AirPods Max review: Expensive headphones with untapped potential

The AirPods Max weren't exactly a well-kept secret. Rumors that Apple was working on high-end over-ear headphones have been circulating since 2018. In fact, we knew pretty much what they would look like and how they would be built. Even so, Apple managed to surprise us with a cautious reveal in December, announcing the $ 549 headphones in a press release rather than delivering another keynote. While the initial reaction was a sticker shock, after a week of testing I can tell you that the AirPods Max are compelling, but these are certainly not the headphones for most people.
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I'm the first to admit that I wasn't impressed when the first renders of the "AirPods Studio" leaked out. Fortunately, there is a huge difference between rendering and reality. The final version of the AirPods Max looks like premium headphones. In real Apple fashion there is a lot of aluminum and metal as well as five trendy colors that can be matched to your iPhone. The AirPods Max are exactly what you'd expect from Apple headphones. And that's not a bad thing.
The ear cups are similar to MacBooks. They are made entirely of aluminum and tinted to match the color of the headband. On the inside, memory foam pillows protect your ears from the outside world. They're also attached with magnets and are easily (if not cheap) interchangeable. Apple sells you a new pair for $ 69. I'm not sure how often to swap them out, but some reviewers have found the white variety to look dirty after just a few weeks of use.
Apple fully equipped Cupertino with its first wireless noise-canceling headphones. The company offers great sound and features in a product that exudes style. Because of all the metal, the headphones are quite heavy and the "case" doesn't do much to protect your investment. If Apple can stream spatial audio to Apple TV and Apple Music can add a high-definition option (or even support Dolby Atmos Music for other services), the $ 550 price tag is easier to swallow. However, for most people, cheaper flagship models from Bose and Sony will do the trick.
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The headband is significantly wider than most headphones to support the strain of the extra weight. It is a metal frame with a breathable mesh - a soft, comfortable material that also reduces any stress. The headband is attached to the ear cups using telescopic arms that adjust for a correct fit. Also, the cups spin and spin to match your head.
One of the most surprising things about the AirPods Max is its weight. They are almost 385 grams - more than 130 grams more than the Sony WH-1000XM4. Just as surprising, however, is that weight isn't really an issue. Still, they feel pretty comfortable. However, these aren't the best headphones I've tested in this regard: due to the softness of the memory foam (and my large head), I can feel the rings on the ear cups after just a few minutes. But that was the only source of discomfort and it has nothing to do with weight.
For on-board controls, Apple opted for a rotating crown like the one used on the Apple Watch. It rotates to adjust volume and accepts a variety of presses to control audio and calls. There is also a separate button that toggles between active noise cancellation (ANC) and transparency mode. These two controls are located on the right ear cup, with the buttons separated by the headband. And frankly, it's a pleasure to use. I was skeptical about the crown, but after a week of testing, these are some of the easiest and most effective controls I've used on headphones. Everything you need is there, the experience is reliable and you can easily activate both pause and ambient sound. These are the only two buttons on the AirPods Max. There is no power switch and no 3.5mm headphone jack. If you want to be wired, you'll need to connect using a Lightning cable. This way you can charge them too.
Apple fully equipped Cupertino with its first wireless noise-canceling headphones. The company offers great sound and features in a product that exudes style. Because of all the metal, the headphones are quite heavy and the "case" doesn't do much to protect your investment. If Apple can stream spatial audio to Apple TV and Apple Music can add a high-definition option (or even support Dolby Atmos Music for other services), the $ 550 price tag is easier to swallow. However, for most people, cheaper flagship models from Bose and Sony will do the trick.
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Apple has also built in automatic wear detection. The AirPods Max will stop when you remove them from your head. However, this also happens when you lift an auricle off your ear. After a certain period of inactivity, the headphones switch to an energy-saving mode to save the battery.
Then there is the "case". Apple made some scratchy choices with the AirPods Max, but the included smart case is one of the worst. First, it offers little protection for your $ 549 investment. The headband will remain fully exposed, as will the edges of the ear cups. So if you toss these in a bag, it is only a matter of time before they get scratched. Of course, leaving the Lightning connector accessible so you can charge the headphones is handy, but it's also an accessory that actually protects your gear. This is much more of a packaging than a case, and it almost seems like Apple just cut up excess iPad cases.
Built for iOS
Apple fully equipped Cupertino with its first wireless noise-canceling headphones. The company offers great sound and features in a product that exudes style. Because of all the metal, the headphones are quite heavy and the "case" doesn't do much to protect your investment. If Apple can stream spatial audio to Apple TV and Apple Music can add a high-definition option (or even support Dolby Atmos Music for other services), the $ 550 price tag is easier to swallow. However, for most people, cheaper flagship models from Bose and Sony will do the trick.
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AirPods max
As with other AirPods, there is no companion app for the Max. Everything you need in terms of software is built into iOS. (You'll need to update to 14.3 to use this.) In the Bluetooth menu, tap the "i" icon next to the device name for 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 nor transparency are active. You can also access volume, noise reduction, and spatial audio in the Control Center. You can also change the front-to-back or back-to-front rotation of the digital crown. With Apple, you can also disable head detection and spatial audio here and disable the automatic connection to your iPhone. Most of it is exactly what you get with the AirPods Pro.
You'll find that I didn't mention a custom EQ. Apple offers some presets in Settings for Apple Music, but these aren't very good. With the AirPods Max, the standard option is the best in my opinion. They 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 auricle seal.
These are AirPods, after all, so you get the handy features that were specifically designed for iPhone owners. This includes automatic pairing with devices you have connected to your iCloud account, as well as hands-free interactions with Siri. The initial setup is done with a tap of the finger. All of this is thanks to Apple's H1 headphone chip.
For Android users, you can technically use the AirPods Max with these devices. However, if you do this, you will lose much of the core functionality such as: B. Spatial audio. Because of this, you're better off with headphones that are more software-independent and that don't require sacrifice.
AirPods max
Spatial Audio and the rest
If you prefer a more "natural" sound to your headphones, AirPods Max does just that. Apple's adaptive EQ does a lot of work, but it's not clumsy. While some may prefer the bass-forward acoustics of the WH-1000XM3 and others, I really like what the company has done here. It suits more genres than most headphones, and the natural profile allows for finer details and open, airy sound.
Don't get me wrong, there is plenty of low end tone if you need it. Purity Rings remix of Deftones' "Knife Prty" is a good example of this. Bass is an important part of the overall soundstage, but not arrogant. You get the boom, but you also get the subtle atmosphere. Same goes for the booming drum machines from Com Truises In Decay, Too, and the booming guitars and basses from O'Brother's You and I. The AirPods Max are best at keeping the sound big and open, and that goes for too softer acoustic styles like bluegrass too.
Despite its good sound, Apple does not offer access to high-definition streaming. Apple Music gives you the same AAC (256Kbps) that you heard there. The service doesn't have a high-resolution or lossless tier like Amazon Music or Tidal. These more expensive services can be restricted as well, but they unlock things like Dolby Atmos Music and Sony 360 Reality Audio. Sony offers LDAC wireless technology for its headphones that upscales audio to CD quality. Apple could do something like this with the AirPods Max if it didn't want to add more content and a more expensive subscription to its service. That is of course the case if these headphones are capable of it. For now, however, these new headphones have untapped potential when it comes to high definition music. You can certainly use them for these services and formats, but officially the AirPods Max only supports Dolby Atmos when it comes to something beyond standard listening.
Apple fully equipped Cupertino with its first wireless noise-canceling headphones. The company offers great sound and features in a product that exudes style. Because of all the metal, the headphones are quite heavy and the "case" doesn't do much to protect your investment. If Apple can stream spatial audio to Apple TV and Apple Music can add a high-definition option (or even support Dolby Atmos Music for other services), the $ 550 price tag is easier to swallow. However, for most people, cheaper flagship models from Bose and Sony will do the trick.
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Apple debuted spatial audio on the AirPods Pro in September, and it's not surprising you find it on the AirPods Max too. Basically, accelerometers in the headphones work in conjunction with your iPhone or iPad to track head movement and keep the sound stationary as it moves. It is designed to mimic the experience of a home theater for content recorded in 5.1, 7.1 and Dolby Atmos. However, it currently only works with Apple's mobile devices. AirPods Max can be used with Apple TV, but spatial audio isn't available on the set-top box, so the sound is only as good. If the company can manage an impressive level of audio that Dolby produces with its Dimension headphones, the AirPods Max would be a compelling addition to the living room.
Another annoying thing about the AirPods Max is that Apple doesn't have a 3.5mm cable in the box. Of course, the headphones don't have a 3.5mm jack, so you'll need to use one with a lighting port on the other end. That means you'll have to pay another $ 35. 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 when I pay nearly $ 550 for headphones, I expect to be able to use them while traveling - one of the situations I need noise cancellation most.
Speaking of noise cancellation: The AirPods Max are excellent at blocking the world. ANC headphones are generally better suited to constant sound, and that's true here too. They don't do well to counter things like zoom calls which I could still hear with these. I don't think the noise canceling performance is as good as that of Bose and Sony, but it's not far off. In addition, the AirPods Max's transparency mode is excellent. When the music is paused and this feature is on, it's almost like not wearing headphones. Usually, tones are muffled a little in transparency mode. That's not the case here, and it's wonderful. I never felt the need to speak louder or scream during a short conversation.
Battery life and energy saving mode (s)
Apple fully equipped Cupertino with its first wireless noise-canceling headphones. The company offers great sound and features in a product that exudes style. Because of all the metal, the headphones are quite heavy and the "case" doesn't do much to protect your investment. If Apple can stream spatial audio to Apple TV and Apple Music can add a high-definition option (or even support Dolby Atmos Music for other services), the $ 550 price tag is easier to swallow. However, for most people, cheaper flagship models from Bose and Sony will do the trick.
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In terms of battery life, you can expect a charge of up to 20 hours, according to Apple. This is possible with ANC and spatial audio enabled. In fact, I had no problem hitting this mark. I used the AirPods Max an hour or two a day for well over a week before I needed to charge it. This is mainly due to the power saving modes the company uses.
Since there is no power switch, the headphones do not switch off until the battery is completely discharged. If they are inactive for five minutes, they go into a power saving mode. If you leave them out of the case for 72 hours, they will go into a "low power mode" that will disable Bluetooth and Find My. When you insert the AirPods Max into the case, the power saving mode is activated immediately. After 18 hours, the headphones switch to "energy saving mode". The difference between saving batteries inside and outside the case is negligible unless you leave the headphones alone for an extended period of time. During a two or three hour break, putting in the AirPods Max right away saved me only a percent or two if I left them off.
It sounds complicated, but the results are clear. This feature really helps to extend battery life. And since the headphones are always on, they're plugged in and ready to go the moment you put them on. Turning off the power button is a very Apple chore, and sometimes I just wanted to turn them off and know they were off. At the same time, it was nice to just pick it up and get started. Apple clearly values ​​connectivity and convenience here.
There's also a quick charge feature that gives you an hour and a half of listening time in five minutes. So if you are really in need, this is yours.
The (cheaper) competition
At $ 549, the AirPods Max are undoubtedly expensive. Call it an "Apple Tax" if you like, but the truth is the company managed to build a set of high-end wireless headphones. Are they a good option for most people? By far not. But when companies like Master & Dynamic sell well-designed noise-canceling headphones for $ 499, Apple isn't that far off. Supply seems to be an issue as Apple is showing shipping dates in mid-February at the time of this writing. At other retailers like Best Buy, the AirPods Max are regularly sold out. At the moment they are 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 high quality materials like aluminum and leather. The MW65 also sounds very natural and avoids any hard tuning. Plus, you can currently find these for around $ 400, which saves you around $ 150 over the AirPods Max.
Master & Dynamic MW65
The best all-round headphones are of course still the WH-1000XM4 from Sony. These have more bass than the AirPod Max, and you have full control over the audio and ANC. If you want, the 1000XM4 will automatically adjust noise cancellation and more to suit your activity or location (you need to give the app permission to track you for the latter). The bottom line is that Sony's mix of sound, ANC performance, battery life (30 hours), convenience and customization is hard to beat. And I didn't even mention that this is $ 200 less than the full price AirPods Max. Right now, you can find them for $ 278.
Finally, the Bose 700 is another option if noise canceling performance is your primary concern. The company was the first choice for ANC headphones for years before Sony launched its 1000X line. It may not be the king anymore, but it hasn't lost a step. The 700 are comfortable headphones with great noise canceling capabilities and respectable sound quality. Plus, they have an updated design that is much less like a "dad on a business trip". They're currently priced at $ 339, although we recently saw them at $ 299.
Wrap up
Apple fully equipped Cupertino with its first wireless noise-canceling headphones. The company offers great sound and features in a product that exudes style. Because of all the metal, the headphones are quite heavy and the "case" doesn't do much to protect your investment. If Apple can stream spatial audio to Apple TV and Apple Music can add a high-definition option (or even support Dolby Atmos Music for other services), the $ 550 price tag is easier to swallow. However, for most people, cheaper flagship models from Bose and Sony will do the trick.
More
With the AirPods Max, Apple has successfully built a set of premium over-ear headphones with a unique design. There's no doubt that thanks to a mix of aluminum, fabric, mesh, and Cupertino aesthetics, they look a lot better than the mostly plastic options I usually test out from Sony, Bose, and others. The company has also provided the best parts of AirPods for noise-canceling headphones, including spatial audio and easy access to Siri. Spatial audio is currently limited to iPhone and iPad. There is also no high-definition music streaming. If the company can fully integrate these headphones with Apple TV and potentially open them to impressive sounds from Dolby Atmos Music or Sony 360 Reality Audio (or add them to their own service), there's a better case for that. However, at $ 549, Apple needs to tick all the boxes for the AirPods Max to be a must-have. And even then, the price will still be prohibitive.

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