Apple’s over-ear AirPods were possibly one of the company’s worst-kept secrets of 2020, with leakers teasing a high-end audio experience with a price tag to match. That didn’t stop fans from being shocked when Apple confirmed that the AirPods Max would set buyers back £549/$549, especially considering most high-end Bluetooth cans cap out at around the £350/$350 mark.
With such a premium on the AirPods Max, Apple really had its work cut out – can the cans offer enough to be worth the cost? I’ve spent the past few weeks experiencing all that AirPods Max has to offer and, while there are a few superb features on offer, there are a few frustrations too.
Design and build
The AirPods Max stand out from the crowd not only because they’re much more expensive than most high-end Bluetooth-powered headphones available in 2021, but because of how they look. It’s easy to see that the AirPods Max aren’t quite like any other cans you can buy right now, sporting a minimal design with large, flat earcups made from matte-finish stainless steel that gives them a premium look and feel simply unmatched by the competition.
The look is a bit like Marmite though; I’ve grown to really like the look of the AirPods Max while I’ve been reviewing them, but speaking to family and friends on FaceTime garnered a… variety of responses about the design. If you like it, you’ll grow to love it, but if you dislike it then you’ll be better off going for something a little more ‘traditional’.
But no matter how much you love the look of the AirPods Max, there’s a reason why most manufacturers opt for plastic: weight. There’s no denying that the stainless steel body of Apple’s over-ear cans adds to the overall heft, weighing in at 385g compared to 254g of the competing Sony WH-1000XM4, and that’s a lot of weight to be carrying around on your head all day.
The metal cans are connected via a matching stainless steel metal frame with slim, smooth telescoping arms that help provide the right fit for your headshape. There’s also a knitted mesh fabric canopy headband designed to help offset some of the on-head pressure, albeit with middling results in my experience.
The headband is comfortable and it does lighten the load initially, but I still notice a build-up of pressure over longer listening periods, to the point where I can’t use the AirPods Max for more than three or four hours at a time without getting a little sore on the top of my head. All-day headphones, these are not – for me, anyway.
The cans themselves, however, are incredibly comfortable thanks to memory foam earcups capable of pivoting independently to fit your head perfectly, and you don’t get the vice-like grip feeling on the sides of your head like with some over-ear headphones. Those memory foam cups are easily swappable thanks to built-in magnets, allowing you to switch them out in future once they begin to get a little dirty and lose their shape, although you’ll be paying £75/$69 for the pleasure.
One of the more interesting features of the AirPods Max is the inclusion of the popular Digital Crown from the company’s Apple Watch line on the right earcup – one of two buttons on the cans. It’s a little larger than the crown on the watch, but it essentially allows you to control volume precisely by twisting the dial, and you can also control playback and summon Siri by pressing down.
It’s a satisfying experience twisting the crown to adjust playback, even without the haptic feedback of the Watch, and it’s much easier to locate than small plastic (or, god forbid, touch control) buttons on most headphones – I just wish there was a little more resistance when turning the dial to avoid accidental adjustment when fiddling with the cans.
The other button on the right can is used to switch between the transparency and active noise cancellation listening modes on-the-fly, but the eagle-eyed might be wondering where the power button is. Simply put, there isn’t one, instead using a combination of sensors and the bundled Smart Case to power down the cans when not in use – but I’ll go into that in more detail a little later.
One of the bigger annoyances, especially those who rely on wired audio connectivity in place of the preferred Bluetooth connectivity on offer from the AirPods Max, is that there isn’t a 3.5mm cable in the box. It’s a staple in practically every set of wireless headphones on the market, and it’s a bit of a shock considering the premium you’re paying for the AirPods Max.
If you do want a wired experience, allowing you to hook the cans up to a DAC for an even better audio experience, you’ll have to fork out an additional £35/$35 for the pleasure.
Oh, and don’t even think about wearing these to the gym or during even a smattering of rain – unlike the AirPods Pro, the AirPods Max have no kind of water resistance whatsoever.
The high-end audio experience on offer from the AirPods Max stems from custom-built 40mm dynamic drivers designed to produce a wide, balanced soundscape, but as you might expect, it doesn’t stop there.
There’s a dual neodymium ring magnet motor in each cup to limit harmonic distortion to less than 1% according to Apple, which, to you and I, means the cans won’t ever sound distorted, even when cranked up to the max – you might start to get badgered by your Apple Health noise notifications though. Ear health is important, after all!
As with the in-ear AirPods, there’s a custom chipset on board, but it’s much more impressive than that of the AirPods Pro. There’s a custom H1 chip in each earcup with 10 audio cores capable of performing 9 billion operations per second that, in addition to powering the Siri smarts and auto play/pause technology, offer an adaptive EQ that enhances music on the fly. Yeah, it’s safe to say these are capable wireless headphones.
With all that said, the AirPods Max audio performance is simply incredible. The balanced nature of the headphones means they’re capable of handling just about any genre of music, whether that’s bass-heavy Dubstep or something a little more Classical, with amazing sound separation that allows each instrument to ‘sing’ clearly.
I’ve picked up on new tones and sounds in songs I’ve listened to for years, whether that’s the gentle pluck of a guitar or the crisp rasp of particularly heavy vocals, and it makes me genuinely excited to re-experience some of my favourite tracks. It’s an eye-opening (or should I say ear-opening) experience for music fans.
More specifically, the bass performance is phenomenal, able to handle even intense bass from tracks like Billie Eilish’s Bury a Friend and 6ix9ine’s Gooba, but that doesn’t come at the sacrifice of the mids or highs, with accurate mid-range sounds and crisp, bright high frequencies, and that’s true at any volume. It’s a joy listening to operatic melodies like Puccini’s O Mio Babbino Caro with an unmatched level of detail and definition, and while it likely won’t impress true audiophiles, it’ll blow the socks off of just about everyone else.
The powerful drivers provide an immersive experience when listening to music, but Apple has taken that a step further with spatial audio support. Introduced with the AirPods Pro, spatial audio is Apple’s answer to surround sound for headphones, positioning sound around you within a digital sphere to make movies and TV shows sound as if you were actually there. If there’s a knock at the door behind the character on the movie, you’ll hear it come from behind you.
It’s a cool feature that’s improved by the superior audio performance available with the AirPods Max, but it’s not a universally supported feature. iOS developers need to specifically add support for the functionality, and that’s something Netflix recently ruled out.
It is available on the Apple TV+ app alongside a small handful of streaming apps including Disney Plus and HBO Max for users in the US, but until it’s available on the Apple TV – likely with the introduction of a new model – I won’t find too much use for it. If you do enjoy watching movies on your iPhone or iPad, though, this is a big selling point for the AirPods Max.
Oh, and it’s worth pointing out that spatial audio, alongside other smart features like ‘Hey Siri’ available on the AirPods Max, are exclusive to iOS devices – Android users may be better off elsewhere.
ANC & Transparency Mode
The Active Noise Cancellation on offer from the AirPods Max is great, but depending on what you want from your noise cancellation, other options may be better suited to you. Each ear cup sports three outward-facing microphones to detect environmental noise, like the hum of a fan or the hiss of a passing bus, and another microphone inside the cans to monitor the sound reaching your ear.
Using the computational magic of the H1 chip, Apple claims that the headphones dynamically adjust noise cancelling properties on the fly depending on what’s happening in your environment.
For the most part, it seems to work really well, cancelling out low-pitched noises at home, but I can still hear the occasional dog bark if I’m playing music or listening to a podcast at a low volume. I like the hands-off approach to ANC, but if you’re the kind of person that likes to switch between the 11 modes of ANC available on the Bose 700 noise cancelling headphones, you may find Apple’s approach a little limiting.
What’s more impressive, in my opinion, is the transparency mode. It’s not a new concept, already featured in the AirPods Pro and much of the high-end audio competition, but Apple’s implementation on the AirPods Max excels in just about every way.
Using the built-in microphones and the AI smarts, the AirPods Max does an incredible job at not only picking up external sounds and funnelling them into the headset, but it actually recreates the direction of sound too, making it feel like you’re not wearing headphones at all, especially when music is paused.
It’s so good that I don’t take my headphones off when talking to people, instead simply just pause my music and enable transparency mode, and the mics are sensitive enough for me to pick up on a squawking goose about 40ft away during a walk through Walthamstow Wetlands.
For me, transparency mode is the real winner here, making the AirPods Max perfect for those that want to listen to music and stay truly connected to the world around them.
The big problem with AirPods Max
The AirPods Max comes with a matching ‘Smart Case’ to keep your high-end cans safe when not in use, and it’s certainly different to practically every other headphone case available right now.
The handbag-like smart case design is a little awkward and, let’s be honest, meme-worthy, protecting only the cups while leaving the headband – a white headband, in my case – permanently exposed to dust, dirt and whatever else it might pick up as it’s placed on tables and put into bags. It’ll likely get dirty quickly and, unlike the magnetically connected earcups, you can’t swap out the headband material either. Once it’s dirty, it’s dirty.
A compact hard case, like those offered by most other high-end headphone manufacturers, would’ve been preferable.
The bigger frustration is that, as mentioned, there’s no way to turn the AirPods Max off yourself – they’ll only go into a low power mode when placed into the magnetically-sealed Smart Case. The functionality essentially forces you to rely on the smart case, and that can be limiting – especially if you’re headed out and don’t have anywhere to keep the case, as it’s certainly too big to fit into a pocket.
The inability to be able to turn the AirPods Max off also means you’ll likely be wasting power, as even when in the case, the headphones won’t turn off completely for a full 18 hours. They’ll initially go into an ultra-low-power mode, but key functions like Bluetooth and Find My continue to operate, and that means the cans simply won’t last as long as rivals that you can simply power down when not in use.
In one test, I finished a day with the AirPods Max at 97%, and when I connected to them the next day, around 14 hours later, they had dropped to 88%. The fast charging means it’s not the biggest issue ever, providing 1.5hrs of use from 5 mins of charge, but you might occasionally get caught out with completely dead cans as I did during testing.
Most importantly, it means the cans can’t be turned off and on when something does go wrong. Headphones like the AirPods Max, with features like spatial audio and computational audio playback, increasingly rely on software as well as hardware to perform, and as we all know, software can occasionally glitch.
I have intermittent issues with Transparency and ANC where one cup goes into ANC mode while the other is in transparency mode, and I feel that could probably be fixed with a classic ‘turn it off and turn it back on’ but without that option available, I have no choice but to either put the cans into the case or, if I’m out when it happens, completely reset the cans, and that’s far from the high-end experience I’d expect. In fact, it happened just as I was writing this paragraph. Hmph.
To charge such a premium and take away the core ability to turn your headphones off is at times frustrating. The auto-wake and fast connections enabled by this functionality are great, elevating the experience of wireless headphones, but a little power button wouldn’t go amiss for times when we know we won’t be using the cans for a while.
As I’ve alluded to, the AirPods Max are expensive. Like, really expensive. The high-end cans come in at £550/$550, putting them at around £200/$200 more than what many would’ve previously considered the very top end of the wireless headphone market. The Sony WH-1000XM4, currently sat at the top spot in our selection of the best wireless headphones, comes in at almost half the price, currently under £300 at Amazon in the UK.
These are expensive cans, and the experience isn’t perfect, but there is a lot to like about Apple’s entry, from the design to the incredible audio performance and Apple-tailored smarts unmatched by any other manufacturer.
The AirPods Max are an incredible pair of high-end headphones that undoubtedly stand out from the crowd, although not always for the right reasons. The design is sophisticated, and the use of stainless steel immediately makes the AirPods Max feel like a luxury item, but the cans are much heavier than most options, and in true Apple fashion, doesn’t even have a power button – Apple decides when you aren’t using the headphones, apparently.
There are a few glitches that Apple needs to iron out, especially with ANC/Transparency Mode switching, but I’m confident that it’ll be addressed fairly quickly – these are Apple’s hero cans, after all.
Crucially, the audio performance is truly next level, offering a wide, balanced soundscape with impressive audio separation, allowing me to experience new sounds in old songs for the first time. It’s not quite audiophile-level, but for the everyday consumer, it’ll be a transformative experience.
Apple AirPods Max: Specs
- Apple-designed 40mm dynamic drivers
- Active Noise Cancellation
- Transparency mode
- Adaptive EQ
- Spatial audio with dynamic head tracking
- 9x microphones
- Apple H1 chipset (in each ear)
- Digital Crown controls
- Noise control button
- Up to 20 hours of battery life with 1.5hrs of use from 5 minutes of charging
- Bluetooth 5.0
- Compatible with 3.5mm wired connections, but cable sold separately
- 168.6 x 187.3 x 83.4mm
- Compatible with Apple Smart Case
- Compatible with iPhone SE and newer
- Limited Android support