Sony, Bose and now…Apple? The Active Noise Cancelling Headphone race heats up
Editors Note: I have to say this was a tough one to call and not everyone in the team agrees with these results which and we had some fun debating it. Personally, this editor loves the Bose QC35ii still (and they’re don’t even on this list). That’s why it’s good to have other opinions on these things. For now – back to Catherine!
Headphones are getting better – and more expensive. Hence, you want to make sure that you choose the right one for yourself to get the most out of your hard-earned cash.
When searching for class-leading headphones, you will want an objective comparison between the Sony WH-1000XM4, the Apple AirPods Max, and the Bose NC 700.
Price, sound quality, build quality and battery life make the Sony WH-1000XM4 active-noise cancelling headphones my choice in this battle of the best ANC headphones from these epic brands. If Apple dropped the price it would be closer.
At one point, Bose was the gold standard for noise cancellation headphones. But Apple never remains silent for too long. And Sony rolls out amazing new models consistently. So it’s not a surprise then that both Apple and Sony are now solid contenders besides Bose and are keen to have the spotlight all for themselves.
Price makes these second place in my mind but they are still an impressive headphone. There isn’t a lot in it and while this is my personal pick, our Editor, Mark, would have put these first as he finds them lighter and more comfortable on long trips. Neither is a bad pick.
Before going any further, it is worth mentioning that Apple Airpods Max are the most expensive solid lineup, costing about $550. Bose 700 is about $400, while Sony carries the lowest price tag at around $350. Is Apple worth the premium that it always seems to charge? Or is Sony the best deal? Or should you take the middle path in pricing and go for Bose?
Noise Cancellation at Low Frequencies
ANC headphones are just what you need to cancel the low humming sound that feels just plain annoying. All ANC phones are designed to do this, but some are better than others.
AirPods Max is more effective for blocking loud rumbling sounds like those made by airplanes. And the AirPods aren’t just good at it. At times, they excel like no other. In certain cases, they can cancel the low-frequency din completely. That’s an awesome feat that you cannot expect even from the very best.
The AirPods perform at par or better than the Bose and the Sony to keep out low-frequency rumblings. Bear in mind that headphone placement also has a key role in this. You will need to position the phones just right to achieve maximum results.
Although all three are good, Apple AirPods are simply fantastic for dealing with low-frequency rumblings.
High Frequency and Midrange Sound Cancellation
For high pitch and midrange sounds, the results are close, but Sony has the edge. So in a noisy restaurant environment where you have plenty of noise, high pitch sounds, clattering dishes, chattering customers, and so on, Sony is on top, although others are not too far behind.
Although both Apple and Bose are good at toning down midrange noise, Sony feels a tad bit better.
However, at high frequencies, Bose has a small lead.
Apple AirPods do a good job at damping down midrange sounds, but when high frequencies are thrown in (as in a restaurant or coffee shop), there is less consistency than the Bose and the Sony. In a typical restaurant setting, the AirPods Max do well at cancelling out midrange and low frequencies, but high pitch noise does get through at times.
So for mid and high frequencies, Bose and Sony come out on top with a slim margin.
Adaptive Noise Cancellation
Adaptive noise cancellation is somewhat redundant because noise cancellation is, by its very nature, adaptive. That is, circuitry is designed to adapt to incoming noise to create an inverse signal that cancels it out. Since incoming noise can change, the circuit also needs to adapt to this.
In Sony and Apple headsets, the ANC adapts more pronounced in response to your surroundings. Sony is more consistent on this front since its app lets you activate certain features that work well for a better ANC experience.
The ANC in Apple AirPods is not as consistent. One reason for this is that you have less control over it. You could try tweaking the headset a bit and trying out slightly different positions to find the optimal physical setting. The AirPods do seem to have a perceptible but ever so slight change in performance when you fiddle with the headsets.
Bose changes less compared to the other two. But that does not mean it is any less effective. The truth is that Bose is pretty darn awesome at substantially cutting back on the background noise without requiring you to tinker with environmental control options.
Bose and Sony take the lead for predictable ANC that provides a more consistent experience.
Noise Cancellation Controls
Sony is best for noise cancellation settings that you can access and change via the app since it presents the most features and thus the highest flexibility to users. Thanks to human voice handling ability, ambient modes, and other useful features, you will have greater control over noise cancellation settings with Sony.
In the Bose app, noise cancellation controls are a bit more limited than Sony. You will find a slider in the app that helps max out ANC, combine it with the ambient mode, or even deactivate it. However, there is not much else to speak of besides. Although limited features are present in the app, it is worth mentioning that the noise cancellation function is remarkable in the Bose NC 700.
Apple does it differently, though. There are no options for you to mess around with. Apple takes care of all that for you automatically. You can switch the ANC on or off, though.
Sony shines thanks to its high flexibility and the high level of control provided to users via its app for noise cancellation.
Noise cancellation is a great feature to have if you desire peace in a noisy environment. However, it comes at the cost of higher ear pressure. And it varies from person to person. Some folks can feel more pressure while others feel less. The lucky few feel none at all. Since we are all different, reactions will likewise be different.
You might find in some reviews that the AirPods induce more ear pressure. But you must be careful because in your case it could be very different. So it’s not a surprise that some reviewers felt less pressure with the AirPods.
Since the ear pressure issue is so subjective and variable, there is no clear-cut winner here.
You will have to walk into a store where you can try out the phones and find the most comfortable one.
In almost all ANC headsets, you can follow the environment without having to take them off. If the transparent listening mode is not up to par, then the audio may feel rather weak.
There is another key issue to look into. At times, there is a perceptible time lag between sound and the action that produced the sound. The best way to check for this latency is to do type loudly. There is a problem if you notice a time lag between keystrokes and the resultant clicks. Your mind is quite good at noticing the time lag between actions and their sounds, so you should be able to detect even slight delays.
All three headphones score well on the transparency mode. However, there are variations in the level of control. With the Apple and the Sony, you can switch off both the ambient and ANC modes. This can help save battery power. However, you cant do that with the Bose. You can mix ambient mode with ANC and turn them on to full, but you cannot switch both of them off.
Apple’s transparency mode is particularly good. It does not feel like you are listening to the intercom. But Sony takes the lead here with its splendid ability to convey crisp and clear human voice in the ambient mode.
The Airpods Pro have impressive active-noise cancelling, it’s no surprise they’ve done a good job on the same features with the Max.
Though all three headphones deliver decent audio quality, they are not the very best if you have high-end audiophile tastes. You can find high-end headphones with better audio quality. The somewhat reduced sound quality is due to all that digital processing that takes place for noise cancellation and ambient/transparent modes.
This processing entails strong manipulation of the incoming sound signal. All these adjustments to the sound signal take their toll on sound quality. This is inherent to ANC headsets.
If you are looking for nothing short of the very best audio quality, you will have to check out wired headsets.
All three units have their own pros and cons as regards audio quality. Bass in Bose sounds well-defined and tighter. With Sony, it may be described as warmer. Sony is more Bass-heavy out of the three. However, there is also the EQ in the Sony app (which is not available in Bose and Apple) so that you can adjust the sound signature as per your personal preference.
Apple is a bit complicated. Although you won’t find EQ in the Apple app, the AirPods deliver the best-sounding music out of the box. The music sounds more authentic. The bass is rich and deep but not too heavy as the highs are detailed and crisp but not exaggerated. The Apple AirPods take care of everything and do it quite well.
But if you prefer more fine-tuned control over the audio signature, you will have to go along with Sony. Although the low-mids and lows are not as good as Apple, you can adjust them via the app so that they come up to par.
The spatial audio feature in the AirPods Max is a bit of a gimmick. You won’t hear true surround sound with this feature. But to your ears, it may sound like the real deal. The inexperienced, in particular, will find the spatial audio feature to be much like what they hear in theaters. However, the moment you shift your head a bit, you will feel as though the sound effect location has also changed. So although it is not true surround sound, something is better than nothing. The feature works for Dolby Atmos films, 7.1 and 5.1. Bose and Sony have no such feature.
You can disable the spatial audio feature if you prefer in the AirPods.
All three headphones are decent at blocking the background during calls so that your voice sounds clear and easily audible.
The Sony model has one issue. Although the signal has high clarity, there is more Bluetooth distortion compared to other models. Apple AirPods are better with its focused and clear signal. Although there is light Bluetooth distortion, it is not disruptive. And it is less than what you will find in Sony.
Bose headphones strike the right balance with their well-defined signals and exceptional clarity.
Sony WH-1000XM4 vs. Bose 700 vs. AirPods Max
All three headphones have their pros and cons. So deciding between them can be a tough choice. However, Apple AirPods have the heftiest price tag out of the three, which is a bit much. Although performance is top-notch, it is hard to justify the $200 extra cash you have to pay compared to Sony. There is no major advantage in Apple over Sony that justifies such a big price difference.
That being said, the Apple headset is best for dealing low frequency rumbling noises found in trains and airplanes. But Apple AirPods are slightly less adept at dealing with high pitch noises found in restaurants and coffee shops. So if you spend more time in coffee shops, restaurants, and other busy spots, then you may want to go along with Sony or Bose.
To its credit, Sony offers high versatility, solid ANC performance, and vibrant sound quality at a very competitive price tag. So if you are thinking about value for money and cost savings, you may want to opt for Sony.
Whether it is adaptive noise cancellation, ambient mode, or audio performance, Sony does well in all departments, and it ticks all the right boxes. All of these features and more can be found in a $350 model that is the cheapest of the lot.
So the winner is Sony! Feel differently? Drop it in the comments below.
A passion for writing and ongoing research projects gives Catherine an incredibly broad knowledge of all things. She has authored an incredible number of articles and can be found in the wilderness when not attached to technology or listening to podcasts.
This post was last updated on 2023-09-27 / Some images from Amazon Product API & some links may be affiliate links which may earn us a commission from purchases.