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The hunt for great headphones can take one down many roads, with flashy tricks meant to dazzle on one path and pristine studio accuracy on another. Sitting zen-like in the middle are Apple’s expensive (though frequently on sale) AirPods Max.
Officially priced at $549, the over-ear, closed back aluminum cans test the limits of Apple’s luxury pricing scheme. That said, you get a lot for that price, like active noise cancellation (ANC), transparency mode, head-tracked spatial audio, proximity sensors for auto-pausing, and access to the Siri smart assistant, either by holding down the digital crown button or using the wake word.
The AirPods Max do a good job showcasing Apple’s minimalist style, while also vaguely recalling the look of classic ‘70s cans from makers like Koss. The speakers themselves are featureless save for the microphone cutouts positioned around the outside edge, the Lightning (groan) charge port on the bottom of the right speaker, and the controls on top of same.
Where they attach to the headband, thin metal rods taper down to what almost looks like a ball joint, but is actually a complex electromechanical joint that allows for twisting and articulation while keeping the headphones clamped firmly (but not painfully, at least generally) to your head. The connecting rod slides smoothly in and out of the tubes of the soft-touch headband and holds its place surprisingly well. The mesh material that pads the headband also does its job, though I worry about the fabric tearing over time.
The headphones have a single port on them: a Lightning port on the bottom of the right cup, which serves for both charging and–provided you spend $35.00 on Apple’s Lightning-to-3.5mm audio jack–wired connectivity. The lack of an integrated 3.5mm output seems like a glaring omission, given the price. The $350 Sony WH-1000XM4, on the other hand, ships with a hard zipper case, a 3.5-inch audio jack cable, a charge cable, and even one of those weird dual airplane audio jack dongles.
Do the AirPods Max come with a case?
Speaking of cases, the AirPods Max does come with one–sort of.
The Smart Case is more of a sleeve that slips over the exterior of the cans, leaving the headband exposed to the elements. A flap folds over the middle and magnetically attaches to itself over the body of the AirPods Max.
The case might prevent general damage, but there’s no effort to prevent dust or moisture from getting in, as the case is wide open in several spots. And yes, it looks silly as all get out.
Slipping the AirPods Max into the Smart Case puts the headphones into low power mode, the closest they’ll ever get to “off” without running down the battery.
And speaking of the battery, the AirPods Max are rated for 20 hours of battery life with ANC enabled, a little low compared to the 30 hours offered by the Sony WH-1000XM5 headphone.
How are the AirPod Max’s volume controls?
There are a few different ways to interact with the AirPods Max, starting with the physical.
On the right ear piece, you’ll find at the top a dial and an elongated, pill-shaped button, each looking like jumbo-sized versions of their counterparts on the side of an Apple Watch. The dial, or “digital crown,” is a massive improvement over the fiddly touch controls or sometimes-mysterious buttons found on other Bluetooth headphones.
The crown is also a button and functions like the stalk squeeze of a pair of AirPods Pro; you press once for play/pause, twice or thrice to skip forward and back, or long-press for Siri. The pill-shaped button toggles between transparency mode and noise cancellation. These controls accomplish more with two buttons than many headphones do with five, and are among the best things about Apple’s luxury headphones.
You can also use an iOS device or Mac to adjust volume/activate Siri or adjust spatial audio settings, or simply say “Hey, Siri” and follow that up with commands to do anything you can do with the physical buttons. Weirdly, Siri can’t handle requests related to spatial audio, though.
How do the AirPods Max sound?
The AirPods Max are great-sounding headphones. They’re not overly thumpy on the low end, instead offering clear, well balanced sound that makes it easy to pick apart individual aspects of a song. Having closed-back speakers, they’ll feel somewhat confined, which Apple addresses with Dolby Atmos-powered spatial audio. It’s a flashy effect that works very well on some tracks, but the feature can also significantly alter the sound of anything that wasn’t mixed for Atmos to begin with, so it’s rarely worth keeping on permanently.
As great as they sound, the AirPods Max may not be to some audiophiles’ liking due to Bluetooth’s limited capabilities. The 256kbps, 44.1Khz sample rate will be plenty for most people, and if you want a CD-quality or 24-bit/48Khz lossless signal, it’s achievable through Apple’s bi-directional Lightning-to-3.5mm cable, a specialized accessory for which there is no apparent alternative. You won’t, however, be able to hear even the company’s own hi-res lossless ALAC codec, even over a wire. Realistically though, the missing ALAC support will only be important to a small subset of people (like studio engineers) who wouldn’t consider using the AirPods Max anyway, as they offer too much color for dedicated audio recording use.
Apple’s general approach to audio jibes well with my taste, and the AirPods Max are no different. They’re great for music with bombastic production, giving every instrument room to spread out and be heard. A great example is Elvis Presley’s “Long Black Limousine,” which begins with the deep, sustained jab of a G note on an open grand piano, a struck funeral bell, and a hand rhythmically slapping a knee. As Elvis’ warbling late-stage baritone spreads over the mix and the organ, cello, and backing singers slide in, you can track that delicate knee slap as it’s subtly replaced by the light tapping of a barely closed hi-hat. Later in the song, when strings, horns, and the organ all pile into the left channel like a musical clown car, each aspect remains distinct despite the mix’s best efforts to the contrary. That level of detail (which is easily lost in the Sony XM4s over Bluetooth) might not be crucial, but adds so much more to the experience when you can hear it.
Switching gears to punk rock, I gave The Shook Ones’ 2018 album Body Feel a listen. It’s a well-recorded, raucous album, and the AirPods Max do a great job translating the crunch of the distorted, overdriven guitars, fuzzy bass, and the soaking wet reverb on the strained vocals of singer Scott Freeman. At the same time, the noise manages to stay out of the way of the desperately thrashing drums. Listening closely, particularly to the guitar in tracks like “Night Blind,” the guitar almost sounds like you’re getting it straight from the amp it was played through.
Listening to something with a much more bass-heavy sound, fans of the dancey style of Beyoncé’s Renaissance might initially be as underwhelmed as I was, as the AirPods Max simply won’t produce the kind of thick punch you get from the Sony XM4s. But the AirPods’ clean, resonant bass signal quickly drew me back in, allowing me to appreciate the album differently than I would have with a more EDM-oriented headphone. The AirPods Max still won’t deliver what many people are looking for when listening to dance music, but it’ll do fine in an office.
How does noise-canceling and transparency mode word on the AirPods Max?
The AirPods Max are great at noise cancellation, even with a recent firmware update that seems to have taken some of the shine off. Compared to the Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones, performance is roughly identical, although the two each have their issues. The XM4s, in my experience, pump faint but audible white noise into my ears, while the AirPods Max have a tendency to create a minor feeling of pressure in my ears. I don’t find the slight sensation of pressure overly troublesome, but if that’s bothered you in the past, you’ll want to try the AirPods Max before you buy. In everyday use, they did a great job blocking out the noise from the small desktop heater I use in the mornings, and they reduced the piercing squeal from a broken dryer in the basement to a barely audible level. The ANC on Sony’s headphones was also effective, although to a lesser degree.
The AirPods Max transparency mode is excellent, sounding very close to wearing no headphones at all. That’s not the case with Sony’s cans, which tend to make everything sound like it’s in a tunnel. It’s so good that when I’m using my headphones at home and I need to leave my desk for anything, I don’t feel any need to remove them. I just toggle transparency on with a push of the button, drop the volume a bit with the digital crown, and walk to get water, a snack, or whatever, without fear of rudely ignoring anyone. The noise cancellation is great, but what Apple’s done with transparency mode in these and its AirPods Pro is nothing short of stellar.
How do the AirPods Max work with iPhones, Macs, and other Apple devices?
One of the main reasons to get a set of AirPods Max is the Apple ecosystem. When you pair the headphones with one of your devices, they’re immediately paired with every other computer, phone, tablet, or streaming box you own from the company. If the Apple Car ever happens, they’ll probably pair with that too. There’s an auto-switching feature, too, so even if you’ve been using the AirPods Max with an iMac all day, they should automatically switch over to your iPhone when you take a call.
That’s the promise, and when it works, it’s a revelation. At times, though, the AirPods Max will fail to transfer to the Apple device I want to use, or my phone will appear to play audio, with nothing coming out of the speakers. The glitch usually resolves if I put the AirPods Max back in their case and take them out again, but that’s an annoying workaround, particularly if the case doesn’t happen to be nearby.
I don’t mean to grind my ax over this, however. While the occasional hiccups can be frustrating, Apple’s automatic switching has a comparatively low failure rate, and it’s far better than the old days of manual Bluetooth pairing.
How comfortable are the AirPods Max to wear?
For all their premium materials, the AirPods Max can be fatiguing to wear. They’re definitely on the hefty side, and that weight seems to necessitate a stronger-than-typical clamp force.
That said, it’s easy to relieve pressure on your head by adjusting the angle of the speakers, while the deep ear cups allow my large-ish ears to sit comfortably inside without touching the speaker grille.
Is a new version of the AirPods Max on the horizon?
It’s likely the next iteration of these headphones–if and when it comes–will ship with USB-C, or potentially even MagSafe (though I’d be surprised) charging. One would hope Apple would relent on its opposition to the headphone jack—after all, it’s done so for other ports recently—but it’s probably more likely the company is waiting to put the next generation of AirPods Max out with a proprietary Bluetooth-replacement that can accommodate the increased throughput that higher resolution lossless audio requires.
That’s all pretty enticing, but don’t hold your breath for the AirPods Max 2. Apple’s big October announcements have come and gone without any mention of the Max, and the most recent rumors coming from Apple insider Mark Gurman suggest the company has no immediate plans for a full refresh, though it may put out new colors.
Should you buy AirPods Max?
If great sound and convenience are important to you and you’re an Apple user, the AirPods Max are excellent headphones. Their noise cancellation is top-tier, and transparency mode makes you feel like you aren’t wearing headphones at all.
Listening to music is a joy, with a clear sound profile that leaves plenty of room at all parts of the audio spectrum without giving one precedence over another, leading to resonant bass, silky mids, and standout treble that doesn’t stab your eardrums.
Beyond great audio, the AirPods Max are so tightly manufactured, work so well (most of the time) within the Apple ecosystem, and have such good external noise processing that they’re easy to recommend.
The AirPods Max aren’t without their flaws—a silly case, no way to go wired out of the box, Lightning rather than USB-C—yet they feel worth it, especially given the (seemingly permanent) $100 price cut through most third-party retailers.
Wes Davis is a reformed touring country musician with a longstanding infatuation with technology that began with a Commodore 64, continued with navigating file systems in MS-DOS and writing fantasy novels on a Macintosh Performa 550. Now, his days are occupied with cycling, fatherhood, networking tech, and fixing what ain’t broke with smart home gear.