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Best Apple AirPods Max alternatives for less: Sony, Bose, AirPods Pro and more

Apple has introduced the AirPods Max, its swanky new over-ear noise-canceling headphones. They aren't exactly cheap at $549. Here are the best alternatives.

Apple's long-awaited full-size noise-canceling headphones have finally arrived. They're called the AirPods Max (rumors that pegged them to be called AirPods Studio turned out to be wrong) and they're mostly what we expected them to be: super high-tech, luxury-priced headphones that have some notable design and feature traits, including Apple's spatial audio virtual surround (for iOS devices), that help distinguish them from the host of other premium noise-canceling headphones on the market.

The AirPods Max also have sensors for detecting when the headphones are on your head, a total of nine on-board microphones (two are inside the earcups) for noise-canceling as well as noise and wind reduction when making voice calls and a transparency mode. And finally, the protective storage cover has integrated magnets that tell the headphones to go into an ultralow energy mode so your batteries don't wear down while the AirPods Max are sitting around.

While it's fairly safe to assume the AirPods Max should perform very well, until I get my hands on a pair, I can't tell you how their sound and noise canceling compares to other leading models or whether their $549 price tag, which is raising some eyebrows on social media, is crazy -- or not. But for those of you who know you don't want to spend that kind of money on a pair of noise-canceling headphones, we've got you covered with some excellent alternatives, a couple of which even cost less than $100. 

Below, I've rounded up several top noise-canceling headphones, all of which I've fully reviewed or used hands-on over a period of time. For each set of headphones, we've listed how much you'll save compared to the AiPods Pro Max. 

Now playing: Watch this: Sony WH-1000XM4: The best noise-canceling headphone gets...
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Sony's earlier WH-1000XM3 model was great. But if it had a weakness, that was voice calling, particularly in noisier environments. The WH-1000XM4 model has improved in that area and also adds multipoint Bluetooth pairing so you can connect to two devices -- such as your phone and PC -- at the same time. That means that if a call comes in while you're using the headphones with your computer, the audio will switch to your phone when you answer the call.

The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 probably still have a slight edge for voice calls, but the 1000XM4 headphones are arguably a tad more comfortable and also have some other slight improvements to noise cancellation and sound that make this model a great all-around choice. After launching at $350, over the last month they've been regularly discounted to as low as $278, which is basically half the price of the AirPods Max.

Read our Sony WH-1000XM4 review.

 

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The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, the long-awaited successor to Bose's QuietComfort 35 II model, may not be a quantum leap forward, but these headphones offer slightly better sound and noise cancellation along with top-notch headset performance for voice calls. They're a strong all-around audio performer with up to 20 hours of battery life and a more durable design than their predecessor (some find the QuietComfort 35 II headphones slightly more comfortable).

At launch, they cost $400, but they've recently come down in price. We've seen the white version dip as low as $299 while the black and silver versions have hit $340. That said, the new Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones, their closest competitor, has also seen nice discounts.

Read our Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 review.

 

David Carnoy/CNET

It took Bose quite a while to get them into stores, but the new $279 noise-canceling QuietComfort Earbuds are finally here. In many ways, they're excellent true wireless earbuds, particularly when it comes to their sound and to their noise canceling, which is arguably the best out there right now in a set of earbuds. In performance they clearly have a leg up on Apple's best-selling AirPods Pro true wireless noise-canceling buds. However, the AirPods Pro's smaller design, somewhat more comfortable fit and superior voice-calling capabilities make it hard to declare the Bose the straight-up champ. Ultimately, it depends on what your priorities are.

Read our Bose QuietComfort Earbuds review.

 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Even if they don't sound quite as magical as you'd hope a $249 model would, the Apple AirPods Pro still manage to be a great pair of true-wireless earphones with noise cancellation. That's largely due to their winning design and fit, improved bass performance and effective noise canceling -- and now they've been updated with spatial audio, a new virtual-sound mode for watching movies and TV shows (only works with iPhones and iPads running iOS 14). That same feature is also available in the AirPods Max.

They're an excellent choice when you want to make a call or listen to music during your workout. Yeah, they're expensive at $249, but the good news is they now tend to sell in the $190 to $220 range -- and have dipped as low as $169.

Read our Apple AirPods Pro review.

 

David Carnoy/CNET

As far as sound, comfort level and build quality, you'd be hard-pressed to do better than Anker's SoundCore Life Q30 for the money. It doesn't quite have the clarity or bass definition as some of the top premium models, but it's less than a third of the price and gets you about 75% of the way there in terms of sound (it's well balanced overall with punchy bass and there's an app that allows you to tweak the sound). Noise canceling is good for the price, though not up to the level of the Sony WH-1000XM4 or Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700. Battery life is rated at an impressive 40 hours with USB-C charging.

The only area where the Q30 falls a little short is for voice calls. It picks up your voice fine in quieter environments but it just doesn't reduce background noise all that well. 

Compared to the Q20 (see below), the Q30 does offer improved sound (it's not a huge difference, but it definitely is a notch up) and a more premium design. Anker often offers the Q20 at a $10 discount at Amazon. Eventually, we should see something like that on the Q30.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Anker's SoundCore Life Q20 headphones are arguably the best value in the category of noise-canceling headphones. Not only do these over-ear headphones sound quite decent for their regular list price of around $60 (they often sell for $10 less), but they're also comfortable to wear thanks to the secure earcups.

No, they don't sound as good as premium Bluetooth headphones like the Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones, but the audio quality is pretty good, which is all you can ask of noise-canceling headphones at this price. The sound quality is fairly well balanced with a reasonable amount of clarity and plump bass that's not bloated or muddy (there's a bass boost or BassUp mode if you want an extra helping of bass with your music). Also, the noise cancellation is acceptably effective and they're solid as a headset for making calls. Battery life is good at 40 hours. A simple carrying pouch is included.

David Carnoy/CNET

Microsoft's over-ear noise-canceling Surface Headphones 2 were released earlier in 2020, and the biggest change from their predecessor is the price: The original Surface Headphones launched at $350, while the Headphones 2 cost $250. Like the original, there's a lot to like about this second-gen model. While they've lost their hands-free Cortana voice control feature (a change no one will lament) and the sound quality hasn't improved (it's quite good but not stellar), the combination of some small design tweaks, better battery life, upgraded Bluetooth and the new lower price helps bump their rating up and make them more recommendable. 

Their multipoint Bluetooth pairing capability allows you to pair them with two devices at the same time, such as a computer and a phone, and quickly switch the audio from each device to the headphones. That's an appealing feature from a work-from-home standpoint, and these also work well for making voice calls.

Read our Microsoft Surface Headphones 2 review.

 

Sarah Tew/CNET

When it comes to premium noise-canceling headphones, Bose and Sony have been the dominant players over the last few years. But now Sennheiser has turned up with its new Momentum 3 Wireless headphones and they deserve some attention, particularly from fans of the Momentum line. They list for $400, but have come down in price (you can sometimes find them for closer to $300).

Not only does this model feature improved noise-canceling features and excellent sound and audio, but it also performs well as a headset for making calls. While in noise cancellation and comfort level the Momentum 3 headphones don't quite measure up to the Sony WH-1000XM4, I appreciated the nicely padded earcups covered with sheep leather and had no trouble rocking them for a two-hour music listening session, to say nothing of the battery life.

Read our Sennheiser Momentum 3 first take.

 

Shure

If you're looking for a very clean-sounding headphone with more of a neutral sound profile, the well-built Shure Aonic 50 is that noise-canceling headphone. The treble is clear and articulate and the bass is well-defined but may be a little underpowered for those who want a little more oomph. The noise canceling is good but not quite up to the level of top noise-canceling models from Bose and Sony that cost a little less.

The headphones fold flat but they're a bit bulky, as is their case. But they work very well as a headset for making calls -- Shure is known for making excellent microphones -- so they're a good work-from-home headphone that's comfortable to wear (but might be a little big for some folks). 

While the Aonic 50 suffers a bit from being a little too expensive, it's an excellent headphone that seems built to last. Battery life is rated at 20 hours -- the headphone charge via USB-C -- and it supports a variety of audio codecs, including aptX, aptX HD, aptX Low Latency audio, Sony LDAC, AAC, and SBC. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Jabra's Elite 85h has been out for a while and frequently goes on sale, dipping to as low as $150 at times. Overall, it's a really solid noise-canceling headphone that features good noise-canceling and sound quality. They're comfortable to wear and also work well as a headset for making calls. Definitely worth a look when they're discounted.

Read our Jabra Elite 85h review.

 

Amazon

Sennheiser updated its well-regarded 4.50BTNC noise-canceling headphones for 2020. The new headphone model is called the 450BT and it has some notable upgrades, including better battery life (up to 30 hours with noise canceling on), USB-C charging, Bluetooth 5.0 with AptX support for devices like the Samsung Galaxy smartphones that support it and more comfortable earpads. The 450BT noise-canceling headphones list for $200, but usually cost around $150 although they have dipped to as low as $100 in flash sales (they're a very good value at that price). 

The 450BT headphones don't have quite the clarity or bass definition of Sennheiser's Momentum Wireless 3 headphones, but they cost much less and deliver very good well-balanced sound that's easy to listen to for long periods. I thought the 450BT model also worked quite well as a headset making calls, with the sidetone feature that allows you to hear your voice inside the headphones.

The only potential downside is that regular headphones may not be the most comfortable for some people. I have a smaller head, so they worked fine for me, but they do clamp a bit and those with larger heads may find that to be an issue. Also, while the earpads have been upgraded, they're still covered in a faux leather material that doesn't breathe quite as well as some earpad coverings. Still, if you can't afford premium models in the $300 to $400 range, this is a more affordable option that's well built and delivers premium sound. The headphones fold up to fit into an included soft carrying case.

David Carnoy/CNET

The Solo Pro headphones are the first Beats on-ear model to feature active noise cancellation and the first full-size Beats headphones to charge via Lightning. They use the company's Pure Adaptive Noise Canceling (Pure ANC), "derived from the over-ear Studio3 Wireless, with updated tuning to accommodate the on-ear form factor," Beats says. With the tap of a button, you can turn off that noise cancellation to save battery life. Hit the button a second time to enter an audio transparency mode that allows you to hear the outside world, not just the music you're listening to.

Available in multiple color options, these noise-canceling headphones are equipped with six microphones, two of which are beamforming mics that are designed to home in on your voice when making calls or talking to your voice assistant (Apple's H1 chip provides always-on Siri). The sound is smooth and well-balanced with punchy bass that doesn't make music sound boomy. Quite comfortable for an on-ear model, the more compact design travels better than some full-size models on this list. While they're overpriced at $300, we're seeing discounts that bring the price below $200 (it's been as low as $180), which is where it needs to get to.

Read our Beats Solo Pro first take.

 

Amazon

I liked Bowers & Wilkins' original PX noise-canceling headphones, but they were slightly lacking in both the earcup comfort and noise-canceling departments. The company's new PX7, released in the fall of 2019, improves on both fronts, with excellent sound, four noise cancellation settings (Automatic, Low, High and Off) and well-padded earcups in a sturdy, eye-catching design. There's also an adjustable ambient transparency mode that allows you to hear the outside world. 

The headphones are a tad heavy at 10.7 ounces (304 grams), but the build quality is top-notch -- and it better be considering these are a little pricey at $400. Bowers & Wilkins also makes a more compact on-ear model, the PX5 ($300), which is also quite good. But these do sound a little better.

The sound is rich and detailed, with deep bass that remains well-defined even at high volumes. These are pretty dynamic headphones, with a touch of extra energy in the midhighs. They're not laid-back like the earlier PX5 Wireless and their most direct competitor is probably the Sennheiser Momentum 3 model listed above. That Sennheiser is arguably superior for making calls, but this B&W probably wins on design. 

The PX7 headphones support AAC and aptX, use Bluetooth 5.0, charge via USB-C and have up to 30 hours of battery life at moderate volume levels. The noise canceling isn't quite at the level of the Bose or Sony in this roundup, but it's not far off -- as I said, it's improved from the original PX model's noise cancellation.

Amazon

Bang & Olufsen's Beoplay H9 headphones don't get mentioned much in the discussion of top noise-canceling headphones because at $500 (list price), they're really pricey. The latest third-generation version has been upgraded in a few significant ways that make them better than the earlier H9i model. Battery life has been improved to 25 hours, there's now a dedicated button for your voice assistant, the padding on the ear cushions and headband is cushier and the touch controls have been tweaked. The audio sound is still good.

Sarah Tew/CNET

When Bose released its new flagship Noise Cancelling 700 Headphones it didn't drop the QuietComfort 35 II from its headphone lineup, and these remain a top noise-canceling model. While I think the 700 performs better overall, there are people who prefer the QuietComfort 35 II. These headphones frequently go on sale for less than the retail price, so definitely look for them at a discount if you want to buy them.

Read our Bose QuietComfort 35 II review.

 

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