I’ve been using a pair of Bose QuietComfort 35 II headphones for years. They’ve accompanied me on long flights to Europe and Japan, cancelled out noise on a plethora of trade show floors, and helped me block out my neighbour’s weed wacker to get work done at home. But there are a slew of new premium Bluetooth headphones with active noise cancellation on the market, and when Apple announced its $US550 ($716) AirPods Max, I admit I was intrigued. My Bose headphones were $US350 ($455) when I get them, and that seemed steep to me then. Apple’s price tag, by comparison, is absolutely ludicrous.
Or is it?
No, it is. These headphones are incredibly good. But I cannot get over the price.
Apple AirPods Max
WHAT IS IT?
Apple's first pair of over-the-ear headphones
Sparkling sound with excellent ANC; seamless integration with other Apple devices; comfortable headband; solid battery life
The price; the weirdly designed charging case; no 3.5mm cable; did I mention the price?
Let’s start with the obvious: There are other, cheaper Bluetooth over-ear headphones with excellent active noise cancellation on the market. Apple has two main competitors, Bose’s $US400 ($520) 700 and Sony’s $US350 ($455) WH-1000XM4 (Sony, anytime you want to work on this absolutely silly naming system, we’ll be waiting). Both those headphones can now be found for much less than their launch prices — Bose for $US340 ($442) and Sony for $US280 ($364) at most retailers right now — but Apple obviously doesn’t price its products competitively, because plenty of people will pay for them regardless. Facts are facts. Yet that price discrepancy is so wide that it seems like AirPods Max should be twice as good.
I compared Apple’s headphones side by side to both Bose and Sony’s newest models, and they are in fact better in many ways — but they also have some drawbacks. I’ll dive into those more in a minute.
Let’s start with the AirPods Max design, which is distinctive (some might say polarising). The headphones sport oversized aluminium earcups, which are heavier than the plastic ones from the competition — the AirPods Max weigh in at 385.55 g compared to the Bose and Sony headphones, which both weigh just shy of 255.15 g. You can feel that weight, and while I wouldn’t say it’s uncomfortable, it’s definitely noticeable. My biggest problem with most over-the-ear headphones is that I wear earrings all the time and glasses specifically when I fly, and that combination makes most earcups extremely uncomfortable pressed against my head after a couple of hours. I didn’t experience this at all with the AirPods Max. They felt great being worn for long periods of time while wearing glasses and earrings (though I didn’t fly to fully put these through their paces due to [gestures at everything]).
Apple also designed a mesh headband that alleviates pressure against the head. The mesh creates a unique look compared to other headphones, and I like it. It’s also very comfortable. However, the headband also serves as a handle when you slip the headphones into their wireless charging case, which is where I get to one of the AirPods Max’s drawbacks: This is a case of Apple over-designing a solution to a non-existent problem, as they are sometimes wont to do. The charging case looks like a purse or a bra, and neither look is really the vibe I’m going for with my headphones. I want them safely and completely tucked inside a case when I travel, not exposed to the elements. As a person who once managed to break a jar of maraschino cherries in her backpack, I cringe to think of what would happen to these headphones if they weren’t babied, and I just don’t have time for that.
For many people, AirPods Max’s design quirks are either a selling point or beside the point, so let’s get down to the most important part: the audio. Apple packed in nine microphones (eight for ANC and three for voice pickup, with two pulling double duty for both) total, plus a 40mm dynamic driver in each ear cup and some software magic, for a truly delightful audio experience.
I really, truly have zero complaints about how these things sound. There’s no app, and no manual controls to adjust the EQ to your personal taste, but I don’t care. They sound absolutely fantastic. The word that popped into my mind when I slipped them on for the first time is that the sound sparkles (believe me when I tell you this made me cringe inwardly at myself, but it is in fact true). I’ve spent multiple hours this week listening to the same songs and the same portions of a film rotating through the AirPods Max, Bose 700, and Sony WH-1000XM4 to see how they stack up, and damn if the AirPods Max don’t sound the absolute best. They’re simply more immersive than the competition. I’m not sure if it’s software trickery with the adaptive EQ or the way the earcups enfold your head for a tight seal, but listening to “Maybe I’m Amazed” by Wings, I felt like I was literally in the studio as the piano lick kicked in from the left, the drums to the right, and Paul McCartney’s voice floated all around me. And I’m just streaming Spotify tunes over Bluetooth here, not playing lossless audio files while wired in.
It’s unfortunate that the AirPods Max’s Spatial Audio feature (also found in AirPods Pro) will almost never kick in, because I love it. The headphones are packed with sensors: an optical, position, case-detecting, and accelerometer in each earcup and a gyroscope in the left. Activating Spatial Audio, which you can do in the AirPods Max Bluetooth settings, essentially turns your headphones into a surround-sound system. Moving your head results in a dynamic experience — the direction of the sound stayed fixed as I watched Soul in Disney+ on my iPad even as I moved which was more immersive than using rival headphones to watch the same movie. Watching lead character Joe Gardner tinkle the keys as he gets lost in a musical trance sounded like sitting in an actual dinner club instead of watching a movie. Unfortunately, this only works if the content you’re watching is recorded in 5.1, 7.1, or Dolby Atmos. Not every app supports it, nor does every device. (Soul is in 5.1 on Disney+, and you’ll get an even better effect from Atmos content, but it’s just much harder to find. You can check the details of the film or show you’re watching to see if it’s in 5.1, 7.1, or Atmos.)
Watching explosions in the Apple TV+ original For All Mankind in Dolby Atmos sounded like I was viewing it in a movie theatre through the AirPods. This would be freakin’ amazing to use with my Apple TV, but Apple TV doesn’t support Spatial Audio either. In fact, I can only use it with my iPhone and iPad, and those aren’t my preferred content delivery devices, so I probably won’t be using much of this feature — but it really is wonderful.
The active noise cancellation is also top-notch. While I wasn’t able to test these headphones on a plane, I did test them by blasting an aeroplane cabin noise video on my Sonos Playbase, and the ANC was on par with Sony’s headphones (and better than Bose). I do prefer AirPods Max’s Transparency Mode, which you toggle on with the press of a physical button on the top of the right earcup, to other ANC headphones — voices sound much more natural and come in clear even when listening to music. I also really like the Digital Crown, a hardware feature lifted straight from the Apple Watch, as both a volume and playback control. Another much-appreciated feature: automatic switching between my Apple products. I start a video on my iPad, then switch to a song on my iPhone, and the AirPods Max just know what I’m listening to and pipe in sound from that device.
One thing AirPods Max is missing is a power button, which is a little strange. The headphones go into ultra-low-power mode when placed in the case, but take about two hours to enter that state if left out. It took me about a week and a half of moderate use to drain the battery from 70% to dead, so Apple’s promise of about 20 hours on a charge seems about right.
But I have another issue: You have to buy a separate $US35 ($46) Lightning-to-3.5mm adaptor to plug into a headphone jack, which is extremely annoying and feels like Apple is nickel-and-diming customers who have already dropped an absurd amount of cash on a pair of headphones. Just include the damn cord in the box.
With smaller, lighter earcups, a more practical charging case, a 3.5mm cable, and a price cut, AirPods Max would be absolutely perfect, especially for iPhone owners. But the competition is also very good, and there’s no need to spend $US550 ($716) on headphones — unless none of these drawbacks matter to you, in which case, go wild. I personally will be sticking with my trusty QCs for now.
- These $US550 ($716) headphones sound extremely good, but the price is way too high.
- I hate the charging case.
- The earcups are very heavy.
- The sound is incredible, especially when using Spatial Audio to watch Dolby Atmos content.
- The active noise cancellation is comparable to Sony’s best.
- You get the standard Apple seamlessness with your other Apple devices.
- The lack of a 3.5mm cord is frankly ridiculous.