There are a lot of excellent wireless noise-canceling headphones to choose from in 2022, but our favorites are Apple's AirPods Max ($549) and the Sony WH-1000XM5 ($399). We've reviewed both extensively and they are two of the best-sounding, best noise-canceling and most premium (read: expensive) options you can buy.
That said, they are also very different. Here's what you need to know about Apple and Sony's contenders for the best noise-canceling headphones on the market. So, which pair of headphones is right for you?
Apple AirPods Max
The AirPods Max are Apple's first and only pair of over-ear headphones — and they are also by far the most expensive noise-canceling headphones you can buy. Released in 2020, the AirPods Max work very similarly to Apple's AirPods Pro; they are integrated with the same H1 chip, which helps them quickly pair with an iPhone, and support for spatial audio and Dolby Atmos. They charge via Lightning port.
For a deeper look, check out our review of the AirPods Max.
The Sony WH-1000XM5 are the company's new flagship noise-canceling headphones and the direct successor of the company's WH-1000XM4. Released in mid-2022, the "M5s," as they're sometimes called, have a new lightweight design, superior noise-cancellation and double the mics for improved call clarity. Just like their predecessor, they are feature-packed — and, if you have an Android device that supports LDAC, they are one of the few headphones that can stream high-resolution audio files over Bluetooth. They charge via USB-C.
For a deeper look, check out our review of the Sony WH-1000XM5.
Test 1: Which headphones sound the best?
Deciding whether the AirPods Max or the Sony WH-1000XM5 sounds best is a little like a parent choosing a favorite child. They may love them both, but deep down they probably do actually have a favorite — and the AirPods Max just edges out the Sonys in this case.
We tested both headphones listening on an iPhone and streaming music from Spotify and, generally, the AirPods Max delivered audio with a wider soundstage and there was clearer separation between the mids, highs and bass — the music just sounds a little bigger and a little clearer. That said, it's not a night-and-day difference and, if bass is your thing, the Sony WH-1000XM5 definitely plays music with a little more bump.
Test 2: Which has better active noise-cancellation?
Honestly, it's a draw. The AirPods Max and the Sony WH-1000XM5 are extremely impressive when it comes to active noise-cancellation. I'm not doing a ton of traveling these days, so most of my testing took place while shopping for groceries and occasionally working from my local cafe, but both headphones did a superb job at canceling out noise.
If you were to twist my arm, I'd probably lean toward the Sony M5s because they cupped my ears a little tighter and were naturally battery at isolating sound. But with ANC turned on in both headphones — well, it's serenity now.
On the flip side, there's no debate when it comes to which of these headphones has the better transparency mode. The AirPods Max reign supreme in that regard. In fact, there's not wireless headphones that even come close. With transparency turned on, the AirPods Max sound as if you're not even wearing headphones. You can hear conversations and other sounds crystal clear. It's actually crazy.
Test 3: Which is more comfortable?
The clear winner here is the Sony WH-1000XM5. They're significantly lighter than the AirPods Max — which are pretty heavy headphones in general — and their weight is better balanced, too. The earcups and headband of the M5s are all relatively the same weight; when they are resting on your head, it feels almost like you're not actually wearing headphones. Yea, they are that comfortable.
The AirPods Max, on the other hand, have very large, very heavy ear cups and very lightweight headband — you really feel the weight of the earcups on your head. As great and unique as they are, the AirPods Max are not nearly comfortable for long listening sessions.
Test 4: Which is more user-friendly?
One of the big differences between the Sony WH-1000XM5 and the AirPods Max is how you interact with each. Sony's M5s are very future-facing in that they have capacitive ear cups that require you to use swipe and tap gestures for things like adjusting volume, skipping tracks and play/pause. It's very easy and intuitive, but in my opinion it's also more frustrating; every time you touch (and adjust) the headphones, there's a chance to do something unintentionally, like pausing your music abruptly or initiating your smartphone's voice assistant.
The AirPods Max are exactly the opposite. They do not have capacitive earcups; instead all the controls are all through physical buttons. Specifically, two: there's a rotating digital crown that controls volume and playback and there's a single button that controls noise-canceling and transparency modes. (Admittedly, I'm a bigger fan of physical buttons as they are just a little more reliable than swipe controls.
The best noise-canceling headphones: the SonyWH-1000XM5
The winner here isn't clear cut, because the Sony WH-1000XM5 and the AirPods Max are frankly both and also quite different. The AirPods Max are definitely the flashier and high-end option, but they are also so expensive and limited to iPhone users. Ultimately, Sony's M5s are still the easy recommendation because of how close they are to the AirPods Max in basically every aspect, yet they are also significantly cheaper and work well with both iPhones and Androids. Not to mention, the Sony WH-1000XM5 is easily one of the most comfortable noise-canceling headphones I've ever tested.