Anyone searching for active noise cancelling (ANC) headphones has probably heard of both Sony and Shure’s flagships. Both headsets are at the top of their game when it comes to noise cancelling performance, but many consumers want their headphones to do more than just play music. We’re pitting the Sony WH-1000XM4 vs Shure AONIC 50 to determine which of these two powerhouse ANC headphones is the best.
Editor’s note: this versus article was updated on January 11, 2o21, to address an FAQ about a budget alternative.
Sony WH-1000XM4 vs Shure AONIC 50: Hardware and design
The build of the Shure AONIC 50 is beautiful, and it better be, considering these headphones cost $400. The stitched synthetic leather headband and ear pads are strong and elegant, and the ear pads can be removed for easy cleaning. The rest of the build is plastic, which lightens the headset a bit—something that’s required given its 334-gram weight. These headphones aren’t the most portable because the ear cups cannot be folded for compact storage. They do, however, fold flat so you may slide them into a backpack or the provided case.
See more: Best noise cancelling headphones
The Sony WH-1000XM4 also look sharp, and their ear pads are made of thick, foamed urethane rather than leather. They are still quite comfortable, but the headband doesn’t have as much padding which could create pressure points on your head. Unlike the Shure AONIC 50, the WH-1000XM4 can be compacted with folding hinges, and they are 83 grams lighter.
Both pairs of headphones are comfortable for individuals with glasses and earrings, but the Sony WH-1000XM4 are just easier to take on the road.
Each headset takes a different approach to onboard touch controls
The Sony WH-1000XM4 only features two buttons—power and Custom. The custom button can be programmed to access a voice assistant or to toggle ANC. All other controls, including volume control and pausing are done through a series of taps and swipes. However, the XM4 only registers taps roughly 25% of the time, so it’s easier to just use the auto-pause and auto-resume functionality. This is a feature that detects when you remove the headphones and put them back on and pauses or plays your media accordingly.
When you cup your hand over the Sony WH-1000XM4’s left headphone, your media volume is dramatically reduced while outside noise is amplified through the headset. This can come in useful if you need to hear something your airplane pilot or subway conductor is saying while commuting.
Sony packed plenty of sensors and software features into the WH-1000XM4.
All controls on the Shure AONIC 50 are done through tactile buttons. While this may not be as futuristic as the touch-sensitive ear pads of the XM4, the buttons work every time. The headset has a noise cancelling and ambient sound switch, a power button, and volume controls. It also has a multifunction button that can be used to pause/play media as well as to access a smart assistant.
While the build of the Sony WH-1000XM4 is more portable and lightweight and features the ambient sound passthrough feature, the controls of the Shure AONIC 50 are more responsive and the AONIC 50 allows you to both toggle your noise cancelling and access your smart assistant.
The Shure AONIC 50 supports more codecs
Both the Sony WH-1000XM4 and the Shure AONIC 50 use Bluetooth 5.0 firmware and support Bluetooth multipoint, so you can seamlessly switch between listening on your laptop and your smartphone. Both headphones support SBC, AAC, and LDAC, but the AONIC 50 also support aptX, aptX HD, and aptX Low Latency. This may make the Shure headphones more appealing to Android users. In addition, to utilize Bluetooth multipoint with the Sony WH-1000XM4, you’re forced to stream over AAC, whereas the Shure AONIC 50 allow multipoint with any of its available codecs.
Dive in: Understanding Bluetooth codecs
Both headsets have a headphone jack, though the AOINC 50 uses a 2.5mm input, while Sony uses the standard 3.5mm input. Regardless, you can listen to your high-fidelity FLAC files at maximum quality no matter the headset. This can also be used if your headphones run out of battery. Shure also supports USB-C passthrough audio, making the AONIC 50 the best USB-C headphones on the market.
Winner: Shure AONIC 50
The Sony WH-1000XM4 is chock-full of cool software features
Again, when you cup your hand over the left ear cup of the Sony WH-1000XM4, ambient sound mode is activated so you can listen to surrounding noise. The Shure AONIC 50 also have an ambient aware mode activated through the switch on the right ear cup. The Sony WH-1000XM4 also feature auto-pause and auto-resume functionality, which is a feature the Shure AONIC 50 is missing.
Headphone apps provide additional software
The ShurePlus PLAY app is the easiest way to update your headphones’ firmware, and the firmware version can make a huge difference. We found marked improvements in frequency response and microphone quality when we tested the newest firmware version 0.4.9 compared to the previous one. The app also lets you toggle the noise cancelling and ambient noise passthrough intensities. You can use the app to customize your equalizer settings, but it only changes the sound signature of music played directly through the ShurePlus PLAY app which is pretty disappointing.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 also have an app, called Sony Headphones Connect, and it affords some of the XM4’s best features like ANC optimization. This detects the air pressure of your surroundings and adjusts the ANC accordingly. You can also adjust the mix of ambient noise you want to allow through. The app also lets you customize the Custom button to control noise cancelling, or access to your smart assistant.
Another feature: Sony 360 Reality Audio, which is Sony’s version of Dolby Atmos whereby each sound can move freely in three-dimensional space as its own object, rather than as a static left or right channel. This feature is compatible with certain streaming services such as Tidal. The app also provides access to the speak-to-chat feature that detects when you’re speaking and pauses your media accordingly. However, due to this feature’s high sensitivity, it may be more of a gimmick than a useful tool. With the Sony WH-1000XM4, you can equalize the sound signature in the app, and your settings will apply to all your media playback.
If you don’t want to download an app because you think headphone apps collect too much personal data, you still have access to the most important features of either pair of headphones—listening to music, cancelling noise, and answering calls.
Winner: Sony WH-1000XM4
Sony WH-1000XM4 vs Shure AONIC 50: Battery life and charging capabilities
Both the Sony WH-1000XM4 and the Shure AONIC 50 charge via USB-C. The AONIC 50 battery life is barely shorter than the Sony WH-1000XM4—clocking in at 19 hours, 46 minutes, and t19 hours, 59 minutes respectively. Not only is the Sony WH-1000XM4 battery life slightly longer, but it also affords fast charging. Just 10 minutes of connecting the headset to a USB-C cable supplies you with five hours of playback. The Shure AONIC 50 does not support fast charging.
Winner: Sony WH-1000XM4
The Sony WH-1000XM4 and Shure AONIC 50 are both best in noise cancelling performance
This is the Sony WH-1000XM4 vs Shure AONIC 50 test we’ve all been waiting for, and it’s not so clear cut. Both have thick ear cups that allow for great passive isolation, and both have superb ANC that can be toggled for varying intensities. The Shure AONIC 50 noise cancelling is objectively the best available on the market, but it differed from the Sony WH-1000XM4 by only 0.2 per our objective testing, where the AONIC 5o scored 7.5 and the XM4 scored 7.3.
The Shure AONIC 50 noise cancelling is excellent, particularly when it comes to combating low frequencies between 60-200Hz. This makes these headphones great for reducing the sounds of air conditioners and traffic. It also trumps the WH-1000XM4 in attenuating the upper-midrange frequencies, which is where a lot of human voice frequencies that allow for speech intelligibility lie.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 also have top-of-the-line noise cancelling, particularly with low-midrange frequencies, which is where you’ll find the fundamental frequencies of the human voice. This makes the XM4 an excellent headset for blocking out people’s conversations. Keep in mind, though, that no matter how great your ANC is, the technology just isn’t developed to the point where unpredictable noises (e.g. speech) can be attenuated as effectively as predictable ones (e.g. humming machinery). The Sony WH-1000XM4 also combats low frequency sounds below 60Hz more effectively, which is great for getting rid of sounds from large engines when you’re in a plane or train car.
If you’re looking to cancel noise, you cannot go wrong with either the Shure AONIC 50 or the Sony WH-1000XM4, as they truly are the top two active noise cancelling headphones.
Sony WH-1000XM4 vs Shure AONIC 50: Sound quality
The Shure AONIC 50 have a neutral-leaning frequency response, and the slight boost between 70-300Hz helps vocals stand out. The small dip between 2-4kHz is intentional, and it helps reduce unwanted resonances within your ears. The 0.4.9 firmware version made the Shure AONIC 50’s frequency response more neutral in the sub-bass region, allowing for a more accurate sound signature.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 also have a neutral-leaning frequency response, allowing for accurate sound reproduction and generally clear, detailed audio. Just like the Shure AONIC 50, the dip at around 2kHz is intentional for combating unpleasing harmonic resonances that occur in the ear canal when a seal is formed.
Both the AONIC 50 and the XM4 have a sound signature that can be customized in their respective apps’ EQ settings, but as I mentioned before, you cannot carry over your EQ settings for the Shure AONIC 50 to playback outside of the app. For this reason and our objective scoring, the Sony WH-1000XM4 wins this round, but not by a significant margin.
Winner: Sony WH-1000XM4
Sony WH-1000XM4 vs Shure AONIC 50: Microphone quality
The Shure AONIC 50 microphone system features a less dramatic high-pass filter than the Sony WH-1000XM4. While this makes the AONIC 50 less likely to quiet individuals with very deep voices than the XM4, it does run the risk of introducing the proximity effect. This phenomenon is observed when a speaker gets too close to the microphone and the bass notes of his already low voice become distorted. Reducing the proximity effect facilitates improved speech-intelligibility, because it makes it easier to hear high-frequency sounds.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 microphone array does a better job of blocking out background noise and focusing on the speaker’s voice. The newer technology gives the edge to Sony for anyone who takes calls outdoors.
Sony WH-1000XM4 mic demo:
Shure AONIC 50 mic demo (firmware 0.4.9):
Editor’s note: Alright, according to our poll responses, the Sony WH-1000XM4 have a better microphone, but only by a few votes.
Winner: Sony WH-1000XM4
Which should you buy, the Sony WH-1000XM4 or the Shure AONIC 50?
Both of these headsets have superb active noise cancelling, excellent sound quality, and a luxurious build. However, the new Sony WH-1000XM4 has a few more software features than the older Shure AONIC 50. What’s more, even though the Sony WH-1000XM4 are a much newer pair of headphones, they are still much cheaper than the Shure AONIC 50.
Should you get the Sony WH-1000XM4 or Sony WH-1000XM3?
Now that the new model is out, you’ll probably save some cash by waiting for the older Sony WH-1000XM3 to go on sale. They have very similar performance to the WH-1000XM4, minus the speak-to-chat functionality, Bluetooth multipoint, and improved ANC. However, the WH-1000xM3 noise cancelling is still phenomenal, and they have better battery life than the XM4. They also support aptX, and so may appeal more to Android users. Read our article pitting Sony WH-1000XM4 vs Sony WH-1000XM3 for a full run-down.
Read next: Bose QuietComfort 35 II vs. Sony WH-1000XM4
If you have an iPhone, should you get the Apple AirPods Max instead?
The Apple AirPods Max are bound to be the default noise cancelling headphones for iPhone owners, akin to how the AirPods and AirPods Pro are the default true wireless options for anyone with an iPhone. Many consumers may gawk at the $549 USD price tag, but if you don’t want to fuss with any Bluetooth settings, and just want a pair of ANC headphones that work seamlessly across your iOS devices, the price of ultimate convenience may be worth it.
Each ear cup houses Apple’s H1 chip, and affords a ridiculous amount of processing power for things like ANC, Adaptive EQ, Transparency mode, Spatial Audio, hands-free Siri access, and more. The AirPods Max have an official battery life of 20 hours, and charge via Lightning cable. You can fast charge the headset: five minutes of charging yields 90 minutes of playtime. You can also buy a Lightning to 3.5mm cable for wired listening, which is great for fans of lossless audio.
Even with all of its fancy software features, the price remains cost-prohibitive for most consumers. If money is no object, then the AirPods Max may slot perfectly between all of your Apple devices, but you’ll be just as happy, if not moreso, with the Sony WH-1000XM4 or Shure AONIC 50.
Frequently Asked Questions
The Sennheiser PXC 550-II is a wonderful alternative to these ANC headphones. It's a bit cheaper but still cancels noise very well, has great sound quality, and has additional features like aptX and Bluetooth multipoint support.