Sony vs Bose headphones: which are best for you?

Anyone who wants a premium audio experience with class-leading noise canceling should be mulling over the question of Sony vs Bose. These two companies make some of the best headphones on the market, blending superb audio quality with freakishly good noise canceling that can literally make the outside world disappear (aurally, at least).

We’ve assembled this guide to help you pick between Sony and Bose – but an important thing to establish before we start is that there are no losers here. Both Sony and Bose produce exceptionally good headphones, and whichever you buy, you’re getting an excellent product that will deliver hours of quality listening. This guide is just to help you figure out what the relative strengths and weaknesses of the different brands are, and get a sense of which you might prefer.

It makes sense to compare like for like, so we’ve picked two pairs of Bose and Sony headphones that are pitched to roughly the same user, for about the same price – the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, and the Sony WH-1000XM5 Headphones. Both have their devotees in the audiophile community, and it should be a close contest.

But who’s going to take the crown – Sony or Bose? Let’s dig in and find out as our two contenders square off.

Sony vs Bose: Design

Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700

The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 look the part. (Image credit: Bose)

It won’t surprise any seasoned Bose aficionado that we think the Bose 700s are gorgeously designed. They have a distinctive look and the quality feels like you’re getting a premium product. They’re available in three colour options, and they feel like a step up over Bose’s QC (QuietComfort) range. The large earcups are comfortable, there’s no feeling of head-squeeze even when you wear the Bose 700s for long periods, and there are well-engineered touch controls on the right earcup. Good marks across the board.

So, how do the Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones fare in comparison? Rather well! They fold flat the same way the Bose 700s do – those who like to bundle their headphones up in a ball won’t care for either pair. This is a marked change from the previous XM4 headphones, as Sony has got rid of several joints and hinges in an effort to make the Sony WH-1000XM5s appear sleeker overall. The band is covered in (synthetic) leather, and there’s memory foam aplenty in both the band and the earcups. Once again, the level of squeeze on the head feels just right – secure without feeling like a death-grip.

The extra curvy design on the Sony headphones isn’t just an aesthetic choice. It has enabled the addition of a few features to improve aspects of performance – like extra mics near the mouth for better call quality, and lessened wind resistance to improve the performance of noise canceling on blustery days.

Ultimately though, we’re giving this one to Bose, as we just feel the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 look and feel more premium. Is that a completely subjective decision that says more about our tastes than it does about the headphones? Well, somewhat, yes. 

Winner: Bose (only just)

Sony vs Bose: Performance and sound quality

Sony raised a few eyebrows when it revealed that the WH-1000XM5 headphones would use a new 30mm carbon fiber driver unit, replacing the 40mm unit on the previous XM4s. But fears that this might negatively impact the superb musical quality of the headphones proved unfounded – the WH-1000XM5s sound fantastic. The clarity and precision of the headphones and the way they handle different tones and pitches – it’s all superb. Whether you’re listening to an orchestra or a rock band, the extent to which you can pick out every individual part is remarkable. The WH-1000XM5 headphones seem to have a preternatural ability to adjust the sound according to what you’re listening to – at times it’s almost like someone is professionally mixing the audio just for you.

The audio quality of the Bose Noise Canceling Headphones 700 is very, very good. You’ll notice we did not say “great”. It’s punchy, it’s clear as a bell. The bass is maybe a little weak. There’s a neutral objectivity to it – whereas the Sony cans sound like there’s a professional at the desk deliberately tuning to give you the richest, most thrilling listening experience possible, the Bose headphones sound like someone really wants you to know exactly what a snare drum sounds like. And that’s fine; there’s a place for that. But all the same, next time we want to experience Lou Reed’s Transformer, we know which headphones we’ll be reaching for.

Winner: Sony

Sony WH-1000XM5 white headphones product shot on white background

The Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones in white. (Image credit: Sony)

Sony vs Bose: Noise canceling

You may have noticed that one of these pairs of headphones has ‘Noise Canceling’ in its name. Does that mean that Bose has all but won this category with its Noise Canceling Headphones 700?

Answer: yes, but Sony has bolstered the noise canceling on the WH-1000XM5 headphones enough to at least make the fight interesting. Both sets of headphones use 8-mic systems for noise canceling. On the Bose, noise canceling can be set to an intensity level of 0-10, though to be honest it’ll be a rare day that you need to push it past 7 or so. Sony, meanwhile, has worked the noise canceling into its clever Adaptive Sound Control feature, meaning the headphones can monitor your environment and adjust the noise canceling accordingly. 

It’s close, but side-by-side, the Bose noise canceling tech is ultimately a smidge more effective.

Winner: Bose

Sony vs Bose: Features

Sony has packed in a lot of clever quality-of-life features that may not seem like much by themselves, but all add up to a pair of headphones that slot neatly into anyone’s lifestyle. One of our favourites is the fact that the headphones will automatically pause playback if you take them off. Simple, but so welcome! They also offer a feature that will automatically pause if you start speaking (be aware that this will also be activated if you can’t stop yourself from belting along with Taylor on the last chorus of Anti-Hero, so those of you so inclined may want to turn it off). There’s optional integration with voice assistants like Alexa and Google, and Sony deserves plaudits for its excellent Headphones app, which boasts a responsive EQ for tweaking the audio.

The Bose headphones don’t have quite so many extra features, though you can do the basics using the app, and there is also integration with voice assistants.

Winner: Sony

Man wearing Bose 700 Noise Canceling Headphones in black

The Bose headphones are designed to shut out the world. (Image credit: Bose)

Sony vs Bose: Battery life

Easy. Sony absolutely runs away with this category – the Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones get 30 hours out of a single charge, and if you pick up an optional USB-PD compatible AC adapter, it’s possible to juice them up to 3 hours’ worth of charge in just 3 minutes. The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, meanwhile, get 20 hours per charge, and can juice up to 2 hours of runtime on a 15 minute charge. And, look, that’s very good! But it’s not quite the same, is it? Next.

Winner: Sony

Sony vs Bose: Value for money

This is a tricky one. Going purely by RRP, there’s not a lot in it – the Sony headphones are ostensibly priced a little higher at $399, compared to $379 for the Bose. Practically, though, the newer Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones can currently be picked up a little cheaper, at around $349 at major retailers like Walmart and Crutchfield. Meanwhile the older Bose 700 headphones have proved popular enough to generally hold their $379 price.

That doesn’t mean this is all going Sony’s way though. The WH-1000XM5 headphones are not a massive upgrade over the previous-generation WH-1000XM4 – TopTenReviews’ editor Louise Carey recently opted for the Mark 4 versions when they were discounted down to $229 in the 2022 Black Friday sales (opens in new tab). Her reasoning was that the newer headphones didn’t bring enough to the table to justify a $100+ extra outlay – and that’s hard to argue with.

Ultimately, both of these headphones offer decent value for money, and come at a similar price point. It may just come down to when you’re looking to buy – if you see either pair significantly discounted, that may prove to be the deciding factor.

Winner: Tie

Sony vs Bose: Verdict

We said it’d be close, but Sony wins out the day. The WH-1000XM5s’ wonderfully musical audio quality, and the clever quality-of-life features Sony has built in ultimately beat out the Bose headphones and deliver a superior experience for aficionados. The fact that the Bose headphones are still generally selling for full price means you’ll often get better value for money on the newer Sonys.

It will be interesting to revisit this head-to-head if and when Bose releases an updated version of its 700 Noise Cancelling Headphones. For now though, in the clash of Sony vs Bose, there can only be one winner.

Overall winner: Sony

Jon Stapley

Jon Stapley is an NCTJ-qualified journalist that has contributed to a plethora of sites, including Shortlist, The Skinny, The Guardian, Digital Camera World and more. He covers photography and technology, covering news on the latest gadgets and sourcing fantastic deals on great tech products.