No-one was surprised by the announcement of the AirPods Max. Apple’s first on-ear headphones were one of the tech world’s worst-kept secrets for months.
What did come as a surprise was the price: £549 ($549, AU$899) makes them vastly more expensive than the great majority of premium (if we can even still call them that) wireless noise-cancelling headphones. Can they possibly justify such a comparatively huge outlay?
The short answer is that yes, they can. They’re so much better than the existing competition that, arguably, they cross the line from wireless audio into wireless hi-fi.
While the styling may not be to everyone’s tastes, there is absolutely no denying the quality of the materials and build of the Apple AirPods Max. Hand someone a pair of them together with a pair of Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones and they will have no trouble at all believing that there’s a £200 ($200, AU$450) price difference between them.
The Sonys look and feel almost cheap compared with the Apples, which boast pristinely machined, single-piece anodised aluminium ear cups connected by a stainless-steel headband. Between the cups and your head are memory-foam cushions that easily surround even the largest ears, creating a seal that’s both gentle and surprisingly effective at physically blocking out sound.
The premium materials make the AirPods Max significantly heavier than the existing wireless headphones you might also consider – at 385g, they weigh more than 100g more than the Sony WH-1000XM4, for example. But, such is the effectiveness of the weight-distributing design, they really don’t feel heavy on the head and there are no pronounced pressure points. During testing, we embarked upon a number of long, uninterrupted listening sessions, and at no point felt any discomfort or fatigue.
Apple has resisted the urge to integrate touch controls into the design of the AirPods Max, but has also, thankfully, not gone entirely hands-free. Instead, on the top of the right-hand cup are two physical controls: a simple button for switching between noise-cancelling modes; and a dial inspired by the digital crown of the Apple Watch. The latter is a particularly neat and intuitive solution, although it is a little too easy to knock when adjusting the headphones, and its low resistance means you can accidentally adjust the volume by rather large degrees.
That said, when using the crown intentionally, it’s a tactile joy. Twist it to increase or decrease volume, click to play/pause, double-click to skip forwards and triple-click to skip back. Holding the crown down invokes Siri, although by default the AirPods Max are also always listening for the ‘Hey Siri’ command.
Another unique feature of the Apple AirPods Max is their case, which has been rather humorously compared to a bra or a gun holster. Not only does it look daft, it doesn’t perform even the most basic function of a typical case, which is protecting the product contained within from knocks, scratches and dirt. This case doesn’t cover the headband or the tops or bottoms of the cups, so is only vaguely more protective than simply shoving them naked into your bag.
Bluetooth version 5.0
Noise cancellation Yes
Battery life 20 hours
Voice control support Yes
The case is still useful, in that it prompts the AirPods Max to enter an ultra-low-power mode that will apparently preserve the charge for months, but anyone intending to take them out of the house even occasionally will want to invest in one of the third-party cases that are surely hastily being developed at this very second. That that’s necessary is ridiculous, particularly given the price of the headphones.
One could also feel aggrieved at the lack of a bundled wall charger, although this is at least fairly typical of wireless headphones these days. If you don’t already have one, you’ll want to budget for a USB-C charger – Apple’s 20W model will set you back £19 ($19, AU$29) but will ensure you can take advantage of fast charging for the AirPods Max (a five-minute charge gets you an hour and a half of listening with noise-cancelling switched on).
In terms of overall battery life, Apple quotes around 20 hours of use from a full charge. That’s significantly less than you get from the Sony WH-1000XM4, which offer 30 hours, but we find it hard to imagine many people discovering it to be not long enough – particularly as our testing suggests it’s a fairly conservative figure.
The fact that you can get a decent amount of use out of a very short charge is particularly valuable, because Apple hasn’t found its way to including an audio cable in the box, either. If you want to use the headphones in a wired capacity (with a console controller or in-flight entertainment, perhaps), the only way to do so is with the optional £35 ($35, AU$55) Lightning-to-3.5mm cable. Even then, the AirPods Max won’t work in passive mode: if the battery’s dead, the headphones are useless.
The lack of bundled accessories makes the AirPods Max look like rather poor value for their price, but Apple would presumably claim that what you’re paying for is technology, engineering and, ultimately, quality that you don’t get anywhere else.
On the technology front, Apple has installed one of its H1 chips in each of the earcups. Between them, these processors analyse information coming in from eight microphones dotted around and inside the headphones (there’s also a ninth microphone for picking up your voice, which comes through very clearly on calls) to not only actively block outside noise but also tailor the sound in real-time to the fit and seal around your ears. It’s this active processing that’s unique: if any non-Apple headphones are making 200 adjustments per second, as the AirPods Pro Max are, the manufacturer responsible is remaining peculiarly quiet about it.
In terms of acoustic engineering, Apple has developed its own 40mm driver, which features a dual neodymium ring magnet motor. Apple claims that this design allows the AirPods Max to maintain total harmonic distortion of less than one per cent across the entire audible range.
First things first, the quality of the noise-cancelling is excellent. Given that we’re reviewing during a pandemic, we haven’t done our usual on-flight or even on-bus testing but, using speakers and willing test subjects, we’re able to get a good idea of how headphones will perform in these situations.
Ultimately, while the Sony WH-1000XM4 seem to be just marginally better at blocking constant, consistent noise (engine sounds, for example), the AirPods Max also let very little through here and are just a touch better at combatting chit-chat – something that’s much harder to do. Ultimately, the Apples do a very good job of limiting how much external noise makes it through to your ears.
If you want to be more aware of what’s going on around you, there’s also a Transparency mode, which actively processes external noise and pumps it through to your ears. There’s a slightly synthetic quality to some of this noise and we’re not sure of how much use a Transparency mode is to a pair of headphones such as this (it’s typically more useful with in-ears that might be used while exercising outside), but it works well should you ever find you need it.
It’s worth pointing out, though, that the AirPods Max sound their best with both the noise-cancelling and Transparency mode switched off. There’s not a lot in it, but there’s definitely a slight flattening of dynamics and softening of punch, and the treble becomes a little more pronounced when noise-cancelling is switched on. It’s not enough that you should avoid using the noise-cancelling but, when you’re able to (which, thanks to the effective physical noise-isolation, should be fairly often) you should switch it off to hear the AirPods Max at their very best.
As we embark upon some serious listening, it becomes clear that the AirPods Max are very special indeed. Kicking off with SBTRKT’s debut album, we’re instantly thrilled by the super-crisp and spacious delivery. There’s a degree of clarity and energy that even the Sonys can’t match, and they sound more engaging and authentic. Lighter on their feet, even more precise and exciting, they feel like a significant step-up in terms of sonic sophistication, as well as build quality. Trials Of The Past positively crackles with energy and, while the Sonys do a great job with this track, the Apples add an extra layer of sizzle and attack that’s impossible to ignore.
Switch to the Tidal Master recording of The Road (by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis) from the film of the same name, and the delivery is stunning. The AirPods Max nail the beautiful inconsistencies in the timing and pressure of the piano notes that come from the live nature of the recording. They’re both organic and precise, with lovely, subtle degradation to the tail of each note, but a definite, precise end when the vibration of the strings is stopped. All of the notes are full and solid, lending a physicality to the recording that is missed by lesser headphones, plus a texture that makes everything that bit more moving.
The Sonys do well with this track as well, but the AirPods Max are undeniably more crisp, precise and spacious. The sound is that bit more engaging on account of that precision, and more atmospheric thanks to the added openness and the space given to each instrument. It’s a more transportative experience: it feels as if you’re sitting in the room as the musicians play around you.
Provide them with a sterner organisational challenge, such as Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, and the AirPods Max come up trumps once again. That spaciousness plays a big part once more, creating a soundstage that combines substance and airiness, and their dynamic ability ensures that the low-level, threatening chanting is thrillingly juxtaposed with the huge crescendo.
The Apples are revealing enough to expose poor recordings, particularly in the high frequencies, but here the treble is superb, with the triangle at the end twinkling brilliantly. The whole presentation is organised so precisely that even at its busiest, the track is easy to make sense of. The AirPods Max never become confused and the presentation never becomes muddled.
Up the angry ante with Kenai by 36 Crazyfists and the AirPods Max thrill once more with the pace and attack of the delivery. They’re so driven and in your face, but in exactly the way the track demands. The delivery from the Sonys is smoother but also less clean and crisp. It takes the edge off a bit, and that’s not a good thing here.
Switch from music to movies and the AirPods Max have a trick up their sleeve in the form of spatial audio, which provides a virtual surround sound experience from 5.1, 7.1 and even Dolby Atmos content. Not only that, but built-in head tracking means that the sound is always relative to the screen, even when you move your head or the iPhone or iPad on which you’re watching.
All told, the effect is superb. The whole presentation is very open, spacious and convincing, and the tracking is amazingly smooth and accurate as you move your head.
The opening of Gravity is recreated brilliantly by the AirPods Max. The placement of the various voices coming through the radio is brilliantly precise and convincing, there’s excellent weight to the dull thumps against the satellite and the heavy bass notes of the soundtrack, superb all-round clarity, and excellent dynamics as the peaceful scene turns threatening and then catastrophic. It’s easy to forget that you’re listening using headphones, such is the spaciousness of the delivery. It’s terrifically cinematic.
To many potential buyers, perhaps the movie performance is a fairly low priority; but to some it could be a big deal – particularly frequent flyers who want to turn their long haul flights into virtual trips to the cinema. And, of course, this is something you don’t get from rival models, as you need that collaboration between the source and the headphones. Simply put, combining an iPad with a pair of AirPods Max headphones gets you the most convincing portable cinema experience that we can think of.
Unsurprisingly, you do need an iPhone or iPad in order to get the most out of the AirPods Max. They will work with non-Apple products using standard Bluetooth 5.0, but you’ll miss out on many of their unique features. Ultimately, we can’t imagine anyone not already fairly well ensconced in the Apple ecosystem would consider buying a pair. Frankly, we’d be surprised if such a person has made it this far into this review.
Assuming you are a keen Apple user, the AirPods Max are the best wireless headphones you can buy – and not by a small margin. Their authenticity, detail, crispness and spaciousness elevate them so far above the previous best in the wireless noise-cancelling class that the comparison starts to become a little redundant and you instead begin to consider them alongside proper hi-fi products.
There’s no denying that they cost a lot more than typical products in this class but, if sound quality is king, there’s equally no denying that they’re worth it.
- Sound 5
- Comfort 5
- Build 5
Check out our round-up of the best noise-cancelling headphones
Read our Sony WH-1000XM4 review
Read our Bowers & Wilkins PX7 review
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