The launch of the Apple AirPods Max headphones in December caused quite the stir. Not only are they Apple's first over-ear headphones, but they also cost significantly more than most rivals.
At $549, they are at least $200 more than headphones from audio experts like Bose, Bowers & Wilkins, and Bang & Olufsen. They are also a substantial $300 more than Apple's own AirPods Pro, the wireless earphones that already offer great sound and good active noise cancelling, also known as ANC.
- Apple revealed $549 AirPods Max as its first over-ear headphones
- What you need to know about Apple's Spatial Audio technology
- Apple AirPods Pro review: Your new everyday essential
This could all change once we have heard the AirPods Max for ourselves. But until then there are plenty of affordable alternatives to Apple's new headphones. And, with AirPods Max out of stock for 12 to 14 weeks on Apple's online store (as of December 10), there's no better time than the present to consider something else.
An important point to remember at this price range is how, while most headphones offer active noise cancelling and good sound quality, technology brands like Sony tend to excel at the former, while audio-first companies like Bowers & Wilkins and Master & Dynamic usually sacrifice ANC performance for better audio.
You should consider this, as well as where you are most likely to use the headphones (on an airplane or in a quiet room at home?), before you buy.
Sony WH-1000XM4 – $350
An update to the hugely successful XM3, Sony's latest XM4 headphones have a retail price of $350, but are currently a little under $280 at Amazon, representing excellent value for money.
Available in black, blue and silver, the headphones offer strong active noise cancellation (ANC), up to 30 hours of battery life (50 percent more than the AirPods Max), and real-time upscaling of compressed music. Sony claims the ANC system blocks out 20 percent more noise than the previous generation, using five built-in microphones.
The new model, which weighs nine ounces, also gets more cushioning on its ear cups and headband than before, in a bid to improve comfort.
Where the AirPods Max uses the Digital Crown of the Apple Watch to control music playback and volume, the Sony headphones have touch controls. Both headphones use accelerometers to pause music when taken off, while AirPods charge via Apple's own Lightning port and Sony (like many others) uses USB-C.
Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 – $339
Also currently discounted, the Bose headphones 700 can be bought for under $340, down $40 on the $379 list price. Available in white, silver and black, these are the successor to the immensely popular Bose QC25 ad QC35 headphones that have filled airplane cabins and commuter trains for years.
The 700 has a sleek new design, up to 20 hours of wireless battery life, and optimization for Alex and the Google Assistant, which are accessible with the press of a button.
They also have top-notch noise cancellation, weigh 8.8 ounces, and have a button for Conversation Mode, where microphones are used to help you hear your surroundings without taking the headphones off your head.
Beats Pro – $400
Part of Apple's pricing strategy for the AirPods Max will no doubt have been driven by Beats, the headphone maker it owns. The most expensive Beats are the Pro Over-Ear Headphones, which are priced at $400.
These headphones claim a "practically indestructible" design, thanks to an aluminum frame, anodized finish and leather ear cups.
It is worth pointing out, however, that the Pro name here actually means something (unlike, say, with AirPods Pro or the iPhone 12 Pro). These headphones are actually aimed at professionals and therefore lack active noise cancelling and Bluetooth. Instead they are wired headphones designed to produce excellent sound first-and-foremost, with only passive noise cancelling.
Similarly-priced professional, wired headphones are also available from Sennheiser, in the form of the open-backed HD 650, which carry a retail price of $500 but are currently around the $400 mark.
Beats Studio3 – $350
Sat a rung lower on the Beats ladder are the Studio3 wireless headphones with active noise cancelling, seven color options and a $350 price tag – a comfortable $200 below the AirPods Max.
Just like all three members of the AirPods family, the Beats Studio3 offer a seamless wireless setup process and pairing with iPhones. Battery life is up to 22 hours, with a "Fast Fuel" feature that promises three hours of use from a 10-minute charge.
The so-called Pure ANC system of these headphones uses real-time processing to calibrate audio based on external noise. They also actively pinpoint external sounds to block, and respond to how they are fitted to each individual, also in real time. Touch controls are used to handle volume, music playback and interactions with Siri.
Bowers & Wilkins PX7 – $400
Upping our budget again to $400 – still $150 below the AirPods Pro, remember – we have the Bowers & Wilkins PX7. This British audio company is best-known for supplying speakers to Abbey Road Studios, as used by The Beatles.
The PX7 headphones use a pair of 43mm drivers (3mm larger than those in the AirPods Max) and offer up to 30 hours of wireless battery life. The speakers are built and tuned by the same engineers responsible for the 800 Series speakers used in Abbey Road today.
Carbon fiber is used to bring strength and lightness to the arms of these headphones, while the ear cups feature a soft, leather-like composite. There is ANC and compatibility with the new aptX Adaptive codec, meaning the headphones can play higher quality, higher bitrate music from services like Amazon Music HD.
Bang & Olufsen Beoplay H9 – $450
Bang & Olufsen Beoplay H9 headphonesBang & Olufsen
Edging a little closer to the AirPods Max price are the third-generation Beoplay H9 headphones by Bang & Olufsen. These are available in black or a silver and gold color option called Argilla Bright, and offer 25 hours of battery life with ANC switched on.
These headphones are a little heavier than most others in this category, at 10.4 ounces, but they also boast a luxury finish lacking by the likes of Bose and Sony. But then these also cost a fair bit more, at around $450.
The Beoplay H9 headphones have adjustable noise cancellation, touch controls on the right-hand aluminum ear cup, and charging is via USB-C.
Master & Dynamic MW65 – $500
Master & Dynamic MW65Master & Dynamic
Arriving at the $500 mark, we have the MW65 by Master & Dynamic. These premium headphones have ANC and 24 hours of battery life, plus a leather and aluminum body housing a pair of 40mm drivers.
These headphones are available in black and gunmetal with black leather, and silver with either gray or brown leather.
As we mentioned earlier, Bose and Sony's noise cancellation is difficult to beat, while companies like Master & Dynamic put sound quality first. So if you don't fly a lot (2020 notwithstanding) and prioritize audio performance over artificial silence, the MW65 could be a better option, if you don't mind upping your budget.
Apple claims to be ticking both boxes with the AirPods Max, offering a pair of headphones that are comfortable, with both market-leading sound quality and noise cancellation – plus all of the connectivity and convenience features already found on the AirPods Pro. We'll have to wait and see if those claims, and that high price, can be justified