Are SONOS’ Ace headphones better than AirPods Max? It’s a close call

The long-awaited headphones from the audio aficionados have arrived

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SONOS Ace in white colourway, photo by press

SONOS Ace in white colourway. Image: Press

Review Overview

Our rating

8

Our verdict

A gorgeous sound across multiple genres
Impressive battery life
Handy swap feature for SONOS soundbars
Supremely comfortable

Don’t integrate with SONOS speakers (in the way you think)
High price
Only lossless over cables with iOS

£449, sonos.com

To sum up SONOS in a sentence, the long-running company pairs high-quality audio with convenience. Through a wide range of home speaker setups and soundbars, it brought competent wireless audio to loft apartments everywhere when AirPlay was still a glint in Apple’s eye. The California brand’s reputation for excellent-sounding speakers and a closed wire-free ecosystem that ‘just works’ (most of the time), has made them a staple sound solution for homes and businesses everywhere. Its users, though, have long been looking for a solution to take their beloved SONOS sound and services with them on the road and, after a series of leaks and teasers, SONOS’s first headphones have arrived. Meet the Ace.

Headphone tech has evolved rapidly over the past decade after being fairly static for the previous three. Reliable Bluetooth audio gave way to a new range of consumer cans, with both Beats and the subsequent AirPods becoming ubiquitous accessories almost overnight. Throw in high-quality ANC, the ongoing development of spatial audio and the shift in consumer expectation of what good headphones sound, look and feel like meant that SONOS had to wait to get it right. As a result, despite them being its “most requested product” the Ace headphones arrive 19 years after the first SONOS product launched. But are they worth the wait?

SONOS Ace in black colourway, photo by press
SONOS Ace in black colourway. Image: Press

The Ace shows up in a fairly unremarkable case, but for a reason – SONOS has built the Ace with a focus on sustainability, with the case being made from recycled materials. Inside, you’ll find the headphones, USB-C charging cable and USB-C-to-3.5mm cable in a handy pouch. The headphones look great – they’re available in a black or white colourway, and our matte black pair looks very sleek and feels lighter than their 312g would suggest. They’re supremely comfortable, the memory foam earcups providing a satisfyingly enclosed feel without being too claustrophobic. They feel light on your head while still gripping on solidly: a strong start.

SONOS Ace in black colourway with accessories, photo by press
SONOS Ace in black colourway with accessories. Image: Press

Once you begin to connect your Ace to your device of choice, the first surprise kicks in: the Ace doesn’t connect to the SONOS ecosystem. It can’t be added as an output in the app, and you can’t switch from your speaker setup to the headphones as you walk out the door or move the soundtrack of your commute to your flat once you get home, something that we feel is an obvious use case.

These are Bluetooth headphones, and although they do have a Wi-Fi chip it’s not used to make them an extension of any existing speaker setups you might have. SONOS explains the technical reason behind this on its Subreddit, which is worth a read if you’re a long-term SONOS speaker user. Long story short, they’d be too big, the battery wouldn’t last long and they’d get too hot if the Linux computer that runs SONOS speakers was integrated into their headphones. The Wi-Fi chip instead is used for a feature called TV Audio Swap which we’ll get to later.

SONOS Ace in use, photo by press
SONOS Ace in use. Image: Press

Wi-Fi aside, once the Bluetooth 5.4 chip is connected, the Ace sounds fantastic. SONOS has managed to avoid the temptation of an EQ curve that hypes key frequencies to impress on the first listen but ultimately leads to fatigue. They’re not flat like studio headphones, but more subtle in their sound stage, bringing highs to life without sizzle, and emphasising lows without oomph. Ultimately, they’re an enjoyable listen and when directly compared with one of their most suitable competitors – the Apple AirPods Max – they’re a lot less tiring over long listening sessions.

But, as they’re Bluetooth and lossless isn’t supported on iOS, you’ll have to reach for the USB-C cable on your phone and laptop to experience them in all their glory. And when you do, the difference is striking. Using TIDAL lossless over USB-C, the sound shines further, and although it goes against the wireless ethos of the SONOS brand, it’s the best way to experience the Ace. However, the mics don’t work over USB-C-to-3.5mm cable, which might be frustrating for gamers.

We wouldn’t recommend using these headphones for mixing but they are a lot of fun for producing and creating. The USB-C cable also does away with most of the dreaded Bluetooth latency — they don’t work in passive mode over 3.5mm, though, they always have to be on and charged. There is a two-band EQ in the SONOS app if you want to tweak further, although, once you are connected, they no longer appear in the SONOS app, presumably because Bluetooth is switched off. That needs to be fixed. The cable will also charge them as you work so you’ll be fully charged once you do set off again.

Speaking of battery, SONOS claim an impressive 30 hours even with ANC on. In testing, they last even longer. True to the sustainability mission, the battery is replaceable, as are the earcups, reassuring for the longer-term commitment the price would suggest. SONOS makes a big deal of the quality of the ANC and it is excellent. Tested against the AirPod Max, they don’t remove the outside world to the same extent, but it’s more consistent as you turn your head and move around. Aware mode allows you to let the outside world in, where required.

SONOS Ace in white colourway, photo by press
SONOS Ace in white colourway. Image: Press

Outside of music, one of the truly unique selling points of the Ace is TV Audio Swap, its ability to hot-swap between SONOS soundbars and headphones. This is the only way it truly integrates with existing SONOS setups and to be fair, it is very cool and very useful.

If you’re watching a movie, for example, and someone goes to bed, press and hold the control switch on the Ace and the audio will magically move to your headphones you can continue to listen in full Atmos glory.

The headphones support Spatial Audio and Head Tracking away from the soundbar, but it’s less relevant for music listening. It comes to life for TV, film and gaming though, and you can turn it on separately for each mode, which is handy. It was a little buggy before a firmware update solved our issues. This only works with Sonos’ flagship Arc soundbar so far, but support for the Beam and Ray is forthcoming.

Another fancy feature is TrueCinema. It allows you to mirror the soundbar’s Trueplay room acoustics tuning, to make the switch from room to headphones more realistic. It takes the acoustic profile of the room, tuned using sine sweeps from the soundbar, and reapplies that profile to your headphone audio to make it seem like you’re still sitting on your sofa listening from the speakers. Innovative, cool, maybe a bit odd, but also not ready at testing. SONOS say it’s coming later this year.

SONOS Ace earcups, photo by press
SONOS Ace earcups. Image: Press

SONOS’ Aces are not cheap headphones, at all. They don’t integrate with the existing SONOS ecosystem beyond hot-swapping from a soundbar, and it requires a cable to hear it at its best lossless quality (same as most Bluetooth headphones, to be fair). But they’re still a resounding success.

The sound is addictive — we find ourselves re-listening to albums to hear them on the Ace, not because there are new details or elements we didn’t spot before, but because they are so enjoyable to wear and to experience. They’re the most comfortable over-ears we’ve tried over long periods and, for this new world of remote work and endless Zooms, that’s as important as anything else in a headphone this expensive. It should be an all-rounder, and it is.

For producers, DJs and music makers, the TV Audio Swap may be more novelty than necessity but it is fun and useful if you own a SONOS soundbar. Fundamentally these are stellar-sounding headphones, with excellent battery life and travel-friendly ANC that can also double up as beatmaking cans once cabled in – unless you’re happy programming drums with Bluetooth latency, in which case we salute you.

Key Features

  • TV Audio Swap lets you hot-swap between headphones and soundbar
  • That warm, balanced SONOS sound
  • 30 hours of listening time, charged via USB-C
  • Lossless and spatial audio capabilities with head tracking and Dolby Atmos
  • Bluetooth 5.4
  • Adjustable EQ
  • Custom-designed 40 mm dynamic drivers
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