Despite their high price tag, Apple’s AirPods Max headphones are rather popular. I rated the AirPods Max very highly in my review, praising them for their swanky design, premium sound, excellent noise-canceling and solid voice-calling performance.
Needless to say, they’re designed to work seamlessly with Apple devices and offer features like spatial audio and hands-free Siri that only Apple users can take advantage of. But they’re also expensive, weigh a lot and may not fit everyone’s head well. They carry a list price of $549, though typically sell at retailers like Amazon for around $480 and sometimes less.
Basically, they aren’t for everyone. The good news is that there are plenty of excellent AirPods Max alternatives that cost less — and some, much less. Below are my current top picks, all of which I’ve fully reviewed or had hands-on experience with over several weeks.
And for those who want AirPods Max alternatives, price be damned, check out our list of best high-end Bluetooth headphones and earbuds.
Rated up to 32 hours
Over-ear wireless headphones
No IP rating
When you have a product that a lot of people love, change can be risky. Such is the case for Sony’s WH-1000XM5, the fifth generation of the 1000X series headphones, which were first released in 2016 as the MDR-1000X Wireless and have become increasingly popular as they’ve improved with each generation.
Over the years, Sony has made some tweaks to the design, but nothing as dramatic as what it’s done with the WH-1000XM5. Other than the higher $349 price tag, most of those changes are good, and Sony’s made some dramatic improvements with voice-calling performance, as well as even better noise canceling and more refined sound.
Because of all that, the WH-1000XM5 have earned a CNET Editors’ Choice Award.
Read our Sony WH-1000XM5 review.
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Sennheiser’s previous-generation Momentum Wireless headphones have always had a pretty distinct look that was part retro/part modern and stood out for the exposed metal on the headband. For better or worse, that’s all gone now, and the new Momentum 4 Wireless, Sennheiser’s flagship noise-canceling headphones, look a bit more subdued and also a bit more like some competitors.
The Momentum 4 Wireless offers superior performance over the Momentum 3 Wireless in every regard, though the biggest gains are with noise canceling and voice-calling performance as well as battery life, which is outstanding. It’s up to 60 hours at moderate volume levels. There’s also a transparency mode that allows ambient sound in, as well as the ability to create a custom sound profile in the Smart Control app for iOS and Android using the built-in EQ, sound modes and a new Sound Personalization feature that “assesses the user’s listening preferences and adjusts the listening experience according to their taste.”
Equipped with 42mm drivers, Sennheiser says the Momentum 4 Wireless offer “best-in-class” sound, which is debatable. I’d say the Momentum 4’s sound quality is right there with other models in this price range — they sound excellent, with the requisite well-defined, punchy bass, relatively wide soundstage (they sound pretty open) and smooth treble that brings out some of the finer details in well-recorded tracks. They’re a pleasure to listen to.
Read our Sennheiser Momentum 4 Wireless first look.
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Available in three color options (gray, blue and black), Bowers & Wilkins PX7 S2 headphones offer some significant improvements over the first-generation version. Not only are these headphones more comfortable — they tip the scales at 307 grams — but they sound better and have better noise-canceling and voice-calling performance with improved noise reduction. I don’t necessarily think they’re a better option than the lighter and even more comfortable Sony WH-1000XM5. But the PX7 S2 certainly looks and feels luxurious, with its sturdy design, and delivers very good sound with better voice-calling performance thanks to an upgraded microphone setup.
Bowers & Wilkins has also released a step-up model, the PX8, that features even better sound but costs significantly more.
Read our Bowers & Wilkins PX7 S2 first take.
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Rated up to 6 hours
Yes (IPX4 — splash-proof)
The AirPods Pro (2nd generation) are powered by Apple’s H2 chip, which delivers more processing power while being more energy efficient, according to Apple. The H2 chip, combined with new low-distortion drivers, allows for improved sound that offers better clarity and depth.
The noise canceling is also improved. Apple says the AirPods Pro 2 have “double” the noise canceling of the original AirPods Pro. The new AirPods add an extra hour of battery life, up from five to six hours with noise canceling on. Plus, a speaker in the case that emits a sound that helps locate your buds via Find My should they decide to hide from you.
Read our Apple AirPods Pro 2 review.
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Rated Up to 6 Hours
Yes (IPX4 — Splash-Proof
Bose’s second-generation QuietComfort Earbuds 2 are not only about 30% smaller than their predecessors, but their case is about 40% smaller and truly pocketable. They feature best-in-class noise canceling and improved sound, thanks to Bose’s new CustomTune sound calibration system that customizes the sound for your ears. Voice-calling performance is also significantly better than that of the original QuietComfort Earbuds.
The other big change is to the ear tips. Bose has ditched its one-piece StayEar wing tips for a two-piece Fit Kit system that features separate ear tips and “stability bands” in three size options, giving you more flexibility to get a secure fit and tight seal.
These changes helped the QuietComfort Earbuds 2 earn a CNET Editors’ Choice Award.
Read our Bose QuietComfort Earbuds 2 review.
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If you can’t afford Sony’s WH-1000XM5 or Bose QC45, the Soundcore by Anker Space Q45 (yes, there’s a bit of copying going on here) is a good alternative for $150, and we should see occasional discounts on it. While it may not fit some smaller heads, it’s comfortable to wear, with nicely padded ear cups and a dual-hinge folding design. Sound quality is very good and the headphones offer better noise canceling than the step-down Q35, as well as multipoint Bluetooth pairing (these are equipped with Bluetooth 5.3) and support for the LDAC audio codec for streaming high-resolution music tracks over Bluetooth, if you have a device that supports LDAC. Many Android phones do, although Samsung’s Galaxy phones don’t.
Battery life is very good at up to 50 hours with noise canceling on at moderate volume levels and the headphones come with a hard carrying case for travel.
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