AirPods Max vs Sony XM5: Sony Wins by a Hair

by wanderingted

and The Greatest Song Team

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Summary and Rating: AirPods Max vs Sony XM5

AirPods Max

AirPods Max

AirPods Max – Our Rating

4.3 (out of five)

4.5 Sound

5.0 Noise-Cancelling

3.5 Build / Design

5.0 Comfort

4.0 Value

XM5 – Our Rating

4.5 (out of five)

4.3 Sound

5.0 Noise-Cancelling

4.5 Build / Design

4.5 Comfort

4.5 Value

Pros – AirPods Max

  • Good overall tuning for ANC cans, excellent bass articulation
  • Respond well to EQ adjustments
  • Great design of the headphones themselves
  • Very comfortable
  • Excellent connectivity and swapping for Apple devices

Pros – XM5

  • Good Sound for ANC cans
  • Best noise-canceling out there
  • Respond well to EQ adjustments
  • Very Comfortable
  • Intuitive pairing and hands-free controls
  • Good connectivity across all platforms

Cons – AirPods Max

  • Treble is a bit too zingy out of the box, need EQ adjustment
  • Pricey
  • Battery life of 20 hours is low compared to competitors
  • Design problems with the case and no power button

Cons – XM5

  • Bass is overhyped, bleeds into lower mids, veiled high mids, need EQ
Bottom Line

These popular ANC headphones are both likely to satisfy most. The Sony WH-1000XM5 are the better value choice for most listeners.

Introducing the AirPods Max and the Sony WH-1000XM5

The Apple AirPods Max and the Sony WH-1000XM5 (or just XM5 for brevity) are the two most popular over-ear noise canceling headphones on the market for a reason: they both offer quality sound and excellent noise cancellation.

If you’re wondering which of these headphones is the right choice for you, you’ve come to the right place. But also, are these the only quality over-ear ANC headphones on the market? How do these two popular cans size up to the competition?

For this review, we got our hands on the AirPods Max and the Sony XM5, tested and compared them side by side with the best options out there.

See here for reviews of ANC headphones or other audio gear reviews.

Who are the AirPods Max and the Sony XM5 for?

The AirPods Max and Sony WH-1000XM5 are for everyone in search of quality noise-canceling headphones with good sound.

Both headphones are built for the modern urban grind. Both headphones are packed with all the hardware and features that we have come to expect from this kind of headphone: ANC (active noise canceling), Bluetooth, the ability to adjust settings and features from your phone, ambient mode so you can hear your environment, and the ability to take phone calls on it with handsfree controls.

Shoppers can expect to pay in the $300-500 USD range, the AirPods Max being in the higher end of that range, the XM5 in the lower end.

If you’re budget is tighter, the Sennheiser Momentum 3 offer very good value in the current market.

Apple AirPods
The AirPods Max (in silver/white)

Who are the AirPods Max and the Sony XM5 NOT for?

Neither of these headphones is recommended for critical listening. They are tuned to appeal to the average consumer and have a very affected frequency response.

For audiophiles in search of quality ANC cans, we would recommend the Focal Bathys. (See here for our complete review of the Focal Bathys)

Alternatives to the AirPods Max and the Sony XM5

Focal Bathys

ANC headphones for audiophiles – dynamic punch, excellent resolution.

Focal Bathys Headphones

Sennheiser Momentum 4

Best value ANC headphones in our book. Very good sound, massive 60-hour battery life.

sennheiser momentum 4 headphones

Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700

Great Noise-cancelling, decent sound, competitive price.

bose noise cancelling headphones 700

Bowers & Wilkins PX8

Cans that are reportedly better sounding than most commercial headphones out there. (Haven’t reviewed yet) Built with luxurious materials. Pricey.

Bowers and Wilkins PX8 Headphones black

Sound

Winner: AirPods Max

First Impressions

Out of the box, listening to these two headphones, both sound very good for ANC cans. Detail resolution is better than expected and the faster transient response of the drivers is also surprising.

That said, on first listen it is apparent that both headphones have some issues with their frequency response. With a few EQ adjustments, I am pleased to say, that both cans responded very well.

Let’s dive into the details…

Frequency Response

AirPods Max vs Sony XM5 Frequency Response Diagram

Airpods Max vs Sony XM5 frequency response diagram
Measured on a MiniDSP EARS rig. Connected with Bluetooth, ANC on, average.

The target curve in this diagram is based on the Harman Over-ear 2018 Target Curve. Basically, it is the sound that most listeners prefer. It provides some clues as to why these headphones sound the way they do.

Bass

The Airpods Max have excellent bass and sub-bass articulation out of the box. As you can see in the frequency response chart, the sub-bass is hyped but it tapers off at 50 Hz which makes the bass nice and clean.

Sony WH-1000XM5 Noise Cancelling Headphones
The Sony WH-1000XM5 (in white)

The Sony XM5 get this area wrong. The sub-bass and bass are both bloated with no definition between them, resulting in a muddy experience at the bottom.

By dropping the sub-bass down with EQ on the Sony WH-1000XM5 about 5 dB and dropping the 100-200 Hz area even a bit more, I was able to get more separation and overall, a much more pleasant listen.

Midrange

The midrange of both headphones needs a little EQ tweaking.  

The AirPods Max on first listen sound okay here in the mids, but as I listen a bit more, I get a sense that the bass is still dominating the mids, making them feel further away and unnatural sounding.

With a 3-5 dB EQ boost from 2-6 kHz, the mids feel more balanced with the bass giving instruments and voices a more natural feel to them.

The midrange is the area where the Sony XM5 need the most help from EQ. There is a veil over the midrange which gives an old-radio effect to some instruments and voices.

With a 5 dB boost from 2-6 kHz, the old radio color on the XM5s disappears. And I was pleased that the headphones responded so well to this adjustment.

Highs

In the high frequencies, I prefer the natural taper of the Sony XM5 to the zing of the AirPods Max. The XM5 have ample air at the top without any harshness.

The AirPods Max are just a bit too sibilant at the top. S consonants are cutting through and cymbals are zinging hard. With an EQ adjustment dropping about 4 dB from 8-20 kHz, the AirPods Max lose that harshness in the treble.

Dynamics

Neither of these headphones offer exciting dynamic punch or microdynamics like audiophile headphones do, but I wouldn’t expect that from headphones that use active noise canceling.  

Of the two, the Sony WH-1000XM5 give a little more excitement and dynamic punch than the AirPods Max.  

If you’re in search of some ANC cans that perform well in terms of dynamic excitement, the Focal Bathys are the best I’ve heard.

Soundstage

The soundstage of the AirPods Max is more spacious than that of most closed-back headphones. The imaging is consistent and the instruments are nicely separated.  

The XM5 delivers what I would call a normal closed-back soundstage – just large enough to separate instruments and voices but no larger.

Conclusions about the Sound

For ANC headphones, the sound of both cans could be described as very good. There’s a lot to like about these headphones but neither performance could be described as audiophile-level sound.

The dynamic excitement, where you can actually feel the weight of the instruments and voices, is the main quality I miss in both of these headphones.

But which of the two has better sound?

After testing, we preferred the performance of the AirPods Max, though not by much. The overall tuning is slightly better and the bass articulation is great.

While the Sony XM5 have some muddiness in the bass, they offer a more balanced treble and a bit more exciting dynamics than the AirPods Max.

Overall, the AirPods Max are giving you a marginally better sound experience.

Noise Canceling

Winner: Draw

One thing is certain, these two headphones attenuate outside noise better than any cans on the market. (Even better than Bose ANC Headphones) But to say which of these two is better is difficult to say.

This is because they both excel in different ways.  

Like the AirPods Pro, the AirPods Max block out sound in the bass and lower-midrange (100 Hz – 1 kHz) very well. (even better than the XM5) The overall volume of conversations near me and consistent city hum in this range was almost entirely absent. And, they are better than the XM5 in this range. (See here for all questions about AirPods Noise Canceling)

In the high frequencies, from about 2 kHz up, the Sony WH-1000XM5 are the better performer. While the Apple Airpods Max do a commendable job in these higher frequencies, the XM5 are just that much better. Sounds like consonants and glasses clinking are more absent on the XM5.

All in all, neither of these headphones will disappoint you in terms of noise cancellation.

Build / Design

Winner: Sony WH-1000XM5

In the area of design, the AirPods Max absolutely win this match-up but they lose a star for oversight on the case and battery life. (More on that later…) 

With a single piece of anodized aluminum for each earcup and a stainless steel and cushy mesh headband, the AirPods Max have a unique, elegant design and feel like slippers on your head.

Weighing in at 384 grams, you barely notice the headphones on your head even after longer listens.  

The Apple Watch-inspired control dial on the right earcup is intuitive and satisfying to the touch. It feels like all headphones should control the volume with one of these.

The Sony WH-1000XM5 look like most ANC headphones on the market – a bit boring but functional in every way. Thinner than their predecessors (Sony XM3 and Sony XM4), the XM5s are light (250 grams), and comfortable. (See here for a direct comparison of the Sony XM4 and XM5)

Built with pleather and plastic, controls on the XM5 are managed through two buttons and a touch surface on the outside of the right earcup.

Accessories

In terms of design, we must consider necessary included accessories, namely the case and cables. In this area, the XM5 do a much better job.

The AirPods Max case is a bit of a joke. It looks like a bra and doesn’t really protect the headphones in any significant way. The delicate mesh headband is entirely exposed. Chuck these loosely into a bag at your own risk!

AirPods Max in Case
The AirPods Max Smart Case (aka, the Bra)

The Sony XM5 Case, on the other hand, covers and protects the cans as you would expect from a case. The headphones fold flat and sit with their mini-jack cable and charging cable inside the case.

Controls

Both the AirPods Max and the Sony WH-1000XM5 have quality, well-thought-out controls.

The intuitive control dial on the AirPods Max has multiple functions. The dial controls include: click to play/pause, turn for volume, double-click track forward, triple-click skip back, and hold down for Siri. (By default the AirPods Max always listen for the Hey Siri command)

There is also a single button on the AirPods Max for switching between ANC modes.

The XM5 have two buttons (power/pairing, and ANC modes) in addition to the touch surface on the right earcup. These controls include: swipe up, down, and tap functions for play/pause, volume up/down, track forward/back, access voice assistant, and instant ambient sound (so you can hear what someone is saying without taking off the cans).

Connectivity

Winner: Sony WH-1000XM5

In the area of connectivity, the XM5 are the better choice offering stable connectivity regardless of platform or device.

Tested using an iPhone both headphones connect easily and without any issues. Using Apple devices, Apple users will love the AirPods Max. The seamless switching from one device to another is fantastic. That said, there are reports of dropouts using AirPods Max with Android devices.

The AirPods Max use Bluetooth 5.0 and only offer a wired connection with a Lighting-to-minijack connector. They support SBC and AAC Bluetooth Codecs. They notably do not support higher-quality codecs like AptX.

The Sony XM5 are more versatile in their connectivity offering an analogue standard mini-jack connection. They use Bluetooth 5.2 and support SBC, AAC codecs as well as Sony’s own high-quality LDAC codec.

The XM5 can simultaneously connect to more than one device using Bluetooth. The AirPods Max can connect to more than one device signed into iCloud, but of course, this is limited to Apple devices. 

Software

Owners of Apple headphones (and some Beats models) can control EQ, spatial audio, and head tracking features from an iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, or Mac. But again, you have none of this if you use Android.

Sony’s Headphones App controls EQ, firmware updates, and ANC controls. It is functional but a bit bare-bones and unintuitive.

Battery Life

Winner: Sony WH-1000XM5

The Sony XM5 are definitely the winners of this match-up when it comes to battery life.

As you can see in the chart below, the AirPods Max perform near the bottom in terms of battery life when compared to the current competition.

Battery Life of ANC Headphones Compared

ANC Headphones Battery Life Comparison Chart
Battery life measured in hours with the headphones on constant play and ANC switched on.

The AirPods Max are limited to 20 hours of constant play with ANC turned on. But they also come with a design flaw – they have no power button. Instead, the AirPods Max enter low power mode only when placed in their Smart Case.

This means that unless you use the case religiously, battery depletion could become an issue.  

The AirPods Max take 2 hours to charge from empty to full.

The Sony WH-1000XM5, on the other hand, are about average in terms of battery life compared to the competition.  

If the battery dies on you, you can always use the analog cable to listen.  

The XM5 take 3 hours to charge from empty to full, and a quick 15-minute charge will give you around 3 hours of use. They are also USB-PD capable, giving you about an hour of listening time per second charged.

If battery life is a determining factor in your choice, consider the Sennheiser Momentum 4 (best value ANC cans in our book). They are the kings of of battery life with a whopping 60 hours from full to empty.

Calls

Winner: Draw

We tested both headphones on calls in normal and windy conditions.

Mic Test in Normal Conditions

Mic Test in Windy Conditions

After listening to these mic tests in windy conditions, you might be surprised to hear that these headphones were some of the best performers of the ANC headphones we tested.

None of the ANC headphones do calls well in windy conditions, but these are both sort of intelligible. I leave you to decide which is better.

Verdict: Which is better, the AirPods Max or the Sony Xm5?

Both of these headphones are likely to satisfy their owners. Both offer very good sound and excellent noise cancellation.

Users of Apple devices will love the ease of connectivity within the Apple ecosystem, and the design of the headphones is comfortable and elegant.

All things considered, we found the Sony WH-1000XM5 to be the winner of this match-up. They are priced $75 to $150 USD cheaper, depending on sale pricing, and they offer more in terms of battery life and universal connectivity.

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