Apple’s long-awaited AirPods Max headphones are official, and they’re super promising — and super expensive. The company’s first over-ear headphones pack advanced features such as active noise cancellation, immersive spatial audio and an Adaptive EQ for optimal sound, but you’ll have to cough up a whopping $549 for the privilege of wearing them. That’s nearly double the price of some of the best over-ear headphones you can buy.
If you’d rather not pay more than the price of a PS5 or Xbox Series X just to enjoy some high-quality tunes on the go, there are plenty of superb noise-canceling headphones you can get for hundreds of dollars less. Here’s what you need to know about the AirPods Max, and our picks for the top premium headphones you can buy instead.
What AirPods Max gets you
In all fairness, the AirPods Max promise some impressive functionality for the money. Apple’s new headphones come in an eye-catching stainless steel design, complete with 40-millimeter drivers for pumping out satisfying bass and crisp highs for your favorite music.
And then there’s the advanced tech packed inside, including an Adaptive EQ that can adjust audio frequencies in real time to deliver the best possible sound output to every user. You also get active noise cancellation for blocking out the world around you, Transparency Mode for when you want to hear your surroundings and spatial audio for getting better immersed in supported movies and shows. The headphones even have built-in sensors for automatically pausing playback when you take them off.
The AirPods Max’s 20-hour battery could be a huge selling point if it lives up to Apple’s claims, and there’s a powerful H1 chip inside for instantly and seamlessly pairing to all of your Apple devices. We’re especially fond of the headphones’ five color schemes (silver, Space Gray, Sky Blue, pink and green), and really hope that Apple brings those more colorful hues to the next AirPods and AirPods Pro earbuds.
The best headphones to buy instead
While the AirPods Max sound great on paper, there are simply too many other excellent headphones you can buy for a fraction of the price.
The Sony WH-1000XM4s are our pick for the best over-ear headphones and the best noise-canceling headphones overall, and can frequently be found for as low as $278. These cans deliver some of the best audio quality you can find from a set of premium over-ears, with a sense of dimensionality that makes you feel like you’re hearing your favorite artists live. You’re also getting some of the best noise cancellation in the business, as Sony’s headphones can easily block out unwanted noises such as outdoor chatter or loud appliances.
The WH-1000XM4s also eked out an impressive 30 hours of battery in our testing — that’s 10 hours more than what Apple is promising. And unlike the AirPods Max, Sony’s headphones feature a companion app for fine-tuning how you want your music to sound.
The Bose Noise-Canceling Headphones 700 are a close second to the Sony WH-1000XM4s, with great noise cancellation, immersive sound quality and the most comfortable design of any headphones we’ve tested. They retail for $379 but can often be found discounted to $339.
You should also consider the Jabra Elite 85hs, which are less than half the price of the AirPods Max at just $249 and often go on sale for less than that. While these cans fall just short of Sony’s best-in-class noise cancellation and sound quality, their secure, water- and dust-resistant ear cups make them ideal for working out.
You can even get great headphones from some of the top audiophile players for less than the price of the AirPods Max. The $399 Bowers & Wilkins PX7s offer great sound (especially when it comes to bass), solid active noise cancellation, a 30-hour battery and a sleek, fabric-woven carbon fiber design that holds up to Apple’s cans in the looks department. There’s also the $499 Master & Dynamic MW65s, which feature an aluminum-and-leather design that looks far more premium than the pricier AirPods Max.
Finally, if you’re set on staying in the Apple ecosystem and don’t mind using earbuds instead of over-ear headphones, the AirPods Pro ($249; currently on sale for $199) are well worth considering. These advanced buds sport many of the Max’s key features (including Adaptive EQ, active noise cancellation and Transparency Mode) and the same seamless pairing to your iPhone, iPad or Mac within a cheaper, more compact design. Heck, you could buy the Sony WH-1000XM4s and AirPods Pro together and still spend less than you would on the AirPods Max.
We’ll be giving the AirPods Max our full review treatment, and will soon have a much better idea of whether or not they’re worth the steep $549. But if you’re already turned off by that exorbitant price, just know that you can get some of the top noise-canceling headphones out there for less than $300. Whether you want true over-ear greatness with the Sony WH-1000XM4s or want to experience some of the Max’s key features on the cheaper AirPods Pro, there are plenty of great alternatives that won’t completely break the bank.