 firmware, and support SBC and AAC, but they ditch aptX in favor of Sonys’ own LDAC codec. While LDAC offers a technically higher bitrate than aptX, it does so at the cost of connection stability. You’ll also get multipoint support if you go with the WH-1000XM4, but it only works if you use the AAC codec.
It’s worth mentioning here that in our testing AAC doesn’t play well with Android. Meanwhile, iOS devices are only compatible with AAC and SBC. If you plan on using an iOS device this might not matter to you, because both headphones support AAC. Android users, however, should take into consideration which Bluetooth codecs they prefer, and whether or not said codec provides the experience you’re after. On the bright side, both pairs of headphones have a headphone jack so you can plug in a standard 3.5mm audio cable.
Do the Sony WH-1000XM4 have better noise cancelling than the PXC 550-II?
If you’re looking for top-tier active noise cancelling (ANC) then the Sony WH-1000XM4 should be your pick. The previous version, the WH-1000XM3, was already the kings of active noise cancelling headsets and the new WH-1000XM4 are even better.
Looking at the graph above gives a good idea of what to expect from these headphones. The blue line represents the noise cancelling performance, and the higher it is, the more noise is cancelled at the corresponding frequency. For the Sony WH-1000XM4, that line is best in class. You can see a large peak between 200-500Hz, which is where most humming sounds lie; these sounds are dramatically quieted by the time they reach your ears. These even do a great job at removing sounds below 100Hz, and outperform other headphones in this space.
Both headphones have unique noise cancelling features you can toggle in the app
Both headphones offer the option to tweak noise cancelling intensity via their respective apps. The Sennheiser PXC 550-II and the Sony WH-1000XM4 offer adaptive noise cancelling, which automatically adjusts the strength of the ANC depending on your environment. They each also offer a unique noise cancelling feature that can only be accessed in their respective apps. In the Sony Headphones Connect app you can calibrate the noise cancelling to your environment which can be helpful if you find yourself on a plane. Meanwhile, in the Sennheiser Smart Control app you can select the anti-wind ANC mode for when you find yourself outdoors.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 may be best in class, but the noise cancelling in the Sennheiser PXC 550-II is nothing to sneeze at. While the noise cancelling isn’t as strong in the 200-500Hz range as the WH-1000XM4 are, they’re still great at blocking out annoying hums lower than around 100Hz. In her full review, Lily noted that the ANC isn’t strong enough to completely isolate against construction noises but performs admirably when it came to the drill that was being used to install her apartment doors.
The Sennheiser PXC 550-II have better battery life, kind of
Testing battery life is about as easy as it gets, and the Sennheiser PXC 550-II technically come out on top. Sennheiser claims that you’ll get about 20 hours on a single charge with ANC turned on, but in our testing these lasted exactly 21 hours, 58 minutes. The PXC 550-II aren’t perfect, and come with their own sets of issues. They charge via microUSB which is an issue, but at least they support fast charging: 10 minutes of connection supplies 90 minutes of playback. While these headphones are less expensive than the WH-1000XM4, they still aren’t cheap. The fact that they don’t come with a more modern USB-C charging input is a drawback.
On the other hand, the Sony WH-1000XM4 has both a USB-C input for charging and a quick charge feature that gives five hours of playtime after just 10 minutes. In our testing the WH-1000XM4 headphones last exactly 19 hours, 59 minutes. To test both of these headphones we made sure to max out ANC and play music at a constant output of 75dB. It’s worth mentioning that while 20 hours is still an impressive number, the WH-1000XM4 technically don’t perform as well as the Sennheiser PXC 550-II. This is even more surprising when you consider that the previous WH-1000XM4 tallied an impressive 24 hours of constant playback.
Do the Sennheiser or Sony headphones sounds better?
Picking between these two headphones based on sound quality is tough, because they both sound excellent. Bassheads won’t be too happy as both headphones have a neutral-leaning frequency response. This means audio reproduction is accurate, which can be off-putting to listeners accustomed to cheap headsets that greatly exaggerated low frequencies.
The good thing about headphones with a relatively flat frequency response is that they’re great for EQ tinkering. You don’t need to know how to equalize music to take advantage of this because both apps have a few presets you can choose from. While you can read the sound quality sections of the full reviews if you want to dig deeper into the details of sound quality, you really can’t go wrong with either one of these headphones.
Let’s talk about microphone quality
Microphone quality is an important aspect of wireless headphones that often gets overlooked, and between these two the Sennheiser PXC 550-II has a better sounding mic. They have a triple-microphone array that, when paired with some wind noise-cancelling tech, results in relatively clear vocals. The mic isn’t consistent in reproducing every single frequency in the range of about 100-3000Hz (which is where most of the important parts of a human voice), but it does a good enough job that we feel confident people won’t have too many using it every day.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones do a better job with notes around 1000Hz (likely to negate the proximity effect) but they also have a pretty significant dropoff under about 200Hz. This means that the built-in mic struggles reproducing lower notes, so users with a deep voice won’t come across as loud.
Sony WH-1000XM4 microphone sample:
Sennheiser PXC 550-II microphone sample:
Should you buy the Sony WH-1000XM4 or Sennheiser PXC 550-II?
The best pair of headphones for you really comes down to a few key factors: Bluetooth codec support, charging method and efficiency, noise cancelling performance, and your budget. While Bluetooth codecs might not be a big deal for most, some people take issue with the limitations of the Sony WH-1000XM4 seeing as you can only use Bluetooth multipoint with AAC. If you prefer the higher quality of LDAC then this might be a determining factor. The Sennheiser PXC 550-II have no limitations to which codec to use for multipoint, but they’re also slightly less stable than the Sonys in our experiences.
Then there’s the method of charging to consider. While both headphones get more or less 20 hours of constant playback, the Sennheiser PXC 550-II lack a USB-C charging input, which the Sony WH-1000XM4 houses. Most devices being made today will have USB-C charging, so buying a USB-C compatible product now means one less cable you need to carry around with you in the future. A single USB-C charging cable will be sufficient to charge all of your devices.
As far as noise cancelling goes, it’s clear that the Sony WH-1000XM4 comes out on top here. If cancelling outside noise is what matters most to you then you’re not going to find a better pair of noise cancellers than the Sony WH-1000XM4. The Sennheiser cans are a top-notch pair of noise cancelling headphones, but the Sonys are better, full stop.
What about the Apple AirPods Max?
Apple is hitting the ground running with its first pair of over-ear headphones: the AirPods Max. The company’s latest flagship audio accessory touts a slew of features that aim to compete with the likes of Sony and Sennheiser. The AirPods Max include similar hybrid noise cancellation technologies that were originally introduced with the AirPods Pro. Three outward-facing microphones are used to detect and attenuate ambient noise, while a single inwards-facing microphone monitors the sound reaching your ears, helping eliminate inner-ear resonances.
Other features that make the AirPods Max a contender in the noise cancelling headphones market include its unique design, Adaptive EQ, Spatial Audio, Transparency Mode, fast-charging, and a 20-hour battery life. Of course, all these premium features come at a premium of price tag, with the AirPods Max set for release in mid-December for $549 USD.
Frequently Asked Questions
The Sony WH-1000XM4 have superior noise cancelling compared to the Sony WF-1000XM3 true wireless earbuds, but the WF-1000XM3 are still very good. These earbuds give the Apple AirPods Pro a run for their money, and the same granular EQ module used for Sony's flagship headphones. Even if you aren't a big fan of how in-ears fit, there's a good chance you'll find comfort with the WF-1000XM3 because Sony provides an array of ear tips, all of which vary in size and material. If you don't have enough space in your bag for headphones, the Sony WF-1000XM3 are a great pair of noise cancelling earbuds with few compromises.