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Sony WH-1000XM5 vs. AirPods Max: Which headphones should you buy?

Sony WH-1000XM5 vs. AirPods Max
(Image credit: Future)

If you're in the market for new headphones, you might find yourself deciding between the Sony WH-1000XM5 vs. AirPods Max. Both are some of the best headphones you can buy, but each have unique advantages over the other.

The Sony WH-1000XM5 are newer than the AirPods Max, but Apple's most premium headphones remain ever popular. And while we found that the previous-gen Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones beat AirPods Max on delivering high performance at a better price, the newer WH-1000XM5 cost more than their predecessor, narrowing the gap.

So, which should you buy? This Sony WH-1000XM5 vs. AirPods Max face-off goes over the biggest differences in price, design, performance and battery life. Here's how the headphones stack up.

Sony WH-1000XM5 vs. AirPods Max specs compared

Sony WH-1000XM5 vs. AirPods Max
Sony WH-1000XM5AirPods Max
Price$399$549
Release dateMay 2022December 2020
ColorsBlack, SilverSilver, Space Grey, Red, Blue, Green
Weight 8.8 ounces13.6 ounces
Battery life (rated with ANC)30 hours20 hours
ChargingUSB-CLightning
3.5mm headphone jack?YesNo
Special featuresANC, Sony 360 Reality Audio, Speak to Cha, Amazon Alexa, Google AssistantANC, spatial audio, audio sharing, Siri

Sony WH-1000XM5 vs. AirPods Max: Price

Sony WH-1000XM5 vs. AirPods Max

(Image credit: Future)

One of the biggest differences between the Sony WH-1000XM5 vs. AirPods Max is price. The WH-1000XM5 cost $399, which is $50 more than the Sony WH-1000XM4, which will remain available to purchase for $349.

The AirPods Max cost $549 at full price, which at the time of their launch seemed much steeper than all of the best noise-cancelling headphones. It even sent people searching for the best AirPods Max alternatives.

But as we've seen discounts come to the AirPods Max, they've become a more reasonable recommendation. We expect to see WH-1000XM5 discounts drop the price in time, too.

Sony WH-1000XM5 vs. AirPods Max: Design

There's no mistaking the distinct appearances of the Sony WH-1000XM5 vs. AirPods Max. The Sony WH-1000XM5 vs. Sony WH-1000XM4 design has changed significantly, with Sony opting for a slimmed-down chassis, narrow synthetic leather headband and simpler earcups. The WH-1000XM5 definitely still look like a Sony product, though, and even borrow two previously used colors: Black and Silver.

Black and ecru (off-white) color versions against a office window

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The AirPods Max make a stronger fashion statement with a selection of colors, shiny aluminum earcups and a broad mesh headband. They don't look anything like Apple AirPods Pro, Apple AirPods 3 or any other of Apple's headphones. In fact, they look quite retro.

AirPods Max review

(Image credit: Future)

Pure looks aside, there's a pretty significant difference in weight. The Sony WH-1000XM5 are several ounces lighter than the AirPods Max thanks to the use of carbon fiber material. We've found the WH-1000XM5 are more comfortable to wear for long periods of time than the AirPods Max as a result, but we appreciate the cushy earcups on both headphones.

Sony WH-1000XM5 vs. AirPods Max: Performance

Both the Sony WH-1000XM5 and AirPods Max are excellent headphones when it comes to audio performance. No matter what you're listening to, you won't be disappointed by the sound quality, as the headphones create masterful listening experiences across all genres.

Though that's not to say each doesn't have stronger traits. Listening to Kendrick Lamar's "The Heart Part 5," the Sony WH-1000XM5's layering gave the bass extra punch while keeping the additional instruments distinct. Meanwhile the AirPods Max seemed to provide slightly richer vocals, even as the rapper manipulated the emotion in his tone throughout the song.

Sony WH-1000XM5 vs. AirPods Max

(Image credit: Future)

The Sony WH-1000XM5 give you the option to manually adjust the equalizer in the companion app, though the AirPods Max do not. They do, however, have an Adaptive EQ feature that can analyze the fit and seal of the earcups, and optimize sound accordingly.

Spatial Audio is a major perk of AirPods Max, establishing immersive, 3D listening for both music and video streaming. The Sony WH-1000XM5 do have a feature called 360 Reality Audio, but it only works with select streaming services.

Sony WH-1000XM5 vs. AirPods Max: Features

The Sony WH-1000XM5 and AirPods Max each have special features that might address what you're looking for out of headphones. For one, the AirPods Max have Apple's H1 chip, so they fast-pair to iOS devices and are part of the Find My system. Pairing the Sony WH-1000XM5 to both Android and iOS devices is also quite easy, but it could be more difficult to track them down if they're lost.

As for voice controls, the Sony WH-1000XM5 are compatible with Alexa and Google Assistant, while the AirPods Max have Siri built-in. All assistants are capable at fielding queries, whether it's for communications, general curiosities or controlling smart home devices.

Sony WH-1000XM5 vs. AirPods Max

(Image credit: Future)

Controlling the WH-1000XM5 is maybe a bit more intuitive than the AirPods Max thanks to touch controls on the earcup, compared to a digital crown on the AirPods Max. Both pause and play automatically when you take them off your head, but one thing we really like about the WH-1000XM5 is a new Speak to Chat feature that pauses music when it sounds like you're trying to have a conversation with someone IRL. 

And, of course, we must mention active noise cancellation features. While we still think the Bose 700 are the best headphones for sleeping or finding silence, the Sony WH-1000XM5 and AirPods Max are each capable noise-cancelling cans. The WH-1000XM5 have a feature that lets them adjust ANC frequencies based on ambient frequencies automatically, which AirPods Max do not. Both have a transparency mode, though.

Sony WH-1000XM5 vs. AirPods Max: Battery life

Sony WH-1000XM5 vs. AirPods Max

(Image credit: Future)

No competition here — the Sony WH-1000XM5 can last up to 30 hours with ANC activated, while AirPods Max are rated for just 20 hours of playback. Without ANC, the Sony WH-1000XM5 can last up to 40 hours.

Sony’s headphones recharge faster too. Just three minutes of charging an empty pair will grant three hours of listening time. The AirPods Max, meanwhile, get 1.5 hours of playback from a 5-minute charge. Might this have something to do with the Sony's charging via USB-C and the AirPods Max charging via Lightning? 

Also, oddly, the AirPods Max don't have a power button. Instead, magnets in the included Smart Case initiate a low-power mode than effectively preserves battery when the headset isn't in use. Most of the best AirPods Max cases include these magnets as well.

Sony WH-1000XM5 vs. AirPods Max: Verdict

Though the AirPods Max score high marks on design and sound performance (not to mention, the benefits of spatial audio,) the Sony WH-1000XM5 are a more compelling set of cans overall. For a lower price, broader smart features/controls and longer battery life, they have a lot to offer. We also appreciate the how the WH-1000XM5 are lighter, making them easier to wear for long periods of time and carry around.

That said, the AirPods Max remain a popular choice among iOS users. As Apple's first pair of over-ear AirPods, they round out the AirPods lineup very well. And we can't downplay the benefits of the H1 connectivity chip.

If you're interested in finding new headphones at a lower price, check out our guide to the best cheap headphones. We also have an extensive list of the best wireless earbuds, if you're thinking a different style of headphones would be better for you.

Kate Kozuch is a senior writer at Tom’s Guide covering wearables, TVs and everything smart-home related. When she’s not in cyborg mode, you can find her on an exercise bike or channeling her inner celebrity chef. She and her robot army will rule the world one day, but until then, reach her at kate.kozuch@futurenet.com.