Apple's $549 AirPods Max Headphones Offer Big Sound and Bugs: Review

(Bloomberg) - The AirPods Max headphones sound great. For almost the price of an iPhone 11, anything else would be a huge disappointment.
Apple Inc.'s entry into the rapidly growing noise-canceling over-ear headphones category was inevitable, and the end result meets the company's usual high standards. The AirPods Max were tested in the United States and Japan across a variety of music genres, use cases, and connected devices, showing a notch above the typical $ 300 headphones in their class. But they didn't quite justify their $ 549 price tag due to some flaws and imperfections.
If you're an iPhone or iPad user, you'll find a seamless pairing. But once Macs and devices from outside the Apple ecosystem enter the fray, things can get frustrating. In our tests, using it with a Mac sometimes resulted in problems with phone calls and distorted audio. For users in the Windows PC and Android ecosystems, switching between devices requires manual input every time.
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Apple keeps up with leading noise-canceling providers like Sony Corp.'s $ 280 WH-1000XM4. Step without threatening to stage it. The company is clearly ahead with its transparency mode, which provides mostly natural sound when you want to hear the world around you without removing your headphones.
The AirPods Max, built around a sturdy steel frame and aluminum ear cups, are among the heaviest headphones in their category. However, due to their weight distribution, this is not a problem in our tests. The mesh headband prevents pressure from building up on the top of the head over long periods of time. However, it's also a point of durability as it appears to be prone to dirt pick-up or cracking, and not user-replaceable like the magnet on the ear pads. Apple's decision not to provide a case that protects more than just the ear cups only reinforces this.
As wireless, battery-powered headphones, this expensive device only lasts as long as its sealed battery system - an issue that plagued regular AirPod owners. Even if Apple announces these as audiophile headphones for a new age of wireless music, it cannot promise the same long service life as wired alternatives like Audeze, Sennheiser or Grado Labs.
The companies that Apple is most directly challenging Apple with its AirPods Max are Bowers & Wilkins, Bang & Olufsen A / S and Master & Dynamic, brands that combine fashion and luxury with their technological offerings.
Here the AirPods Max are already a winner, among other things because of the Apple trademark, their distinctive design and the exclusivity associated with a high price and an early shortage. Seen in it will be a fashion statement that will likely attract more than a few influencers to get Apple's promo work for free.
However, the company that pioneered several innovations with the iPhone and iPad seems to lack a real differentiating function with these new headphones. Apple is not doing anything unique on this occasion and is relying more on superior quality and software features such as spatial audio (home theater-like surround sound) and snappy pairing, which have contributed to the spread of in-ear AirPods.
Indeed, the AirPods Max deliver a sound quality that makes them a pleasant listening experience regardless of the type of music. They are way ahead of any other Apple Personal Audio product. And only a few in their category, like Shure Inc.'s $ 349 noise-canceling Aonic 50, can get close to their sound.
However, this sound quality was compounded by a number of intermittent bugs when used with a latest-generation Intel-based Mac. The AirPods Max sometimes distort sound and cannot adjust the volume using the headset's built-in controls. Sometimes even when you make and receive calls from your Mac, you won't hear audio, but instead the sound goes to the laptop's speakers. These issues require restarting your Mac or tinkering with the settings to fix.
Apple doesn't put a power button on these headphones and prompts users to trust they'll handle power management automatically. It also has an auto-detect feature that turns playback off when the headphones are removed. However, when playing through the Mac's built-in Music app, this auto-pause feature sometimes fails when you remove the headphones. The problem does not occur with an iPhone or an iPad. This is an issue that can affect battery life because music can be streamed from a Mac without a user noticing. Apple said it is looking into these issues.
For those outside of the Apple ecosystem, competitors like the $ 449 Evolve2 85 from Jabra Corp. Maintain constant connections to more than one device for a streamlined, Apple-like experience. To be fair, all of Apple's audio products follow the same playbook: they work best when paired with iPhones and iPads.
The case that comes with the AirPods Max is weak and doesn't offer any real protection. This is disappointing when even the simplest AirPods come in protective hard cases and cheaper competing headphones have more reassuring covers. Apple has argued that the minimal design makes the headphones easy to hold and store - which is true, but does nothing to protect the headband.
According to Apple, the case has an "intelligent" element (triggered by magnets) that puts the headphones in an extremely low-power mode when they are not in use. However, we've found that the headphones are low on battery when they're not playing music, leaving their own on a table. At least one third-party accessory maker, Waterfield Designs, has promised to restore that feature with a sturdier AirPods Max case. However, it is unclear whether Apple will open this feature to third parties.
The battery life, regardless of whether sound is streamed from Apple devices or Android and Windows devices, was enough to last a day and more of music, calls, movies and video games. It is noteworthy that Apple's headphones have virtually no latency when playing over Bluetooth 5, making them suitable for gaming. Apple gives 20 hours between charges, like other top-end headphones, and offers a Lightning charging port - which makes sense since most users are likely to have iPhones, although this will be a nuisance to other consumers.
Since the first AirPods launched in 2016, users have complained that the earbuds' batteries typically only last up to two years before they need to be replaced. Given the sealed design of the AirPods Max, this should continue to be an issue in the future. Apple says it can replace the AirPods Max battery for $ 79 or at no additional cost if you choose the $ 59 AppleCare + option when you purchase it.
To control the headphones, Apple uses three main methods: software on connected devices, Siri voice control and minimal adjustments with the digital crown. Siri on the AirPods Max is the same experience you'd find on any other Apple device, and the microphones generally do a good job of helping the virtual assistant understand your commands. The microphone performance on the AirPods Max is good without differing.
The AirPods Max aren't the first headphones to offer interchangeable ear pads, but - like Apple's other products lately - the magnet system is intuitive and the pads are easy to swap out for around $ 70 if the included pair wears out at some point is.
The AirPods Max follow a well-known Apple Playbook. They start with a distinctive design and performance that outperforms the competition, but at a higher price. In audio, this is a formula that failed on the original HomePod, a home speaker that sounded better than the competition at launch but didn't have a major differentiator.
With the iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch, unique benefits such as the company's own processors have helped make Apple devices stand out from the crowd. The original AirPods also became a hit for their ease of use, discreet case, and completely wireless design. With the AirPods Max, however, Apple lacks a key differentiator that goes beyond the branding.
The high price is to be expected from a company that's not afraid of letting customers specify iMac desktops to $ 5,000 and up. Early demand suggests this isn't a deterrent for vacation shoppers and Apple's loyal user base.
Apple is already grappling with weeks of delays in fulfilling new orders for the AirPods Max, and all signs point to any pair it makes will be selling for a while longer. The question will be, as the initial novelty wears off, how quickly the company will iterate to iron out the software issues and how willing it will be to drop the price to expand the AirPods Max market.
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© 2020 Bloomberg L.P.
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