AirPods Max will excite your ears, dazzle your eyes and empty your wallet [Review]

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AirPods Max review: Apple's new noise-canceling headphones truly put the
Apple's new noise-canceling headphones truly put the "pod" in AirPods.
Photo: Lewis Wallace/Cult of Mac

With a sleek design and some sweet Apple magic, AirPods Pro Max headphones look great, sound exciting and reward those in the Apple ecosystem.

However, the hefty $549 price tag, some quirky design decisions and some very real limitations mean they’re not right for absolutely everyone.

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AirPods Max review

Let’s start with the design. The aluminum ear pads certainly look distinctive. They give the headphones a flashy, seamless look — like sci-fi earmuffs.

Available in five colors, the AirPods Max make quite a statement. Whether that statement is “I hate plastic” or “I love Apple” is in the eye of the beholder, as with all things fashion-related. I love the look of the space gray model I tested. The metal makes the plastic-and-foam competition seem cheap in comparison.

However, that metal construction also makes AirPods Max heavier than most of their competitors. Practically nobody likes extra weight in their devices. Apple’s mostly been shaving ounces off of laptops and phones for years (although recently that began to swing back in the other direction slightly).

AirPods Max weigh in at a hefty 13.6 ounces on my kitchen scale. The noise-cancelling competition comes in at considerably less: 8.9 ounces for Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones, and 8.3 for a pair of Bose Quiet Comfort II headphones.

And on your head? Every extra ounce is noticeable — especially if you move around. Apple actually did a fantastic job of making these gorgeous metal beasts feel comfortable when you’re sitting still. But if you move around a bit, you’ll definitely feel the extra weight.

Beautiful, high-end design

The stainless steel stems that connect the mesh headband to the ear cups look pretty fantastic. They slide in and out near the hinged attachment to the ear cups so you can dial in the length for your perfect fit.

In my first few days with the AirPods Max, that works great. The mechanism provides plenty of friction to keep the stems extended exactly as much as I want. Who knows if that stiffness will last, though. Maybe Apple’s designers came up with something that will outlast the $79 rechargeable batteries in the headphones. Only time will tell.

Right now, the construction feels solid, reliable and just as remarkably premium as other Apple products. But I would not be surprised if they loosened up over time, like an iMac with a floppy monitor.

Smart controls

AirPods Max review: The placement and functionality of the Digital Crown is sort of a genius move.
The placement and functionality of the Digital Crown is sort of a genius move.
Photo: Lewis Wallace/Cult of Mac

Overall, the high-end fit and finish reminded me of a MacBook Pro. And just as that laptop outclasses your garden-variety laptop, the AirPods Max make plastic headphones seem cheap. But the design wizardry doesn’t stop there. Placing the two AirPods Max’s two very different controls — a Digital Crown just like the Apple Watch’s and a simple button that lets you switch between active noise cancellation and transparency mode — above the right ear, on either side of the stainless steel stem, was a stroke of genius.

It’s much easier to use them than controls placed at the bottom of ear cups on other headphones. On paper, it seemed weird. But Apple’s designers thought this one through and made a smart move. It’s just one of the ways these headphones differentiate themselves from the same-old, same-old competition.

Unfortunately, the Digital Crown offers no satisfying haptic feedback like on the Apple Watch. That’s a missed opportunity, IMHO. Instead, you get barely audible sonic clicks to indicate volume changes. Two other distinct audio cues indicate when you reach maximum or minimum volume.

As a topper, AirPods Max naturally give you all the benefits of using headphones designed for the Apple ecosystem. As with AirPods and AirPods Pro, the headphones mostly work like magic. Your audio stops when you take off the AirPods Max, and the pairing process is beyond simple. And your new headphones will magically appear across all your linked Apple devices.

These really are the sort of things that “only Apple can do,” as CEO Tim Cook would say.

The mesh headband is wild

And then there’s that funky mesh headband (Apple calls it a “canopy”). The steel stems, sheathed at this point in some sort of rubberized material, branch out like tuning forks a couple of inches above each ear cup, and the extremely flexible mesh bridges the gap between the parallel pieces of steel. It’s reminiscent of an Aeron chair, and it effectively replaces the standard padding found atop other headphones. It looks quite unconventional and refined.

The breathable knit provides a welcome cushion for the top of your head. Apple says it distributes the headphones’ weight “to reduce on‑head pressure,” and it does feel good on your scalp. However, it also seems somewhat fragile.

I can envision one day picking up the headphones by the headband and accidentally jabbing a finger through the mesh.

Perhaps Apple engineers found a way to make this incredibly thin, stretchy material indestructible. However, since this headband doubles as a handle — especially when placed inside the AirPods Max’s included Smart Case — it’s definitely going to get a lot of hands-on time. Again, only time will tell if it will hold up.

The Smart Case is really stupid

Now, about that Smart Case … it looks truly ridiculous. Haters on the internet went crazy within moments of the AirPods Max’s unveiling last week, and their harsh judgments still ring true.

Apple’s designers tried to defend the bizarre-looking AirPods Max case, but it really does look like a bra. Or a sleep mask. Or a fancy purse.

Made from a plasticky substance with a velveteen lining, I’m sure it will do a good job of protecting the anodized aluminum ear cups from scuffing. However, the odd decision to put large vents on the bottom of the Smart Case means it will not effectively protect the headphones from the lint, dirt and other flotsam in your backpack.

How will AirPods Max travel?

The biggest bummer is that, unlike many other noise-canceling headphones, the AirPods Max do not fold down into a more travel-friendly size. The ear cups fold flat, but the basic shape remains the same. Thus, in their weird case, AirPods Max are both bigger and less protected than their competitors.

That’s unfortunate, because noise-canceling headphones were basically made to drown out the drone of an airplane’s jet engines or the screech of a subway car as it barrels down the tracks. Promising a cocoon-like cone of silence, noise-canceling headphones were made for travel (although perhaps drowning out your housemates during quarantine is the use case du jour.) The AirPods Max, in their Smart Case, don’t seem as road-worthy as most of their cheaper peers.

I suspect most people will simply wear AirPods Max around their neck when traveling rather than stuffing them into the Smart Case.

So that’s it for the design. You will either love AirPods Max for the posh good looks and premium feel, or turn up your nose up because they are heavy, less compact and inextricably tied to a ridiculous-looking case.

AirPods Max: How do they sound?

AirPods Max even look pretty on the inside.
AirPods Max even look pretty on the inside.
Photo: Lewis Wallace/Cult of Mac

So far, everything I’ve talked about deals more with the look, feel and functionality of AirPods Max. It’s telling that the audio quality comes second with these undeniably high-end headphones. The understated design and premium manufacturing simply scream for attention.

Now, on to what really matters most about headphones: the audio quality.

How do AirPods Max sound? In a word, energetic.

Whatever sort of digital signal processing is going on inside, it definitely makes the AirPods Max’s audio profile lively. Music and movies sound truly exciting.

Digital audio magic

Most people will love this. But some people likely won’t like it at all. And you won’t have much choice in the matter, either. Many other headphones, like the Sony WH-1000XM3 and Jaybird’s sporty earbuds, come with their own apps that offer equalizer presets.

With AirPods Max, there’s no accompanying app to dial in the sound you desire for a particular musical style or mood. There’s an equalizer setting buried in the Settings app on iOS devices that offers presets, but that’s only for Apple Music. (On your iOS device, go to Settings > Music > EQ and choose from a long list of possibilities like Bass Reducer, Rock, Jazz and Spoken Word. On your Mac, open the Apple Music app, then go to Window > Equalizer to find those presets as well as a 10-band graphic EQ.)

Outside of the Apple Music app, you can adjust the volume and the active noise cancellation mode, but that’s it. Apple offers no equivalent EQ settings for Apple TV, Podcasts, etc. (You can always dig into the Accessibility options to deploy a Custom Audio Setup, or try a third-party EQ app, if you want more control, though.)

Too processed for audiophiles?

Apple talks up AirPods Max’s Adaptive EQ, which it says will “adjust the sound to the fit and seal of the ear cushions by measuring the sound signal delivered to a user and adjusting the low and mid-frequencies in real time — bringing rich audio that captures every detail.”

But there are times when you might want to tweak the sound you hear. For instance, when listening to a podcast or news radio, you might want to boost the mids to make the host’s voice punchier and more understandable. When using a meditation app, you might want to roll off the high end to make the whole experience more relaxing. Sometimes you don’t want your audio to sound edgy. As mentioned, you can control that for Apple Music tracks, but not for anything else you might want to listen to.

Audiophiles — the type of person who spends thousands on high-end headphones, tube amplifiers, fancy cables and other exotic hi-fi equipment — might scoff at the AirPods Max’s sizzling, synthetic, one-size-fits all sound. But Apple didn’t build these headphones for sniffy audiophiles. Apple built these for people who love listening to songs on their iPhones and movies on their iPads.

And, for most things, AirPods Max sound excellent — like AirPods Pro, only more so. Just like the iPhone’s “computational photography mad science,” the company’s approach to audio delivers slightly unreal results that excel in many situations. Just as a pro photographer might opt for a more advanced setup; audiophiles likely will prefer something less digitally processed. But for most people, who just want to turn on their headphones and tune out the world, AirPods Max sound energetic enough to make their ears happy.

Listening to various genres

To my ears, the AirPods Max sound crisp, clean and punchy when they need to be. They effectively separate tracks in the mix to give you an immersive audio experience. The sound reproduction seems stellar, from high to low and in-between. I constantly found myself marveling at a musical nuance I never noticed before, like a singer’s almost-imperceptible inhalation or the subtle snarl of a slightly overdriven bass track.

I listened to a wide variety of tracks on Apple Music and found the sound pleasing across the board.

Track by track:

  • Deep Purple’s “Maybe I’m a Leo” really showcased the interplay between the band’s instruments. The throaty organ, the lithe guitar, the simmering vocals, the muscular bass — hearing all those textures floating inside my head proved intoxicating. The drum mix came alive like at does in a recording studio, with the spunky snare, the meaty kick and the splashy cymbals all sitting satisfyingly in the mix.
  • In the late Charley Pride’s “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone,” the jaunty fiddle, swirly pedal steel and stolid acoustic guitar danced around the edges of the track, with the main vocal front and center, rich and lively.
  • Listening to Motorhead’s “Stay Clean,” I could really feel the nasty grit and depth of Lemmy Kilmister’s snarling, overdriven bass. I could almost smell the cigarette in his raspy vocals, too.
  • Public Enemy’s masterfully busy “Burn Hollywood Burn” sounded like a freaking beehive in my brain.
  • And a solo cello suite by Bach, played by Yoyo Ma, revealed the full beauty and impact of that majestic instrument. It sounded quite human, too. The bow caressing the strings, the fingers flopping on the fingerboard amid a flurry of notes, the player’s breathing as he coaxes the sounds from the instrument — this is what cello playing sounds like, up close and personal. It actually sent a chill up my spine.

AirPods Max pass the Steely Dan test

Anytime I’m reviewing headphones, I queue up some Steely Dan. The band brought together astonishing musicians to create its immaculate recordings, and the mixing is always stellar. (If you never watched the doc about the making of Aja, do yourself a favor.)

Listening to “Hey Nineteen” through AirPods Max, everything sounded exquisite. The whole song had a satisfying sheen to it, and I got the feeling I was really hearing the intricate mix the band and audio engineers envisioned. All the parts darted around the soundstage between my ears. I felt like I could listen to the band’s entire catalog and just drift through a day.

I played another Steely Dan classic, “Peg,” on both the AirPods Max and a pair of Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones, highly regarded noise-cancelling cans that sell for a bit over $200. To me, the AirPods Max sounded much more exciting than the Sony headphones.

The 1000XM3’s sounded much flatter and subdued, especially with Sony’s app equalizer set to off. Switching it to “Excited” — a setting that boosts the highs and upper-mods, and cranks up the Clear Bass — made the Sony headphones sound more like the AirPods Max.

Throughout all my listening, only the most rough and raucous rock tracks — which includes some of my favorite music, but to be fair, not always excellent audio quality — failed to benefit from the AirPods Max. It’s not that things like a bootleg live Tool video sounded worse than with other headphones. It’s just that no headphones can work miracles on badly engineered or mixed source material.

AirPods Max noise cancellation

At home, the AirPods Max noise cancellation is rock-solid. I could barely hear anything with noise cancellation engaged. Transparency mode let things like my wife’s voice come through, and even added a hyper-real boost to some sounds like the quietly sloshing dishwasher.

I’d say AirPods Max really put Apple’s “pod” naming convention in perspective. With them on, I feel like I’m in my own little world, fully steeped in the audio with no outside interference and not a care in the world. That’s quite a feat these days.

However, I haven’t had a chance to really put the AirPods Max noise cancellation to the ultimate test — a flight to Europe or a hideously noisy ride on an aging BART train. This lockdown can’t end soon enough.

The price!

Here’s the hard part. That price tag! Costing $550, the AirPods Max obviously filter out budget-minded buyers. (I predict Apple will lower it, like it did with the original HomePod, but who knows if, or when, that might happen.)

You must have loads of spare cash, or a severe lack of fiscal restraint, if you’re considering dropping that much money on noise-canceling headphones. Cheaper options exist that deliver similar audio quality, comfort and noise cancellation.

AirPods Max verdict

In my opinion, AirPods Max let excellent audio engineering shine. They deliver sizzling, energetic sound that proves pleasing to my ears. It might not be as sonically “true” as reference headphones preferred by audiophiles, but it’s a totally satisfying off-the-shelf sound.

Plus, these pricey headphones look and feel far more premium than their less-expensive competitors. They might not travel as well in that silly case, but you’re going to want to show these suckers off anyway.

Buy from: Amazon or Apple

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