AirPods Max review: Expensive headphones with untapped potential
The AirPods Max weren’t exactly a well-kept secret. Rumors that Apple was working on a set of high-end over-ear headphones have been making the rounds since 2018. In fact, we pretty much knew what they would look like and how they would be built. Still, Apple managed to surprise us with a low-key December reveal, announcing the $549 headphones in a press release rather than holding another keynote. While the initial response was sticker shock, I can tell you after a week of testing that the AirPods Max are compelling, but these certainly aren’t the headphones for most people.
Designed in Cuper
I’ll be the first to admit, when the initial renders of the “AirPods Studio” leaked, I was not impressed. Thankfully, there’s a big difference between renders and reality. The final version of the AirPods Max look like premium headphones. In true Apple fashion, there’s plenty of aluminum and metal, along with five trendy colors to coordinate with your iPhone. The AirPods Max are exactly what you’d expect a set of Apple headphones to look like. And that’s not a bad thing.
Apple went full Cupertino with its first wireless noise-cancelling headphones. The company offers great sound and features in a product that exudes style. Due to all the metal, the headphones are quite heavy and the “case” doesn’t do much to protect your investment. If Apple can bring spatial audio to Apple TV and add a high-res option to Apple Music (or even support Dolby Atmos Music on other services), the $550 price tag will be easier to swallow. For most people though, more affordable flagship models from Bose and Sony will suffice.
The earcups bear a resemblance to MacBooks. They’re entirely aluminum, and tinted to match the color of the headband. On the inside, memory foam cushions seal off your ears from the outside world. They’re also attached with magnets, and easily (if not cheaply) replaceable — Apple will sell you a new pair for $69. I’m not sure how often you’ll need to swap them out, but some reviewers have noted the white variety already looks grimey after a couple weeks of use.
The headband is noticeably wider than most headphones, to help bear the burden of the extra weight. It’s a metal frame with breathable mesh — a soft, comfy material that also reduces any strain. The headband attaches to the earcups via telescoping arms that adjust for a proper fit. Plus, the cups rotate and pivot to fit your head.
One of the most surprising things about the AirPods Max is the weight. They’re nearly 385 grams — over 130 grams more than Sony’s WH-1000XM4. But just as surprising is that the heft isn’t really an issue. They’re actually pretty comfortable in spite of it. However, these aren’t the best headphones I’ve tested in that regard: I can feel the rings of the earcups after just a few minutes due to the softness of the memory foam (and my big head). But that was the only source of discomfort and it has nothing to do with weight.
For the on-board controls, Apple opted for a rotating crown like it uses on the Apple Watch. It rotates to adjust volume and accepts a variety of presses to control audio and calls. There’s also a separate button that switches between active noise cancellation (ANC) and transparency mode. Those two controls sit atop the right earcup, with the buttons separated by the headband. And honestly, they’re a joy to use. I was skeptical about the crown, but after a week of testing, these are some of the simplest and most effective controls I’ve used on headphones. Everything you need is there, the experience is reliable and you can hit both pause and activate ambient sound with ease. Those are the only two buttons on the AirPods Max. There is no power button, and there’s no 3.5mm headphone jack. If you want to go wired you’ll have to connect via a Lightning cable, which is also how you charge them.
Apple also built in automatic wear detection. The AirPods Max will pause when you remove them from your head, but they’ll also do so if you raise one earcup off your ear. After a period of inactivity, the headphones will enter a low-power mode to conserve battery.
Then there’s the “case.” Apple made a few head-scratching decisions on the AirPods Max, but the included Smart Case is one of the worst. First, it offers little in the way of protection for your $549 investment. The headband is left completely exposed, as are the edges of the earcups. So if you drop these in a bag, it’s only a matter of time before they get scratched up. Sure, leaving the Lightning port accessible so you can charge the headphones is handy, but so too would an accessory that actually protects your gear. This is much more of a wrap than a case, and it almost seems like Apple just cut up surplus iPad covers.
Built for iOS
Like other AirPods, there’s no companion app for the Max. Everything you need software-wise is built into iOS. (You’ll need to update to 14.3 to use these.) From the Bluetooth menu, tap the “i” icon beside the device name and you’ll get all of the customizable features. You can manually change the noise control (ANC, off, transparency) and adjust the functionality of the ANC button by adding “off,” or neither ANC or transparency is active. You can access volume, noise control and spatial audio in Control Center, too. You can also change the rotation of the digital crown from front to back or back to front. Apple will let you disable head detection and spatial audio here as well, in addition to turning off automatic connection to your iPhone. Most of this is exactly what you get with the AirPods Pro.
You’ll notice I didn’t mention a custom EQ. Apple offers some presets in the settings for Apple Music, but they’re not very good. With the AirPods Max, the default option is the best in my opinion. They do include an adaptive EQ system that uses “advanced software” and “computational audio” to adjust the low and mid-frequencies in real time to account for changes in fit and earcup seal.
These are AirPods after all, so you get the handy features built explicitly for iPhone owners. That includes automatic pairing to devices you’ve connected to your iCloud account and hands-free interactions with Siri. And the initial setup is done with one tap, all of this is thanks to Apple’s H1 headphone chip.
For Android users, you technically can use the AirPods Max with those devices. However, you lose a lot of the core functionality, like spatial audio, if you do. And for that reason you’d be better off with a more software agnostic set of headphones that don’t require any sacrifice.
Image credit: Billy Steele/Engadget
Spatial audio and the rest
If you prefer a more “natural” sound to your headphones, AirPods Max offers just that. Apple’s adaptive EQ does a lot of work, but it’s not heavy handed. While some will prefer the more bass-forward acoustics of the WH-1000XM3 and others, I quite like what the company has done here. It fits more genres than most headphones, and the natural profile allows finer details and open, airy sound to shine.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of low-end tone when you need it. Purity Ring’s remix of Deftones’ “Knife Prty” is a great example of this. Bass is a big component of the overall soundstage, but it’s not overbearing. You get the boom, but you also get the subtle atmospherics. The same goes for the thumping drum machines of Com Truise’s In Decay, Too and the droning guitars and bass on O’Brother’s You and I. The AirPods Max are best at keeping the sound big and open, and that holds true with softer acoustic styles like bluegrass, too.
Despite how good they sound, Apple doesn’t offer any access to high-res streaming. From Apple Music, you get the same AAC (256kbps) you’ve been listening to there. The service doesn’t have a high-res or lossless tier like Amazon Music or Tidal. Those pricier services can be limited too, but they unlock things like Dolby Atmos Music and Sony 360 Reality audio. Sony offers LDAC wireless technology on its headphones that upscales audio to CD quality. Apple could do something like that with the AirPods Max if it doesn’t want to add more content, and a more expensive subscription, to its service. That’s if these headphones are capable of it, of course. For now though, these new headphones have some untapped potential when it comes to high-res music. You can certainly use them for those services and formats, but officially the AirPods Max only supports Dolby Atmos when it comes to anything beyond standard listening.
Apple debuted spatial audio on the AirPods Pro in September and, unsurprisingly, you’ll also find it on the AirPods Max. Basically, accelerometers in the headphones work with your iPhone or iPad to track head movement to keep the sound stationary while you move about. It’s meant to mimic the experience of a home theater for content recorded in 5.1, 7.1 and Dolby Atmos. However, it only works with Apple’s mobile devices right now. AirPods Max can be used with Apple TV, but spatial audio isn’t available on the set-top box, so the sound will only be so good. If the company can manage a level of immersive audio that Dolby creates with its Dimension headphones, the AirPods Max would be a compelling living room addition.
Another infuriating thing about the AirPods Max is Apple doesn’t include a 3.5mm cable in the box. Of course, the headphones don’t have a 3.5mm jack so you have to use one with a Lighting connection on the other end. Which means you’ll have to shell out another $35. So to use the AirPods Max for in-flight entertainment (whenever you fly again), you’ll need to spend $584. Most of the competition includes a cable in the box, and if I pay nearly $550 for a set of headphones I expect to be able to use them when travelling — one of the times I need noise-cancelling the most.
Speaking of noise cancellation, the AirPods Max do a great job of blocking out the world. ANC headphones generally do better with constant sounds, and that’s true here, too. They don’t do well countering things like Zoom calls, which I could still hear with these on. I don’t think the noise-cancelling performance is quite as good as Bose and Sony, but it’s not far off. What’s more, the transparency mode on the AirPods Max is excellent. With music paused and that feature active, it’s almost like not wearing headphones. Usually sounds are somewhat muffled in transparency mode. That’s not the case here, and it’s wonderful. I never felt the need to speak louder, or yell, when having a quick conversation.
Battery life and low-power mode(s)
In terms of battery life, Apple says you can expect up to 20 hours on a charge. That’s with ANC and spatial audio enabled. Indeed, I had no trouble hitting that mark. I used the AirPods Max for one or two hours a day for well over a week before I needed to charge. That’s mostly because of the low-power modes the company employs.
Since there’s no power button, the headphones don’t turn off unless the battery is completely drained. When inactive for five minutes, they enter a low-power mode. If you leave them for 72 hours outside of the case, they’ll go into a “lower power mode” that disables Bluetooth and Find My. If you put the AirPods Max in the case, the low-power mode is activated immediately. After 18 hours there, the headphones enter that “lower power mode.” The difference between in and out of the case battery conservation is pretty negligible unless you’re leaving the headphones alone for a prolonged period. Over the course of a two- or three-hour break, putting the AirPods Max in the case immediately only saved me one or two percent over leaving them out.
It sounds complicated, but the results are clear. This feature truly helps save battery life. And since the headphones are always on, they’re connected and ready to use by the time you get them on your head. Nixing the power button is a very Apple thing to do, and at times I wanted to just turn them off and know they were off. But at the same time, it was nice to simply pick them up and get going. Apple is clearly prioritizing connectivity and convenience here.
There’s also a quick-charge feature that will give you an hour and a half of listening time in five minutes. So if you really get in a pinch, you’ve got that at your disposal.
The (less expensive) competition
At $549, there’s no denying the AirPods Max are expensive. Call it an “Apple tax” if you want, but the truth is the company has succeeded in building a set of high-end wireless headphones. Now, are they a good option for most people? Not by a long shot. But when companies like Master & Dynamic are selling well-designed noise-cancelling headphones for $499, Apple isn’t that far off. Supply seems to be a bit of an issue as Apple is showing ship dates in mid-February at the time of this writing. Other retailers, like Best Buy, have the AirPods Max periodically go out of stock. Right now though, they’re available there.
I really like Master & Dynamic’s MW65 ($499) as an AirPods Max alternative. Some will even prefer M&D’s design which uses premium materials like aluminum and leather. The MW65 also sound very natural and avoid any heavy-handed tuning. Plus, you can find these for around $400 right now, saving you around $150 over the AirPods Max.
Of course, the best all-around headphones are still Sony’s WH-1000XM4. There’s more bass on these than the AirPod Max, plus you have full control over the audio and the ANC. If you want them to, the 1000XM4 will also automatically adjust noise cancellation and more based on your activity or location (you have to give the app permission to track you for the latter). The bottom line is Sony’s mix of sound, ANC performance, battery life (30 hours), comfort and customization is very hard to beat. And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that these are $200 less than the AirPods Max at full price. Right now, you can find them for $278.
Lastly, the Bose 700 is one more option if noise cancelling performance is your primary concern. The company was the top choice for ANC headphones for years before Sony debuted its 1000X line. It may not be the king any more, but it hasn’t lost a step. The 700 is a comfy set of headphones with great noise-cancelling abilities and respectable sound quality. Plus, they have an updated design that’s much less of a “dad on a business trip” vibe. They’re $339 right now, though we’ve seen them as low as $299 recently.
With the AirPods Max, Apple successfully built a set of premium over-ear headphones with a unique design that’s all its own. There’s no doubt they look much better than the mostly plastic options I typically test from Sony, Bose and others thanks to a mix of aluminum, fabric, mesh and Cupertino aesthetics. The company has also brought the best parts of AirPods to noise-cancelling headphones, including spatial audio and easy access to Siri. Right now, spatial audio is limited to iPhone and iPad, plus there’s no high-res music streaming. If the company can fully integrate these headphones with the Apple TV, and perhaps open them up to immersive sounds of Dolby Atmos Music or Sony 360 Reality Audio (or add them to its own service), there would be a better case for these. But at $549, Apple needs to check all the boxes to make the AirPods Max a must-buy. And even then, the price will still be prohibitive.