AirPods Max vs Sony WH-1000XM4

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


After much anticipation, Apple yesterday finally launched its over-the-head headphones dubbed AirPods Max. These are available to purchase for $549 and ship with a lot of the same features as the in-ear AirPods Pro.

The AirPods Max is a potential competitor to the highly revered Sony WH-1000XM4 Noise Canceling headphones. Sony launched them back in August 2020 and are successors to the popular XM3 headphones.

If you’re in the market for high-end Noise Canceling Headphones, there’s a chance you might find yourself at crossroads while deciding between the two. Here’s our in-depth comparison to help you decide whether you should buy the newly launched AirPods Max or the Sony WH-1000XM4s.

Note: Due to the painfully long name of Sony’s headphones, I’m gonna be calling these XM4s for the rest of the comparison. AirPods Max isn’t music to the ears either. Still, I’ve decided to stick with that.

AirPods Max vs Sony WH-1000XM4: Design and Comfort

Design and comfort are essential factors while deciding which headphones to buy. No one wants to be seen wearing a displeasing blob of hardware on their head. Similarly, if headphones aren’t comfortable to wear, you’ll find yourself hating them with eventual usage.

Thankfully, none of the two headphones have a downright bad design. But these aren’t exceptionally good, too.

Starting off with the AirPods Max, these ship in five different colors—Space Gray, Silver, Sky Blue, Green, and Pink. The colors themselves aren’t flashy and are more on the calmer tone of the spectrum. The two major components on these headphones that showcase those colors and that attract the most attention are the cups and the ear cushions.

The earcups are made up of anodized aluminum and are given a matte finish instead of a glossy finish which indeed makes the AirPods Max look like premium headphones. Connecting both cups is a stainless steel arm with a glossy finish which looks premium, but its likeability is ultimately dependent on perception.

Sony Transparency mode
AirPods Max. Source: Apple

Apple has aimed for a more simplistic look. And this is true for the XM4s as well. However, unlike the AirPods Max, the cups on the XM4s aren’t made up of a metal body. Instead, it’s a pleather finish created by bonding plastic to a leather backing. Despite using pleather, the XM4s are quite sturdy and do not appear cheap.

As for the color options, the XM4s only come in two different colors: black and silver. There’s a midnight blue color as well, but it’s a Best Buy exclusive.

The AirPods Max features two buttons: a digital crown that Apple copied from the Apple Watch and a button that you can press. I’ll talk about them in-depth down below. Apart from that, there are slits for microphones and a lightning port.

On the XM4s, the cups contain two buttons, a USB-C charging port, a headphone jack, and holes for microphones.

Now let’s talk about comfort.

Both the AirPods Max and the Sony XM4s put great emphasis on comfort. The latter uses a thick cushion to reduce the pressure on the headphones put on your head while the former take on a different path to do that. The AirPods Max have a canopy to support your head that Apple says is made from a breathable mesh that distributes the weight of the headphones to apply less pressure on your head.

The XM4s continue to use the pleather band for their arms making for a comfortable fit. On the other hand, the AirPods Max have a “soft-to-the-touch” silicone wrapping on its telescopic stainless steel arms. Although the arms of a headphone least interfere with comfort, how they feel on your head is important.

Sony WH1000XM4
Sony WH-1000XM4.

Sony’s XM4 headphones have an advantage when it comes to portability as they can be folded into a compact form so that you can carry them along everywhere you go without worrying about them hogging much space. On the contrary, you cannot fold the AirPods Max, making them difficult to travel with them.

The most important components contributing to the comfort of all headphones are ear cushions. The quality and design of ear cushions determine interdependent factors like sound quality, noise cancelation, ear fatigue, and more.

AirPods Max’s ear cushions are made up of a mesh textile that Apple says provides pillow-like softness. However, the thing with mesh ear cushions is that they tend to cause rashes for some people after usage over longer periods of time. We’ll either need to wait for reviews or physically test out these headphones for ourselves to conclude on how the new ear cushions fare.

That being said, the ear cushions are easily interchangeable and snap into place using magnets. Apple is also selling ear cushions for each color separately allowing you to mix and match to get a personalized color profile for your headphones.

Meanwhile, the XM4s’ leather cushions are said to be one of the most comfortable ear cushions ever in a headphone. Being made up of leather, these also offer good sound isolation and hence, feature stunning noise cancelation.

Apple, although, says that the AirPods Max’s ear cushions contain an acoustically engineered memory foam which helps the headphones create an immersive seal. Again, we’re gonna have to wait to try these out to know how they fare. We’ll be updating our article once we get our hands on the new headphones from Apple.

AirPods Max vs Sony WH-1000XM4: Controls

Controls may not be as important on a headphone as you might think, but they’re still handy when you need them.

AirPods-Max-Button

The AirPods Max and the XM4s offer different kinds of control. Apple has chosen to opt for mechanical buttons instead of a touch-sensitive interface like on its AirPods and AirPods Pro series. All music and volume controls are facilitated by the digital crown while clicking the extra button instantaneously toggles between transparency and active noise cancellation modes.

I am not particularly a fan of the placement of these buttons. Most headphones have them at the bottom for a reason—they’re easy to reach. On the AirPods Max, you’ll find yourself reaching out to the top of the headphones to rotate the digital crown or to press the transparency mode toggle, which could be cumbersome.

On the other hand, the XM4s have a touch-sensitive interface on the ear cups: you can double-tap to play and pause tracks, swipe forward and backward for next and previous tracks respectively, swipe up or down to raise or lower the volume, and more.

One interesting gesture the headphones accommodate is accessing Quick Attention mode.

While riding a subway or facing an unprompted interaction, all you need to do is place your palm over the ear cup to automatically let in sound from outside and lift it up to resume enjoying the noise cancelation.

Similarly, tapping and holding on to the ear cup with two fingers enables you to engage in a conversation with a person without having the headphones disturb you.

Sony Controls
Source: Sony

Furthermore, the XM4s also come with a physical button you need to use to power on and off the headphones, activate and deactivate noise cancelation or ambient sound modes.

Both headphones have a lot of stuff offloaded to be set up from smartphones they’re connected to. The AirPods Max can be configured through the Settings app while you’ll need to download Sony’s companion app for the XM4s to configure them for optimum usage.

AirPods Max vs Sony WH-1000XM4: Sound and Microphone quality

Nothing else matters if the headphones that you decide to don, in hopes of a momentary escape from reality, do not sound well. Good headphones let the listener immerse into the sound the headphones produce, isolating them from the rest of the world.

As a matter of fact, almost every other component in a headphone is optimized just so they can contribute to improving the sound quality. The ear cups are acoustic, the ear cushions are snug and seal your ears, the sound drivers are optimally placed, and many more intricacies are involved in making your headphones sound good.

Sony’s XM4s offer great sound quality, but these aren’t the best-sounding headphones in the market right now. They offer amazing highs and lows and you can even clearly hear the rumblings at the beginnings and endings of some songs. Couple that with Sony’s LDAC Bluetooth codec that offers 24-bit/96KHz Hi-Res playback, and you’ll get a good overall sound experience.

Sony uses its trademarked artificial intelligence and Digital Sound Enhancement Engine to upscale compressed digital music files in real-time, thereby restoring high-range sound that otherwise gets lost in compression, forming a better listening experience.

We’ll talk about the hardware behind the sound quality later on in this post.

As for the AirPods Max, Apple says “each part of their custom-built driver works to produce sound with ultra-low distortion across the audible range. From deep, rich bass to accurate mids and crisp, clean highs, you’ll hear every note with a new sense of clarity.”

Apple also says that the driver’s dual-neodymium ring magnet motor minimizes total harmonic distortion across the entire audible range, which produces a consistently clear playback even at higher volumes.

Apple, just like Sony, has a considerable history when it comes to offering great sound quality. It’s AirPods Pro, for instance, pack (again, not the best) a ton of punch in a smaller form factor. Moreover, Apple’s HomePods speakers are possibly the best smart speakers available in the market.

The AirPods Max also use Apple’s computational audio algorithms and take advantage of the custom H1 chip inside to block outside noise, adapts audio to the fit and seal of the ear cushions, and as per Apple, it makes movie scenes sound like they’re happening around you.

MKBHD got to test out the headphones early and he claims that the sound quality on the AirPods Max headphones is “excellent.”

Now, let’s run by both headphone’s microphone quality. Microphone quality is essential because you may not use your headphones just to listen to tracks, but also for making phone calls, video calls, and more.

Sony’s XM4s feature five microphones on its ear cup, which Sony says deliver a clearer voice quality to the other person on the phone. Sony also uses its Voice Pickup Technology with advanced audio signal processing to enhance the output the microphones produce. As far as microphone quality on headphones is concerned, the XM4s do a pretty good job.

Apple, on the contrary, is well-known for sporting the best microphones in its AirPods lineup. The AirPods Pro, for instance, beats the competition in microphone sound quality. Apple uses a combination of its hardware and software smarts to achieve that. And the AirPods Max doesn’t seem to be different, if not an improvement.

As compared to the XM4s, the AirPods Max sport nine microphones in total. Eight microphones are allocated to serve Active Noise Cancellation and three microphones for voice pickup, out of which the two microphones are shared for enhancing ANC.

Apple makes some considerable claims when it comes to microphone quality. According to Apple, “the AirPods Max use a total of six outward-facing microphones to detect noise in your environment, and two inward-facing microphones to measure what you’re hearing. Beamforming microphones help isolate your voice on phone calls, so it’s heard clearly — even in windy situations.”

AirPods Max vs Sony WH-1000XM4: Ease of Pairing

Both the AirPods Max and the Sony XM4s offer extensive pairing options. At the same time, both feature Bluetooth 5.0, meaning you can pair them with any smartphone you want. However, these headphones also offer some specific advantages in certain pairing scenarios.

As for the XM4s, Sony offers a companion app called the Headphones Connect app. It’s not necessary for the headphones to work, but it does enable additional functionality that you wouldn’t be able to experience otherwise.

AirPods Max
Source : Apple

For instance, the second button on the headphones can be customized to either toggle ANC or activate the assistant on your phone. You cannot map the button if you don’t have the app. Another extremely useful feature that you can only access through Sony’s companion app is 360 Reality Audio, which offers surround sound. Although, there aren’t as many places you can get compatible audio to test it out.

The best thing about Sony’s XM4 headphones is that you can connect them with any smartphone out there, be it an iPhone or an Android phone, it is bound to work the same way without any loss in functionality.

The same can’t be said for Apple’s AirPods Max.

You can definitely pair them with an Android phone via Bluetooth—which, by the way, is faster thanks to Bluetooth 5.0—but you won’t get to notice the smooth experience or the seamless integration as compared to pairing with an iPhone or an iPad.

In order to pair the AirPods with an Android device, all you’ll need to do is long-press the digital crown and wait for the AirPods to list themselves in the Bluetooth pairing section within Settings on your phone. Pairing with an iPhone is simpler. All you’ll need to do is bring the AirPods closer to your iPhone or iPad (make sure Bluetooth is enabled on your devices), and a pairing prompt will automatically appear.

Unlike the XM4s, the AirPods Max’s special features such as Spatial Audio and Adaptive EQ likely won’t work with Android devices.

Both headphones also allow you to connect to multiple devices at once. Although, the AirPods Max only supports multi-device connections with Apple devices like an iPhone, iPad, or Mac. The AirPods Max also have a special feature called Automatic Switching that allows you to pick up any Apple device that you’ve previously paired your AirPods with, and they will automatically switch over. Moreover, the process is also instantaneous, which is ultimately what makes Automatic Switching worthwhile.

AirPods Max vs Sony WH-1000XM4: Active Noise Cancelation

Active Noise Cancelation (ANC) is the tentpole feature of both the AirPods Max and the XM4s. And both Apple and Sony use high-tech components and software to make sure ANC exceeds user expectations.

Starting off with the AirPods Max, Apple has implemented eight microphones to support ANC. Each ear cup features three outward-facing microphones to detect environmental noise, while one inward-facing microphone inside the ear cup monitors the sound reaching the listener’s ears. Apple says that these headphones take advantage of computational audio to adjust the ANC according to headphone fit and continuously adapt to the movement in real-time.

A major reference point for us when talking about the AirPods Max is the AirPods Pro, which share the same technology behind ANC. The AirPods Pro have excellent ANC, however, with a recent AirPods Pro firmware update, users have been reporting degradation in ANC quality.

But if Apple maintains the initial levels of ANC quality the AirPods Pro used to offer, the AirPods Max may be a perfect rival to the Sony XM4s. According to MKBHD, though, the ANC on the AirPods Max is “on par with the AirPods Pro,” which is amazing.

That said, Sony’s XM4s are basically dubbed the king of ANC. It’s powered by Sony’s dedicated QN1 processor. The ear cushions also play a major role in isolating sound. The XM4s have leather ear cushions which may isolate sound better than the AirPods Max’s mesh cushions.

AirPods Max vs Sony WH-1000XM4: Transparency Mode on AirPods Max and Ambient Sound Control on the XM4s

Active Noise Cancelation and Transparency modes go hand in hand with each other. What transparency mode does is it disables ANC for a while and allows sound to seep in so that you can listen to important stuff going around in the surrounding like subway announcements and more.

Ambient Sound Control on the Sony XM4s is accessible using three ways. For instance, you can enable Ambient Sound Control by using Sony’s companion app, by holding your palm over the ear cup, or by disabling ANC altogether by pressing the second button.

Sony Transparency mode 1
Source: Sony

AirPods Max have similar controls for transparency mode. You can use your iPhone to switch over to Transparency Mode or simply tap the dedicated button on the top of the headphones.

The Sony XM4s use a smart transparency mode. For instance, the headphones let sound in whenever they detect there’s something important going around or someone is talking to you directly. For instance, when you’re riding a subway, the XM4s enable Ambient Sound Mode whenever there’s an announcement.

AirPods-Max-Button
Transparency Mode toggle on the AirPods Max. Source: Apple

Another smart feature related to the transparency mode on the XM4s is Adaptive Sound Control. It uses the acceleration sensors on the headphones to detect four kinds of movement: staying, walking, running, and transport. Then, the headphones adjust the sound depending on those movements.

AirPods Max vs Sony WH-1000XM4: Voice Assistants

Voice assistants are quite useful additions to modern headphones. They offer additional control and extend their functionality.

Apple’s AirPods Max headphones are tightly integrated with Siri and also feature Always-On Siri, meaning you can simply speak “Hey, Siri” and the AirPods Max will respond. You can further interact with Siri just by using the headphones without having to access your iPhone or iPad.

While you can connect the AirPods Max to an Android device, these do not technically support other voice assistants. For the AirPods Pro, for instance, you can install a third-party Android app to enable Google Assistant via touch functionality, but the app has probably not been updated to support the AirPods Max, and it probably never will because those use a specialized chip inside called the H1 that only Apple products can specifically interact with. Nevertheless, you can still use your phones to pass commands and

By comparison, the Sony XM4s support all the voice assistants out there including Siri, Google Assistant, and Amazon’s Alexa. All you need to activate a voice assistant is to tap and hold on the right ear cup.

Ultimately, it’s worth noting that any inconsistencies you might face while interacting with the voice assistants through the XM4s could be basically related to the voice assistants themselves.

AirPods Max vs Sony WH-1000XM4: Smart Features

Both headphones have a bunch of smart features that make the whole experience of owning and using headphones more exciting.

For instance, the AirPods Max’s smart features—although, they’re limited to the Apple ecosystem—include Automatic Switching, Adaptive EQ, Spatial Audio, and On-head detection.

The Sony XM4s have Adaptive Sound Mode, On-head detection, Quick Attention, Multipoint connection, and Speak to Chat.

Here are all the smart features of both headphones listed along with a small description:

AirPods Max

  • Automatic Switching: Pair your AirPods Max with multiple Apple devices and automatically switch connections with those devices.
  • Adaptive EQ: Tailors sound to how the AirPods Max fit a user’s ears.
  • Spatial Audio: Offers a 360-degree surround sound. Requires specific content to be played on iPhones and iPads. Adjusts sounds along with the movement of your head.
  • On-head Detection: Stops music automatically when you take off the headphones. Also works when you lift one of the earcups.

Sony XM4s

  • Adaptive Sound Mode: Adjusts sound depending on what you’re doing.
  • Quick Attention: This allows you to hear voices or sounds around you by placing your palm on the right ear cup.
  • Multipoint connection: Connect to multiple devices at once. Similar to AirPods’ automatic switching.
  • Speak to Chat: Stops the music automatically when you talk.

AirPods Max vs Sony WH-1000XM4: Battery Life

Here are the battery life metrics as marketed by Apple for the AirPods Max:

  • Up to 20 hours of listening time on a single charge with Active Noise Cancellation or Transparency mode enabled
  • Up to 20 hours of movie playback on a single charge with spatial audio on
  • Up to 20 hours of talk time on a single charge
  • 5 minutes of charge time provides around 1.5 hours of listening time

Here’s how Sony markets the XM4s’ battery life:

“With a huge 30 hours of battery life, you’ll have enough power even for long trips. And if you need to top up in a hurry, you can get 5 hours’ worth of charge after just 10 minutes with the optional AC adapter.”

The XM4s live up to Sony’s marketing claims related to its battery life. The AirPods Max are yet to be tested.

AirPods Max vs Sony WH-1000XM4: Hardware

Every headphones contain a core set of hardware that drives all the features.

The AirPods Max sport an Apple-designed dynamic driver that helps in producing a high-frequency range which Apple says delivers songs with “previously unheard texture and accuracy.”

apple_airpods-max_internals_12082020
AirPods Max internals. Source: Apple

Inside the drivers is a dual-neodymium ring magnet motor that Apple says “minimizes total harmonic distortion across the entire audible range.

The H1 chip is the main processor that handles computational audio processing and other sound features. It’s the same chip that’s included in the second-gen AirPods and the AirPods Pro.

a close up of a device
Sony WH-1000XM4 internals. Source: Sony

The AirPods Max also has a slew of sensors including an optical sensor, position sensor, case-detect sensor, and accelerometer in each ear cup while the gyroscope is included only within the left ear cup.

As for the XM4s, the noise cancelation is driven by the new QN1 processor coupled with a new Bluetooth Audio SoC. It has 40mm drivers with Liquid Crystal Polymer diaphragms that can reproduce frequencies up to 40kHz.

Both headphones support Bluetooth 5.0, facilitating a better and more reliable connection.

AirPods Max vs Sony WH-1000XM4: Water Resistance

Water-resistance may be important for a lot of people; especially those who work out every day wearing their headphones knowing how sweaty it gets in the gym. Water-resistance also comes in handy when you’re walking down the street listening to music on your beloved headphones and it suddenly starts raining.

Unfortunately, though, neither the AirPods Max nor the XM4s offer water resistance. They’re not even certified for splashes. So, if you were planning on heading to the gym wearing either of these, please don’t.

Also, try not wearing them around places where there’s a chance they’ll get wet.

AirPods Max vs Sony WH-1000XM4: Accessories

This is going to be interesting to talk about.

First, the XM4s ship along with an actual carrying box that you can fold and stuff the headphones into and carry around in your backpack. There’s also a plug adapter for in-flight use, an approximately 1.2m long headphone cable, and a USB-C cable.

Sony Accessories
Sony WH-1000XM4 casing. Source: Sony

In comparison, the more expensive AirPods Max only come with a smart case and a lightning to USB-C charging cable. Apple is also selling a lightning to 3.5mm cable for in-flight usage and wired listening, but you’ve got to purchase it separately. Additionally, you can also purchase extra ear cushions of any color from Apple (since they’re interchangeable and magnetically attach to the ear cups) for $69.

apple airpods max smart case blue 12082020 scaled
AirPods Pro Max in its Smart Case. Source: Apple

Now, let’s talk about the new smart case. First off, it’s only smart feature is that the AirPods Max can detect when they’re put in the case and go into an extreme low-power mode. The bag initially appears like a purse and looks kind of weird. Moreover, it’s designed in a way that is far from portable and definitely not easy to travel with.

The best part about the bag is the number of humorous memes and jokes they’ve helped generate. Some say it resembles a bra, while others call it a butt.

AirPods Max vs Sony WH-1000XM4: Pricing and Availability

The Sony XM4s cost $349 and are available to purchase right away given that they’ve been out for a while now.

By comparison, the AirPods Max cost $200 more landing the price at $549. Moreover, these are out of stock in most places. Apple’s website shows delivery dates that extend until March next year.

Final Thoughts: What should you buy?

Both the AirPods Max and the Sony XM4s are terrific headphones. Both offer exceptional sound quality and both are built well. Moreover, both almost have the same feature set.

The AirPods Max cost a whopping $549, which could be a little too much for some people. This is especially considering that the Sony XM4s offer almost all of those features and then some more at $200 less.

One major advantage that the AirPods Max offer is the fact that if you have an iPhone, there are no better headphones to get. This is because of the tight integration of the AirPods Max with other products in the Apple ecosystem. For instance, if you want to enjoy spatial audio, it’ll only work with iPhones and iPads. Furthermore, you cannot get the kind of spatial audio quality that Apple offers on the XM4s by pairing them to your iPhone.

The AirPods Max also have an overall better design thanks to the various color options available. These also probably sound better considering the number of drivers and microphones embedded inside.

The problem lies in the fact that none of these features combined make up for the $549 price tag. That said, if you’re unwilling to shell out that much, you can settle for the $349 Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones. Plus, you’ll also get to take advantage of the advanced features such as Quick Attention and Adaptive Sound Mode.

On the contrary, if you can shell out that much for the AirPods Max, you should. You’ll get a simpler, more premium experience.


Note: This story contains affiliate links that may earn me commissions on successful purchases to help keep the site running.