Apple AirPods Max vs Sony WH-1000XM4: Which should you buy?

Airpods Sony Comparison
Airpods Sony Comparison (Image credit: iMore)

Apple AirPods Max vs. Sony WH-1000XM4: Key differences

Airpods Sony Comparison

Airpods Sony Comparison (Image credit: iMore)

When it comes to the most important specs, like drivers and Bluetooth technology, these two sets of headphones have similar hardware. The 40mm drivers are the same size, and both produce dynamic sound using a neodymium magnet. Both offer excellent noise-cancellation, of course, but that's where the similarities end.

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Header Cell - Column 0 Apple AirPods MaxSony WH-1000XM4
TypeOver-Ear Wireless HeadphonesOver-Ear Wireless Headphones
Driver40mm Apple-designed dynamic driver40mm, dome-type driver
ConnectivityBluetooth 5.0Bluetooth 5.0
Battery life20 hours30 hours
Charging cableLightning to USB-C CableUSB-C to USB-C
Noise cancellationYesYes
Ambient noise modeYesYes
Volume controlDigital crownTouch sensor
InputsLightningStereo mini-jack
ColorsSpace Gray, Silver, Green, Sky blue, PinkSilver, Black
CaseSoft smart caseHard carrying case
Weight384.8 grams251 grams
MaterialsMesh textile, stainless steel, anodized aluminumHard plastic and PU leather
MicrophonesNine total: Six for ANC and three for voiceFive total
Physical controlsDigital crownButtons and toggles
Voice assistantSiriGoogle assistant, Amazon Alexa, or Siri

Here we see that everything from materials to control mechanisms is very different on these two models, but how does that manifest in appearance and functionality? Let's find out.

Apple AirPods Max vs. Sony WH-1000XM4: Apple makes some good-looking cans

From a strictly aesthetic standpoint, the Apple AirPods Max are beautiful to behold. From the simple mesh headband to the smooth, shiny cups, they look elegant and expensive, as they should. As always, form does follow function with any Apple product, and they feel as good as they look.

The breathable mesh knit canopy fits lightly over the head without exerting uncomfortable pressure in any one spot. A spring-loaded hinge attaches each cup and adjusts to fit different head sizes and shapes. All of this culminates in soft memory-foam earcups that fit lovingly over the years to seal out ambient sound and lock in comfort.

In comparison, the Sony WH-1000XM4 has a more traditional look with a hard plastic casing and PU leather earcups. While they don't look all that fancy, Sony is more concerned with sound quality than good looks, and so are their customers. While these headphones don't offer the same luxurious feel as the AirPods Max, they are by no means uncomfortable. The earcups and headband are both lined with soft foam padding that is light and comfortable to wear for hours at a time.

Overall, the AirPods Max win this round, but there's a lot more to headphones than look and feel.

Apple AirPods Max vs. Sony WH-1000XM4: Incredible quality, either way

Airpods Sony Comparison

Airpods Sony Comparison (Image credit: iMore)

The basic audio hardware on these two headphones is pretty similar. Both offer 40mm dynamic drivers and a neodymium magnet to produce sound, and both offer state-of-the-art noise cancellation technology. The Apple AirPods Max may have a slight edge on the WH-1000XM4 because of the additional microphones it uses to perceive and cancel out incoming ambient sound. Since the WH-1000XM4 does incorporate Bluetooth Audio SoC to achieve a similar effect, the difference in sound-canceling technology between the two is not huge. Both are excellent at blocking out unwanted noise, and both offer Transparency Mode when you'd rather hear what's going on around you.

The Apple AirPods Max may have a slight edge on the WH-1000XM4 because of the additional microphones it uses to perceive and cancel out incoming ambient sound.

Both the AirPods Max and the WH-1000XM4 deliver gorgeous sound quality. For clarity and hi-fi sound reproduction, neither set disappoints in any way. Even at maximum volume, neither of these headphones will result in sound distortion, and they can both reproduce an enormous range of sound from reverberating bass to crisp highs. The AirPods Max do have a wider soundstage, but they really pull ahead with the smart technology.

While the Sony headphones deliver great sound, the Apple AirPods offer some cool techy features that you won't find in other cans. Adaptive EQ is the most impressive of these, using various sensors to measure the fit and seal of the ear-cups, adjusting sound delivery accordingly for the best possible experience. This means that each user will have their own customized sound experience with the AirPods Max, and I don't know of any other headphones that offer this technology. When combined with spatial audio and sound sharing features, you can start to appreciate the high price tag on the AirPods Max.

Apple AirPods Max vs. Sony WH-1000XM4: Ecosystem versus travel convenience

Airpods Sony Comparison

Airpods Sony Comparison (Image credit: iMore)

When it comes to audio controls, the AirPods Max and Sony WH-1000XM4 offer very different functionality. This comes down to personal preference. The Digital Crown dial on the AirPods works much like the Apple Watch dial, with simple controls that are easy to master but offer fewer options. You have to use the correct touch or gesture to get the desired result, and it can be hard to master for clumsy butterfingers like me.

The Digital Crown dial on the AirPods works much like the Apple Watch dial, with simple controls that are easy to master but offer fewer options. Neither of these mechanisms is necessarily better than the other; it just depends on your own fine motor skills and preferences.

The Digital Crown dial on the AirPods works much like the Apple Watch dial, with simple controls that are easy to master but offer fewer options.

One huge advantage offered by the Sony WH-1000XM4 is the headphone jack and cable, along with an in-flight plug adapter, makes listening during air travel effortless. I'm not a huge fan of Apple's departure from ports and jacks for just this reason. To listen to in-flight entertainment with the AirPods Max, you'll need to buy an additional Lightning to 3.5 mm Audio Cable for over $30.

I like that Sony makes things easy by including everything you need. They also provide a hard carrying case that's more heavy-duty than the soft case that comes with the AirPods Max, so you can rest assured that they'll be protected wherever you go. Finally, the WH-1000XM4 offers 10 hours more battery life, which comes in handy during long trips.

With that being said, you can't discard the convenience of the Apple ecosystem when it comes to seamless integration with multiple devices and contacts. With a few clicks, your AirPods Max will connect to any devices connected with your Apple ID, and the headphones will switch between them automatically when needed. You can also use the audio sharing feature to broadcast your tunes to other AirPods around you. Little details like these are what set the Apple ecosystem apart from the rest.

As for voice assistant compatibility, the AirPods Max obviously work with Siri and only Siri, while the Sony WH-1000XM4 can be setup to work with Siri, Google Assistant, or Amazon Alexa.

Apple AirPods Max vs. Sony WH-1000XM4: Affordability

When you're looking at a price difference of more than $200, it's hard to say if the AirPods Max are worth the extra expense. Yes, they are built with higher quality materials, and they are beautiful to behold. The AirPods Max have smarter tech and the ever-improving Apple ecosystem that comes with them, but some people just don't have the budget to spend that much on headphones. If you're looking at sound quality for the price, the WH-1000XM4 wins on affordability.

Apple AirPods Max vs. Sony WH-1000XM4: Which should you buy?

If you've got deep pockets and you're an avid user of the Apple ecosystem, you'll adore those AirPods Max and everything they have to offer.

The question of which pair of headphones to buy comes down to budget and lifestyle. If you can afford the Apple AirPods Max, they deliver a unique sound experience that's actively customized to you, which is pretty dang amazing. The AirPods Max are also sleek and beautiful, with five slick colors to choose from and unequaled comfort for long wear.

If you're an avid user of Apple products, these headphones will also fit right into the Apple ecosystem and work seamlessly with all your devices as well as with other Apple users around you. There's no denying that there are definite benefits that come with that high price tag.

However, if you're a frequent traveler that stays on the go, the Sony WH-1000XM4 comes out of the box ready to travel. You have all the ports, adapters, and cables you need to listen as you fly, and the hard carrying case will keep your headphones safe, even if you throw them in a backpack or suitcase. The same cannot be said of the AirPods Max with no microphone ports to speak of and a soft carrying case that doesn't offer much in the way of protection.

Jaclyn Kilani

Jaclyn Kilani is a content writer at iMore. She's a longtime Apple addict with a flair for creating (written works, design, photos; you name it!) on her devices. Jaclyn has also worked in the marketing sector for over 16 years, dabbling in a bit of everything from writing to graphic design and digital marketing. In her heart of hearts, however, she is a born writer and an avid reader who adores everything about the written word. Someday she may even churn out a book or two. Throughout her career, Jaclyn has also developed something of an addiction to all things Apple. Her professional and personal life is enhanced by an ever-growing collection of iPhones, iPads, MacBooks, Apple Watches, and even AirTags. Luckily, this expensive habit is of great use to her work at iMore, where she writes with authority on Apple products and the accessories that go with them.