I love the idea of good-sounding, comfortable, high-quality headphones. And Apple’s new AirPods Max definitely check those boxes.
They offer great sound and they’re super-comfortable to wear, even for longer periods of time. On top of that, they pack all the things that make AirPods magical in a very premium package.
But even with those awesome features, AirPods Max aren’t for everyone, and that includes me. As much as I’ve loved my AirPods and AirPods Pro, these kind of let me down.
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AirPods Max lack versatility
I wear headphones for all kinds of things during the week. Sometimes it’s casually listening to music or watching videos online. Other times, it’s for fitness and working out. And having one pair of headphones I can wear for just about everything makes my life much easier.
The AirPods Max are great for listening to music or having that personal TV viewing experience, but they’re pretty bad for exercise. Because of their weight, doing any kind of dynamic movements in a workout can cause them to slide forward or back. On top of that, the headphones also aren’t rated for moisture resistance, so any kind of sweaty workouts are likely to cause premature damage/deterioration of the ear pads or head band.
Ultimately, this means I’m stuck needing a separate pair of headphones or earbuds that can be worn for exercise, and these for more laid-back listening.
Size always matters
The physical size of the AirPods Max is another knock against them. Unlike most other headphones, they don’t really get any more compact when they’re not in use.
With AirPods Max, the only thing you can do to really “shrink” them is to flip the ear cups flat. There are no hinges or folding to shrink them down to fit in a backpack or travel bag.
This also plays into the versatility issue. The noise cancellation and sound quality should make AirPods Max fantastic for wearing while traveling. But their physical size, when not in use, means I need a pretty big spot in my backpack to accommodate these when commuting or traveling.
Another problem with putting AirPods Max in your bag is the Smart Case, which is not really a case, nor does it do anything “smart.”
Basically, the case is this silicone and microfiber … thing … that wraps around the metal ear cups and ear cushions and uses magnets to tell the AirPods Max to switch off their Bluetooth radio. Apple also claims it is extremely storage efficient.
While that may all be true, it doesn’t offer any protection for the mesh canopy or the adjustment pistons. It also leaves the noise cancellation button and Digital Crown exposed, and has these weird, poorly aligned cutouts along the bottom.
Honestly, if Apple just made something with the same material, that went around the entire product, it would have been nicer, still been storage-efficient, and actually protected things, because this … this isn’t going to protect much of anything. It makes the whole product feel cheaper.
The hidden costs of convenience
Another drawback is that AirPods Max only offer a Lightning port. This means that when you want to charge them, you need a Lightning cable.
Unlike the second-generation AirPods or the AirPods Pro, which both support Lightning and wireless charging cases, the AirPods Max Smart Case doesn’t hold any kind of charge, or support any kind of charging — and the headphones themselves only charge over Lightning. Fortunately, battery life isn’t an issue, whether you use the case or not, so Lightning only really becomes inconvenient when it comes to wired audio.
Fortunately, if you have a USB-C MacBook or an iPad Pro, you could use the USB-C port and the included USB-C to Lightning cable to listen to wired audio, right? Wrong.
If I want to use them as wired headphones for any kind of video or audio work, or with analog audio systems, I need Apple’s $35 Lightning to 3.5mm cable. If I want to connect to a device over USB, like an iPad Pro, I need something that handles that conversion from USB to an analog signal — like Apple’s $9 USB-C to 3.5mm Headphone Jack Adapter — paired with that $35 Lightning to 3.5mm audio cable.
For $550, I think Apple could have at least included the audio cable in the box with AirPods Max. Then again, where would you keep it when you’re not using it? That Smart Case can’t store anything.
AirPods Max are anything but cheap
The biggest disappointment for me is the price. $550 isn’t cheap. Yes, there are more-expensive headphones on the market. But there are also some very good headphones that aren’t as expensive.
Personally, I’m a big fan of the $350 Beats Studio3 Wireless over-ear headphones. They don’t have all the same Apple magic as AirPods Max, but they do offer the W1 chip for quick pairing to iOS devices, and they sync across all your devices for quicker connection. They also include both the charging cable and an aux cable in the box. The “Beats sound” may be offensive to some people. But I don’t mind it for the music I listen to. Best of all, if you shop around, you can find Beats Studio3 Wireless headphones for around $200.
I’m also quite fond of the AirPods Pro. They work great for working out, watching videos or listening to music. They support wireless charging. And they have all the same Apple magic as AirPods Max. They do lack a wired connection option, obviously. But honestly, if I’m going to be stuck buying two sets of headphones anyway, I could get the $250 AirPods Pro and the Beats Studio3 for about the same price as AirPods Max and the Lightning to 3.5mm audio cable.
But ultimately, that’s just my opinion. When it comes to buying anything, it’s all about what you’re looking for. There’s a lot to love about the AirPods Max, so it all depends on what you want out of headphones.
That said, if your goal is a good set of wireless headphones that you can also use wired, or easily bring with you while traveling, or use while working out, AirPods Max may not be the best fit.