A few weeks ago, Apple finally unveiled its long-rumoured over-ear headphones, AirPods Max. The product was released in a shock launch that came totally out of the blue. The product caught people off guard and so did the price. I’m personally excited to review them as they’re my first over-ear headphones in years. Now that I’ve used them for a couple of weeks, I have a good understanding of who the product is for and most importantly if they offer enough value to be worth their £549 asking price. Let’s take a look.
Design and Comfort
It goes without saying that Apple designs exquisite wearable products. The Apple Watch and other AirPods all feature carefully crafted designs and the AirPods Max are no exception. The materials are top-notch with aerospace-grade aluminium in use for the earcups. The headband is made from surgical grade stainless steel and coated in a matte, soft-touch rubber. The middle of the headband is notably cut out and features a warp knit canopy (more on that later).
Unlike many other over-ear headphones, Apple has elected to use tactile physical buttons and controls rather than touch gestures. I think this was an excellent decision. The Digital Crown from the Apple Watch makes its way to the AirPods Max which offers a variety of functionality without the need for numerous buttons. Press once to pause music. Press twice to skip tracks. Press three times to go back one track. Rotate to adjust the volume. Simple, elegant and very effective. The AirPods Max also feature a second button that is reminiscent of the side button on the Apple Watch. In this case, pressing this button switches the AirPods between noise cancellation mode that keeps sounds out and transparency mode that allows sounds in.
Protecting the materials and controls is Apple’s ‘Smart Case’. I’ll just say it. This is the worst piece of design I have ever seen from Apple. It fails in every measure of design. It fails on functionality because it doesn’t protect the most delicate part of the product, that being the thin mesh of the warp knit canopy. It doesn’t even fully cover the aluminium ear cups. A protective case has one job as a minimum which is to protect your product. This offers almost no protection at all. Second of all the case doesn’t line up with the lightning port correctly unless you fiddle around with the case to try and line it up. That shouldn’t be necessary! And finally, this thing is ugly as sin. Even the material is terrible. It’s polyurethane which practically begs fingerprints, dust and dirt to collect all over it. The meme’s that compare the case to a bra or a purse are totally justified and the designer that allowed this monstrosity to leave the design lab should be demoted.
When it comes to comfort, the AirPods Max are in my experience very comfortable overall. I’m telling you that the weight is a non-issue. A bunch of other tech reviewers have complained about the weight when compared to other plastic headphones. I haven’t used other headphones in quite some time and not once have I been concerned about the weight of the AirPods Max. They don’t feel notably heavy to me but do feel robust and high quality. On my head, the weight isn’t even a consideration. This comes down to some very intelligent design. The aforementioned warp knit canopy carefully balances the weight of the product and distributes it evenly. The softness of the material makes the headband almost imperceptible on your head. This has allowed me to wear the AirPods Max for hours without once finding the product uncomfortable.
I haven’t found the headphones to clamp down on the sides of my head as can be the case with other products in this category. To achieve this Apple designed telescoping arms in the headband that are infinitely adjustable. Other products of this class use levelled notches that allow you to adjust the width of the headband. Apple’s solution allows for a much more comfortable and personalised fit. The headband also connects to the earcups in a really clever way. The earcups use an articulating suspension system which allows them to independently rotate and better adapt to the contours of your head shape.
The only slight negative I have about the design and comfort is the earcups. For me, I found them to be a little rough. Others have commented on how soft the memory foam is and that is absolutely true. But I find the fabric on top of the memory foam is a little uncomfortable with prolonged use. And I find that when I remove the headphones my ears can feel really hot. Not sweaty as such but it’s an unpleasant feeling all the same. I think Apple has mitigated this sensation by using fabric rather than leather but it’s still notable and I have to be honest about my experience. One brghter spot for the ear cups is that they are magnetically attached and very convenient to remove and replace in a pinch. You could even mix and match the colours of the cups as Apple sells replacements separately.
I am not an audiophile. I actually despise that word. When somebody uses that word it somehow implies a sense of authority when it comes to audio. But the problem is that sound quality is highly subjective. What sounds great to me, might not sound great to the next person. So can we just agree to never use that word again? good! But my point is that I came into this review as a casual user. I don’t use lots of audio products and I’m not obsessive when it comes to buying headphones. What I will say is that to me, the AirPods Max sound great. They offer clear sound across the entire frequency range and rich, deep bass. I haven’t experienced any distortion even at the highest volume. Although these headphones don’t get as loud as I would have liked. For the record, I had a hearing test recently with an audiologist and I have above average hearing. And these headphones don’t reach the volume I would have expected them to. They’re loud enough in most cases but I have sometimes found myself wishing I could crank them up just a little more.
Noise cancellation works great. Better than great. I actually find it hard to hear my own voice when noise cancellation is turned on and music is playing! You feel very immersed in your content with this feature switched on and it is probably one of the best aspects of these headphones. Switching between noise cancellation and transparency mode is easy with a simple click of the button at the front of the right earcup. Transparency mode allows sound in and sounds very clear. When enabled I actually find that transparency mode sounds better than my own hearing! It amplifies the sound around you and sounds really clear and crisp. It’s a great utility for safety and convenience and Apple has done a great job with implementing this feature.
I have to be honest and say that although these headphones do sound better than AirPods Pro, to me at least the difference wasn’t so pronounced that it felt like my listening expernece was fundametally changed forever. Particularly as AirPods Pro also offer the same noise cancellation features.
What makes AirPods so special is not necessarily the design or the sound alone. It’s the tight integration into the Apple ecosystem that makes them ‘magical’. The AirPods Max borrow many of the features offered by AirPods and AirPods Pro to achieve this. Each earcup has an Apple H1 chip embedded inside. The H1 chip enables easy pairing with any of your devices when you take them out of the box for the first time. The chip also enabled instant switching between any device signed in with your Apple ID. For instance, you could be watching a movie on your Apple TV but then pick up your iPhone to listen to music and the AirPods Max instantly switch to being connected to your iPhone.
Inside the earcups, Apple has built-in motion sensors that detect the presence of your ears. When you lift up one of the cups, the music pauses instantly. When you you place it back over your ear, the music resumes. The same applies to most kinds of media. This is akin to removing an AirPod or AirPod Pro and then placing it back in your ear.
The motion sensors also enable ‘Hey Siri’ support combined with the built-in accelerometers. Speaking of accelerometers, the motion-sensing capabilities of AirPods Max combined with the seal they form around your ears (much like AirPods Pro albeit in-ear), enable spacial audio. With spatial audio when you consume Dolby Atmos compatible content such as movies and tv shows, you feel even more connected and immersed in your content. As you turn your head the audio balances in real-time. You feel like the central point in space with sound encapsulating you. It’s hard to describe until you’ve tried it for yourself. It works great on AirPods Pro and works just as well on AirPods Max.
Jumping back to the H1 chip for a moment, another feature that Apple has talked up a lot is Computational Audio. In practice, this means that the chip is intelligently adjusting the sound to be contextually specific to the song, the seal of the headphones around your ears and any preset EQ that you have selected. This isn’t something you’ll notice happening in real-time but I do trust Apple enough to take their word for it. My music does sound excellent and perhaps that is as much to do with the H1 chip as it is the 40mm, neodymium drivers.
Apple rates the battery at 20 hours with noise cancellation enabled and in my testing this holds up. When you take them off and set them aside, they go into a low power mode within a few moments. Their isn’t an off switch. They just work when you put them and go to sleep when you take them off. When you put them into the hideous case they go into an ultra low power mode after 18 hours that turns off bluetooth and ‘find my’ functionality. If like me you prefer not to use the case, ultra low power mode activates after 72 hours. When you do need to charge, you’ll be able to use your iPhone’s lightning connector. A quick 5 minute charge will get you about an hour and a half of listening time.
So are they worth it?
AirPods Max are excellent. But they aren’t worth the asking price for most people. The main reason is that the AirPods Pro exist. Setting aside the sound quality and the over-ear fit for a moment, every feature offered by the AirPods Max is offered by the AirPods Pro for the most part. Noise cancellation, transparency mode, spatial audio, seamless device switching, auto-pause, quick resume and even a customisable fit (via different ear tips) are all found on the AirPods Pro and for less than half the price. For me personally, although the sound is excellent and is better than AirPods Pro, the improvements to sound aren’t so earth-shattering that it makes the extra cost worth it. Perhaps to some people it will be but not to me.
That being said what the AirPods Max do is fulfil a particular need. Anybody that has the spare cash and wants the magic of AirPods but in an over ear design will love these headphones. Anybody not invested in the Apple ecosystem should probably give these a miss. You can still use them with non Apple devices but you’ll lose many of the features that make them special. And when you’re spending this much money you want to be able to take full advantage of these features.
As you may know, I worked at Apple for almost a decade and it isn’t often that I don’t recommend a product but on this occasion, I would only recommend this product to that very specific subset of users. For music obsessives, there are more affordable options. For Apple fans, there are AirPods Pro. For people that genuinely sit in both camps then perhaps the investment is justified.