When Apple abruptly announced the AirPods Max at the tail end of 2020, I thought they were provocatively beautiful — à la Megan Fox in Transformers or Selma Hayek in From Dusk Till Dawn. My heart was beating out my chest, my jaw dropped to the ground, and my eyes looked like the peepers on the heart-eyes emoji. I wanted the AirPods Max wireless headphones and I wanted them now.
The luxurious, premium-looking anodized aluminum earcups, the eye-catching stainless steel frame, and breathable mesh accents — ooh la la! I was in love.
However, as a New Yorker who travels to Future’s (Laptop Mag’s parent company) Midtown office often, I’m beginning to see Apple AirPods Max headphones on commuters’ heads more and more — and it’s just not giving what I thought it would give (as the youngins would say). I thought, “Is that what they’d look like on me if I wore them?” I shuddered at the thought.
The AirPods Max looked alluring, sleek, and sexy in the press release Apple rolled out in 2020, but now that I’ve seen them on others, I’m no longer interested. While industry-leading noise cancellation and divine sound quality are at the top of my list of what I look for in a pair of over-ear headphones — and the AirPods Max definitely ticks those boxes — aesthetics are important to me, too. And I’m not convinced that they speak my language style-wise.
What makes the AirPods Max comfortable is also what makes them ugly
Compared to competitors like the Sony WH-1000XM5 and the Bose QuietComfort 45 headphones, the AirPods Max’s ear cups are taller and wider, making them more comfortable on one’s ears. Who wouldn’t want their headphones to perfectly hug the circumference of their auricles?
However, the trade-off is that the AirPods Max’s ear cups look humongous on people’s heads, taking up nearly 50% of their skulls. Let’s be honest: AirPods Max wearers look like air traffic controllers: I’m half expecting them to whip out wands to clear planes for landing. Other times, they look like Megatron, the cruel, tyrannical leader of the Decepticons — watch out for Optimus Prime! Ultimately, however, I am almost certain that Apple modeled the AirPods Max after the Cybermen in Doctor Who, the space-faring race of cyborgs from the fictional planet of Mondas.
All jokes aside, although New York City weather has been relatively mild lately (it’s 55 degrees Fahrenheit today in December), wearers will benefit from the AirPods Max’s massive ear cups as it gets nippier.
Although I have a strong aversion to the humongous ear cups, I’m indifferent to the breathable mesh accents on the AirPods Max. They’re whatever. I don’t love ‘em, but I don’t hate ‘em, either. Although they don’t add a striking fashion statement to the AirPods Max, you can’t argue that they add to the headphones’ comfort. For example, the Sony WH-1000XM5’s ear pads are made of memory foam that is covered in synthetic leather — and some say that it makes their ears hot and sweaty after extended use. Conversely, the AirPods Max’s knit mesh should reduce that “smothered ears” feeling.
While the AirPods Max looks ridiculous on users’ heads, I can’t argue that a lot of their unsightly aspects are what makes them totally comfortable. The question is, are you willing to sacrifice stylishness for comfort?
The AirPods Max is unappealing to minimalists
Laptop Mag Producer Peter Norman, the mastermind who handles our video content and publishes contributors’ articles, has an affinity for minimalist design. He doesn’t want anything too conspicuous nor loud; he prefers something low key, subtle, and unassuming. And, well, the AirPods Max are far from understated.
As such, Norman decided against getting the AirPods Max, which was painful for him because — let me tell you — he is a massive fan of Apple products as a video editor. Even when I asked if he considered grabbing the Space Gray AirPods Max instead of the more flagrant colors (e.g. Pink, Green, Silver, and Sky Blue), he still wasn’t interested. Why? The aluminum cans are too shiny for his tastes. He prefers a more "mattified" look — and I agree.
The AirPods Max’s lightning port makes them even uglier
As an avid traveller who tries to travel as light as possible as I zip through TSA’s annoying clearance gates and stuff my bag underneath my plane seat, I hate that the AirPods Max require a Lightning cable.
I like bringing one cable — USB-C of course — to charge all of my electronics, including my Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra, HP Envy 13, and headphones. I do not want to lug around a second stupid cable because Apple refuses to join the USB-C party (although that will change soon thanks to EU regulations).
Some are irked by the absence of the 3.5mm headphone jack on the AirPods Max, but I’m unbothered. After all, these are wireless headphones, so I’m more than happy to frolic in Bluetooth paradise forever. Plus, if you want to use them as wired headphones, you can — you just need to buy a pricey adapter (on top of the hundreds of dollars you’ve already shelled out for the headphones).
The AirPods Max’s smart case is insulting
Do you remember the hilarious memes that flooded the social media landscape when people caught wind of the AirPod Max’s unsightly smart case? It was the laughing stock of the tech world with people joking that it looked like some weird bra-purse hybrid thingamajiggy.
What makes the smart case particularly offensive is the AirPods Max’s price point. If you’re going to sell a product at nearly $600, all aspects of the product better be premium AF. Admittedly, Apple nailed its solidly built headphones and durable headband, but I can’t say the same about the smart case. Its material is not very robust; it’s prone to wear and tear. It leaves the AirPods Max’s ear cups and mesh canopy exposed to the elements. As someone who doesn’t always have the time to treat my products like delicate glass figurines, it’d be nice if the AirPods Max had a smart case that allowed us reckless nutcases to throw ‘em into our travel bags without worry.
Some may argue that you don’t need to use the AirPods Max’s smart case, but (a) it’d get under my skin to pay $600 for headphones that come with a poorly designed case and (b) you do need to use it because it’s the only way to trigger the AirPods Max’s low-power mode. No, you can’t manually turn off the AirPods Max. As mentioned, you can use the hideous smart case or you can let it sit for five minutes, allowing it to transition into sleep mode on its own. Meh!
Apple’s wireless earbuds aren’t lookers either
Our resident headphones expert, Laptop Mag contributor Alex Bracetti, said the following in a piece titled Can we finally admit the Beats Fit Pro are Apple's best wireless earbuds?: “I question your taste in style if you think AirPods look hot. Seeing them always reminds me of a common joke that circulates among journalists: they look like tampons hanging from your ears.”
Although I have the AirPods Pro, I’m far from offended. I concur with Bracetti — the AirPods aren't serving “fashionable tech greatness” like many assume. However, one thing I’ll give Apple props for is reducing the stem design on the Pro line — the AirPods Pro definitely looks slightly better than the entry-level AirPods. However, it’d be nice if Apple could make darker colors for us white-averse audiophiles. The AirPods Pro would look infinitely better in a gorgeous obsidian skin. *Chef’s kiss*
I’d also appreciate it if Apple could add a sensor to each earbud to make them findable in the FindMy network. It’d probably mean a more bulkier design or a longer stem, but I’m willing to sacrifice some style if it means that I’ll reduce my chances of losing one (or both).
Apple isn’t the only one who makes, er, visually inconvenient headphones. Microsoft’s Surface Earbuds, for example, sound absolutely divine and actually stay in my ears (the AirPods Pro love jumping out of my canals), but they’re hideous — they look like gauges.
And while I prefer the Sony WH-1000XM5 design over the AirPods Max, it is a step down from the WH-1000XM4 in terms of aesthetics. I think the previous generation looks better — sue me!
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, however, so many may disagree with me and believe that the AirPods Max are the best looking headphones on the market. Others may not care too much about style. After all, even though the AirPods Max are neck-and-neck with the XM5’s as far as active noise cancellation is concerned, many say that their transparency mode is elite. And for some, top-of-the-line features trumps its unwieldy design.
Personally, I just want industry-leading sleek, low-profile headphones with top-notch features that won’t have me looking like a cyborg. Is that too much to ask?
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Kimberly Gedeon, holding a Master's degree in International Journalism, launched her career as a journalist for MadameNoire's business beat in 2013. She loved translating stuffy stories about the economy, personal finance and investing into digestible, easy-to-understand, entertaining stories for young women of color. During her time on the business beat, she discovered her passion for tech as she dove into articles about tech entrepreneurship, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and the latest tablets. After eight years of freelancing, dabbling in a myriad of beats, she's finally found a home at Laptop Mag that accepts her as the crypto-addicted, virtual reality-loving, investing-focused, tech-fascinated nerd she is. Woot!