Apple’s latest expansion of the AirPods brand is a set of large over-the-ear wireless headphones. The AirPods Max look great, sound great, and are quite comfortable despite their heavy weight. They’re also $549, a difficult price to justify when the competition (primarily the Sony WH-1000XM4 and the Bose 700) are around $200 to $250 less.

In some ways, the AirPod Max give you what you pay for. Build quality is unmatched at any price, and there are some clever design flourishes. But there are also a few compromises worth noting, like a “Smart Case” that is anything but.

For those embedded in the Apple ecosystem, the AirPods Max will be worth considering when they’re on sale for $449 or less, but it’s otherwise hard to justify the price tag, and those who regularly dip outside Apple’s product ecosystem should probably look at alternatives.

Design and comfort

It comes as no surprise that Apple designed a set of headphones that looks fantastic and is made from premium materials. But Apple doesn’t always knock it out of the park with ergonomics. (I’m looking at you, Apple TV remote.) Fortunately, AirPods Max are both great-looking and a delight to use.

Apple’s new headphones just plain look better than any other you’ve used. Credit the smooth matte finish on the aluminum closed-back earpieces, the stainless steel rods in the band, the fine mesh of the ear pads and “canopy” headband—it all works together to create a sleek and minimalist look that puts nearly all other headphones to shame, even those that cost a lot more.

airpods max on head Jason Cross/IDG

The ultra-minimalist look of the AirPods Max stands out in a crowded market. Everyone will know what they are at a glance.

People will notice you’re wearing AirPods Max, even though they oddly don’t have an Apple logo anywhere.

All that metal makes them a lot heavier than similar headphones, as much as 50 percent heavier at 384 grams (the Sony XM4s and Bose 700s both weigh just over 250 grams). Apple has done such a good job maximizing comfort with the soft, deep, breathable ear pads and the mesh canopy headband that the weight doesn’t bother you at all. There’s a bit more clamping force than I’ve experienced on most other consumer wireless headphones, but that too is mitigated by the fantastic ear pads.

airpods max flat Jason Cross/IDG

AirPods Max are anything but compact. They don’t fold up at all, only turn flat.

Try to run or work out with these on, or just turn your head quickly, and you’ll suddenly feel all that weight. No matter, as these are not at all sweat or water resistant, so you shouldn’t be doing anything more active than a brisk walk in them anyway.

The controls are great, too. Apple avoided touch controls (everyone with a hoodie rejoice!), opting instead for a digital crown like that on the Apple Watch along with a single button, both on the top of the right earpiece. The crown is thankfully much larger than that on the watch and controls volume and playback: click it once to play/pause, twice to skip forward, three times to skip back, press and hold to invoke Siri. You can even reverse the direction of the wheel if you find yourself turning the volume up every time you want to turn it down. The button toggles between noise-cancelling and transparency mode, or turns noise cancelling off if you enable that option in Bluetooth settings. The controls are simple, intuitive, unobtrusive, and attractive; everything you want in a pair of headphones.

airpods max controls Jason Cross/IDG

The controls are simple, intuitive, and unobtrusive. Just what you want in a good pair of headphones.

Despite the excessive weight, AirPods Max look great, feel great, and have excellent controls. I wore them for hours without discomfort, with and without glasses, which is more than I can say for other consumer wireless headphones.

If there’s a downside, it’s the fact that these headphones charge only with a Lightning connector and have no 3.5mm headphone jack input (as with many products, Apple does not include a power adapter in the box, only a USB-C to Lightning cable). If you want to use these to listen to an in-flight movie, or to lossless audio from your computer or a headphone amp, or you’re editing video and want to eliminate the latency of Bluetooth, you’ll have to buy a separate and grossly overpriced $35 Lightning to 3.5mm cable. For the price, the AirPods Max should absolutely include this.

The ear cushions are magnetically attached. The idea is that, as they wear down over time (as happens to all headphone ear cushions), you can simply buy a new pair for $69 and snap them right on. That’s an absurd overcharge for some fabric-wrapped memory foam and a few magnets, but competing headphones offer no recourse for replacing worn-out cushions, and $69 is a lot cheaper than replacing your headphones!

airpods max magnetic earpads Jason Cross/IDG

Apple loves its magnets! Snap-on earpads are easy to replace when they wear out.

That not-Smart not-Case

We can’t quite call the AirPods Max a design triumph, though. It ships with something Apple calls a “Smart Case” which is neither smart nor a case. It’s awful. Really awful. Ill-conceived and poorly executed, it’s in the running for the worst accessory Apple’s ever shipped, sharing rarified air with the “hockey puck” mouse and Apple TV Siri remote.

Thanks in part to its sleek metal construction, the AirPods Max don’t really fold up at all. The earpieces merely turn sideways, and that’s it. The Smart Case is a single piece of flimsy plastic material that has been folded up to form little pockets that you slip the earcups into, then fold the top over.

airpods max case Jason Cross/IDG

The so-called Smart Case will do nothing to protect your headphones in your bag.

It’s small and light, but that’s about all it has going for it. It doesn’t protect your $550 headphones at all. The band, with its canopy mesh, is completely exposed to get caught on detritus in your bag, or crushed. There are huge open slats at the bottom of the pouches, so they effectively do nothing to keep random bag items from scraping up your earcups. There’s a little cutout on the right side for the Lightning connector, so you can charge in the case, but it’s kind of absurd when there are huge gaps all over the place.

Putting them in the case and folding over the magnetic flap immediately puts the AirPods Max into a sort of low-power mode to save battery, though the Bluetooth radio will stay active for 18 hours so that Find My will continue to work. If you instead just put the headphones down on a table or something and don’t touch them, they’ll go to a low-power mode after 5 minutes, with the Bluetooth radio active for 72 hours (again, for Find My support).

To sum up, the Smart Case:

  • Doesn’t really protect your headphones.
  • Doesn’t make a meaningful difference in battery drain.
  • Doesn’t hold any accessories you need when you travel.

Whatever Apple’s product development and approval process it, it failed miserably here. This sort of embarrassing junk should never make it to market. Fortunately, it’s not a critical component and can be more or less ignored.

Sound quality and noise cancelling

AirPods Max are extremely well designed and crafted (aside from the Smart Case, which is the opposite of that), but that means nothing if they don’t sound great. Fortunately, they’re a delight for your ears. Audio reproduction stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the best wireless Bluetooth headphones, and the active noise cancelling is perhaps the best I’ve ever heard.

The audio profile of the AirPods Max is not studio-grade. You should not expect a flat frequency response curve. Apple has tuned the AirPods Max to boost bass and mid-high frequencies a bit, which most listeners will probably find quite pleasing. The bass has kick when it’s called for, and it’s clean with no distortion, but it doesn’t have the overwhelming thump of Sony’s XM4s or most Beats headphones, for example. These aren’t going to vibrate your skull, if that’s what you’re looking for.

airpods max slots Jason Cross/IDG

The AirPods Max have nine microphones, behind tiny slits all around the edges.

I’m struck by how remarkably consistent the sound quality is. Most headphones change tone depending on exactly how they’re sitting on your ear, or how loud you have the volume cranked up. AirPods Max manage to sound exactly the same no matter how they’re shifted on your head, and whether you have them set low in a quiet room or cranked loud outdoors. If this is the “adaptive EQ” thing in Apple’s marketing copy, it really works.

Overall sound reproduction quality is on par with other high-end premium Bluetooth headphones, though with a somewhat different character. It’s a little more natural and neutral, and likely to be pleasing to all types of listeners. If you’re a serious audio nerd, know that these are not going to compete with the $1,500 open-back wired headphones and $400 pre-amp you listen to FLAC files with, nor is it meant to.

Noise-cancelling quality, however, is a cut above the rest. The AirPods Max are not quite as adroit at eliminating highly regular sounds like air conditioners as the reigning-champ Sony XM4s, but they’re far better at clearing away more irregular sounds like traffic, general office disturbances, or background talking.

Most high-end noise cancelling headphones have some sort of transparency mode that leaves noise cancelling active but uses the microphones to pipe in a bit of outside sound, so you can hold a quick conversation or hear other important sounds around you. Apple’s transparency mode is light years ahead of everyone else’s. It sounds more clear, natural, and normal than any other noise-cancelling headphones I have ever used. It’s almost like not wearing headphones at all, except you can still hear your music.

The microphone works just fine for phone calls or hands-free “Hey Siri,” but there’s nothing special about it—the microphone audio is good, but not “oh my god” good.

Apple says you can expect the battery to last for 20 hours of listening time with noise cancelling enabled, which is good but not better than the competition. I found the company’s estimate to be pretty accurate. Charging is fast, too: just 15 minutes on a basic 5-watt power adapter took me from 20 to 44 percent. Overnight battery drain, without the awful Smart Case, was only about 3 percent. You can listen to the headphones while charging without any buzzing, hiss, or distortion, a feat not every pair of wireless headphones can pull off.

For Apple users only

While there’s a lot to like about the AirPods Max, you probably shouldn’t even consider them if you don’t do nearly all your listening on an Apple product of some sort. If you ever want to use your Bluetooth headphones on an Android phone or a Windows PC, the AirPods Max will work as standard Bluetooth device, but you’re going to miss out on a lot.

The super-easy pairing is a well-known AirPods feature by now, but consider that hands-free assistant support only works with Siri, too. There’s no way to adjust features like reversing the digital crown dial without an Apple device. With iOS 14 and macOS Big Sur, AirPods can automatically switch from one Apple device to another when you start playing audio somewhere else. It’s incredibly convenient.

One of the coolest features of the AirPods Max (and AirPods Pro) is Spatial Audio, whereby Dolby surround is massaged into a sort of faux-3D sound stage. It even reorients itself as you turn your head. It’s an awesome party trick, but it currently only works with iPhone and iPad, which is a total waste. How often do you watch surround-sound movies on those devices? Apple desperately needs to bring Spatial Audio support to Apple TV and the Mac. Until then, it’s an awesome feature with such limited practical use that it’s hardly a reason to choose AirPods over other headphones.

The best noise-cancelling wireless headphones?

Are the AirPod Max the best wireless noise-cancelling headphones you can buy? For those who rely on the Apple ecosystem, yes. They offer sound quality on par or even slightly better than their competitors, and superior noise-cancelling.

Is that worth paying nearly double the price, though? You’re definitely getting something for that price premium. The materials and build quality puts other consumer headphones to shame. If you want to “flex” your financial success with a pair of quality headphones that everyone will instantly recognize, and recognize the high price, AirPods Max are for you.

But there are a host of legitimate drawbacks worth considering. The heavy weight and lack of sweat/waterproofing makes them all but useless for doing yard work or working out. If you want to plug into a 3.5mm jack, you have to buy a separate $35 cable. The Smart Case is without exaggeration one of the poorest-designed and badly-made products Apple has ever graced us with. One of the coolest features, spatial audio, doesn’t work with Macs or Apple TV.

It’s upsetting to think that such expensive wireless noise-cancelling headphones essentially require you to buy a third-party case and an overpriced 3.5mm cable, both of which should be included.

The AirPods Max occupy a strange no-man’s land of both price and quality. They’re more expensive than, and more premium than, competing consumer wireless noise-cancelling headphones like the Sony XM4s or Bose 700s. But they don’t offer sound quality up to the standards of more expensive audiophile headphones, like those from Sennheiser or Focal. 

It would be easier to recommend them despite their shortcomings if Apple included the 3.5mm cable, a proper case, and charged $100 less. You’d still be paying a premium over competing products from the likes of Bose or Sony, but with materials and build quality to justify it. This is a good product, but the intersection of what you pay and what you get is way off the mark.

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LaraZ
Author: LaraZ