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Sony WH-1000XM5 vs Apple AirPods Max
Sony’s release of the WH-1000XM5 marks the entrance of another contender vying for the title of best active noise cancelling (ANC) headphones. We know the older WH-1000XM4 holds up against the Apple AirPods Max, but can the Sony WH-1000XM5 keep that streak going? We pit the WH-1000XM5 against the AirPods Max to see who comes out on top as the best ANC workhorse headset.
Editor’s note: this article was updated on December 19, 2022, to update formatting and include the Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) as an alternative.
Does the Sony WH-1000XM5 have a better design than the AirPods Max?
The Sony WH-1000XM5 and Apple AirPods Max have a lot in common here. You get comfortable ear pads and smooth telescoping headband arms for adjusting the fit on either pair of headphones. Both sets of headphones can also rotate to lay flat, but despite their minimalist designs, neither has folding hinges.
The AirPods Max has a mainly metal build with a stainless steel headband and aluminum ear cups. Plush ear pads encompass the entire ear and a mesh canopy acts as a cushion for the headband. It’s comfortable but it is quite heavy, weighing in at 386g. The Sony WH-1000XM5 has a plastic build, making it lighter than the AirPods Max at 250g, though this isn’t particularly light for a headset. On the Sony headset, the ear pads are made of memory foam with a leatherette wrap that makes it comfortable for extended listening sessions.
You don’t get any kind of water resistance from either headset, and you should avoid getting either wet. This is unfortunate for those who live in rainy places, but both pairs of headphones are best suited for indoor use or use in drier climates. If you really want a pair of workout headphones, there are a handful of good and durable options.
How do you control the Sony WH-1000XM5 and the AirPods Max?
The ear cups of both the Sony WH-1000XM5 and the AirPods Max have controls but they operate differently. On the right ear cup of the AirPods Max, you’ll find a Digital Crown that adjusts the volume and playback controls. There’s also a Noise Control button for toggling noise cancelling and transparency mode. You can also summon Siri by saying “Hey Siri” or pressing and holding the digital crown button (iOS only).
|Action||Media controls||Call controls|
Noise control button
Toggle ANC and Transparency mode
Digital Crown: rotate
Digital Crown: one press
Answer/end call; answer incoming call and put current call on hold
Digital Crown: two presses
Reject incoming call; answer incoming call and end current call
Digital Crown: three presses
Digital Crown: hold
Reject second incoming call
Yes, ANC toggle only
The Sony WH-1000XM5 uses a touchpad on the right headphone and buttons on the left. If you’re familiar with the controls for the Sony WH-1000XM4, this is the same.
Below is a table of the touch pad controls:
Double tap center
Pause / resume
Ambient sound passthrough
Here is a table of the button controls:
Cycle through listening modes
Bluetooth pairing, must being from powered off mode
Both headsets have a sensor that detects when you wear or remove the headset, and plays or pauses music accordingly. There is a caveat here: the auto-pause feature on the AirPods Max is exclusive to Apple devices, while with Sony’s headphones, it works with any operating system.
How do the Sony WH-1000XM5 and the AirPods Max connect to devices?
The Sony WH-1000XM5 uses Bluetooth 5.2 and supports the SBC, AAC, and LDAC Bluetooth codecs. Android phones streaming over LDAC will transmit high-quality audio to the XM5 headphones. We recommend the LDAC 660kbps option for the most consistent results. Looking at the AirPods Max, it uses Bluetooth 5.0 and supports the SBC and AAC codecs.
You also get a few extras with the WH-1000XM5 including analog audio connectivity and Bluetooth multipoint, meaning you can switch between two devices seamlessly with this headset. The AirPods Max lacks analog connectivity and uses a digital Lightning connection instead (Lightning-t0-3.5mm cable not included). If you use it with a modern iPhone, you’ll also need to purchase a 3.5mm-to-Lightning adapter which totals an extra $44 USD. Apple’s headphones don’t have Bluetooth multipoint, but you can seamlessly switch between Apple devices signed into the same iCloud account.
If you care a lot about a stable connection and high-quality listening across platforms, the Sony WH-1000XM5 is the better option.
How do you control the WH-1000XM5 or the AirPods Max?
When looking to buy a new set of headphones, compatibility is key. You can only control or customize the AirPods Max through the Settings app on iOS and iPadOS devices, while the Sony WH-1000XM5 has the Sony Headphones Connect app, which is available on iOS and Android. This means the experience for AirPods Max will lack a lot on Android devices, while the Sony WH-1000XM5 is platform agnostic. For this reason, the Sony WH-1000XM5 is a much more versatile option if you ever plan on using an Android device while you own this headset.
The Sony Headphones app gives you access to features like Sony 360 Audio, an equalizer, ANC optimization, find my headphones, and Google fast pair. The last two features do require a lot of personal information, like access to personal data and location. These software features really do make a difference, and the app is also important for getting firmware updates.
The iOS or iPadOS Settings app allows AirPods Max owners to access features like Apple’s Spatial Audio, find my AirPods, fast switching between other Apple devices on the same iCloud account, and firmware updates. Since these features are tied to the Settings app, Android users won’t be able to access them. You can’t even get firmware updates for the AirPods Max on Android, so let that be a warning to Android users considering this headset.
Do Apple or Sony’s headphones have better battery life?
The AirPods Max doesn’t have a power button and instead, it enters a lower power mode once inside its case. The battery life of the AirPods Max is close to 21 hours with ANC on, but with battery depletion being an issue, you might not get to enjoy that to the full extent. If you lose the case or hate using it, you may not have enough battery to last you multiple commutes. The AirPods Max comes with a Lightning-to-USB-C cable for charging, but doesn’t come with a USB-C charging brick (typical for headphones), so you’ll have to figure that out that part on your own.
The Sony WH-1000XM5 lasts 31 hours, 53 minutes with ANC on, far outdoing the AirPods Max. The headset charges via USB-C, and if you need to charge it fast, three minutes of charging will give you 180 minutes of playback. If you don’t have your charger on hand, you can listen with a wired 3.5mm connection instead.
The Sony WH-1000XM5 is definitely the right choice when it comes to battery life since it doesn’t continually drain the battery when not in use. It’ll be reliable for multiple commutes a week, and the wired listening and fast charging options make it even better.
Which has better noise cancelling, the Sony WH-1000XM5 or the Apple AirPods Max?
Most over-ear headphones can only really block out mid and high frequencies on their own. Low frequency sounds like droning airplane sounds or trucks passing by get through easily when you’re relying on isolation alone. That’s where active noise cancelling comes in.
The Sony WH-1000XM5 has fantastic noise cancelling, assisted greatly by impressive isolation. Noise attenuation at frequencies above 1kHz betters the AirPods Max by around 10dB. That’s a huge difference. Low frequencies like trains and street noise will be reduced to about one-eighth of their original perceived loudness. This makes it a great choice for commuters.
ANC performance for the Apple AirPods Max is also fantastic. Its ability to cancel out noise right up to 2kHz makes for a great distraction-free listening experience. However, its isolation performance means it loses to Sony at higher frequencies.
Comparing the two headsets, both cancel out similarly impressive amounts of low-frequency noise to below 100Hz. While both are good choices for cancelling out low, droning noises, the Airpods Max wins out in the mid-range, but the Sony WH-1000XM5 does a better job at handling high-range sounds due to better isolation.
Which headphones have better sound quality?
The Sony WH-1000XM5 sounds great but deviates a little from our target curve in some areas, like the bass range where there’s some extra emphasis (100-200Hz in particular), and the highs where there’s some variation. If you’re not into a bass-heavy sound you may find it to be a bit much, but you can adjust the EQ of the headset easily to your liking.
The AirPods Max also sounds really great, but has different sonic goals to the Sony WH-1000XM5. The frequency response of this headset follows our target curve in a lot of key areas, except for a bit of a dip around 5kHz (to help with spatial cues), and a little bit of a boost in the sub-bass range, below 40Hz. Music generally sounds great in this headset, and it’ll appeal to most listeners.
By default, both headsets have good sound quality that most consumers will enjoy, and industry-leading isolation and noise cancelling from both headsets ensure you won’t have problems with outside noise affecting how your music sounds. If you want a more bassy sound, the Sony WH-1000XM5 has you covered. The Apple AirPods Max is likely a better choice for those seeking less obvious bass and treble emphasis, and though it is possible to equalize both to your liking, it’s easier to achieve on the Sony WH-1000XM5—particularly if you’re on Android devices.
Which headset has a better microphone?
The Sony WH-1000XM5 has a great microphone system, along with standout noise suppression. Wind noises are inaudible in our recording made with simulated wind noise (below), demonstrating its thorough effectiveness. This is due to its eight-microphone array and noise rejection algorithm, making for high-quality phone calls whether you’re in your home or outside in noise or wind.
The Apple AirPods Max microphone system is no slouch either, but the experience is inferior overall. Noise and wind aren’t removed entirely, and there are audible processing artifacts. This is further compounded by variable behavior and performance depending on the operating system of your connected device.
Sony WH-1000XM5 microphone demo (Wind):
Apple AirPods Max microphone demo (Wind):
Needless to say, the Sony WH-1000XM5 is the obvious pick here for microphone quality, especially when it comes to sub-optimal conditions. You will get very good microphone quality with very little outside noise intruding, so phone calls and virtual meetings should reliably be clear and intelligible through this headset. Be sure to vote and let us know what you think.
Sony WH-1000XM5 microphone demo (Ideal):
Apple AirPods Max microphone demo (Ideal):
Which microphone sounds better?
Should you buy the Sony WH-1000XM5 or the Apple AirPods Max?
First, it’s important to know your limitations. You should only get the Apple AirPods Max if you own an iPhone. Your experience will greatly suffer without access to the Settings app on an iOS device, and it will absolutely not be worth the money.
However, if you are an Apple user with no intention of switching, the Apple AirPods Max is a great pair of headphones, with fantastic noise cancelling, great sound quality, and tons of premium features like Spatial Audio and transparency mode that make for a great listening experience. If you don’t care that you can’t turn the headphones off without the case or that wired listening is not possible, this might be the headset for you—especially if you’ve got a big budget.
Whether you own an Android or Apple device, the Sony WH-1000XM5 is a fantastic option. The noise cancelling is amazing, the noise rejection on the microphone is stellar, and the ability to change your EQ to your liking is great. With great features like speak-to-chat, transparency mode, Sony 360 Audio, ear detection, and multipoint, this pair of headphones is great and worth its price.
What are some alternatives to the WH-1000XM5 and the AirPods Max?
If you like the sound of the Sony WH-1000XM5, but don’t want to spend quite as much, consider the previous models, the Sony WH-1000XM4 ($299 at Amazon) or the Sony WH-1000XM3 ($348 at Walmart). Both have excellent noise cancelling and sound great, and are now available at reduced prices since they’re both a few years old. Read our Sony WH-1000XM5 vs Sony WH-1000XM4 article to learn more.
If you want noise cancelling headphones for a more affordable price than any of these options, consider the Monoprice BT-600ANC. It’s only $69.99 at Amazon, has aptX HD and AAC support, and has good battery life on top of the good ANC. This is a great option for students on a budget who want to block out the sound of their commute or the library for a good study session.
If you want a more portable option, consider the Sony WF-1000XM4 or the Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation). Both are noise cancelling wireless earbuds, and are better for people who might get caught in the rain, considering they both have IPX4 ratings. The WF-1000XM4 is a good choice for anyone regardless of which type of phone they use. It uses the Sony Headphones app for firmware updates, EQ, and other customization options. It’s available for $178 at Amazon. The Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) is a good option for iPhone owners, since you get the full breadth of features only if you have an iOS or iPadOS device. Like the AirPods Max, the AirPods Pro isn’t a good choice for Android users. You can pick it up for $229 at Amazon.
Frequently asked questions about the Sony WH-1000XM5 and Apple AirPods Max
Great question, and we actually address this in a dedicated versus article! To sum it all up, the XM5 headphones from Sony have better ANC and microphone quality for all settings compared to Bose’s headphones. That said, the Bose QuietComfort 45 has stellar comfort and a more portable build since you can ball up the headset thanks to the folding hinges. It’s available for $329 at Amazon.
To learn more about the Bose QC 45, read our full review where we break down the sound quality, ANC, and more.
It’s definitely not recommended that you wear either in the rain, since you risk getting moisture inside the headset. It’s not worth the risk, just wait until you’re inside and dry.
Yes, you can use the AirPods Max with Windows computers, but you will have to pair them like any other Bluetooth device, you won’t have access to features tied to the iOS Settings app, and your microphone quality could suffer as well.