Last week Apple decided to sneak in one last cheeky product launch for the year — the AirPods Max. They’re the company’s first over-ear headphones and we just got a pair to try out.
WHAT IS IT?
Apple's first-generation wireless noise cancelling headphones
Beautiful sound, great noise-cancellation, lovely design
Extremely expensive, too heavy, case looks like a bra
AirPods Max Design
You can’t help but be charmed by the design of the AirPods Max. They’re hot.
They are so distinctly Apple and look nothing like other headphones on the market.
But their beauty extends beyond mere aesthetics. They’re also gorgeous to touch. The stainless steel outer shell feels lovely under the fingertips. And while I was hesitant about the rubber and mesh on the headband, they feel great too.
There are also just two buttons on the right cup — one for swapping between noise-cancelling and transparency and a digital crown (much like the Apple Watch) to pause, skip tracks, take calls and adjust volume.
As for charging, Apple is still insisting on Lightning, which is a bit of a let down.
Regardless, the premium quality is immediately apparent, and that extends to when you first place them on your head.
The memory foam-lined cans fit snuggly on the ears and are immediately comfortable. The same goes for the headband. I love the feel of them.
What’s particularly unique here is how cool they remain, even after an hour or two of use. They’re so breathable that my ears haven’t gotten sweaty or hot, which is a good sign for Australian summer.
But there is one element that lets the design down — these things are heavy.
Coming in at 385g, the AirPods Max are 129g heavier than the Sony WH-1000XM4 and 124g heavier than the Bose 700s. This may not sound particularly significant, but the difference quickly became apparent.
I suffer from neck and shoulder issues, and the added weight resulted in some aches and pains within about an hour of sedentary work.
I will say that I did not get the same aches when I was testing the AirPods Max out on a walk. I think the movement probably helped in this respect.
As someone who primarily wants noise-cancelling headphones for work, commutes and long-haul flights, this could be a deal breaker for me — regardless of how otherwise comfortable and high quality they are.
AirPods Max case
Since Apple first announced the AirPods Max the case it comes with has been getting some particular attention.
Some believe it looks like a cross between a purse and a bra. This is the camp I sit in. I would even go so far as to say it looks like the functional bra your mum bought you at 15 when you really wanted that pretty lace number from Bras n Things.
Other people think it looks like a rather well filled out pair of booty shorts. And honestly, I get it.
The comedic stylings of the AirPods Max case is not stifled once you actually hold it in your hand. It looks like a tiddy purse and honestly that’s also how you carry it.
But questionable design choices aside, the material is high quality and feels robust. And once I popped open the flap it paired with my iPhone immediately.
The parts of the headphones that are covered by the case seem like they will be well protected. But that’s also the problem.
My concern lies in the fact that so much is left exposed – including parts of the cans and the entire headband.
Considering the $900 price tag, I don’t feel comfortable putting these in my backpack, luggage or even my purse. One spillage and these things could be ruined.
I’ll admit that my expectations were medium-to-low when it came to the AirPods Max noise-cancellation.
This is partially because its a first-gen product. But also because Apple’s AirPods Pro aren’t the best at this. While ear buds and over-ears are very different, brands like Sony and Bose have done a solid job with their earbud noise cancellation.
But I’ll admit to being incredibly impressed with the AirPods Max in this area. I would even go so far to say they’re on par with Sony’s most recent WH-1000XM4 wireless noise cancelling headphones.
Anyone who follows my reviews will know I love Sony’s noise-cancelling cans more than just about anything, so this is a big deal for me.
Sitting in my home-office the music eliminates the sound of my PC fan as well as my partner bashing on his mechanical keyboard.
Out in the real world, the vast majority of environmental noise melts away. I wasn’t able to hear traffic unless it was a particularly loud vehicle, and the screams of children at the local park did not pierce the confines of my audio Nirvana.
The AirPods Max was even able to drown out the aggressive bass tracks at my local bodybuilding gym.
And if you’re someone who wants to be more aware of their surrounds, the transparency mode does a solid job of letting noise in without compromising the integrity of the audio.
While I definitely need to do some more real-world testing, I’m thoroughly impressed so far.
I also rather like that the microphones in the headset allows you to hear your voice, even when noise-cancellation is toggled on.
This helps modulate your voice when responding to someone, so you don’t accidentally scream a response at them. My partner was quite grateful for that.
Similar to the noise-cancellation, I was not expecting miracles when it came to the sound capabilities of the AirPods Max. And again I was proven wrong.
The sound stage of the AirPods Max is impressive, which can’t always be said for over-ears headphones.
Bjork’s Hunter perfectly showcased this as the aggressive electronic drums petered across both ear cups, with plenty of room left in-between. Similarly, the vast array of instruments remain prominent without being bleeding into one another or being overwhelmed by the drums.
The vocals are also crystal clear both in the quieter sections as as they build in the middle of the track.
Caroline Polachek’s So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings is similarly stunning. Her echoed calls at the beginning on the track haunt the left and right earcups gracefully, with the kick and snare drums following closely behind for emphasis.
The electronic beat sits firmly in the middle, with the occasional pop dancing between the ears to surprise and delight the listener.
Again, the primary vocals could cut glass, while the echoes coo ethereally in the background. The grit on the track is also prominent during the bridge, sending the purposeful-distortion through your eardrums with a decisive punch.
Speaking of punches, I’d be remiss not to try something a little heavier. Between an incredibly heavy bass, guitar distortion and screamy vocals, Rage Against the Machine’s Killing in the Name Of seemed like the perfect pick.
And boy did it deliver.
Zack de la Rocha’s vocals are perfectly clear, which is no easy feat. And both the extremely aggressive bass and guitar riffs stand on their own with extreme prejudice. To put it plainly, it sounds mad.
I will say that one let down with the sound quality is High-Red Audio support. This is limited to Apple Digital Masters tracks, which you can only get through Apple Music. Considering the price of these things, this is not impressive.
But that aside, the sound quality on the AirPods Max truly is stunning – it can hold its own against the competition for sure.
I can’t accurately measure the battery life of the AirPods Max in an afternoon, but I will say 20 hours at $900 isn’t the best in class. However, it can at least get 1.5 hours of juice out of five minutes of charge.
AirPods Max Price
Despite everything that the AirPods Max has going for it, $900 is a ludicrous ask for consumer-grade headphones.
And considering that price, they are some glaring omissions. The first is a 3.5 mm audio cable. They exist, but aren’t included in the box. If you want one you need to spend $55 extra.
While Apple has taken the stance of cutting down on waste, this is an extremely cheap move when asking people to pay $900 for headphones.
And considering Apple’s further push into software and services, it would be nice to see a dedicated app for the AirPods Max. Other brands, like Sony, offer this so users can customise their pricey headsets to their liking. It makes for a thoughtful user experience and helps justify the price tag.
Comparatively, you can only slightly play with what the button and digital crown does in the Bluetooth settings for the AirPods Max. You can also turn spatial audio off and choose whether noise-cancellation and transparency modes will be toggled on.
Now some may say that perhaps if the headphones are that good they could be considered an investment. Not to mention future-proofed.
I have made these exact arguments about the Sony XM3 and XM4s in the past to justify a $550 price tag.
The problem here is that the AirPods Max are almost double in price and the lithium battery may suffer over time. This is because lithium is known for degradation.
We just can’t guarantee these will still be as robust in a year or two – which is a beyond a big ask for $900.
While Apple has been able to get away with generational upgrades with its phones, it would be criminal to expect this of its customers here as well — particularly because you can’t buy these on a plan. And least not yet.
Should you buy them?
At the time of writing I have only spent a handful of hours with the Apple AirPods Max. There are things I am still yet to explore, including real-world battery testing and the spatial audio virtual surround sound. So stay tuned for the full review.
But I do have some initial thoughts.
The fact these things are already sold out or are on backorder weaves a strong narrative. Considering this is the first toe Apple has dipped in the over-ear headphones pool, I’m left wondering how much of this is is about status.
Sure, the AirPods Max are high quality headphones, but they don’t go above and beyond their competition over at Sony and Bose. Yet, they’re almost double the price and sold out before reviews dropped. That concerns me.
$900 is so much money for a first-generation product, particularly when there could be some long-term battery questions that need answering. Not to mention the hefty weight, lack of app and zero in-the-box extras.
Apple has always been brilliant at convincing regular people to spend thousands of dollars on phones that are beyond their means. My fear is that this was a precursor for $900 headphones seeming reasonable.
Disclosure: the author owns shares in Apple.