Brian Kahn is the longest tenured writer on staff at HomeTheaterReview.com. His specialties include everything from speakers to whole-home audio systems to high-end audiophile and home theater gear, as well as room acoustics. By day, Brian is a partner at a West Los Angeles law firm.
Over-the-ear, wireless, noise-canceling headphones are the product segment I am constantly getting asked about. I can understand why, they tend to be comfortable and offer good sound, but there are a ton of choices with similar feature sets, and they all tout themselves as being the best.
However, there are probably as many differences as there are similarities, and not just with regard to audio performance. Some of the differences are objective, such as battery life, others such as fit and finish will be more subjective. We try to hit the highlights below to help you select what headphones will best suit your needs.
Before we go into the specifics of the six pairs of headphones we evaluated, let's discuss their shared traits. All of the headphones are higher-end models that come from well-established headphone manufacturers. While there are plenty of inexpensive noise-canceling headphones available on Amazon from relatively unknown manufacturers, the headphones we cover in this article are some of the more premium offerings on the market.
The newest company in our comparison is Cleer Audio out of San Diego, California, and is said to be well staffed with former Sony personnel.
Some may see Apple as the new kid on the block as the AirPods Max is their first over-ear headphone offering with all of their prior models being of the in-ear design. All of the headphones are over the ear, closed-back designs in their physical format.
Starting things off in alphabetical order, it's Apple's AirPods Max. At $549 they are the most expensive of the headphones we reviewed, they are also the most feature-laden. The AirPods Max have large, matter aluminum earcups that are rectangular with rounded edges and corners for a clean, modern design.
The articulating earcups feature memory foam earpads covered in a knitted mesh material (color coordinated) and attach to the stainless-steel headband which is covered in a soft polyurethane and has a knitted mesh fabric canopy in place of a traditional cushion (also color coordinated of course). My review set came in silver brushed aluminum with white trim, but four other color combinations are available to suit a variety of tastes.
Fit and finish were superb as was the feel of the Digital Crown aka control knob. I found it easy to get used to and more positive than touching or swiping a capacitive surface. Apple’s debut headphone is packed with features and technology.
A few of the highlights include audio sharing with other AirPods, Spatial Audio with dynamic head tracking which ties the sound image to the location of your device, and “computational audio” which uses one of Apple’s H1 chips in each earcup in connection with nine microphones to measure and adjust the sound to adapt to outside noises and the seal of the ear pads, equalization, noise cancellation, etc. Of course, the Siri integration with your Apple devices is excellent.
Apple uses a custom designed 40mm driver to reproduce sounds with detail. I picked Donald Fagen’s Morph the Cat and Credence Clearwater’s Fortunate Son for evaluating the headphones. “Morph the Cat” was tight and detailed with solid bass. The detail in the guitar caught my attention as did the solid imaging. The trumpets were also well reproduced with clean leading edges and dynamic.
On “Fortunate Son” I could hear details in the vocals that I had not noticed before. As with “Morph the Cat” the guitars were again natural and detailed. There are a few things I would like to see in the next generation AirPods Max. It would be good if it could still playback music in wired mode when the battery dies, especially given its ‘always on’ status and shorter battery life. I would also like to see an analog audio input.
While Apple is the most recent entry to the headphone market, Bose is the most established of the noise-canceling headphone brands. Bose has two entries in this comparison, the QC45 ($379) and the NCH700 ($379).
The QC45 looks very similar to the ubiquitous Bose QC headphones found in airports all over the world whereas the NCH700 looks completely different with its stainless-steel headband and earcups that swivel (but do not fold). The earcups are larger than the QC series but are sculpted, giving them a clean, modern look. The NCH700’s earcups have touch controls, while the QC45s have traditional buttons. There are pros and cons to each, touch controls are less certain but there is no hunting for the correct button. Both sets of headphones come with hard cases, but the QC45 case is noticeably due to its folding design.
The NCH700 are the more upscale, feature-rich headphone but the QC45s are newer and the advancements in technology over that brief gap in time are significant. The first, and one of the more important differences, is battery life.
The QC45s have 24 hours of playback compared to the NCH700’s 20 hours. If you need a quick recharge, five minutes will get you two and a half hours on the QC45s but you will need 15 minutes on the NCH700s to get two hours. If you are into specifications, it may be worth noting the QC45 has Bluetooth 5.1 compared to the NCH700s, and they are both limited to AAC and SBC codecs, with no aptX or LDAC, this is going to be more of an issue for Android users than iOS.
Both headphones have voice assistants but the NCH700 adds one-touch Spotify access, conversation mode, and more noise cancellation and equalization settings. Neither pair of headphones have a wear sensor to pause music when removed.
The headphones are both similar in the crucial midrange area but the QC45s have a “smile” voicing with stronger bass and more forward treble than the NCH700s. However, the NCH700s were more detailed in the upper midrange and treble, this was particularly noticeable with the cymbals in “Morph the Cat”. The QC45s were a bit more aggressive on the cymbals, but there was more texture on the NCH700s. The drums on both tracks were more powerful on the QC45.
On a pure sound quality basis, I would select the NCH700 as it has more resolution, and its EQ capabilities can adjust the profile to taste. Listening to “Fortunate Son” on either pair of the Bose headphones had more similarities than differences with vocals and guitars.
The NCH700 has more noise cancellation settings including conversation mode but the newer noise cancellation in the QC45 is more effective. Not surprisingly, the QC45 has more ear pressure than NCH700 but both are less than the Apple headphones. I found the design and sound quality of the QC45 to be a slight improvement over the QC35. Comfort-wise, I found QC45 better than 700 for large heads, the QC45 is a bit lighter and has softer padding.
The Bowers & Wilkins PX7 ($399) ooze luxury and seem like they would cost more than their asking price. The PX7’s come packed in a heather gray cloth-covered hard side case and are available in Silver, Space Gray, or Carbon. The carbon fiber headband is padded on the underside and fabric covered on top. The knitted fabric is color coordinated to the matching fabric on the exterior of the earcups. The inside of the earcups have leather-covered memory foam that formed a good seal on my head.
The PX7’s fit and finish are quite good, as expected, but the material selection was carefully curated to also feel good. They were slightly on the tight side for my large head but were secure. To be fair, they also were secure on my fourteen-year-old son’s head. Like the Bose NCH700, the earcups fold flat but they do not collapse further so their case is bigger than the Sony, Cleer and Bose QC45 cases.
Enough with the subjective attributes, for now, the pX7 has some impressive numbers as well. Despite their weighing in at a relatively lite 10.7 ounces, due in part to their carbon fiber frame, the PX7s provide 30 hours of playback time with noise canceling, and fifteen minutes of charge gets you another five hours of music. Proprietary 43.6 mm drivers can accept high-resolution signals wirelessly via aptX HD but can also accept music via the analog input and more uniquely, the USB-C input.
Listening to the PX7s I found the sound profile to remain relatively stable when used through the three noise-canceling options, in addition to ambient pass-through. The button-based controls were old-school but reliable with a touch of tech with the proximity sensor. B&W’s companion app provides some additional features but alas, no customizable equalization.
Listening to the PX7s I did not want for additional equalization, the bass seemed a bit heavier than neutral but pleasing to me and not overwhelming. The soundstage on “Morph the Cat” was on the larger side without sacrificing image detail as Fagen’s vocals were emanating from a solid position as were the instruments.
The PX7s did a great job reproducing the guitars on both “Morph the Cat” and “Fortunate Son” where the gritty texture came through loud and clear. Likewise, the trumpets on “Morph the Cat” were dynamic with clean leading edges. The Apple AirPods Max and the PX7s were very close in detail but I think the PX7 takes the leading edge here.
Cleer Audio comes out strong with their technology-packed Alpha headphones ($249.99). The Adaptive Active Noise Cancellation with ambient awareness, and touch controls, is nice but expected in the premium wireless headphone category but the Dirac Virtuo Spatial Audio ANC with ambient awareness and Qualcomm’s cVc (clear voice capture) are unique to the Alpha.
The Alpha is not a one-trick pony and also has the features and specifications such as 35-hour battery life, Cleer+ App to adjust equalization and noise cancellation settings, auto play/pause, and conversation mode. The headphones are primarily made of plastic but feel solid with nicer finishes. The headband and earcups have padded leather (or a leatherlike material).
On the fit and finish scale, they are between the Sony and Bose QC on the one hand, and the Apple and Bose NCH700, on the other hand. At 11.6 ounces the Alpha headphones are on the heavier side of the spectrum, but I found them to be well balanced and padded, making them comfortable for extended listening sessions.
The headphones utilize touch controls which can be customized through the companion app. High-resolution wireless audio is possible through Bluetooth 5.1 with an aptX connection and there is an analog audio input as well.
If you manage to listen long enough to kill the battery, it's nice to know a ten-minute charge provides four more hours of playback. When you are not listening to them, the Alpha’s can be stored in their heather gray hard side case which is compact as the Alpha’s fold flat and collapses inwards in the same manner as the Sony and Bose QC headphones. The case has space for the included cables and in-flight adapter.
I tried listening both with and without Dirac Virtuo and active noise cancellation. Without Dirac engaged I found the soundstage on both tracks to be a bit more compact than with Dirac engaged. When Dirac Virtuo was engaged the soundstage noticeably expanded but not as much as with the Sony 360 Reality Audio Format. While the Dirac soundstage is not “audiophile” in nature, in that it sounds completely natural while rendering a precise image, it is close to natural and provides an immersive experience that is likely to be enjoyed by most listeners.
The sound quality was balanced, with plenty of detail throughout the midrange making Fogarty’s vocals and guitar clear and solid on “Fortunate Son”. I found the bass to be balanced and detailed on both “Fortunate Son” and “Morph the Cat” with a slight loss of clarity when engaging active noise cancellation which also results in a slight bass boost. I doubt many will notice it when on a noisy ride but in a quiet spot you will, so turn off noise cancellation when you are someplace quiet. I would recommend that with any headphones.
The Alpha’s passive noise isolation was above average, but the active noise cancellation was not as effective with continuous low-frequency noise such as engine or tire noise. The bass seemed to be slightly thickened and less distinct but on the flip side, the treble did not seem to be impacted when the active noise cancellation was switched on.
Cleer’s 40-millimeter ironless drivers did a good job with the upper midrange and treble, reproducing the horns cleanly and with good dynamics. Lastly, the Alpha’s may only have two microphones, but the clear voice capture system works well and when I queried those, I had phone calls using the Alpha’s they all said I came through clearly.
Last, only because of the alphabetical ordering, is Sony’s WH-1000XM4 ($349) which is priced in the middle of the pack. Opening the box, you will find a compact hard case that holds the folded flat and collapsed headphones. Taking the WH-1000XM4s out of the case you may mistake them for their predecessor as the design is virtually unchanged.
At nine ounces the Sony’s are among the lightest headphones and lack the solidity of some of their heavier peers. Nonetheless, the WH-1000XM4s appear to be well made and colleagues with the predecessor XM3 report that they have held up well over time.
The Sony’s include Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri compatibility, 30 hours of playback with active noise control (38 hours without), proximity sensor, touch controls, Speak to Chat, Sony’s proprietary 360 Reality Audio, and DSEE extreme, and an in-flight adapter.
One notable absence is aptX which was on the prior version. The XM4’s can utilize the LDAC Bluetooth codec for higher resolution wireless signals and the purists can always use the wired connection
Listening to the Sony WH-1000XM4s was a pleasure; they had a slightly warm bass boost, but I did not feel like I was losing any detail on the drums in “Fortunate Son” or bass on “Morph the Cat”. I found the full bass blended nicely into the midrange without overwhelming it. The mids and highs were clear without any grain on the cymbals.
The trumpets on “Morph the Cat” were slightly forward but not harsh or shrill. The Sony WH-1000XM4s sounded great, and their noise cancellation is extremely good. I could not get as good of a seal and passive noise isolation with the Sony’s as with some of the other headphones, but the active noise cancellation did a very good job making up for that. The Speak to Chat function is a good concept but in practice, it can cause unintended pauses, especially if you sing to yourself.
The XM5 model just launched for $50 more. It has more microphones, and its active noise control is said to be better with higher frequency noises, but I found the XM4 to be quite good as is.
As you may have figured, there are many choices in the premium, over-ear, noise canceling headphone market segment. There are options to suit just about every listener. The choice that is right for you depends on your priorities.
Are you traveling a lot? One of the options that fit into a smaller case may be a better option, especially if you are traveling lite. If you have long travel days make sure you pick one of the options with longer battery life.
Comfort is going to be an individual preference. For example, I personally found the NCH700 to be a bit tight on my big head but other family members and friends who tried them on found them to be comfortable and secure. Every headphone here has its own strengths.
Like three-dimensional, surround sound on the go, try the Sony or Cleer headphones. If you are staying home or do not mind packing a bit heavier, the Apple Air Pod Max is a great choice, especially with AppleTV and iOS devices. These headphones show that you can cut the cable tethering you to your system and have feature-laden headphones that produce a great sound while eliminating outside sounds. These options make me look forward to an overseas plane ride, almost.
Hi Caitlin,Great article. I’m so glad you posted this. I was just last week thinking about putting up my own post on this very topic as it’s a misunderstanding I encounter frequently.I have one minor modification to the description of Hot Spots analysis though:“Hot spot analysis uses statistical analysis in order to define areas of high occurrence versus areas of low occurrence.”Occurrence suggests the number of features in a location but that would be similar to modelling density. What a Hot Spot analysis is really doing is looking at statistically significant clusters of high and low values. So a Hot spot is significant clustering of high values and a Cold spot is significant clustering low values. There can be large clusters (high occurrence) of insignificant or randomly mixed values on a hot spot map. I think that’s part of what really differentiates the two methods, the fact that clustering alone is not main indicator of significance.Thanks,David