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Noise-Canceling Headphones: Apple Airpod Max vs Sony WH-1000XM4

Apple Airpod Max, Space Gray

I’ve used the Sony WH-1000XM4 noise canceling headphones and predecessors for nearly five years now. Outstanding performance, value, reliability, battery life. See Brain-Saver: Sony WH-1000XM4 Noise-Canceling Headphones.

I’ve had the chance to try the Apple Airpod Max noise canceling headphones directly against the Sony WH-1000XM4 for about a week now.

Build quality, form factor

Airpod Max build quality is very solid. Sometimes that is a bug; I can attest that a good bump from the aluminum shell of these things hurts. The extra weight and bulk makes them feel very solid, but also poorly stowable vs the compact Sony’s which can even fold in the earcups.

The wrap-over case feels like crappy plastic packaging that should be thrown away, but Apple actually thinks it is to be used. I would never carry the thing. I guess I’d shove them in a cloth bag or some such kludge or just let them get dirty. The bulk and mass of the Airpod Max make them less attractive for carry; it's easy to stow the Sony’s into the outer mesh pocket of my daypack (done so many times)... Airpod Max works but takes more space than I’d like. Which lowers the value proposition (less usage).

Airpod Max has a Lightning cable for charging. Seriously? That gets old—gimme USB-C. The Sony’s use USB-C, as all such devices ought to.

Airpods Max have no on/off switch, supposed to turn off automatically when removed from head ditto for the Sony’s. But I like things that I can turn off for sure, so I don’t end up with a drained battery, and the Sony’s do have that switch.

Haptics/fit

Volume control knob on the Airpod Max is much better than digging out my phone; the Sony’s have no volume control knob.

The extra mass of the Airpod max means any sudden turn of the head I notice them. Not so with

Sony WH-1000XM4
Wireless Noise-Canceling Over-Ear Headphones

the Sony’s. The Sony’s are nearly seamless; the Airpod Max are not simply because of mass.

At times the earcups of the Airpod max press noticeably more against my head if the adjustment of the headband is not just-so. The extra mass is always there as a low-level sensation. It’s a 'fail' to me—the Sony’s never make me conscious of that.

Worse, with the Airpod Max, wearing my closeup glasses for computer work is difficult, as the earcups press too hard on the bows of the glasses—quite annoying—the Sony’s do not cause this issue. That’s a big deal, since computer work with headphones is a key use case.

I have little hair, and that may matter on this next point—I find the Airpods Max less comfortable to wear and I am more conscious of them with movement that causes up/down inertial forces (eg walking), particulary on rough ground eg while lawn mowing.

The top band that goes over the head can be annoying on my thin hair if not forced down (feels like something crawling).

What happens to those aluminum headphone cups in the hot sun when I am mowing the lawn? No Bueno.

Cleanliness

If I mow the lawn with the Airpod Max, particularly in early summer where it’s dead grass and a lot of dust from the grass and soil arises (I wear an N100 mask for it!), what happens to all that fine mesh on the headband and earcups? It’s going to fill with dust and crude, and sweat is going to soak in too. The Sony’s have a solid surface so no such ingress and can simply be wiped off.

Sunlight

What happens to the Airpod Max dark aluminum shells in an hour of sunlight. A 10 minute test in March sun suggests they might get hotter than one would like.

Sound quality

Airpod Max sound quality seems superior. The soundstage seems better defined, with a crisper feel to medium and high frequencies. But swapping between the two the difference rapidly fades from awareness. I’m no audiophile but I have owned Wilson Watt Puppies and I know what a good crisp clear soundstage can be. Plus my hearing is full range up to very high frequencies—no damage as with many people. I would say that the Sony’s seem somewhat 'restrained' compared to Airpod Max, a little less 'crisp'. There is more 'punch' to the Airpod Max sound quality, more lively.

Noise cancellation

The Airpods Max have better noise cancellation for certain lower frequencies. For example my 20-year old IQAir air purifier has a particularly annoying resonant droning sound. The drone is almost gone on the Airpod Max, but is slightly noticeable on the Sony’s.

On my lawn mower, the Sony’s seemed slightly better. Results might come down to specific sounds, but on the whole the Airpod Max seems slightly better overall.

Altitude? The Sony’s have an optimize function for air pressure. I often drive in the 6K to 10K elevation range and as high as 12K feet so that might be significant. But maybe the Airpod Max can just figure it out automatically? Or maybe not.

Value

On a value basis (price vs function), the $248 Sony’s are awesome vs $449 to $489 for Airpod Max (both prices were discounted as I write this). No contest on price.

Bottom line for me: I did not feel moved to buy the Airpod Max. And perhaps most compelling: which one I would pick up to use would depend entirely on activity (music listening, noise cancellation and type of noise, lawn mowing, hours of driving).

Finally, in this day and age where under $990 thefts are not even prosecuted here in the socialist paradise (aka shithole) of California, the Airpod Max look expensive... does that make you a target? It’s a serious question.

Apple Airpod Max @AMAZON
Sony WH-1000XM4 @AMAZON

Other opinions

My wife and my college-age daughter try both the Airpod Max and the Sony’s. My wife has used the Sony WH-1000XM3 for over a year. The MX4 model could be a nick better than MX3.

Daughter: cons: tend to fall forward on head, somewhat clunky and big compared to other models, expensive, annoying to adjust length. Pros : sleek look, nice sound, easy to use volume button control, seem to have good battery life. Asked whether if the price were the same whether she would choose the Airpod Max, she was on the fence.

Wife: They sound “sharper, clearer”, would choose Airpod Max if offered either.

John L writes:

Not an impulse purchase for me (too costly for that!).  I got both (yes, it was the XM4), and listened for a few days, testing the noise cancellation particularly — wanted to go with the Sonys (price); never spent near this amount on a pair of headphones before.

(I’m mid-50s. Can still hear ‘subsonics’ — 20Hz — not sure if that’s the technical term — but have typical hearing loss at higher frequencies, ie 16kHz.)

AirPods Max are heavier, but comfortable for me — for hours of wearing. (Earpads more comfy than Sony’s.) YMMV of course.

My study is by a busy road — cut traffic noise superbly. Not my initial plan to wear them for desk work, but now I tend to, for hours —  have been enjoying the quiet.  Have worn them outside gardening; I’d offer to give the lawn a mow with a flymo (uk), but it’s not the season. I could try a power drill if you’d like. (Like the Sonys, they pass the running tap test with flying colours.) I take them off when it starts raining; I doubt they’re very water resistant. (They are at no risk of falling off when pruning, working on a ladder etc.)  Worn around others watching tv etc; very easy to switch in and out of conversations by switching in and out of transparency. 

So a real world ‘household’ and ‘general life’ test. Might be different wearing in a plane, etc. 

Sony’s seemed to me very good at sound cancellation; but Apple somewhat better. (That’s what I meant by a ‘margin’; ie not by a large margin, but noticeable.) Wearing the AirPods just seemed that bit quieter.  That difference might not have decided me; but add to that how much better transparency worked than the Sony's, and how effective that was for Zoom etc (I’ve been doing quite a lot of online stuff for work) or chatting for a moment in the kitchen and I was sold. 

Plus — not mentioned before; volume wheel and physical button much preferable for me.  And, if you’ve an iPhone and iPad — the switching between the different sound sources near seamless. Also a later discovery — really nicely tuned for a general audience listening, I think.

Reasons I can think of to prefer the Sonys: lighter, so may be more comfortable for some; may be more hard-wearing (show wear less?) by nature of the plastic (also catching things on the cans won’t be so disturbing, ie won’t generate so much noise); better to travel with (fold up smaller); they claim to run longer (though I’ve also heard that claim of 30 hours to be hopeful) — the AirPods seem to be giving something like 20 hours, though I’ve yet to run out as they charge quick; Sonys probably play better with bluetooth in general (just a guess).

No regrets to going with the AirPods; and I’m pretty cautious when it comes buying such (still using mid-2010 Mac Pro, now on High Sierra with CS6). I also do long distance riding; TCR, NC4000, PBP and stuff like that — so (?) I appreciate kit that works well.

I’d recommend you give the AirPods a go if you can get a loaner; their simple usability surprised me. Good Apple, not rotten Apple.

(Like you I can’t get on with in-ear AirPods — uncomfortable and impractical in my experience.)

DIGLLOYD: I’ve asked B&H if I can get the Apple Airpod Max for a loaner to try out an see.

David C writes:

Noise does more than screw up your cognitive abilities at the time, you get cumulative hearing damage that eventually shows itself when, like me, you discover you are reading lips to hear people talking. I don’t know if the damage is latent or if you just don’t notice as your hearing goes away, drip, drip, drip, but I have read that a single exposure to really loud noise may cause permanent damage. I worked in an underground gold mine for five years, so I got plenty; for instance a jackhammer is estimated to be around 130dBA, but that’s on the street, think of the same noise in a small room with stone walls (tunnel face) with a pneumatic rock drill that is a lot bigger than a typical street jackhammer. I wore foam plugs part of the time, but sometimes didn’t have time or inclination (yes stupid, youthful invincibility). all the “old” guys (40+!) at the mine were deaf.

One thing I find odd is most sources list a chainsaw at around 130dBA, but I don’t find them to be very loud. maybe it’s because my high frequency hearing ability is gone (spectrum matters).

An interesting bit of trivia, apparently a lot of older people in the US have become deaf in the left ear because, before AC, they rolled down the car window while driving.

I don’t wear hearing aids yet, mainly because the markup on them amounts to highway robbery (a device bought by millions of people that is mostly electronic shouldn’t cost $thousands). yeah, I know, this isn’t rational; maybe it’s due to hearing damage ;). I *do* wear plugs or headphones running the tractor, lawnmower, grinder, etc now, but too late.

“protect your ears!” is one bit of advice I’d give to all young people if I could; of course they wouldn’t listen.

If you can tolerate them give foam plugs a shot. they are useful sometimes because they are easy to carry, don’t interfere with your head movement and don’t lose their seal as easily by being bumped (e.g. when your head is in the bushes trimming a tree). plugs aren’t sensitive to your head shape, but the size of your ear canals may dictate which plugs will work.

DIGLLOYD: loud noise is bad news indeed. When I mow the lawn, I use earplugs plugs the Sony noise canceling headphones. Foam earplugs can be risky—I've had way too many that don’t quite fully seat. I prefer the soft rubery ones, having ordered a number of different ones to find some that insert reliably and stay in.

Jeffrey J writes:

I purchased the latest version of the Sony in ear noise canceling earbuds. WF-1000MX3. I had a difficult time getting a proper seal even after trying several sizes of the ear buds.

They would seal for a bit then if I moved the seal would be lost.

Even when sealed the noise canceling was not as good as the over the ear WM-1000MX3’s. I ended up returning them. They must work for some because reviews are generally good. Just didn’t work for me.

DIGLLOYD: I also have hard-to-fit ear canals. I find that even earplugs cause me discomfort within an hour or so too, Apple earbuds are awful for me, etc.


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