If you had told me that someday I’d be reviewing a pair of Apple headphones that cost $549 and absolutely love them, I’d tell you about an NFT of the Brooklyn Bridge. But here we are, and folks, let me tell you, the AirPods Max live up to the hype. The headphones are gorgeous, sporting that sleek, minimalist design that’s become synonymous with the brand.
But hiding behind those captivating good looks is the company’s powerful H1 chips, nine microphones, 40mm drivers and a gaggle of sensors. It doesn’t look like much on paper, but when you actually give them a listen, you have robust, warm audio with active noise cancelling that rivals heavy hitters in the space. And while I’m not the biggest fan of Apple’s solution for power management, it’s a small quibble in the grand scheme of things. The price however, not so much.
Apple AirPods Max pricing and configurations
Whew! If you don’t believe in the Apple tax, allow me to present you with the AirPods Max. Priced at $549, the Max are some of the most expensive mainstream consumer headphones I’ve reviewed. They make the $329 Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 and the $349 Sony WH-1000-xM4 headphones look positively affordable.
Apple AirPods Max design
One reason why the AirPods Max are probably so expensive is the design. These cans bring all the things we expect from an Apple-designed product: bold, clean lines and premium materials. It’s minimalist chic offset with some funky, off-the-wall design quirk. The first thing you’ll notice about the AirPods Max when you open the box is that the earcups are nestled in a soft-touch rubberized Smart Case that makes the headphones look like a weird clutch purse. The cover even has a small divot for the Lightning port. The Smart Case closes with a magnet which, when it comes into contact with the earcaps, places the headphones into a low-power rest state.
Once you get over the case and unsheathe the AirPods Max, get ready to “ooh” and “ahh.” The headphones are bursting at the seams with premium materials. The earcaps are made out of a shimmery anodized aluminum while the extenders gleam a silver stainless steel color. Instead of leather or leather-like products, the headband is made of stainless steel wrapped in the same rubberized material as the case.
However, the majority of the band is made of a knit mesh that’s mimicked on the memory-foam earcups. Each earcup has an integrated optical sensor that detects when the headphones aren’t on your head and pauses the music until you’re ready to put them back on. Over time, those fabric earcups are bound to get a little grody. When it happens, you can buy replacements for $69 a pair, or get another color to add a little customization to your cans.
The headphones have a number of interesting ports, buttons and... ports. While both earcaps have a mesh-lined port along the top, the right earcap is where you’ll find the top-mounted digital crown, noise control buttons. I was hoping Apple would finally see the light and give us a USB Type-C port, but no, the company is still stuck on Lightning for charging as evidenced by the port on the bottom.
And while the headphones’ build is pretty snazzy, the colors are what really draw the eye. I can’t take my eyes off the Sky Blue cans I’m reviewing, as they remind me of an old-school iMac. But the AirPods Max are also available in Pink and Green. And if you’re looking for something a bit more understated, there’s Black and Space Gray.
The AirPods weigh in at 13.6 ounces and measure 7.4 x 6.6 x 3.3 inches. It’s much heavier than the Bose (9 ounces, 8 x 6.5 x 2-inches) and the Sony (8.9 ounces).
Apple AirPods Max comfort
Despite being noticeably heavier than competing headphones, the AirPods Max are incredibly comfortable. I wore them during an eight-hour work day and then ran a few errands for about 1.5 hours. The mesh-covered memory foam pressed gently against the area around my ears. While it wasn’t warm enough to work up a sweat, I imagine when summer arrives, you won’t have to worry about having sweaty ears thanks to the fabric.
The mesh headband allows for air circulation and does a pretty good job of distributing weight, which made wearing the cans that much more comfortable.
Apple AirPods Max setup
Just like the AirPods Pro and the AirPods before them, the AirPods Max offers near instantaneous pairing with iDevices. When I turned on the headphones, a prompt appeared on my iPhone 11 Max signaling the AirPods Max were ready to pair. A quick tap and it was time to rock.
It took a little more effort to connect to my Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, but not much. I just went to the Bluetooth menu in Settings and selected the AirPods Max. It’s the same process for MacBooks and PCs.
The AirPods Max have Automatic Switching technology. That means after I used FaceTime to check in on my mom, the headphones immediately switched back to my iPhone. If I had an iPad, the technology would also work there.
Apple AirPods Max controls
Outside of embedded touchpanels, the digital crown, that round little knob at the top of earcup is the best control method I’ve seen on a pair of headphones. It’s also one of the best looking. Borrowing heavily from the Apple Watch, the crown is used to control volume and has multiple functions. A quick press can play or pause whatever you’re listening to, answer or ignore calls. A double press skips tracks forward while a triple tap skips backward. A long press activates Siri or you can just say, “Hey Siri.”
To switch between Noise Cancellation and Transparency Mode, you simply press the Noise Cancelling button.
Apple AirPods Max features
It should come as no surprise that the AirPods Max has a host of features that Apple would have us refer to as “the magic of AirPods.” The magic in question speaks to the seamless, near-instant way everything works –– not just with the AirPods Max, but within the whole of the Apple ecosystem.
For instance, you have Audio Sharing, which lets you stream audio between two sets of devices, including the iPad and iPod Touch. It will even work with Apple TV. All you have to do is bring the AirPods Max within range of the device and just tap to connect. It goes hand-in-hand with the Automatic Switching feature.
In terms of Siri, there’s the always-on feature, which means that the digital assistant is always ready to jump to your beck and call. And if you’re not in the mood to engage with your smartphone or iDevice to read incoming messages, there’s the Announce Messages feature with Siri functionality. When enabled, Siri will read your messages to you and you can direct it to respond back.
Siri’s nice and all, but these are a pair of headphones. As such, Apple included a few features to enhance your listening experience. The company uses a pair of its H1 chips to bring listeners its Adaptive EQ. Using each of the chips’ 10 cores, Adaptive EQ adjusts the mids and lows of a track in real-time based on the position and seal of earcups. The result is consistent, balanced audio quality.
Apple AirPods Max app
Apple doesn’t offer a companion app for the AirPods Max. Similar to the AirPods Pro and OG AirPods, you can find most of your tweakable features in the Settings menu. You can rename the headphones, adjust the Digital Crown functionality and switch between Noise Cancelling and Transparency Modes. You can also enable or disable Spatial Audio and Automatic Head Detection.
If the Adaptive EQ isn’t enough for you, Apple has a robust collection of equalizer presets in the Apple Music settings menu. And in case you misplaced the headphones, Apple has a Find My Headphones feature to help track them down.
Apple AirPods Max active noise cancelling
For almost $600, the AirPods Max better have some A1 noise cancelling. The headphones have a total of nine microphones, eight of which are dedicated to keeping out errant noise while the remaining device is used for voice pickup during calls or summoning Siri. So how do the AirPods Max stack up? Pretty well, actually. While they’re not powerful enough to keep the hustle and bustle of New York City at bay, after I pressed the Noise Cancelling button, the city seemed to magically fall away, leaving only the slight whispers.
During my daily walk, the AirPods Max’s noise cancelling severely reduced the construction noise from a nearby Con-Ed truck without any music playing. Listening to Gallant’s “Comeback.” at 40% volume completely submerged what was already a slight rumble. The same thing happened with a passing ambulance, making the blaring siren sound like it was several city blocks away. Using the cans in my house, I found the ANC completely shut out my LG TV when the volume was set to 16, which is slightly worse than the Bose and Sony which both do 17.
But there are moments when you actually want or need to hear the world around you. In those instances, you have Transparency mode. When enabled, the microphones allow a decent amount of ambient noise into the soundscape. That meant the sound of oncoming traffic made an uneasy alliance with Erica Banks’ “Buss It” as I crossed the street, fighting the urge to drop it low and make a quick wardrobe change.
There is an option to disable ANC completely, but if you live in a busy metropolis like I do, I doubt you’ll ever use it.
Apple AirPods Max audio performance
With their 40mm custom dynamic drivers, the AirPods Max are just a few steps below delivering audiophile-grade audio, but the headphones can definitely make a case for hi-fi grade. Whether I was listening to pop, hip-hop, country or R&B, the headphones didn’t fail in delivering robust audio with rich mids and bass that never overwhelmed the highs.
I started my AirPods Max listening party with the Master version of Jill Scott’s “So Gone [What My Mind Says]” on Tidal. Immediately, I fell under the spell of the juicy bass juxtaposed with the flighty, futuristic synths and bright strings. The snare drums were crisp and when Scott said you were going to hear the pages turn, I indeed heard the rustle of paper. Her honied alto was accurate and led the way on this sultry track.
Listening to the same song on the Bose was a bit of a letdown due to the bass –– it’s nowhere near as pronounced as it is on the AirPods Max. However, that lack of low-end did allow me to focus on the guitar and the synth. With that electric guitar, the 700s fell just short of giving me individual string plucks, but it was still pretty impressive.
When I listened to Ayron Jones’ “Mercy” on the AirPods Max, the electric guitar was nice and meaty and hit higher chords without sounding shrill. The bass guitar had good definition while the percussion delivered a clean snap and Jones’ demanding, gritty vocals commanded my attention. Still, I preferred the Bose 700 performance, as the guitars had a bit more body and detail than the AirPods Pro.
For my last track, I went with Phil Collins’ cover of “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me” on Q’s Jook Joint. The AirPods Max impressed with its generous soundscape. From the acoustic guitar to the piano, sax, french horns and trumpets, I heard every instrument clearly. The cymbals sounded so clean I felt like I was in the room with the drummer. Collins’ gentle tenor brought the whole track together. The same track on the Bose wasn’t as warm as what I heard on the AirPods Max. And while the piano was a bit more refined on the 700s, I preferred the AirPods Max, as it gave me a concert hall-type of sound.
Apple AirPods Max spatial audio
The AirPods Max are the latest headphones to feature spatial audio. For those not familiar, the technology creates the illusion of a 360-degree soundscape, which gives the listener an immersive listening experience.
That means when I listened to Lil Nas X’s “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name),” it sounded like the artist’s vocals were echoing from both sides when it hit the reverb. And depending on which direction I was facing, the Spanish guitar sounded like it was coming from that position. The bass was full, and since it had a wider soundscape to play in, it lacked that boominess that can otherwise threaten to overwhelm the instrumental.
When I listened to the same track on the Sony WH-1000xM4, the low-end was definitely more pronounced, but it wasn’t detrimental to the rest of the song. The overall audio was a bit more forward-facing than the AirPods Max, which wasn’t that much of a surprise since Sony audio products are tuned a bit more aggressively.
Apple AirPods Max Bluetooth and battery life
Apple estimates the AirPods Max will last 20 hours on a charge. That’s in line with the Bose 700, but far short of the Sony WH-1000XM4 which have a rated time of 30 hours. The headphones have lived up to the hype so far, as I’ve worn them for 10 hours straight and the battery life was only slightly below the 50% mark. Keep in mind that I’m reviewing the AirPods Max after the firmware update that fixed the battery drain problem that some listeners experience. All in all, I squeezed 18 hours and 21 minutes out of the cans, intermittently placing the headphones back in the Smart Cover.
Taking the headphones off for five minutes places the cans into low power mode. Three days out of the case, they go into a lower power mode that disables Bluetooth and the Find My Headphones functionality. Placing the AirPods Pro into the Smart Cover immediately initiates low power mode, then it goes into ultra-low-power mode after 18 hours. I wish there was a way to initiate ultra-low-power mode while you’re still wearing the headphones. I wear mine as an accessory and I don’t want power drain just because I like to be fashionable.
When it’s time to charge the AirPods Max, you can get 1.5 hours of battery life with only 5 minutes of charge.
The headphones use Bluetooth 5.0 to connect to compatible devices. Bluetooth 5.0 has a theoretical range of 800 feet. I don’t have the space to put that to the test, but what I can tell you is that when my Note 20 got lodged in the recliner and I went downstairs to look for it, the music never cut out. Once I found the phone, I placed it on my entertainment set and left my apartment building, which is approximately 150 feet, the music immediately cut out.
Apple AirPods Max call quality
I’ve made quite a few calls on the AirPods Max and unless I was outside and an ambulance or police car was driving by with the siren on, most of my callers were none the wiser. Outside of those few times, most of my callers reported loud, clear sound. Most couldn’t even tell that I was using a pair of headphones, even when I was outside. There wasn’t any of that telltale wind resistance.
On my end of the call, outside of some slight muffling due to the ANC, my callers’ voices were clear and distinct. Volume was loud enough that I often could hear a lot of background noise, including my niece talking to my nana.
They look good, but more importantly, they sound good. And they’ve got some formidable active noise cancelling to boot. The Apple AirPods Max might have done the impossible here –– found a way to make mainstream music lovers pay high-end prices for audio. The headphones are stylish, comfortable and packed with tech. Not only do you get great audio quality, you have Adaptive EQ to ensure you’re always getting the optimal audio experience. And you have Spatial Audio for more immersive listening. I’m not totally sold on Apple’s battery conservation solutions, but it’s a minor complaint.
The bigger complaint is the price. $549 is a lot to ask mainstream consumers to spend on a pair of headphones, especially when you’ve got the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 and the Sony WH-1000xM4 out there for $329 and $349, respectively. Both have comparable audio quality and slightly more powerful ANC. Plus, the WH-1000xM4 also offers 360-degree audio. But for Apple lovers who want something more substantial than the AirPods or AirPods Pro with seamless integration with Macs and iDevices, the Apple AirPods Max can’t be beat.