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AirPods Max unveiled: Apple takes on Bose with $549 noise cancelling wireless headphones

AirPods Max
(Image credit: Apple)

Apple unveiled today the AirPods Max, a $549 pair of noise cancelling wireless headphones that are set to rival the Bose 700

These long-rumored headphones were quietly revealed in a press announcement this morning instead of being showcased on the big stage. The AirPods Max flaunt a "custom acoustic design" made of stainless steel and use Apple's H1 chip. The cans come with all the features you'd expect from a premium pair of headphones, including Adaptive EQ, noise cancellation, transparency mode and spatial audio.

"With AirPods Max, we are bringing that magical AirPods experience to a stunning over-ear design with high-fidelity audio,” said Greg Joswiak, Apple’s senior vice president of Worldwide Marketing. “The custom acoustic design, combined with powerful H1 chips, and advanced software enable AirPods Max to use computational audio to wirelessly deliver the ultimate personal listening experience.”

Apple AirPods Max: Price, release date and colors

AirPods Max are available to order today and will be released on December 15. At $549, these are among the most expensive headphones marketed toward consumers.  

The headphones come in five familiar colors: space gray, silver, sky blue, green, and pink.

AirPods Max design

The AirPods Max blend a retro aesthetic with modern design cues taken from other Apple products. The company calls the headband a "canopy" as it uses a knit mesh material for breathability. It will supposedly distribute weight across your head to reduce downward pressure, allowing you to wear them for longer listening sessions. 

Taking a page from the Apple Watch and the most premium iPhone models, the headband is made of stainless steel for added durability. And although that is a rigid material, the arms will telescope for different head sizes. There is no mention of these folding, so you can't pack them neatly away. Instead, you'll need to use the...erm...strange-looking slim Smart Case that comes included (which also puts them in an ultra-low power state).

AirPods Max

(Image credit: Apple)

Apple claims the earcups attach to the headband in a way that balances and distributes pressure while allowing you to pivot and rotate the cups so they can contour to your face. The cups use memory foam for comfort and to create a seal against your skin so no sound leaks through. 

Another familiar design element is the Digital Crown found on the bottom of the earcup. This dial lets you easily adjust the volume but can also play/pause songs, skip tracks or answer/end phone calls. And, of course, you can always activate Siri for voice commands. 

AirPods Max: Sound quality

The AirPods Max employ a 40-millimeter driver that Apple says will "provide rich, deep bass, accurate mid-range and crisp, clean high-frequency extension." These are the sorts of claims we hear all the time from audio brands, so don't get too excited just yet — we'll put these through our listening test in the days ahead. 

That said, there are some interesting things going on under the hood. Apple crafted a dual neodymium ring magnet motor (stay with me) that will supposedly keep distortion to less than 1% even at maximum volume. That means you can blast your tunes without that off-putting fuzzy sound.

AirPods Max

(Image credit: Apple)

Spatial audio should provide a surround sound effect to your music. It tracks your head and places sound in the space around you for content recorded in 5.1, 7.1 or Dolby Atmos. 

These also use the H1 chip found in the AirPods Pro and PowerBeats Pro. It contains 10 audio cores and uses computational audio for improved sonics as well as better power efficiency and seamless pairing to other Apple products. 

AirPods Max features

Premium headphones are expected to do more today than just play music. The AirPods Max have many of the features you'd expect in a pair of modern over-ear headphones. 

AirPods Max

(Image credit: Apple)

That starts with active noise cancellation. Each earcup has three outward-facing microphones that detect environmental noise while another mic inside the cup monitors sounds that reach the listener's ear. The Max then use computational audio to adapt the noise cancellation based on the fit of the headphones. The real test is whether they block out as much noise as the Bose 700. 

There is also an adaptive EQ feature that adjusts the sound based on the fit and seal of the headphones. It does this by measuring the sound signal reaching your ear and tweaking the low and mid-range. While this sounds like a novel idea, purists will hope there is a way to turn it off.

AirPods Max

(Image credit: Apple)

Like most noise cancelling headphones, the AirPods Max have a transparency mode so you can listen to the environment around you while music is playing. It's a useful feature when you need to chat with a coworker or ask for less ice in your airplane cocktail. 

AirPods Max: Pairing and voice calls

If you own AirPods, then you know how easy it is to pair them to your iPhone or MacBook. The AirPods Max continues that tradition with a one-tap setup and automatic pairing to any device signed into your iCloud account, including an iPhone, iPad, iPod, Mac, Apple Watch or Apple TV. 

Using sensors built into the headphones, the Max will start playing music when you put them over your ears and pause tracks when you lift an earcup or take them off. Apple promises "crisp and clear" voice calls thanks to the beam-forming mics on the headphones. Again, it will be going up against the Bose 700 in this category. 

AirPods Max battery life

One of the biggest weaknesses of AirPods is their short battery life, and the AirPods Max fall victim to the same issue. 

Apple says the AirPods Max last for 20 hours on a charge, which matches the Bose 700, but falls well short of the Sony WH-1000 XM4's 30-hour runtime. 

AirPods Max outlook

AirPods Max

(Image credit: Apple)

Looking past the $549 price tag, the AirPods Max have a lot of compelling features. The design has a simple yet striking aesthetic with premium materials, pairing to other Apple products should be effortless, and Apple is making some convincing claims about the audio quality.

But the competition is fierce with the likes of the Bose 700 and Sony WH-1000XM4, and those top competitors can be purchased for less than $350. Apple will need to make up the cost somewhere, otherwise, the AirPods Max will have much of an appeal beyond the Apple fans who will buy them anyway.