Sonos Ace vs AirPods Max: Battle of the premium over-ear cans

Just 4 years ago, when the AirPods Max launched, anything above $250 or so would have been considered a super premium, and by extension extremely expensive, pair of headphones. Since then, we’ve seen some of the best Bluetooth headphones that march well over that price point, and some that make even the AirPods Max look positively affordable by comparison.

We’ve also seen a whole host that are more expensive than what we might have considered ‘costly’ back in the day, but less than the AirPods Max. Sonos has just launched a pair that match up very well to Apple’s most expensive AirPods, and even pack in some extra features that could sway you over to the newer option. They’re Sonos’ first headphone outing, and they look to bring some more competition to the Apple camp — but how do the Sonos Ace stack up?

AirPods Max vs Sonos Ace: Price

Sonos Ace headphones

(Image credit: Sonos)

The AirPods Max are, while no longer the most expensive headphones that money can buy, still very expensive. If you head merrily off to the Apple Store, intent to pick up a pair, then you’ll need 549 of your finest American dollars in your mitts before Apple will hand them over. Make no bones about it, that is a lot of money for a pair of Bluetooth headphones, and while there are several reasons why they are worth that much, it is still tricky to justify spending such a large sum of money on a pair of headphones that you’re going to toss in a bag.

Thankfully, because they’ve been out for a little while, you can pick up a pair for less than Apple’s asking price if you shop around. They’re often available for $499, and sometimes for prices as low as $449 and $429 over deals events — if nothing else, it highlights how important it can be to shop around if you want to save some money.

While they’re yet to ship out to eager customers, the Sonos Ace are quite a bit cheaper than the AirPods Max. You can currently preorder a pair from Best Buy, for example, for $449, or, as you might prefer to think of it, $100 less than the AirPods Max. That also places them pretty well amongst their other competitors, which offer fewer features than Sonos’ headphone outing. The Sony WH-1000XM5 cost $399, or $50 less, but they lack some of the cool TV and Movie connection settings that you’ll find with the Sonos Ace.

They are, obviously, yet to receive any kind of discount from retailers given that they are yet to actually release. Even then, they are still less than the AirPods Max at full, or even their oft-reduced prices — so they take the spot here.

AirPods Max vs Sonos Ace: Build

AirPods Max

(Image credit: Future)

The AirPods Max, by all approximations, are some of the nicest feeling headphones around. Their deep earcups are comfortable and hardwearing, and the metal that sits on the outside is cold to the touch and sumptuously luxurious. When they’re new, the headband material is taught and a comfortable alternative to the traditional padded options out there. The hinge mechanism is gloriously smooth on the earcups, made out of stainless steel with a lovely shiny sheen.

Things aren’t all good, however, even from new. The worst aspect is the frankly woeful carrying case they come with. It's been compared to many things, from a nappy to a pair of dungarees, but it’s never a good comparison. It covers the earcups of the headphones with a magnetically closing lid, and puts the headphones in sleep mode. Considering that loads of other brands included proper hard cases with their headphones, it’s a shame that Apple doesn’t with those it makes. Instead, you have to opt for one of the best AirPods Max cases instead.

The worst aspect is the frankly woeful carrying case the AirPods Max come with.

It’s not all been plain sailing after a year or so’s use. The headband loosens, so the two metal bars, which are unpadded, now support the considerable weight of the headphones on the top of your head. The white parts of the Silver color have become more and more not white over the course of ownership, and they’ve just been sitting on a desk and yoinked out for use. Of course, everything ages, but there are other headphones as old that have seen plenty of use and are holding up better.

Sonos Ace headphones on mans head

(Image credit: Sonos)

The Sonos Ace won’t have the same metal-all-over build, but that will come with its own benefits. Sonos says that the Ace will be made out of premium plastics, supported by a metal headband mechanism that looks a lot like that on the AirPods Max. Their plastic build is going to make them lighter, and as a result, likely more comfortable over listening sessions. Of course, we don’t have them in hand, so we can’t be sure yet, but they sound like they mix all the best bits of the AirPods Max with the lightness and comfort of some of the other alternatives available.

Sonos Ace headphones

(Image credit: Sonos)

The case looks to be a highlight as well, making sure that they are well protected no matter where you take them. Sonos has shown us the hard case that comes with the headphones, giving them their own dedicated headphone garage that will keep them away from damage when you’re not using them.

As for longevity, we obviously can’t comment. If its speakers are anything to go by, it should be good, although those aren’t generally carted around and used on buses or airplanes. For this round, despite the long-term issues and the terrible carrying case, the AirPods Max’s irresistible metal charm carries them through — although that may change when we get the Sonos in hand.

AirPods Max vs Sonos Ace: Color selection

AirPods Max in different colors

(Image credit: Floating Pixels)

If you like colorful headphones, then the AirPods Max are going to be right up your street. You can buy a pair from a range of different colors, including Space Grey, Pink, Green, Silver, or Sky Blue. If you want them to look nicer for longer, you should choose a darker color like Space Grey or Sky Blue.

The Sonos on the other hand only come in two colors, much like its speaker range — matte black, or matte white. That’ll make choosing a bit easier, at least.

AirPods Max vs Sonos Ace: Features

AirPods Max

(Image credit: Future)

Beyond listening to music, there are loads of great features in the AirPods Max. First are the physical controls, although you might want more when it comes to actually using them. There are two buttons on the right earcup of the AirPods — a button for controlling the noise canceling on and off, and a wheel akin to that on an Apple watch which controls volume. Clicking the wheel pauses and plays, and skips with multiple clicks. It works very well, and a darn sight better than most of the touch options out there.

The noise canceling on board is still some of the best in the business, making even the busiest office or loudest tube ride fade into the background of whatever you’re doing. There’s a transparency mode as well, so that you can allow the noise of the outside world in when you need to hear someone calling you from the kitchen to do the dishes, or when you’re going to cross a road. They do, however, lack the adaptive modes of the AirPods Pro 2, unfortunately.

AirPods Max

(Image credit: Future)

Our favorite feature, however, is their interoperability with the rest of the Apple ecosystem. Pop them out of their case near one of the best iPads, best iPhones, or best MacBook and they instantly connect, letting you use them with whatever device is nearby. They’ll also switch seamlessly from device to device, following whichever one is playing audio for you. It’s a great feature if you use multiple Apple devices, and could be the killer feature if it's important to you.

We particularly like how they can act like a surround sound system for Apple TV as well, letting you watch all your movies and TV shows on Apple TV+ with surround sound thanks to their Spatial Audio. That’ll work with Apple Music on iPhone, iPad, and Mac too.

Sonos Headphones with Arc soundbar

(Image credit: Sonos)

The Sonos’ take this to a whole new level, however. The AirPods can play sound from your TV, but it's a weird workaround using the audio return channel on your TV in the back of your Apple TV box. The Sonos require a Sonos Arc soundbar, but then they, according to Sonos, connect up and play any of the sound that comes through the sound bar into your headphones. It uses the TruePlay room mapping of the Sonos Arc to make a realist 7.1.4 surround sound system in your headphones, which is a massive bonus compared to the AirPods Max.

That means you can listen to the headphones for whatever you’re doing, be that watching the news on the TV channels, playing games with an Xbox, or even watching Masters of the Air on Apple TV+. It swaps over with a physical switch on the headphones too, making it very simple to use.

There are more physical controls on the Ace as well, including a volume control, play/pause button, noise canceling control, and a voice assistant summoner. Again, these should be better than the touch controls on other options, although we’re yet to muck about with them ourselves.

There are more physical controls on the Ace as well, including a volume control, play/pause button, noise canceling control, and a voice assistant summoner.

There’s going to be noise canceling as well, although we’re not sure how good it's going to be, and given it’s Sonos’ first headphone outing, there’s no reference point to match up to. It will use all the mics on the outside of the headphones to read the noise coming in, and then block it out using fancy audio magic — and when we’ve given them a try, we’ll know how well it works. Sonos does say that there’s an aware mode, akin to the adaptive noise canceling on the AirPods Pro 2, so it’ll be interesting to see how that stacks up to Apple’s version. At the moment, from sheer virtue of coming out later than the AirPods Max, the feature set of the Sonos Ace seems more tantalizing to us — let’s just hope they all work as Sonos tells us they will.

AirPods Max vs Sonos Ace: Sound

AirPods Max

(Image credit: Future)

The AirPods Max sound undeniably very good. Not the best out there, with options like the Focal Bathys coming out on top, but they still sound wicked with a very neutral sound signature. There's a decent amount of bass as well (some might say too much), and most people who strap them to their heads are going to be very happy with the sound that they can reproduce.

The Sonos Ace and their sound quality are a mystery to us as yet, given we’re yet to give them a whirl. If their other gear is anything to go by, however, then we should be in for a treat. The Sonos Era 300 is one of the best-sounding smart speakers both for its size and for its price, and the Bluetooth Sonos Move 2 is a great portable speaker that belies its size with some massive sound.

Both feature Spatial Audio with support for Apple Music, although the Dolby Atmos in TiDaL and Amazon Music will work with Sonos’ headphones. This is the trickiest category to score at the moment, given the AirPod's unfair advantage of actually existing on shelves — so we’ll call it a draw.

AirPods Max vs Sonos Ace: Battery

Sonos Ace headphones

(Image credit: Sonos)

The AirPods Max have 20 hours of battery life when you’ve got noise canceling or Spatial Audio turned on. That’s not the best battery life around, although if you charge them for 5 minutes you’ll get an extra hour and a half of battery juice. In the real world, battery life varies depending on volume, content, and even your environment — but it’s never particularly exemplary.

The Sonos Ace, on the other hand, look to have 30 hours of battery life, according to Sonos. That’s about par for the course with over-ear Bluetooth headphones at the moment, and that’s with noise canceling turned on. Turn it off, and your battery could be boosted even further still. Better yet is their fast charging — 3 minutes of charging nets you an extra 3 hours of battery life. Even though we’re yet to confirm these stats for ourselves, it certainly seems like the Sonos are the ones to choose in the battery category.

AirPods Max vs Sonos Ace: Which should you buy?

Sonos Ace headphones

(Image credit: Sonos)

The Sonos Ace were always going to have a difficult uphill battle on their hands when compared to the AirPods Max, but they already seem to be putting up a valiant fight. They win out on features, battery life, and price, and they only draw on sound quality because we haven’t used them yet.

The AirPods Max are obviously a more premium, metal product, but the lightness of the Sonos Ace might just sway to them as well. The only place where the AirPods win outright is in color, with more options than the simple two of the Ace. Both require an extra device for their surround sound TV bits to work, although the range of devices that the Sonos’ will work with is increasing soon, we’re told. For our money, even though they’re not out yet, we’d be waiting for the Sonos Ace to release and see how their sound stacks up — because almost everything else tells us they’re going to be the superior pair of headphones.

Tammy Rogers
Senior Staff Writer

As iMore's Senior Staff writer, Tammy uses her background in audio and Masters in screenwriting to pen engaging product reviews and informative buying guides. The resident audiophile (or audio weirdo), she's got an eye for detail and a love of top-quality sound. Apple is her bread and butter, with attention on HomeKit and Apple iPhone and Mac hardware. You won't find her far away from a keyboard even outside of working at iMore – in her spare time, she spends her free time writing feature-length and TV screenplays. Also known to enjoy driving digital cars around virtual circuits, to varying degrees of success. Just don't ask her about AirPods Max - you probably won't like her answer.