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How the first Sonos headphones could beat the Apple AirPods Max

Apple airpods max
The Apple AirPods Max. (Image credit: Apple)

Sonos is a huge player in the world of home audio, with its range of super-connected wireless speakers and soundbars making it a trusted brand for audiophiles and casual music listeners alike. 

Now it looks like the audio company is about to enter a new market, after patents and confirmation of a mystery product launch on March 9 have stoked rumors of the first Sonos headphones

With Sonos’ reputation for putting out excellent speakers and murmurs of integration with its existing multi-room system, expectations for the rumored wireless headphones are high, echoing the hype we saw last year for the arrival of Apple’s first over-ear headphones.

In many ways, the Apple AirPods Max lived up to the hype, delivering an excellent sound and unrivaled connectivity with iOS devices – though in other ways they disappointed, lacking basic features despite their incredibly high price. 

While the Sony WH-1000XM4 are still the headphones to beat, we’re excited to see how Sonos approaches its first over-ear headphones in comparison to Apple – and if the company gets it right, it could blow the AirPods Max out of the water, and even give Sony a run for its money. 

sonos wireless headphones

A patent gave us a sneak preview of the design of the first Sonos headphones. (Image credit: Future / DPMA)

Getting the basics right

Before we get into the special features that Sonos could use to propel its headphones above the competition, it’s crucial that the company gets the basics right.

That means the first Sonos headphones will need to provide excellent connectivity, a long battery life of 30 hours or more, a comfortable, stylish design, and class-leading active noise cancellation.

While they’re still to be confirmed by the company, a series of patents have given us a few clues about the features they could sport, basic and otherwise.

The first is wireless connectivity via Bluetooth – and to compete with the huge number of wireless headphones on the market, Sonos should opt for the latest Bluetooth 5.1 codec. 

Going for the latest wireless standard should ensure Sonos’ first headphones maintain a strong connection with other devices – but that’s not the only thing on our connectivity wishlist. 

We’d love to see support for aptX Adaptive, which allows for 96kHz Hi-Res Audio files to be transmitted wireless. We’ve already seen this technology adopted by the Bowers & Wilkins PX7, and it would be a welcome addition for audiophiles taking a chance on the first Sonos headphones. 

The patent also describes noise-cancelling tech, which is an increasingly sought-after feature for over-ear headphones. Hopefully, Sonos will employ adaptive noise-cancelling as seen with the Sony WH-1000XM4; this clever tech adapts the level of noise cancellation to your environment in real time, ramping up for loud environments and turning down for quiet environments. 

Of course, Sonos will need to get the design right to compete with the best headphones in the world. Sonos products typically follow a sleek, minimalist design aesthetic, in black and white color variations. 

We’d expect to see more of the same from the first Sonos headphones, with minimal external hardware and a slick user interface, perhaps making use of touch sensitive housings that allow you to control your music playback without digging your phone out of your pocket.

sonos one

Sonos products typically follow a strict black or white color scheme. (Image credit: Sonos)

Unbeatable audio

Sonos already has a great reputation when it comes to the audio performance of its wireless speakers and soundbars, and we’re expecting more of the same from its first headphones. 

The brand regularly tops our product recommendation lists, with the Sonos Arc soundbar, Sonos Move portable speaker, and Sonos One wireless speaker all offering an exceptional sonic experience.

That being said, the first Sonos headphones will have to sound very good indeed to best the AirPods Max, which blew us away with their wide, well-balanced soundstage, excellent detail and rhythmic accuracy, and fantastic imaging. 

Sonos may look to emulate this by employing similar drivers; the AirPods Max contain 40mm neodymium drivers, which feature dual neodymium ring magnet motors to reduce distortion. 

Pair this with support for Hi-Res Audio, and Sonos could make a lot of audiophiles very happy indeed. 

We’ll also be interested to see whether Sonos includes any support for immersive audio technologies like Dolby Atmos for Headphones. The AirPods Max feature Apple’s own Spatial Audio tech, which makes them a great pair of headphones for watching movies and TV shows.

Apple AirPods Max construcción

The inner workings of the Apple AirPods Max. (Image credit: Apple)

Playing to its strengths

Sonos is a giant in the world of multi-room wireless audio solutions, and by playing to its strengths, it could blow the Apple AirPods Max and other rivals out of the water.

And that could be a reality. The most interesting feature revealed in the Sonos headphones patent describes how the wireless headphones might interact with existing Sonos speakers, with what the company calls 'swapping':

"For example, if a particular piece of content play is currently playing on the wireless headphone, a swap changes the playback to play that piece of content on one or more other playback devices on the local network."

So in theory, you could be listening to music on your Sonos headphones and swiftly switch that music over to your Sonos speaker, whether it's part of a multi-room audio system or a standalone smart speaker like the Sonos One or the Sonos Move.

It’s certainly an exciting prospect, and it would really set the rumored headphones apart from the competition.

sonos

Sonos is well known for its wireless audio products. (Image credit: Sonos)

Addressing Apple’s shortcomings

When the AirPods Max launched in late 2020, we weren’t sure what to expect. Apple had never made a pair of over-ear wireless headphones before, and while the AirPods and AirPods Pro gave us an idea of the connectivity features we might see, things like design, sound quality, and usability were largely a mystery. 

And we were pleasantly surprised. The Apple AirPods Max turned out to be among the best-sounding headphones we've ever tested, and their noise cancellation easily stands up to the likes of the Sony WH-1000XM4 and the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700

However, their high price, limitations for Android users, and lack of 3.5mm audio port means we'd only recommend them to iOS users with a lot of money to spare – and no interest in Hi-Res Audio.

Those oversights, along with their high price, are why we couldn’t recommend the AirPods Max as the best wireless headphones you can buy today – and that means, if Sonos can address those issues, the company’s first wireless headphones could be an exceptional foray into the world of personal audio.

For what it’s worth, the patents we’ve seen suggest that the first Sonos headphones will come with a 3.5mm audio port, allowing audiophiles to use a wired connection for pristine music playback, as well as letting you use the headphones when the battery runs dry. 

The price issue may be harder to address. Sonos products rarely come cheap, and we don’t expect that the brand’s first headphones will be any different. However, if it can undercut the $549 / £549 / AU$899 Apple AirPods Max even by just a little, that could be enough to edge its first cans ahead in the battle for your ears. 

In any case, we don’t think Sonos will price its headphones any lower than the Sony WH-1000XM4, which cost $349.99 / £349 / AU$549 – but if it did, and we got those special Sonos features we’ve been hearing about, the first Sonos headphones could even rival Sony’s cans, and take the crown as the best headphones in the world.

Of course, we’ll have to wait and see what Sonos reveals on March 9 to find out. There’s every chance that the new product will be a wireless speaker, with rumors of a smaller, cheaper version of the Sonos Move, being bandied about as well. 

As much as we loved the Sonos Move (and would welcome a more budget-friendly model), we’re really hoping for a pair of headphones. After all, if the rumored specs are to be believed, they could shake up the world of personal audio in a way we’ve never seen before, even from the first Apple over-ear headphones. 

Olivia Tambini

Olivia is TechRadar's Audio & Music Editor, covering everything from headphones to music streaming services. Based in TechRadar's London offices, she's a popular music graduate who worked in the music industry before finding her calling in journalism. She's previously been interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live on the subject of multi-room audio, chaired panel discussions on diversity in music festival lineups, and her bylines include T3, Stereoboard, Top Ten Reviews Creative Bloq, and Croco Magazine.  In her spare time Olivia likes gardening, painting, and hanging with her cat Ethel and golden retriever Dora.