AirPods Max vs. Sonos Ace Headphones: Which flagship headphones win?

If you're planning to pick up one of the best noise-canceling headphones, then two particular models are going to stand out right now: the Apple AirPods Max and Sonos Ace. In this face-off we'll compare the two luxury over-ear sets of headphones to find out how they stack up against each other.

Neither of these headphones will be easy on your wallet and your decision could be heavily influenced by how much of either ecosystem you're wedded into. But the truth is that both offer premium build quality, spatial audio and impressive noise canceling technology.

The Apple AirPods Max are certainly the veteran of the two, having launched all the way back in December 2020. In fact, rumors abound that Apple could launch the AirPods Max 2 sometime in 2024. So perhaps factor that into your decision making.

The Sonos Ace, on the other hand, are fresh off the boat; announced in May 2024 and on sale the next month. These headphones are the first from Sonos and, as such, we have no predecessor to match them up against in terms of improvements or upgrades. As you'd expect from Sonos, the engineering and sound quality are top class, although the colorways are limited to just black and white (unlike the AirPods Max). Both sets of headphones use physical controls for adjusting playback and volume.

Read on to see the pros and cons of these two headphone heavyweights so you can understand which one is best for you.

AirPods Max vs. Sonos Ace: Specs

The Apple AirPods Max vs the Sonos Ace

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Header Cell - Column 0 Apple AirPods MaxSonos Ace
Price$549 / £499 / AU$899$449 / £449 / €499 / AU$699
Size7.37 x 3.28 x 6.64 inches7.52 x 3.35 x 6.3 inches
Weight13.6 ounces11 ounces
Battery life (rated)20 hours30 hours
ConnectivityBluetooth 5.0 with SBC and AAC Bluetooth 5.4 with SBC, AAC, LE, and aptX Adaptive support
Special featuresANC, spatial audio, audio sharing, SiriANC, spatial audio, TrueCinema, TV Audio Swap

AirPods Max vs. Sonos Ace: Price and availability

Sonos Ace headphones in hand

(Image credit: Future)

The AirPods Max didn't pull any punches when they launched at $549 / £499 / AU$899 several years ago, making them considerably more pricey than many of the other best headphones out there. The good news for your wallet if you're looking at Apple's headphones is they are often discounted to around $449

One thing to point out with the AirPods Max is that steep price doesn't include any kind of carry case. Instead you get a kind of pouch that protects the ear cups but leaves the headband exposed. It makes the headphones look like a trendy clutch bag, so if you want more advanced protection you'll want to invest in one of the best AirPods Max cases as well.

On the other hand, the Sonos Ace has launched at $449 / £449 / AU$699, making them $100 less on paper than Apple's effort. You also get a full protective case with a magnetic little pouch that houses your cables as well. Of course, the Ace has only just launched so there's no current discounts or deals to be had. That may not always be the case but for now you're stuck with retail price — which is still cheaper than Apple. 

 Winner: Sonos Ace 

AirPods Max vs. Sonos Ace: Design and controls

AirPods Max in silver

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Both headphones should get their fair share of kudos for the luxury styling. However, the different color shades of the AirPods Max will surely appeal to a wider audience as you can choose from Sky Blue, Pink and Green alongside the standard Silver and Space Grey. Sonos, meanwhile, has opted for a minimalist Black or White choice. In both cases, the headphones have a matte finish on the earcups that offsets the metal connectors.    

What's not in doubt is that both companies have used the very best materials on offer. From the aluminum and mesh fabric of the AirPods Max to the vegan leather of the Sonos Ace, no expense has been spared here. Apple's headphones aren't as slim and stylish, and the chunkier earcup seems more childlike than the oval-shaped professionalism of the Sonos Ace. 

For long periods of listening, weight is a crucial factor and the AirPods Max are the heavier of the two pairs at 13.6 ounces compared to the Sonos Ace's 11.4 ounces.

Crucially, both headphones feature physical controls as a tactile means of adjusting playback. The AirPods Max borrows the rotating Digital Crown from the Apple Watch to change the volume while the Sonos Ace uses a sliding "Content Key" to adjust volume, skip tracks and play/pause whatever you're listening to. 

Both headphones also employ comfortable buttons with decent travel to engage noise cancelation. But, given a choice of the two approaches, the AirPods Max affords a better level of granularity and is probably the more user-friendly.

Winner: AirPods Max

AirPods Max vs. Sonos Ace: Sound quality

Apple AirPods Max worn by reviewer in garden

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Here's where the rubber meets the road. If you're going to spend top dollar on a pair of headphones then you need to know they sound the business. Sorry to have to wuss out like this but the answer is that both headphones, as you'd expect, are top drawer when it comes to sound performance.

The AirPods Max are deep and detailed, utilizing the spatial audio where possible to give you that immersive effect and make tracks more layered and detailed. Of course, the Sonos Ace also boast spatial audio and incorporate Dolby Atmos and Sony 360 Reality Audio format support for head tracking. 

Our Tom's Guide reviewers listened to the headphones independently and detailed their individual experiences in the AirPods Max and Sonos Ace reviews. But when testing them out together on the same collection of tracks, I felt the Sonos Ace produced a better listening experience.

There was richness and detail to both, but I had a greater feeling of spaciousness with the Sonos Ace. Our review touches on the wide stereo soundstage from Sonos' debut headphones and I certainly found this to be the case.

Meanwhile, the AirPods Max produced an ever-so-slightly heavier and flatter tone that was just a touch warmer than the Ace. This played well with some hip hop, rock and jazz tracks but I found contemporary pop or classical fared better on Sonos' headphones.

In my opinion, the more balanced sound and greater clarity came from the Sonos Ace and, at the same time, the headphones gave off a greater sense of space. Don't get me wrong, both headphones offer a luxurious listening experience but I felt that Sonos just edged the win. 

Winner: Sonos Ace

AirPods Max vs. Sonos Ace: Active Noise Canceling

Sonos Ace headphones on man's head

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While the AirPods Max have a very impressive pedigree when it comes to noise canceling, this is another straight win for the Sonos Ace. Apple's flagship headphones are extremely capable at silencing lower-frequency ambient noise, but we noted in our review that there's no adaptive mode or any way to adjust the level of noise canceling.

Sonos, on the other hand, has got noise canceling spot on with the Ace. Taking advantage of the 8 microphones (four on each earcup with 3x internal and 1x out), outside noise is almost completely banished when ANC is activated. Like the AirPods Max, there's no way to adjust the level of noise canceling; it's either on, off or "Aware mode", which lets some ambient sound blend with your content.

In our full review of the Sonos Ace, we put them as easily a match for the likes of the Sony WH-1000XM5 and Bose QuietComfort Ultra. And while I haven't personally tried either of those devices, I'd bet good money the Ace could equal, if not outperform them when it comes to noise canceling.

Winner: Sonos Ace 

AirPods Max vs. Sonos Ace: Battery life

The Apple AirPods Max vs the Sonos Ace

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The AirPods Max are rated for 20 hours of playback, while the Sonos Ace comfortably crush them at 30 hours. And that's with ANC turned on. What's more, the AirPods Max still have to be charged via Apple's outdated Lightning connector whilst you can juice up the Sonos Ace with USB-C.

I appreciate the low power mode on the AirPods Max as I can often leave them several days before needing a top-up. But again, the Sonos Ace partially renders this moot — because you'll get three hours of playback from just three minutes plugged in via USB-C.

Winner: Sonos Ace

AirPods Max vs. Sonos Ace: Ecosystem

AirPods Max 2 rumors

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No tech product exists in a vacuum these days; it's all about the ecosystem. And both Apple and Sonos have incredibly well-established ecosystem that'll likely play a huge part in your purchasing decision when weighing up the AirPods Max or the Sonos Ace.

This is actually where the Sonos Ace falls down. Given the company's heritage in Wi-Fi-enabled multi-room audio, it's a bummer the Ace doesn't benefit from this feature. There's no support for Wi-Fi, just the option to swap TV audio from a Sonos Arc soundbar. And while Sonos says other soundbars, like the Beam, will be supported in time, it's not yet clear when that'll happen. When you are connected, you get True Cinema mode, which optimizes the content based on the acoustics of the room you're in, which is nice.

The AirPods Max, meanwhile, have all the benefits of standard Apple integration. Pull them out the box and the H1 chip will seamlessly pair with your iPhone, iPad, MacBook or Apple Watch. You can also handoff playback to your HomePod or see where the headphones are if you lose them thanks to Find My.

Winner: AirPods Max

AirPods Max vs. Sonos Ace: Verdict

Sonos Ace headphones insides

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If you're keeping score, you'll note the Sonos Ace comfortably outperforms the AirPods Max in a number of areas. And while both headphones offer fantastic noise canceling, great design and plenty of top-drawer audio tech, the Sonos Ace offers the more complete package.

You get a better sound with more impressive ANC as well as a longer battery life and USB-C connectivity for a lower price. What's not to like? Well, to answer that question, Apple's ecosystem still reigns supreme. If you make your calls on an iPhone, work from a MacBook and strap and Apple Watch to your wrist, there's an undeniable advantage to choosing the AirPods Max.

The last thing to mention is to reiterate the point I made at the beginning: while the AirPods Max makes sense for those all-in on Apple, this would be a terrible time to buy them. There's a strong chance Cupertino will update the four-year-old headphones before 2024 draws to a close. Rumors indicate the AirPods Max 2 could adopt USB-C and we'll almost certainly see an improvement to battery life and noise cancellation. Whether or not they'll adopt the Apple H2 chip remains to be seen. Either way, if you want to invest in the best headphones Apple has to offer, you'd be best advised to wait a little longer.

Of course, there are more headphones out there than just those made by Apple and Sonos. And you can find the biggest price drops on a whole heap of them by regularly checking our best headphone deals page.

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Jeff Parsons
UK Editor In Chief

Jeff is UK Editor-in-Chief for Tom’s Guide looking after the day-to-day output of the site’s British contingent. Rising early and heading straight for the coffee machine, Jeff loves nothing more than dialling into the zeitgeist of the day’s tech news.

A tech journalist for over a decade, he’s travelled the world testing any gadget he can get his hands on. Jeff has a keen interest in fitness and wearables as well as the latest tablets and laptops. A lapsed gamer, he fondly remembers the days when problems were solved by taking out the cartridge and blowing away the dust.