The Sony WH-1000XM4 surpassed the already great WH-1000XM3, but the headphone market stops for no one, and there are plenty of contenders looking to knock them off their perch – one such opponent being the new Apple AirPods Max.
We’ve been anticipating the AirPods Max, and after a number of delays Apple has finally unveiled them. We’ve not listened to them yet, but we have a firm idea of their capabilities.
How well do the AirPods Max fare against a headphone considered to be the best in the game?
Sony WH-1000XM4 vs AirPods Max – Price
Like previous efforts in the 1000X range, Sony nabbed the price of S$499. That’s been the price many premium wireless headphones start at.
But not the Apple AirPods Max. They cost S$849, which is expensive.
Sony easily takes the win here. Considering how infrequent Apple products drop in price, we’re not waiting on bated breath about a discount any time soon.
AirPods Max vs Sony WH-1000XM4 — Design
The Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones are almost identical to the WH-1000XM3, but Sony has made some subtle changes.
The material the headphones are made out of is less glossy and more abrasive. The earpad cushions have a bit more volume for a softer fit: the headband structure has been modified for a better fit on a wider range of heads, and the design has been tidied up for a streamlined look.
Much like the XM3, operation is via a touch panel on the right earcup that allows for tap and swipe gestures, as well as a hold to enable Quick Attention mode. There are physical buttons on the left ear cup (power and a custom button), plus a USB-C port and 3.5mm jack.
Apple, on other hand, has gone for a more distinctive look. The headband is made out of a breathable knit mesh canopy that distributes weight across the head to reduce pressure. Like the Sony, the headband should allow the Max to fit a wider range of head shapes and sizes.
Apple says the ear cup’s connection to the headband allows it to balance and distribute ear cup pressure for greater comfort. Control is done through the Apple Watch-inspired Digital Crown. It looks like a multi-function dial that can be used for the volume, playback, skipping tracks, activating Siri and phone calls. The Noise Control button switches between ANC and Transparency Mode. You get five colours (finally!) compared to the two that the Sony comes in.
The Apple headphones certainly are more distinctive, but as we’ve not worn or operated them it’s difficult to suggest which is best. They cover the same ground so this would seem a case where a draw is a fair outcome – for now.
AirPods Max vs Sony WH-1000XM4 — Features
The Sony WH-1000XM4 blaze a trail when it comes to smart features. They come with a new Bluetooth Audio SoC that can adjust music and noise at over 700 times per second. It also supports Multi-point connection for two Bluetooth devices at once.
Speak-to-Chat can detect when you’re talking and pauses audio, useful for when you need to talk but don’t want to take your headphones off. Adaptive Smart Control learns from the locations you visit (or you can tell it which locations to look out for in the app), and it remembers the settings you’ve picked and adjusts noise-cancelling on the fly.
Other features carried over from the XM3 include the Quick Attention Mode and HD Noise Cancelling Processor QN1 chip (boasting a new algorithm), for an ANC performance that we found to be uniformly excellent, keeping the world out bay even better than the XM3 did.
Battery life is 30 hours, Bluetooth 5.0 is the connection of choice and the XM4 supports AAC, SBC and LDAC, the latter for high-res wireless audio.
As we’ve not tested the ANC performance of the AirPods Max, we can’t speak to how effective it is (or the Transparency Mode). There’s no mention of adjustable ANC, so it looks like you’ll get one level only.
Bluetooth is 5.0, and we’re making an educated guess that the codec of choice is AAC. Battery life is only 20 hours, 10 less than the Sonys are capable of.
Adaptive EQ adjusts low- and mid-frequency sound to the fit and seal of the ear cups so you don’t lose detail in your music. Spatial Audio works with 5.1, 7.1 and Dolby Atmos content, placing sounds ‘virtually’ within the soundfield for a more immersive effect.
Other features are iOS-centric such as Auto Switching (jump instantly between iOS devices), Audio Sharing (for sharing audio between two sets of AirPods) and Siri voice integration.
The features the AirPods Max offers aren’t as widely useful for when you’re out and about compared to the Sony’s Speak-to-Chat and Adaptive Smart Control, and battery life is shorter. The features it offers that the Sony can’t match are iOS-centric, such as Spatial Audio and Auto Switching.
AirPods Max vs Sony WH-1000XM4 — Sound
The WH-1000XM4 made a big step forward with its audio performance, with an extra layer of refinement and clarity over its predecessor. The more boisterous nature of the XM3 was toned down, and the result was more of an audiophile sound that’s more articulate.
Treble frequencies are given more space, while the Sony continues its impressive knack for low-end control. It also extracts more detail out of the midrange with better definition, clarity and separation. It’s an incredibly well-balanced performer, and with the DSEE Extreme engine it also removes a lot of noise from tracks for a dramatically improved audio with lower-quality sources.
Again, we’ve not tested the AirPods Max, but we’d be interested in the path Apple has gone down. All we can gather from the press release is that the 40mm custom drivers produce “rich, deep bass, accurate mid-ranges, and crisp, clean high-frequency extension”.
It wouldn’t surprise us if the Max mimicked the AirPods Pro’s performance. They were quite warm, which meant they had a lush, textured tone but were short in terms of dynamics (highs and lows) and bass (which was nice but soft).
AirPods Max vs Sony WH-1000XM4 — Very Early Verdict
We know all about the Sony WH-1000XM4 and we have a clearer picture about the Apple AirPods Max, though there are still a few unknowns.
All will be revealed once we get our hands on a review sample. Based on what we know now, the Sony might look the better option. They’re cheaper, the noise-cancelling is industry leading and its smart features work across a range of devices and, we feel, have more use.
Apple’s approach sees them maximise the synergy between its products and devices. In this sense, if you’re an iOS user who gets plenty of benefits out of the Apple ecosystem, the AirPods Max could be a better fit.
What we’re ‘umming’ and ‘ahhing’ over is the price. S$849 is extravagant– only Bang & Olufsen’s Beoplay H95 are more expensive.