Listening to the AirPods Max for five minutes in an Apple Store ruined me for other noise-canceling headphones. Not because they sounded good. In fact, I listened to them only long enough to learn that they are bass heavy and exciting. What wowed me about them was the active noise cancellation. It was far better than anything I had ever experienced. It made the din of the Apple Store—all those human voices, which are difficult for ANC to cancel out—go away completely.

Sadly, they are $550 headphones (street price $479) that don’t even have an analog headphone jack, so they are both outside my price range and unsuitable–at least for me—for listening to lossless quality audio. Still, I wanted “industry leading” active noise cancellation, something better than I already have in my fancy Beoplay H9, for the times that I need it.

I read a lot of ANC headphone reviews and came to the conclusion that most reviewers recommend the Sony WH-1000M4 for its sound, excellent noise cancellation, and price. At $300 (street price $279) they are not cheap, but one could buy them and the AirPods Pro for cheaper than the AirPods Max (at its list price). Also, compared to the AirPods Max, the Sony WH-1000M4 is lighter, folds into a small, protective case, and has a headphone jack for wired listening.

I received them and immediately discovered that I don’t love them. They are fine, but that is disappointing to me. Perhaps they are overhyped by reviewers. Perhaps I am asking too much from them. For whatever reason, I, unlike most people, I guess, think they fall short of greatness.

This is my list of complaints that should serve as a counterpoint to all the glowing, uncritical reviews.

  1. They sound good, but not great. The nearest analog to them that I own is another Bluetooth ANC headphone, the Beoplay H9, which sounds punchier, tighter, brighter, and more exciting than the Sony WH-1000M4. I have three non-Bluetooth headphones that sound better than both the Beoplay and the Sony, too1. I have tried to EQ the Sony via its iOS app, but I have found no preset that I constantly prefer.
  2. The active noise cancellation has an audible hiss and creates a bit of ear pressure. The hiss is disappointing. You don’t notice it during music, and probably won’t notice it in loud conditions where I would use these headphones, but it is annoying during podcasts or TV shows.
  3. Active noise cancellation does not live up to the hype. I actually use ANC headphones a lot in my home office because they remove the drone from the window air conditioner I use when it gets hot. Sadly, I found that the Sony WH-1000M4, with its industry-leading ANC, blocks that noise no better than the Beoplay H9, which is an also-ran in the ANC space and has essentially no passive noise cancellation in its earcup design.
  4. They aren’t that comfortable. My biggest problem with the BeoPlay H9 that I already had is its hard headband, which hurts my head after a while. The Sony headband does the same thing, despite the headphone being lighter and the headband being covered with softer material. The AirPods Max headband is very comfortable, but its clamping force borders on the extreme, so I probably would find it uncomfortable, too.
  5. While their moving parts are silent, the faux leather ear cups creak and squeak when I move my head. It is infuriating. I have no other headphones that do this.

I probably should have returned the Sony WH-1000M4 while I still had the chance. While I do expect to use them during walks on the treadmill and for plane travel in the future, I find that I almost always choose the Beoplay H9 over them for my everyday home-office-with-the-air-conditioner-on listening.

  1. I realize that part of my problem is that I have too many audiophile-quality headphones already. If I were comparing the Sony WH-1000M4 with my aging (non-Pro) AirPods, I would probably think they sound great. ↩︎