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AirPods Max vs Sony WH-1000XM3 (2021): Which Noise Canceling Headphones Should You Get?

Released in December 2020, the AirPods Max are Apple’s first entry into the world of over-ear wireless noise-canceling headphones usually dominated by brands like Sony and Bose. We compare Apple’s headphones to Sony’s older, but highly-rated WH-1000XM3s to help you decide whether the AirPods Max are worth it or you’re better off saving with the XM3s. Spoiler alert: the AirPods Max are better overall, but how much better? Read on to find out.

AirPods Max vs Sony WH-1000XM3 Comparison Chart

ModelAirPods MaxSony WH-1000XM3
 Amazon productAmazon product
PriceAmazon productAmazon product
Battery LifeUp to 20 hours with ANC onUp to 30 hours with ANC on
Quick Charging5 minutes for 1.5 hours of runtime10 minutes for 5 hours of runtime
Transparency ModeYesYes
Customizable EQNoYes
Auto PauseYesNo
Headphones Touch ControlsNoYes
Multi-Point PairingYesNo
ColorsSpace Gray, Silver, Black, Sky Blue, Green, PinkSilver, Black
Weight 386 g255.15 g
Ear Cushion MaterialMesh textileLeather
Detachable Ear CushionsYesNo

Design & Comfort

Both headphones are well-made, but the AirPods Max look and feel more premium

You can easily recognize the AirPods Max (left) through their aluminum ear cups

Similar to the older AirPods wireless earbuds, you can easily recognize when someone is wearing the AirPods Max. Their aluminum ear cups and knit canopy headband are nothing like the design of other popular headphones like the Sony WH-1000XM3 or the Bose NC 700.

The AirPods Max’s ear cups are also slimmer than the WH-1000XM3s and their mesh ear cushions with memory foam feel more plush and comfortable than Sony’s leather ear cushions. Where the WH-1000XM3s beat the AirPods Max is in their weight. It’s lighter than the Apple headphones by more than 100 grams, a noticeable difference, especially if you wear your headphones for extended periods.

Another unique feature of the AirPods Max is their magnetic detachable ear cushions. Should you need to replace the ear cushions due to wear and tear, or simply want a different colored one, you can purchase a separate one for your AirPods Max. The Sony WH-1000XM3s’ ear cushions are not as easily detachable and a replacement is not available on Sony.


The Sony WH-1000XM3s are the better option for those who travel with their headphones often

The AirPods Max’s Smart Case (left) and Sony’s protective case (right)

There’s no denying that the AirPods Max are well-built and feel more premium than the Sony WH-1000XM3s overall. However, they’re not the most practical option if you intend to take your noise-canceling headphones with you when traveling. The WH-1000XM3s are better in terms of portability as they can be folded flat and the ear cups swivel inward for easier storage. Their case also offers better protection than the AirPods Max’s Smart Case.

The Smart Case that comes with the AirPods Max makes it look like a handbag as the headband doubles as a handle when stored in the case. If you want to keep your AirPods Max in a bag, make sure there’s no sharp object inside that can damage the knit headband or scratch the aluminum earcups. Apple may offer replacement ear cushions, but if you damage the headband or ear cups, you can’t get a replacement part on Apple.

Noise Cancellation & Sound

The AirPods Max have better sound separation while the Sony WH-1000XM3s feature a customizable EQ

The AirPods Max (left) are equipped with nine microphones while the WH-1000XM3s only have four

As we have mentioned, the AirPods Max are a lot more expensive than the Sony WH-1000XM3s. Apart from their build, the Max also deliver where it matters: audio quality and noise cancellation. The AirPods Max have a wider soundstage and deliver clearer, more detailed audio. If you often use your headphones when watching movies on your iPad or iPhone, you’ll like the AirPods Max’s spatial audio. They are also equipped with 9 microphones, which make them better for audio calls or recording.

If you’re not an audiophile, however, you probably won’t notice that much of a difference between the audio quality of the AirPods Max and the WH-1000XM3s. The XM3s already deliver excellent sound and noise cancellation and if you’re an average user, they’re likely more than enough.

Both wireless noise cancelling headphones feature a transparency mode which lets you hear your surroundings. With the AirPods Max’s dual inward-facing microphones, you can hear yourself better when you’re on transparency mode so you’re not unnecessarily raising your voice when talking to someone on the phone.

Battery & Additional Features

The Sony WH-1000XM3s have longer battery life while the AirPods Max can be connected to multiple devices simultaneously

airpods max vs sony wh-1000xm3 featured
The AirPods Max in white and the Sony WH-1000XM3 in black

In terms of battery life, the Sony WH-1000XM3s edge out the AirPods Max. The XM3s have a battery life of up to 30 hours with ANC on. With a quick 10-minute charge, you’ll get an additional 5 hours of playtime. Meanwhile, the AirPods Max’s battery life is only up to 20 hours and charging them for 5 minutes offers an extra hour of playtime.

The AirPods Max don’t have an on and off switch and will only turn off automatically after being idle for two hours. To save on battery, you have to always remember to store them in their Smart Case. This makes the Sony WH-1000XM3s the more ideal choice for frequent travelers.

When it comes to playback controls, these noise-canceling headphones are also very different. The WH-1000XM3s’ ear cups are touch capacitive, so you can skip tracks or adjust the volume with a simple swipe on an earcup. Meanwhile, the AirPods Max headphones come with a Digital Crown which is sort of a bigger version of the Apple Watch’s Digital Crown.


The AirPods Max are overall better, but the WH-1000XM3s offer better bang for your buck

Amazon product

If the cost is no object and you don’t plan on taking your headphones with you on your travels, the AirPods Max are worth it. Apple’s latest headphones deliver clear audio, a wide soundstage, and an overall more premium feel than the Sony WH-1000XM3. However, the Apple Smart Case is another story. For their price, you’d expect a better case than the one that comes with the AirPods Max. Apple could have also improved the AirPods Max’s battery life and added an on and off switch instead of having to rely on the Smart Case to save on battery.

While the AirPods Max are overall better, those who are looking for more cost-effective wireless noise-canceling headphones won’t be disappointed with the Sony WH-1000XM3s. Before the newer WH-1000XM4s were released, the XM3s were among the most highly-rated headphones, and for good reasons. They deliver excellent audio and noise cancellation, long battery life, customizable EQ, and a lot more.


๐Ÿ“Œ Which is better, the Apple AirPods Max or the Sony WH-1000XM3?

The AirPods Max are overall better in terms of aesthetics and audio quality, but those who want an affordable alternative can’t go wrong with the Sony WH-1000XM3s.

๐Ÿ“Œ Is it worth buying the Sony WH-1000XM3?

Yes, the WH-1000XM3s won’t disappoint. They are among the most highly-rated noise canceling headphones before the XM4s were released.

๐Ÿ“Œ Do the AirPods Max have customizable EQ?

No, although they feature Adaptive EQ, which adjusts the audio according to your surroundings so you consistently get high-quality audio.

๐Ÿ“Œ Are the new AirPods in 2020 noise canceling?

Yes, Apple’s AirPods Max are wireless noise canceling headphones, and they do an excellent job of blocking out noise.

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Rhodaline Escala-Phelps

Former Managing Editor and Team Leader at Compare Before Buying. Writer and researcher passionate about food, people, product comparisons, culture, and current events.