When I think of Apple AirPods (buy at Amazon), I think of thoe small, straw-like earbuds that are so popular these days. The AirPods Max is nothing like the in-ear monitors after which it’s named. Rather, it’s a very sophisticated yet almost impossibly simple pair of wireless, over-the-ear headphones. At $549, the Apple AirPods Max is priced close to the top of the food chain in the highly competitive category of mainstream high-performanc headphones, but this pair brings a lot of unique tricks to the party.
What Makes the Apple AirPods Max Headphones Special?
- Even loyal Apple users like myself will tell you that the simplicity of the Apple AirPods Max is simply amazing. There is one button and one knob (known as the digital crown) on these headphones. That’s all you need to adjust volume, skip tracks, answer phone calls, etc.
- Pairing headphones with Apple products used to be a bit of a pain in the ass, but many companies have made big strides on this front. Still, Apple makes it the easiest. Your Apple devices will automatically detect when the Apple AirPods Max headphones are nearby and put a “connect” option on the screen. Done. Easy.
- The battery life on the AirPods Max is very good—somewhat comparable to the recently reviewed Bose Noise Canceling 700 headphones ($379 retail) (buy at Amazon), which are less money and look great. I got to play with my seat-neighbor’s pair on a recent flight from Philadelphia) (buy at Crutchfield). When you use these headphones in conjunction with a MacBook Pro, you can click on the Bluetooth icon in the upper-right corner of the laptop’s screen and instantly see the remaining battery (percentage) for the AirPods Max, which I found very useful when travelling.
- Even with Jony Ive gone from Apple, the AirPods Max is a marvel of industrial design. Other headphones in this price class come across as plasticky (because they often are) and seem cheaper (many of them are actually less expensive), whereas the AirPods Max headphones present themselves as a much more robust and serious piece of technology. The headband is beyond cool. It is rigid yet very lightweight, which allows for some heft in the ear cups without making the headphones too heavy to wear.
- With microprocessors in short demand these days for many companies, the fact that the Apple AirPods Max has a chip in each ear cup explains, in part, why the headphones are as expensive as they are. They support EQ, noise cancelation, and a form of faux surround sound (spatial audio) that can be very processor-intensive.
- Over the past few years, I’ve reviewed many of the best headphones in the premium, over-the-ear wireless category, and they all tend to have the same travel case. Apple thinks differently, offering a color-matched, lightweight, flexible Smart Case that allows you to travel safely with your AirPods Max without dealing with the bulk of a traditional case. I have an OXO oven mitt that oddly reminds me of the Apple case. It is a crazy design, unlike anything that I’ve seen in the consumer electronics world to date.
- The headphones are available in five color options: white, gray, light blue, a sweet metallic green, and the orange/salmon-colored version that I got to spend significant time with.
- I am not a voice activation guy, but Siri is on demand any time that you need her when using the Apple AirPods Max headphones. You can set up “Announce Notifications” and Siri will keep you informed of important communications via voice announcements.
- Like many headphones in the category today, the AirPods Max headphones turn off for a second if you pull them off of your head to take a break. They resume playing quickly and easily when you put them back on.
- Of course, you can make phone calls with the AirPods Max, as they seamlessly integrate with an iPhone and have microphones built in. I didn’t test the AirPods Max with a Google or Samsung phone.
- Apple developed its own headphone driver, which is one of the benefits of being a gigantic corporation with massive design resources. The Apple driver can play deep and loud when called upon to do so. I will get into the sound in more detail in the Listening section.
- In my tests, I used the active noise cancelation almost constantly and found that it does an excellent job of shutting out the external distractions that can get between you and the music. I know ANC uses more battery, but the AirPods Max did better than most on the battery front. Transparency Mode allows you to hear the outside world when needed, and you activate it by pressing the single button on the AirPods Max. It’s a good safety feature if you are walking around town and need to hear a little bit of your surroundings so you don’t get run over by a UPS truck.
Some Things You Might Not Like About the Apple AirPods Max Headphones
The fit on my admittedly large head was somewhat tight. This is an advantage for better bass performance because it makes a better seal around the ears, but the tight fit would be somewhat physically fatiguing for me on, say, a cross-country flight. I also encountered this issue with the less sexy, slightly less expensive, but still audiophile-tastic Sennheiser Momentum 4 headphones.
Listening To The Apple AirPods Max Wireless Headphones…
When listening to “Interstate Love Song” from Stone Temple Pilot’s 1994 album Purple (AIFF, CD quality) (buy at Amazon), I felt the urge to crank it up just a little higher with the Apple AirPods Max on. The overall presentation was pretty balanced, but what stood out to me was that the midrange sounded a bit congested compared to what I heard from the Bowers & Wilkins Px7s S2, Sennheiser Momentum 4, and even the Bose Noise Canceling Headphones 700. The bass was pretty good, and the highs lacked the excessive sizzle I heard from the Bose. It is more in the vocal region of the midrange where I wished things sounded clearer.
I often get stuck in a rut when it comes to the Metallica songs I use for audio testing, so when I heard the newer track “Atlas, Rise!” on Ozzy’s Boneyard via Sirius-XM, I immediately purchased and ripped the album Hardwired…To Self-Destruct (AIFF 1440, CD quality) (buy on CD or vinyl at Amazon) to my music hard drive. This highly syncopated, high-tempo track is a brutal test for any speaker or headphone pair. Lars Ulrich’s kick drum suffered from the same midrange bloat that I heard on the STP track above. Having a bit of a “chunky” midrange seems to be the way that these headphones are voiced. You can try playing with EQ to solve the issue.
Who Is the Competition for the Apple AirPods Max?
There are a lot of players in the high-end, over-the-ear headphones category, but none delivers the level of features and forward-thinking design that Apple brings to the equation. Bowers & Wilkins’s Px7 S2 audiophile wireless headphones ($399) (buy at Amazon) comes close with its sexy industrial design and excellent comfort, and it costs less money. Sonically the Px7 S2 has more issues with bass coherency, whereas the AirPods Max has issues in the midrange.
The Sennheiser Momentum 4 audiophile wireless headphones ($349) (buy at Amazon) is an even less expensive pair of headphones that has possibly the best overall sound quality in the category, with tight bass, an open midrange, and a non-bright high-frequency presentation. But they lack the sexy and super-expensive industrial design. Like the AirPods Max, these headphones felt tight on my head, which could be physically tiring over long listening sessions.
Bose Noise Canceling 700 headphones ($379 retail) (buy at Amazon) has much improved midrange performance compared with the Apple AirPods Max, but tends to be a lot more forward in the high end—which, for many people, will be hard to listen to for long periods of time. Bose and Sony are still the industry leaders in noise cancelation, but Bowers & Wilkins and Apple have made massive improvements with their current product offerings.
There are many other players in this space, too. We’ll be reviewing Sony’s WH-1000XM5 audiophile wireless headphones (buy at Amazon) and Denon’s top offerings in the coming weeks. From my past experience with Sony’s wireless headphones, I know that the company’s noise cancelation is notably good. The uber-high-end German company T+A is coming to market with a $1,600-per-pair set of wireless headphones that I must play with (and will as they are in-hand now). Keeping up with the feature set of the Apple AirPods Max is close to impossible, but I’m curious to hear how they sound.
Final Thoughts on the Apple AirPods Max Headphones
The AirPods Max wireless bluetooth headphones (buy at Amazon) are an Apple product, through and through. Like all Apple products, they are notably pricey for the space, but these headphones don’t rely on their value proposition. Apple makes you want them through their sexy colors, their slick design, their simplicity, and more. The industrial design is over-the-top good and beyond thoughtful. I’d like Apple to clear up this pair’s midrange performance—there are other headphones in the space that sound a little better and were a little more comfortable for me. With that said, there is nothing else in the space quite like Apple AirPods Max in terms of thought, design, and implementation.