Back in December 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 after spending the last few weeks with them I have quite a few thoughts.
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.
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. I didn’t want it to be this good, and yet here we are.
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.
Another big sound feature is Spatial Audio, which basically turns them into a surround sound system. This is also a feature of the AirPods Pro.
Spatial Audio is such an immersive experience it completely transports you into the world you’re watching. Frankly, it was like sitting in a cinema, minus the large screen.
But unfortunately there just isn’t enough opportunities to try it. This is because it is only compatible with content that has been recorded in 5.1, 7.1 or Dolby Atmos. On top of that, it’s not supported by every device or streaming app.
So while the feature itself is far from limited, your ability to frequently utilise it is.
I will say that one let down with the sound quality is High-Res 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.
The AirPods Max offer 20 hours of battery life, which includes when active noise cancellation and and spatial audio are toggled on.
While I was sceptical at first, but what I found interesting is that it could pull that number with advanced audio features turned on despite never actually powering down.
That’s right, these things don’t have a power button and don’t turn off unless they battery goes dead.
Instead, it relies on low power mode as a means of conservation, and it works.
The AirPods Max will pause even if you just lift a single cup from your head, and it enters a low power mode after five minutes of inactivity. It also goes into this mode if it’s placed in its case.
The battery has been solid and close to the 20 hour mark during my real world use. I also liked that similar to its competitors, the AirPods Max This was able to 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 while travel may be largely off the menu right now, I would have liked to have seen a travel adaptor for cans priced so highly.
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?
When I wrote my initial first look back in December the AirPods Max were on backorder. It’s been five weeks and the Australia online Apple store is still quoting an 8 – 10 week delivery period.
The fact these things are still impossible to get 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.
Don’t get me wrong, the AirPods Max are more than a shiny piece of Apple tech. They have the quality to back it up. For a first gen product they’re annoyingly impressive. The sound and noise cancellation alone are stellar.
That being said, they don’t go far enough above their competition for the average consumer to justify the price.
$900 is so much money, particularly considering the hefty weight, lack of app and zero in-the-box extras. If you try and buy one online Apple dangles the $55 audio cable in front of you before you can check out.
Not to mention the fact that the case does no where near enough to protect your sizeable investment.
So despite really loving the fundamentals of the AirPods Max, I can’t give it my whole hearted thumbs up. Creating something beautiful isn’t enough when it’s at the extreme expense of your fans.
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 is a precursor for $900 headphones seeming reasonable for the average customer.
Disclosure: the author owns shares in Apple.