The Sony WH-1000XM4 Wireless Headphones and the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 are two excellent pairs of noise-cancelling headphones – and the WH-1000XM4s are officially our best headphones of 2020.
It’s easy to see why we rate them so highly. Both the Sony WH-1000XM4 Wireless Headphones and the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 combine the latest in high-end audio technology with minimal designs that are comfortable, look great and are totally wireless.
But now there’s a new contender for the best pair of headphones: the Apple AirPods Max. Apple’s new over-ear, noise-cancelling, wireless headphones are finally here after years of speculation.
- Read our hands-on Apple AirPods Max review
Although you might not immediately associate Apple with audio products, the brand has been going from strength to strength in this space.
Originally, there were the EarPods, then a number of versions of the true wireless AirPods and AirPods Pro, as well as the brand’s combined efforts with Beats over the years. That’s not to mention the strides Apple has made in the home audio space with the HomePod and HomePod Mini.
But just because Apple has a solid audio track record and legions of dedicated fans doesn’t mean the AirPods Max will instantly be a hit – especially considering they’re astronomically higher-priced than the competition at $549 / £549 / AU$899.
With this in mind, let’s put the new Apple AirPods Max head-to-head with the Sony WH-1000XM4 Wireless Headphones and the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 to answer the big question: which will be the best noise cancelling headphones of 2021?
We’ll be drawing on our experience of testing the Bose and Sony headphones, but so far have only had a short hands-on with the AirPods Max. This means our guide below will look at the key things we know right now – reserving judgement on the things we don’t until we’ve had longer with Apple’s highly-anticipated new headphones.
Read on to find out which noise cancelling, over-ear headphones we think could reign supreme.
- Best headphones 2020: your definitive guide to the latest and greatest audio
Price and availability
The Apple AirPods Max were announced on December 8, 2020 and will be officially released on December 15, 2020.
However, stock levels are already either low or completely sold out on the Apple website and other retailers. At the time of writing, you can pre-order the AirPods Max from the Apple website, but they’re expected to arrive in March 2021.
The Apple AirPods Max cost $549 / £549 / AU$899. Although Apple is, in most respects, a luxury tech brand this price still feels extremely high – especially in comparison to the Sony WH-1000XM4 and Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700.
The WH-1000XM4s were announced on August 6, 2020. They are Sony’s flagship headphones (at least for now) and in terms of price and performance, sit above the mid-range Sony WH-CH710N and true wireless Sony WF-1000XM3. They cost $349.99 / £349 / AU$549.
This puts the Sony WH-1000XM4 in the same price range as the Bose Noise-Cancelling 700 Headphones. These were announced in 2019 and cost $339.99 / £349.95 / AU$599.95.
There’s no doubt about it, the Apple AirPods Max are significantly more expensive than the competition. We’ll take a look next at whether the specs justify the huge price, but an extra $200 / £200 / AU$300 is a huge ask for most people. Then again, many Apple products are pricey and this hasn’t stopped them being popular in the past and, often but not always, beating the competition.
- Check out our full Sony WH-1000XM4 review
The AirPods Max have a clean and minimal design that’s in keeping with other devices from the tech giant. What’s more, they have a stainless steel build and come in a range of colors, including space gray, silver, sky blue, green and pink.
We’ve yet to try the AirPods Max for a significant period of time, but during our initial hands-on, we found them to be comfortable. This is largely due to a few key design choices, including the knit mesh headband which, according to Apple, is "designed to distribute weight and reduce on-head pressure".
The memory foam ear cups are also comfortable and the headband frame, which is also made from stainless steel, has telescoping arms that can be extended to find the right fit for you.
There aren’t many on-ear controls, but interestingly, the AirPods Max have a Digital Crown that’s also found on the Apple Watch. This is a small dial that brings you a more precise way of controlling the headphones rather than touch or swipe controls – and it's a welcome addition in our opinion.
With the Digital Crown you can play/pause, skip tracks, answer and end phones calls, as well as activate Apple’s voice assistant, Siri. Another button allows you to switch between active noise cancellation and Transparency mode.
Apple’s AirPods Max might look unmistakably Apple, but the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 look incredibly stylish too – we wouldn’t be surprised to find them on a plinth at a modern art gallery.
They come in black, silver and dark blue and are crafted around a stainless steel headband. The ear cups slide up and down the headband to adjust the fit, which adds to the sleek look and feel of these premium headphones.
During our testing, we found the Bose headphones lightweight to wear. Thanks to the soft ear cups, they also provide excellent noise cancellation and an extremely comfortable fit. The ear cups combined with the cushioned headband make them ideal for long listening sessions – whether that’s to drown out ambient sounds at home while you’re working or on a long haul flight.
In contrast to the AirPods Max, the majority of the Headphones 700’s functionality is controlled using the touch-sensitive right ear cup.
There’s no lack of style here. As well as the headphones from Apple and Bose, the Sony WH-1000XM4 Wireless Headphones have a refined and subtle design that means they fit in anywhere.
These headphones boast a high-quality plastic build, as well as supple pleather padding, which feels durable but also extremely comfortable to wear for long periods of time too. They come in two colors: black and silver.
The WH-1000XM4s have a combination of physical buttons and touch controls. Physical buttons handle power/pairing and noise-cancelling modes and the outer casing of the ear cups act as a touch-capacitive control panel. This can be used to play, pause or skip music, as well as raise or lower the volume.
- Read the full Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 review
The big selling point of all three of these pairs of headphones is their noise cancellation. We can safely say they all perform exceptionally well, but let’s take a look at some of the specifics.
It’s too early for us to give a proper judgement on the noise cancellation provided by the Apple AirPods Max, but it certainly seems up to the high standard of the other two headphones in this guide after our short test.
Each AirPods Max ear cup features three outward-facing microphones – these detect environmental noise. Then there’s another microphone within the ear cup, this detects the sounds that reach your ear. The point of this is, according to Apple, so computational audio can be used to adapt their noise cancellation performance based on "the headphone fit and movement in real-time".
There’s also a handy Transparency mode, which allows environmental sound to pass through. This is useful if you need to have a quick chat with a colleague and it worked well during our testing.
The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 perform exceptionally well in terms of noise cancellation. There are 11 different noise cancellation settings and during our testing we found that using the highest setting all but completely drowned out the sounds of builders nearby drilling, talking loudly and playing music.
The excellent noise cancellation is, in part, thanks to an eight microphone system. Six of them enable traditional noise cancellation and two isolate your voice and reject environmental noise while you’re taking a phone call. It’s great to experience the same level of noise cancellation for your calls as well as music.
Like the AirPods Max, the Bose headphones have a transparent mode which turns off noise cancellation and allows sound to pass through the ear cups so you can have conversations without removing them.
One final thing to note about the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 when it comes to noise cancellation is the brand has put effort into avoiding the sensation of pressure some people tend to feel when using noise cancelling headphones. Some people might not even notice this, but for others it could be a huge deal-breaker.
Sony has improved its wireless noise-cancelling approach with the WH-1000XM4s. We found there’s a much greater sense of noise cancellation in the mid ranges compared to previous models and overall this is one of the best noise cancelling systems we’ve heard from a pair of wireless headphones.
Sony uses what’s called Dual Noise Sensor technology, which makes use of two microphones within each ear cup that analyzes sound with the QN1 noise cancelling processor. In a similar way to the AirPods Max, this means the headphones are constantly adjusting the noise cancellation response.
There are some smart noise cancelling features at play too. Grant the headphones permission and they use geo-location data to apply your preferred level of noise cancellation and ambient sound passthrough depending on where you are.
Noise cancellation might be a premium feature that’s in high demand right now, but such advanced audio tech can quickly eat up battery life.
According to Apple, the AirPods Max feature "up to 20 hours of high-fidelity audio, talk time, or movie playback". That’s a decent amount considering it’s with ANC enabled.
We’d imagine you can get a few more hours usage if you use the headphones for low-res audio without additional features enabled. But we’ll need more time with the AirPods Max to find out whether the stated battery life is accurate.
You might be able to conserve some battery in the AirPods Max Smart Case. This is a weird-looking case that comes with the headphones and puts them into what Apple calls an “ultralow power state”, which essentially means the battery is preserved when you’re not using them.
Similarly, the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 have a stated 20 hours of battery life, which we found to be accurate during testing. However, that does change a little depending on how high you turn up the volume – listen at high volumes and the battery drains quicker.
Judging on battery life alone, the Sony WH-1000XM4s are the clear winners offering a substantial 30 hours with noise cancelling turned on and around 38 hours with noise cancelling turned off.
These headphones can also be charged in a matter of minutes thanks to fast-charging. According to Sony, you can get about five hours of charge from 10 minutes of power and a full charge after about three hours.
All of the headphones have a few notable features worth mentioning.
The AirPods Max also have a useful Automatic Switching feature, which enables you to switch between connecting to your iPhone, iPad and Mac when you’re listening to music and taking calls. You can also share audio between AirPods from any Apple source device, including an Apple TV 4K, so you can listen to the same music at the same time.
As you might expect, the AirPods Max offer support for the Apple smart assistant Siri, which means you can use voice commands to play music, make calls, control the volume and more.
Similarly, the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 have Alexa built-in, but you can also access both Siri and Google Assistant by pressing a button on the right ear cup, which means you can also control these headphones with voice commands too.
The WH-1000XM4s have a few clever features, including a sensor in the ear cups that recognizes when you take the headphones off and pauses your music for you, resuming playback when you replace them – a feature shared by the AirPods Max and the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700. They also automatically switch off if they’re paused for a few minutes to conserve battery life.
There’s also a new feature called Speak-to-Chat, which means the microphone in the headphones will recognize when you’ve started talking, pause your music, and ramp up the ambient noise. So you don’t need to take the headphones off if you suddenly start chatting to a colleague or friend.
Noise cancellation aside, how do the headphones compare in terms of overall sound quality?
Well, it’s hard to properly judge the Apple AirPods Max until we’ve tried them for longer. During our hands-on session with the headphones we found the audio quality impressive. There’s a wide and well-balanced soundstage, rich bass and detailed trebles.
There are 40mm dynamic drivers within the headphones, which are powered by a dual neodymium ring magnet motor that Apple says allows the AirPods Max to "maintain total harmonic distortion of less than 1% across the entire audible range". They certainly sounded clear during our testing – even at higher volumes.
It’s also worth mentioning that, like both the AirPods and AirPods Pro, the AirPods Max have an Apple H1 chip within each ear cup. This has 10 audio cores, which allow for Adaptive EQ, active noise cancellation, Transparency mode, and Spatial Audio.
The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 sound truly fantastic. During our extensive testing we found they have a vibrant and lively character, as well as a well-balanced soundstage. They offer a great deal of detail and clarity. For example, when we listened to Falls Creek Boys Choir by James Blake and Bon Iver, we were blown away by textures and harmonies that we hadn’t noticed when we listened to the track in the past.
We found the soundstage to be pretty wide for a pair of noise cancelling headphones – these are notorious for a “closed-off” sound. Instead, these cans sound bold and assertive and are a delight to listen with. However, we rate the WH-1000XM4s a little better when it comes to audio performance.
Sony’s high-end headphones offer a warm and balanced sound that brings you a wide soundstage and detail that’s capable of piercing through a powerful bass performance.
Sony’s LDAC codec pushes lots of details through wirelessly. These headphones also introduce DSEE Extreme, which is an AI-driven process that restores detail from compressed formats, which essentially brings clarity to even lower quality audio files.
The WH-1000XM4s impress across the board when it comes to sound performance. We put the bass to the test during our review with Bjork’s Army of Me, and we could hear the masterful management of bass frequencies, with the arpeggiated bass line throughout the song as the machine-like snare snaps through.
But these headphones also deliver great warmth for softer tracks, with impeccable vocal clarity throughout, and can fire on all cylinders for powerful tracks, with expressive dynamics and clear and distinct separation between different instruments. We really felt that these Sony headphones bring out the best of each track.
These three pairs of wireless, noise-cancelling headphones all perform exceptionally well. That means the pair of headphones you choose will largely be down to which you prefer the look of – and your budget. However, each pair does have a slight edge over the other.
The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 look the most stylish and offer great noise cancellation whether you’re listening to music or making a call.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 Wireless Headphones are, in our opinion, the best all-rounders, with unrivaled sound performance and a fantastic battery life considering noise cancellation is so top notch. There’s no surprise these are our favorite headphones of 2020 and the ones we recommend most often.
It’s a little too early to tell what the Apple AirPods Max offer over the other two, but based on our early testing, they tick all the boxes for comfort, style, noise cancellation and audio performance making them a great pair of headphones in their own right.
However, the price point is bound to be prohibitive for some, which is why what truly stands out here is the integration into the Apple ecosystem, as well as the Apple-like design aesthetic. That means the Apple AirPods Max are bound to appeal to die-hard fans who don’t mind paying over the odds for their favorite luxury tech brand.