I flew 3,440 miles on a plane with Apple AirPods Max and Sony XM5: Which has better noise cancellation?


Apple AirPods Max vs. Sony WH-1000XM5 split-image

It’s time for a Apple AirPods Max vs. Sony WH-1000XM5 face-off: airport edition. We’re testing these bad boys in the wild — at JFK and Heathrow, to be specific. They’re one of the best headphones on the market, boasting high-resolution sound quality, crisp transparency mode, and top-of-the-line active noise cancellation (ANC).

But the question is, which one is actually better?

Packed with important announcements over a PA system, the airport was the perfect place to test transparency mode, allowing me to temporarily disengage from music immersion to hear pertinent information. Sitting in a plane, however, you’re bound to deal with a wailing baby, prompting me to swiftly turn on ANC.

I flew 3,451 miles from New York to London with both the Apple AirPods Max and Sony XM5s – and I tested them on the iPhone 14 Plus. Allow me to break down which is best for noise cancellation (in addition to other in-depth insights, including comfort, sound quality, and transparency mode.)

Apple AirPods Max vs. Sony XM5: price and specs

Before we dive in, let’s take a look at the price tags of both the AirPods Max and Sony XM5s.

Apple AirPods Max

Apple AirPods Max
Credit: Mashable

The AirPods Max have an MSRP of $549 on Apple’s official website. (I purchased my headphones directly from Apple, but you can get a better deal from Amazon, which sells a pair for $449.99.)

The AirPods Max come with the following specs:

  • Apple H1 headphone chip

  • 9 microphones

  • Active noise cancellation support

  • Transparency mode support

  • Personalized spatial audio

  • Adaptive EQ

The WH-1000XM5 headphones (colloquially called the Sony XM5s because its official name is horrendous) have an MSRP of $399.99, but Sony is selling ’em for $349.99. If you snag ‘em from Amazon, you can get ’em for $314.

The Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones come with the following specs:

  • Sony QN1 and V1 dual-processor chips

  • 8 microphones

  • Active noise cancellation support

  • Transparency mode support (called “Ambient Mode”)

  • 360-degree spatial sound personalizer

  • Adaptive EQ

Of course, from the more affordable pricing, you’d likely gravitate towards the Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones, but this comparative analysis may make you change your mind.

Apple AirPods Max on a table

Credit: Mashable

Apple AirPods Max

at Amazon

Save $69.05

Sony WH-1000XM5 on a window sill

Credit: Kimberly Gedeon / Mashable

Apple AirPods Max vs. Sony XM5: design and comfort

The AirPods Max’s design triggers my anxiety. When I spotted the mesh headband, I fearfully thought, “What if I accidentally graze it against a sharp object and rip a hole through it?” You’ll also learn very quickly that the AirPods Max, no matter how many influencers you see sporting these headphones in their Instagram posts, are not ideal for working out.

Apple AirPods Max

Apple AirPods Max mesh headband
Credit: Mashable

The breathable knit-mesh ear cups have a tendency to collect sweat and grime, making it difficult to keep clean. I had makeup on while waiting for my flight at JFK airport, so after taking off the AirPods Max, it’d aggravate my OCD knowing that there’s Estée Lauder foundation all over the ear cups – and it won’t be easy to restore them back to a squeaky-clean state.

Apple AirPods Max

Apple AirPods Max ear cups
Credit: Mashable

The Sony XM5s, on the other hand, have synthetic leather. Compared to the AirPods Max’s ear cups, the Sony XM5s don’t absorb as much crud.

Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones

Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones
Credit: Mashable

I knew that I could unconcernedly wear makeup at JFK, and by the time I landed at Heathrow Airport, I could wipe down the Sony XM5s’ ear cups with a warm, wet towel – and they’ll be as good as new.

The Sony XM5s are more comfortable

I’d also argue that the Sony XM5s are far more comfortable.

Woman wearing Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones on a plane

Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones feel super lightweight.
Credit: Kimberly Gedeon / Mashable

They’re so lightweight, I could sleep peacefully with them on the British Airways plane.

  • Sony WH-1000XM5 – 0.56 pounds

  • Apple AirPods Max – 0.85 pounds

Weighing just 0.56 pounds, I began to forget the Sony headphones were on my head after just a few minutes of wearing them. The AirPods Max use more premium materials with its anodized aluminum ear cups and stainless-steel headband. While the AirPods Max look and feel more high-end, they come at the price of comfort.

I never felt quite comfortable wearing the AirPods Max on the plane.

Woman wearing Apple AirPods Max on a plane

Apple AirPods Max definitely felt less comfy compared to the Sony XM5s.
Credit: Kimberly Gedeon / Mashable

There’s some unsettling pressure between the ear cups – somewhere in the upper region – and my head, likely due to the metal headband. No, it’s not a dealbreaker, but it’s an important difference between the Sony XM5s and AirPods Max, making the former more comfortable.

AirPods Max are arguably more attractive

Fashionability is a deciding factor for me when it comes to headphones. In fact, the reason why my daily driver is the Sony WH-1000XM4, and not the current-generation XM5s, is because it looks sexier.

Apple AirPods Max on a table

Apple AirPods Max in green
Credit: Mashable

The Sony XM5s, on the other hand, are an eyesore. It’s the ear cups that make them hideous. They’re so bulky, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone mistook me as one of the air traffic controllers at JFK airport.

The AirPods Max, though heavier on the head, have sleeker ear cups, making them far more sophisticated and fashion-forward than the clunky Sony XM5s.

The AirPods Max come in five colorways: Space Gray, Pink, Green, Silver and Sky Blue. I opted for Space Gray. I have black hair – and I prefer headphones that don’t stick out like a sore thumb. I love how the AirPods Max blend in with my dark, curly tresses, camouflaging it with my locks.

Sony WH-1000XM5 in black

Sony WH-1000XM5 in black
Credit: Mashable

The Sony XM5s come in three colorways: Silver, Black, and Midnight Blue. I chose the latter because the navy-blue hue contrasted beautifully with the bold-and-gold “Sony” logo on the hinges.

Winner: Sony WH-1000XM5

Apple AirPods Max vs. Sony XM5: Noise cancellation and transparency mode

If you’re looking for the best noise cancellation, get the AirPods Max. I’ll tell you why. As luck would have it, a crying baby made its way onto my British Airways flight. Typically, I’d be fuming in annoyance at such a misfortune, but it’s the most ideal environment to compare the AirPods Max and Sony XM5s.

Woman wearing Apple AirPods Max on a plane

Credit: Kimberly Gedeon / Mashable

For what it’s worth, using my Apple Watch Series 9, the decibels on the London-bound plane climbed to nearly 80 before I tested both headphones.

Apple Watch Series 9

Noise detector on the Apple Watch Series 9
Credit: Mashable

I could still hear the wailing baby on both headphones with ANC on, however, the AirPods Max did a much better job at suppressing the noise than the Sony XM5s. Furthermore, when the baby stopped crying, the AirPods Max impressed me with how well they muffled the monotone drone of the humming plane engines.

Could you still hear them? Yes. But the constant hum sounded slightly louder on the Sony XM5s compared to the AirPods Max.

When I landed in London, I had my fiancé test the AirPods Max’s noise cancellation feature. He said he couldn’t hear a word I was saying – even though I was sitting right next to him on the couch. However, with the Sony XM5s, he could hear everything I was saying – a disappointment for him, I’m sure, since he loves to feign selective hearing with me.

Even Transparency Mode on the AirPods Max (called “Ambient Mode” on the Sony XM5s), which lets you hear more of the environment around you so that you’re not totally disconnected from your surroundings, is better on the Apple headphones.

Woman wearing Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones on a plane

Credit: Mashable

At one point, I listened to Sabrina Carpenter’s “Espresso” while keeping my ears pricked for announcements. I turned on Transparency Mode by either switching it on via the iOS Control Center (you can also activate it by pressing the button next to the digital crown). I could hear a woman speaking into the PA system about boarding calls, allowing me to turn down “Espresso” to determine whether my flight had begun to invite passengers onto the plane.

The Sony XM5s’ Ambient Mode allow surrounding sounds to seep into your headphones, too, but the outside world sounds more prominent on the Apple AirPods Max.

Winner: Apple AirPods Max

Apple AirPods Max vs. Sony XM5: touch controls and ports

I know I’m the minority here, but I’m actually not a big fan of touch controls on headphones.

Midnight Blue Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones in front of an LED lighting setup

Midnight Blue Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones
Credit: Mashable

As someone who frequently touches the ear cups to readjust my headphones, I often found myself accidentally activating an unwanted feature on the Sony XM5s, which supports the folllowing touch controls:

  • Double tap – Play/pause

  • Swipe forward – Skip to next track

  • Swipe backward – Revisit previous track

  • Swipe forward and hold – Fast-forward

  • Swipe backward and hold – Fast-reverse

  • Swipe up – Increase volume

  • Swipe down – Decrease volume

The AirPods Max lack touch controls, but surprisingly, I do not miss them. I don’t mind that I can use the digital crown to trigger a variety of features, from volume control and play/pause to invoking Siri and answering phone calls.

One thing that does bug me about the AirPods Max, however, is that it lacks a 3.5mm headphone jack. With the Sony XM5s, I can plug in the cable (which ships with the headphones) into the seat-back display port on the plane, allowing me to enjoy a variety of films and TV shows.

Apple AirPods Max ear cups

Apple AirPods Max ear cups
Credit: Mashable

The AirPods Max does not ship with a headphone cable, but you can purchase a Lightning-to-3.5mm audio cable from Apple (or Amazon). And don’t get me started on the Lightning port. The fact that I need to bring an extra cable to charge the AirPods Max during my travels makes me an unhappy camper.

However, it’s only a matter of time before Apple unleashes a USB-C variant of the AirPods Max. (After all, they have no choice because of the EU mandate.)

Winner: Sony WH-1000XM5

Apple AirPods Max vs. Sony XM5: call and voice quality

I enlisted the help of my fiancé for this one. While at the airport, I asked him which headphones sounded better – without telling him which one I’m using. (He’s an Apple stan – and I didn’t want his biases to influence the testing.)

Apple AirPods Max vs. Sony WH-1000XM5

Apple AirPods Max vs. Sony WH-1000XM5
Credit: Mashable

With “Headphones A,” I called my fiancé and he was disappointed. “It sounds like a white-noise machine is in the background while you speak,” he said. “It also sounds like you’re talking into a phone microphone on the other side of the room.”

He didn’t sound any better. His voice sounded thin and slightly tinny. He also sounded like he was speaking from the back of his throat, which was unusual. 

Next, I called my fiancé with “Headphones B.” He preferred this one. There was still some hissing, but he said there was “fuller definition” to my voice. Plus, I sounded clearer.  On my end, he sounded incredible. He sounded crisp, sharp, and robust – similar to how he sounds in real life.

Headphones A was the Sony XM5s and Headphones B was the Apple AirPods Max.

Winner: Apple AirPods Max

Apple AirPods Max vs. Sony XM5: music quality

I tested the Apple AirPods Max and Sony XM5’s sound based on their out-of-the-box acoustics – I didn’t turn on any spatial audio effects nor make any tuning adjustments.

I fired up Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” on the Apple Music app via iPhone 14. 

Let me preface this by saying the AirPods Max and the Sony XM5s are arguably the best on the market for sound quality. As such, both headphones will give you divine acoustics, according to my personal experience with them.

The AirPods Max provided a more balanced, natural sound, offering warmth to Lana Del Rey’s clear and emotive vocals, preserving the song’s cinematic, dramatic, and delicate quality. The Sony XM5’s may not have the same well-rounded warmth as the AirPods Max, but it delivers more prominent highs, making the heartfelt tune sound more powerful during climactic crescendos. 

I preferred the AirPods Max for this song, providing a more accurate and emotionally resonant listening experience. However, it’s worth noting that the Sony XM5s, thanks to the companion app, offers more customizable sound profiles.

Winner: Apple AirPods Max

Apple AirPods Max vs. Sony XM5: case

Unlike my Sony XM4s, its successor, the Sony XM5s, are not collapsible, which is disappointing. In other words, you cannot fold the Sony XM5s into a smaller form factor for the accompanying case. 

Sony WH-1000XM5 in its case next to a small plant

Sony WH-1000XM5 case
Credit: Kimberly Gedeon / Mashable

However, I’m grateful for the Sony XM5s’ full-coverage storage case. The AirPods Max’s unattractive and illogical case, which has been a social media meme for looking like a sports bra, leaves the headphones exposed. Perhaps this is a testament to the faith that Apple has in the durability of the mesh headband? I’m not sure.

On the plus side, the Apple AirPods Max takes up less space in my travel bag. The Sony XM5s’ case, although more protective, is a bit bulky – and not remotely travel-friendly. It took up significant space in my travel bag.

Winner: Sony WH-1000XM5

Apple AirPods Max vs. Sony XM5: battery life

Apple says the AirPods Max can last 20 hours on a single charge while Sony claims it can survive 30 hours.

By the time my round trip was completed — JFK to Heathrow and vice versa — the AirPods Max had 60% of juice left. The Sony XM5 was at 69% battery. I did not use them outside the aforementioned airports (except while on the plane). I spent about 3 to 4 hours using each headphones, whether I was in NYC or London.

Winner: Sony WH-1000XM5

Apple AirPods Max vs. Sony XM5: Which has the best noise cancellation?

Not only does the Apple AirPods Max have better noise cancellation, but it also beats the Sony XM5 when it comes to call and voice quality. Plus, it delivers a warmer, fuller sound that may satisfy most people (though the Sony headphones support more customizable presets, giving you a more spacious audio playground.

However, the Sony XM5s are far more lightweight, comfortable, and conducive to a USB-C-filled world. The AirPods Max, on the other hand, is heavier and unwieldy – and anchored by its Lightning port. 

It’s also worth noting that the XM5s have a better travel case. As for the bra-like case that ships with the AirPods Max – I don’t know what Apple was thinking. Fortunately, I can drown out the noise of irrationality with its excellent active noise cancellation feature.

Finally, if you have an Android, you’d be better off the Sony XM5s. If you have an iPhone, grab the AirPods Max. I’ve found that pairing the AirPods Max on an Android is a little bit more challenging. However, if you use the Sony XM5s, there is a quick-pair option. Using the AirPods Max on the Sony XM5s is even more seamless — it’s as if my iPhone 14 detects the AirPods Max in a nanosecond. Plus, spatial audio access will be out of reach if you pair your AirPods Max with an Android.

Winner: Apple AirPods Max

Like it? Share with your friends!


What's Your Reaction?

hate hate
confused confused
fail fail
fun fun
geeky geeky
love love
lol lol
omg omg
win win


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Choose A Format
Personality quiz
Series of questions that intends to reveal something about the personality
Trivia quiz
Series of questions with right and wrong answers that intends to check knowledge
Voting to make decisions or determine opinions
Formatted Text with Embeds and Visuals
The Classic Internet Listicles
The Classic Internet Countdowns
Open List
Submit your own item and vote up for the best submission
Ranked List
Upvote or downvote to decide the best list item
Upload your own images to make custom memes
Youtube and Vimeo Embeds
Soundcloud or Mixcloud Embeds
Photo or GIF
GIF format