AirPods Max vs. Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones: Which noise canceling headphones win?

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones with AirPods Max side-by-side
(Image credit: Future)

If you're looking to make a buying decision on the best noise-canceling headphones money can buy, this AirPods Max vs. Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones face-off compares two premium over-ear designs to find out which are the better headphones overall. 

As flagship models, neither design comes cheap, but each showcases leading spatial audio and noise canceling tech from two of the world's biggest audio brands. 

The Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones launched in October 2023, and make the AirPods Max look like an old timer given that they launched in December 2020. Although rumors abound about the so-called AirPods Max 2 arriving in 2024, the AirPods Max remain popular thanks to their strong performance, style (that comes in multiple color options) and flawless integration with Apple devices.

Meanwhile, the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones replace the Bose 700 flagship — see our Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones vs. Bose 700 face-off to discover the differences. Like the AirPods Max, they're masterfully engineered, and boast plenty of upgrades in a new sleek design with intuitive touch controls. They're the closest rival to the AirPods Max in terms of performance and price, so how do they compare? 

Read on to see the pros and cons of two of the best wireless headphones I've tested, and discover which are best suited to your needs.

AirPods Max vs. Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones: Specs compared

Bose QC Ultra and AirPods Max side-by-side with packaging

(Image credit: Future)
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Header Cell - Column 0 Apple AirPods MaxBose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones
Price$549 / £499 / AU$899$429 / £449 / AU$649
Size7.37 x 3.28 x 6.64 inches7.7 x 2.0 x 5.5 inches
Weight13.6 ounces8.9 ounces
Battery life (rated)20 hours24 hours (18 hours w/ Immersive Audio)
ConnectivityBluetooth 5.0 with SBC and AAC Bluetooth 5.3 with SBC, AAC, LE, and aptX Adaptive support
Special featuresANC, spatial audio, audio sharing, SiriAdaptive ANC, ambient listening mode, Bluetooth multipoint, Immersive Audio with headtracking, SimpleSync, touch volume controls, Alexa and Google Assistant support

AirPods Max vs. Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones: Price and availability

AirPods Max vs. Bose QuietComfort Ultra headphones held together in reviewer's hand

(Image credit: Future)

At their full price, the AirPods Max retail at $549 / £499 / AU$899. That's still considerably higher than many of the best headphones, but I have seen them discounted to $449 in recent sales. They're available in five color choices, including space gray, sky blue, green, pink and silver. All options are currently on sale for $479 at Best Buy.

Also, beware that you get a smart carry pouch rather than a full protective case, and there’s no 3.5mm jack on the AirPods Max. This means that you may wish to add one of our best AirPods Max cases, bumping up the cost. Plus, if you want to switch to a wired connection from a playback device other than an iPhone 14 or older, you’ll need to drop another $35 on Apple’s Lightning-to-3.5mm cable, raising the price even further still.

The Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones launched at $429 in October 2023, but are currently being discounted to $379 at the Bose store as well as online retailers including AmazonBest Buy, and Walmart. At the full price, the QC Ultra Headphones are $50 more costly than the previous flagship: the Bose 700. They're available in black and white smoke color options, and come supplied with a protective carry case and wired connectivity.

Winner: Bose QuietComfort Ultra 

AirPods Max vs. Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones: Design

AirPods Max in silver

(Image credit: Future)

Both headphones stand out for their luxe styling, but the older AirPods Max will get more attention thanks to their larger earpads and funky color options. Despite their agreeably luxurious aluminum and mesh fabric build with memory foam earcup padding, to my mind the styling with the rectangular and chunky earcups is at odds with the softer, easy-on-the-eye rounded earcup designs sported by the Bose. 

The wide, netted frame of the headband is also a design stumble. This all adds up to the AirPods Max looking a bit cheap, despite being anything but. They're also heavy and weigh in at 13.6 ounces compared to 8.9 ounces for the Bose. Interestingly, you don't notice the weight on the head when wearing them, but their size makes them a bit more awkward to transport than the foldable Bose.   

Bose QC Ultra and AirPods Max side-by-side

(Image credit: Future)

On the other hand, the Bose Ultra Headphones appear to take design cues from rival models to create a chic and well-crafted headphone. Their craftsmanship blends the 700’s sharp-looking aesthetics with the QC series’ pleasant wearable design, and adds twistable and foldable earcups. 

The headband is more substantial and has softer padding. The sturdy aluminum frame allows the earcups to slide out or retract to get the right fit, while the premium leather wraps around the headband and earcups provide impressive long-term comfort. Even the bundled carrying case has gotten a facelift, featuring cutouts to collapse and stow the Ultra Headphones securely when on the move.

Winner: Bose QuietComfort Ultra  

AirPods Max vs. Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones: Controls

Bose QC Ultra Headphones worn by reviewer Alex Bracetti

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Physical buttons and voice activation are part of both models, although the AirPods Max only support Siri. Tactility is responsive and solid, ensuring all intended commands are properly executed. Advanced mic arrays give both models excellent speech recognition and vocal capture when using the digital assistant. Firing up voice assistants with their wake-word phrase was instantaneous, and voice commands were addressed as quickly as they were received.

Recycling the digital crown from the Apple Watch was a clever move, granting a tactile and nicely granular volume control than touch controls or small, flat buttons might. The other button on the right earcup is a switch for noise cancelation and transparency mode. As we've mentioned before, there's no power button on the AirPods Max, which is odd no matter how you frame it. But they do kick into low-power mode when they’re stationary for several minutes or in the magnetic smart case.

Winner: Tie

AirPods Max vs. Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones: Sound quality

Apple AirPods Max worn by reviewer in garden

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Yes, they cost a lot, but the AirPods Max really do sound rich, deep and detailed, especially if you enable spatial audio. While I enjoyed the balanced sound, the AirPods Max also deliver a mind-blowingly immersive effect with some spatial audio content, but not everything works as well as it might. 

There are certain recordings where spatial audio makes the mix of a track sound more punchy, layered, and detailed, to the point where you can more easily follow individual strands of the mix and instruments within a recording. And then there are some tracks where the spatial audio version sounds almost unfamiliar, and like an entirely different version of the tune altogether, losing some of its original character along the way to getting the spatial audio treatment.

Whether a spatial audio version of a track works as well as the version you already know and love though, isn't down to the AirPods Max. It's down to the way spatial audio content is put together, and the AirPods Max make a compelling tool at highlighting the transitions.

With the Still setting on the Bose QuietComfort Ultra, I felt like I was listening to live music.

Immersive Audio is the headline feature of the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones. The universal spatialized audio is made possible by proprietary digital signal processing software, so whatever music source or streaming platform you use, you'll benefit from immersive listening on Bose's newest flagship.

Immersive Audio gave a phenomenal first impression. With the "Still" setting, I felt like I was listening to live music. Sounds appeared to have more space around them and felt like they wrapped around my head. I wouldn't say that it always felt entirely natural, and some elements of music that I know well were less prominent with Immersive Audio enabled. But it gave an impressive sense of spaciousness that stays anchored to a fixed point no matter where I moved my head. 

The "Motion" setting delivers the same dynamic listening experience while on the go but keeps the immersive sound experience equally balanced to the same level in each earcup. 

Bass levels appear to be slightly stronger when either of the Immersive Audio modes are selected. This may be intentional as it helps to draw you in to using the mode, but the Off setting feels far more natural in terms of stereo soundstage even if the bass sounds leaner. The Immersive Audio settings are fun and the sonic presentations are livelier than what I got via the AirPods Max using spatial audio. Not to mention the QC Ultra’s headtracking is just as strong as the AirPods Max.

While Bose's signature sound balance has a richness and warmth that's very pleasant, I found I needed to adjust the EQ for a better balance on the QC Ultra Headphones. Listening to orchestral and acoustic tracks I know well, I found that certain mid frequencies were less prominent than I'm used to hearing via the AirPods Max.

Winner: Tie

AirPods Max vs. Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones: Active Noise Canceling

Bose QC Headphones worn by reviewer

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

As I mentioned in my Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones vs. Sony WH-1000XM5 face-off, there's no doubt about it — the Bose have the best noise-canceling performance I've encountered. Set to Max, I could barely hear anything of what was going on around me and I'd say that nearly 95% of unwanted sounds were silenced during my testing. They completely silenced the world around me to the point where I couldn't hear anyone in the office. My keyboard taps were non-existent, as was the sound of the kitchen faucet when I turned it on to top up a glass with cold water. Any blaring noises that caught my attention sounded like background effects on songs.

While the AirPods Max have strong noise canceling capabilities compared to many rivals, they lack the flexibility and sound silencing performance of the Bose. In our review, we found Apple's headphones were good at silencing lower-frequency ambient noise, but there's no adaptive mode or way to adjust the level of noise canceling.

It's a one horse race in terms of ANC, and Bose continues to lead the way with the most powerful noise neutralizing headphones you can buy. Rarely have I heard ANC so effective, allowing me to luxuriate in my favorite music without distraction.

Winner: Bose QuietComfort Ultra 

AirPods Max vs. Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones: Call quality

Bose QC Ultra Headphones testing call quality

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The Bose performed well with wireless video and voice calls, eliminating background noise, but some high-frequency sounds and wind did enter conversations.

The AirPods Max are the stronger performers in terms of call quality, and they do fine work in reducing the impact of ambient sound on the microphones. These ANC headphones also feel a lot lighter on the head than their weight might suggests, which is useful for longer listening sessions or meetings — or just if you have particularly talkative friends.

Winner: Apple AirPods Max

AirPods Max vs. Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones: Battery life

The AirPods Max are rated for 20 hours of playback, while the Bose QC Ultra Headphones give 24 hours. That’s not bad but nowhere near the longevity of more affordable rivals such as the Sony WH-1000XM5, which can go for 30 hours with noise cancelation enabled and up to 40 hours with it switched off.

Winner: Bose QuietComfort Ultra 

AirPods Max vs. Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones: Verdict

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Header Cell - Column 0 Apple AirPods MaxBose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones
Price and value (5)34
Design (15)1213
Controls (10)89
Sound quality (25)2323
Active noise cancelation (20)1520
Call quality (10)98
Connectivity (5)34
Battery life (10)78
Total Score (100)8089

The impressive redesign, outstanding noise canceling and Immersive Audio tech on the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones make these the better headphones overall. They have best-in-class noise cancelation and surpass the AirPods Max in a few other key areas, most notably battery life and price. Additionally, Bose's Immersive Audio is a fun element that many will enjoy.

For some, the AirPods Max will sound so good, and have sufficiently effective noise canceling that the higher price tag won't matter. They're increasingly lagging behind the times in terms of tech, though, and I wouldn't mind betting that we will see a replacement model in 2024. As an older model they're regularly popping up in online retail sales, making them better value. 

Speaking of which, it's worth bookmarking the best headphone deals to keep track of the biggest price drops for both models.     

Lee Dunkley
Audio Editor

As a former editor of the U.K.'s Hi-Fi Choice magazine, Lee is passionate about all kinds of audio tech and has been providing sound advice to enable consumers to make informed buying decisions since he joined Which? magazine as a product tester in the 1990s. Lee covers all things audio for Tom's Guide, including headphones, wireless speakers and soundbars and loves to connect and share the mindfulness benefits that listening to music in the very best quality can bring.