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AirPods Max vs. Sonos Ace: premium personal audio, compared

Sonos Ace and AirPods Max

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The Sonos Ace is the company's new push into premium personal audio. Here's how it fares when compared to Apple's AirPods Max.

The Sonos Ace were launched as a premium pair of headphones, its first foray into personal audio. They're a stylish pair of headphones that ticks many of the premium audio boxes for consumers.

It's hard not to make a direct comparison of them to AirPods Max. As over-ear headphones with metal accents and a leaning towards audio quality, it's hard not to do so.

This is what Sonos' new personal audio offering brings to the table, and how it competes against Apple's high-priced and aging competitor.

AirPods Max vs Sonos Ace - Specifications

SpecificationsAirPods MaxSonos Ace
On sale at Amazon
Buy at Sonos
Weight13.6 ounces11.04 ounces
Noise CancellationYesYes
Spatial AudioYesYes
Charging portLightningUSB-C
Battery Life20 hours ANC on30 hours ANC on
ControlsDigital Crown,
Space Grey,
Sky Blue,
Soft White

AirPods Max vs Sonos Ace - Design

Made from aluminum and steel, the AirPods Max are a reasonably hefty pair of headphones. Using telescoping arms, it has a headband with stainless steel arms and a breathable knit mesh that is springy and doesn't require foam.

The cushions on the earcups are made with a mesh textile for comfort.

You can see a few Max-inspired elements in the design of the Sonos Ace. Chiefly the use of a shiny arms connecting the headband to the earcups. However, it decided to hide the hinges it uses inside the earcups, which could help increase durability.

Person with headphones watching a colorful, blurred TV screen in the background.
Wearing the Sonos AceWearing the Sonos AceWearing the Sonos Ace

The headband of the Ace is more traditional, with a leather-free cushion padding the band on the user's head. The cushioning on the earcups is handled the same way, with the material used being somewhat easier to wipe clean than Apple's knit choice.

Both headphones use magnets to hold the earcup cushions in place, which makes it easier to replace and maintain. However, Sonos has been a bit more smart about their construction.

If you place the cushions into the wrong earcup, you'll cover sensors. To help beat this, Apple includes a letter inside each earcup for identification.

Sonos takes this further, by color-coding the internal 3D mesh with the inside of the earcup for easier matching. Also, the magnets have opposing polarities for each cup, so the cushion won't snap into the wrong earcup.

White Sonos Ace headphones with green and white ear pads, one pad is being removed by a hand.
You can tell which earcup the cushions go into by color on the Sonos Ace.

Despite lacking as much padding overall, the AirPods Max will also weigh heavier on your head at 13.6 ounces. The 11.04-ounce Sonos Ace will be easier to wear for longer periods, but they're still reasonably heavy.

AirPods Max vs Sonos Ace - Physical Controls

Apple and Sonos both love their unique controls. AirPods Max has a singular button next to a multi-use Digital Crown. This is effectively the same control you'll find on an Apple Watch.

The Digital Crown is really nice to adjust volume or playback. However, sometimes a pillow or seat can hit the Digital Crown, causing the volume to change.

A hand holding a white, round Sonos device with a button and switch on the side, against a plain background.
Some physical controls on the Sonos Ace

Sonos uses three buttons: one at the base of the left earcup, a round button on the right earcup, and one it refers to as a Content Key. It's made from stainless steel and is spring loaded, bouncing back with a delightful little snap.

Sonos Ace headphones in black

Sonos Ace

Sonos Ace headphones have beamforming microphones to target your voice and suppress background noise while on phone and video calls.

AirPods Max vs Sonos Ace - Audio Processing

Each use custom 40mm dynamic drivers to reproduce exceptional sound. After years of listening to AirPod Max and weeks listening to Sonos Ace, the latter is a little bit better.

The soundstage on the Sonos Ace sounded more realistic. Sonos was able to better separate things like vocals from the instrumentals, while making it sound as if the music was coming from all around me.

Apple has Spatial Audio and excellent sound quality on the AirPods Max. But listening to them back to back to back, the Ace almost sounded as if I was there.

The vocals were right in my ears while the instruments came in all around it. The AirPods Max, in comparison, sounded slightly more closed off.

We're talking about audio on a very high level here, so by no means did either of these sound bad.

Both do offer Spatial Audio, but there's a lot of difference in how each pulls it off.

Person holding a smartphone, adjusting equalizer settings on a music application.
Using an app to manage the Sonos AceUsing an app to manage the Sonos AceUsing an app to manage the Sonos AceUsing an app to manage the Sonos Ace

Apple owns the entire stack here, which means it have a unique advantage in tracking where your iPhone, iPad, or Mac is. You have the option of turning spatial off, tracking your head, or keeping the audio sourced fixed in front of you.

For example, when you're watching a movie, the audio will always be coming from in front of you, no matter where you turn your head.

Sonos doesn't have the ability to monitor your phone's location and calculate its position in 3D space. Therefore the speaker-maker had to do something else.

It basically monitors your movement so when you're sitting, it locks that in as front. Then any other head movements will result in the audio staying in front of you.

If you get up and walk around, it detects that and pauses head tracking.

That makes not quite as effective and ubiquitous as Apple's, but in effect it works just about as good without Apple's first-party benefits. This is especially true when used with your soundbar.

Say you wanted to use your headphones with your TV to watch a movie. If you have an Apple TV, it's easy to connect your AirPods Max via Control Center.

Sonos Max is even easier - assuming you have a compatible Sonos soundbar. All you have to do is press and hold the content key on the side of the headphones and the audio will jump to your ears.

This works by establishing a direct Wi-Fi connection between the soundbar and your headphones. You're able to experience true Dolby Atmos spatial audio with the headphones.

At launch, this feature is limited to the Sonos Arc. Soon, it will roll out to the Beam, Beam Gen 2, and Ray.

Close-up view of modern white over-ear headphones with cushioned ear pads resting on a white surface.
Sonos Ace [above] and AirPods Max [below]

Another feature that isn't out yet at the time of review is TrueCinema mode. This uses the onboard mics to understand the acoustics of the room you're in, then adjusts your headphone audio so that it matches your physical environment.

It's a really cool feature that goes more towards making the headphones fade away.

Both headphones have Active Noise Cancellation. Sonos also has an Aware mode, which blends ambient sound with a user's content, somewhat reminiscent of Apple's Transparency mode.

Both headphones have support for lossless, kind of. With AirPods Max, you can listen to lossless if you use a wired Lightning connection.

Sonos Ace can do lossless over Bluetooth with AptX HD, but Apple doesn't support it. Then again, it also works when connected via USB-C.

If you're a fan of digital assistants, you have your options cut out for you. AirPods Max stick you with Siri - for better or for worse. You can invoke Apple's digital assistant by saying "Hey Siri" entirely hands-free.

Sonos Ace can use your phone's assistant when you hold the button on the side. It works fine with Siri, but lacks a hands-free option.

Apple AirPods Max

AirPods Max

AirPods Max feature Active Noise Cancellation, Transparency mode and Spatial Audio support in an over-ear design.

AirPods Max vs Sonos Ace - Connectivity and Battery Life

For wireless connectivity, both use Bluetooth. However, while the AirPods Max work with Bluetooth 5.0, Sonos supports Bluetooth 5.0.

Both also have physical connectivity, with Apple opting for Lightning while the Sonos Ace uses USB-C.

The battery in the Sonos Ace is a 1,060mAh unit. Sonos claims it can last for up to 30 hours of listening or 24 hours of call time with ANC or Aware mode enabled.

Apple says the AirPods Max can go up to 20 hours for listening on a single charge with ANC or Transparency enabled, or 20 hours of talk time.

Both charge rapidly, with five minutes of charge equating 1.5 hours of listening time on the AirPods Max. Sonos goes better, with up to three hours of listening time from three minutes of charge.

AirPods Max vs Sonos Ace - Cases

Apple has its own bra-like cover that slips over both earcups. The magnets in the case turn your headphones off, as Apple's offering lacks any physical off button.

White case labeled 'SONOS' next to black over-ear headphones with a mesh headband on a white surface.
The Sonos Ace case [left], AirPods Max [right]

The Sonos Ace has a felt case made from recycled plastic bottles. It's a great-looking case and this white one has a sage green interior.

It zips around the outside and your cables are all stored in this bonus pouch. And best of all, that holder magnetically holds to the inside.

AirPods Max vs Sonos Ace - A new-found rivalry

A lot of this comparison sways in favor of the Sonos Ace. I prefer the look, comfort, sound quality, and that it uses USB-C.

That said, Apple has a lot of its own software features. There's adaptive EQ, audio sharing, hands-free Siri, and automatic device switching, and potentially more as Apple rolls out software updates.

The thing is, though, AirPods Max are a few years old. They lack many of the quality of life features of other products, like AirPods Pro and its personalized volume, adaptive audio mode, Find My, and USB-C.

If Apple had these features, it would be a lot easier to recommend the AirPods Max.

For now, the Sonos Ace may be the better pick for many users. It's $100 cheaper when full retail prices are compared, and offers a considerable experience that Apple needs to catch up on.

The ball is now squarely in Apple's court.

AirPods Max vs Sonos Ace - Where to Buy

Sonos Ace headphones, which retail for $449, are available at Sonos directly, as well as at Amazon, Adorama, B&H Photo and Best Buy. At press time, Sonos is running a sale on bundles through its direct and retail channels knocking up to $248 off kits featuring the over-ear headphones.

AirPods Max, meanwhile, are nearly always on sale on their own, with the lowest prices available in our AirPods Price Guide. At press time, every color can be found for under $500.