AirPods Max: A Review

Photo: Joshua Beck

I’ve said it over and over again: I had no plans to buy AirPods Max. I had absolutely no interest in them.

Okay, that last part was incorrect; I had no interest in paying $549 for them. Sheesh.

But I was definitely interested in them. I figured I’d be waiting for Apple to make a cheaper version of the AirPods Max, maybe an SE version or something. Considering that, I didn’t expect to have any version of the AirPods Max in my hands so soon after their release. But here I am, wearing AirPods Max on my noggin right now.

And of course, since they are now in my hands (or on my head), I have to write about them, because I have some thoughts. This won’t be one of my battle royale articles; I didn’t really pick out a specific pair of headphones that I wanted to compare them against (though I will do a few comparisons). Instead, I just want to write about my experience with these, the most expensive headphones I’ve ever owned.

Let’s get started.

Price

AirPods Max Headband close up.
AirPods Max Headband close up.
Photo: Joshua Beck

First and foremost, no, I did not spend $549 (plus tax) on these headphones; I held true to my self-promise that I would not go that batshit crazy with my finances. Between my Best Buy rewards credits and the steepest discount I could find on an open box pair in good condition, I paid a lot less.

That said, I really want to focus on whether or not these headphones are worth $549 because, for most people, that is what they are going to be paying if they buy them.

My initial short answer is… hell no.

The long answer is this: These are absolutely the best headphones that I currently have in my house. Compared to others I’ve tested—the Beats Studio3, Solo Pro, and the Sony WH-XB900N (no, I have not tried the XM-4 headphones)—they are clearly better. But I really don’t think they are $200-$300 better. Not hardly.

That said, I think I can understand why Apple is charging so much more for its premium headphones, and so for that reason, I’m going to come back around to price as I dive further into this review.

Design

AirPods Max Ear Cup close up.
AirPods Max Ear Cup close up.
Photo: Joshua Beck

Good lord, these are beautiful headphones. I don’t think I’ve been able to say that about any other headphones I’ve ever reviewed. These are damn nice.

For one thing, there isn’t an inch of plastic to be found anywhere on these headphones, at least not where you come in direct contact with them. The headband is all stainless steel and soft-touch rubber and mesh, and the ear cups are smooth aluminum with comfortable mesh cushions.

These are damn nice.

The first time I put them on my head, I couldn’t believe how comfortable they were. The headband—with a mesh surface that balances on my noggin—seems to almost disappear; I don’t really feel it even after an hour or more of listening to tunes. I can feel the clamping pressure of the ear cups, but it is just short of headache-inducing, and despite them being relatively heavy headphones, they feel almost as light as air while wearing them.

I really prefer earbuds like the AirPods or Beats’ new Flex headphones, and that’s mainly because, after a while, over-ear or on-ear headphones start to annoy me. Some, like those from Beats, clamp down on my head too much, causing my head to feel the pressure and my ears to ache. And most of them feel way too warm after a while. And frankly, I wear a headset for work all day, so I really don’t like the feeling of a headband while trying to relax as it just reminds me of working (especially since my office is just down the hallway).

The AirPods Max honestly eliminated all of these issues for me. As I said, I feel the clamping pressure, but it doesn’t really feel like pressure. I could tell that if I had a headache going into my listening session, the pressure from the AirPods Max may not help, but that can also be said of any other over-ear headphones I’ve used. The cushions give a wide enough berth for my ears that they never feel achy. The mesh still retains heat around my ears, but it also feels like it provides breathability that others—like Beats with their faux-leather cushions—don’t provide. And because of the way the ear cups are connected to the headband, these feel like they have unlimited range to fit the shape of my head.

Apple did something unusual with the AirPods Max, too (and I’m not talking about the case); there’s no Apple logo to be found anywhere on the headphones. Where most companies would throw their name or logo onto the ear cups, Apple’s telltale “apple” is missing, leaving the AirPods Max plain and smooth. It took a few minutes of hunting around to find that the logo and the “Designed by Apple in California” message are only to be found inside the ear cups underneath the cushions. But Apple doesn’t need to advertise who made these headphones; like the notch on the iPhone, the design looks and feels inherently “Apple.”

I really like that the ear cushions are removable as well. That, to me, makes it easier to clean the headphones or replace the cushions if I need to (though those are still expensive at $69 a pair). The magnets that hold the cushions in place are strong, and I never felt like they would come loose.

Now, let’s talk controls. Most headphones these days are going for touch controls or, in the case of ones like Beats, hidden buttons built into and around the logo. And most of these implementations are cumbersome, don’t work all the time, or are downright difficult to learn.

The AirPods Max simply have two controls on the right ear cup, and that’s it. There’s a button with a very satisfying push that triggers noise-canceling or transparency modes and a rotating crown—a larger version of the crown you’d find on the Apple Watch—that controls volume when you spin it and functions as play/pause, skip track, or Siri-summoner depending on the number of times you press it or the length of your press. Of course, you don’t really need to use the button to trigger play/pause; just like all other AirPods, the AirPods Max will automatically pause the music once you take them off. And you can also just say “Hey, Siri” rather than using the button to summon your assistant.

You’ll notice that I didn’t mention a power button, and that’s because there isn’t one; instead, the AirPods Max automatically drop into a low-power mode after a few minutes of non-use (or immediately if you put them in the case). And they’ll spring back to immediate life once you pick them up and put them on, so they are instantly ready to go. I’ve read other reviews that find this annoying, but as someone who easily gets annoyed when I find that my headphones have turned off every single time I stop using them for a few minutes, I like that these are always ready to go, just like their in-ear siblings.

The AirPods Max charge via lightning cable. I know people wish it was USB-C, but hell, this is an Apple product, and we’ve all got lightning cables for days. So no complaints here for me. I can understand the argument that some form of wireless charging should have been included, but I personally don’t own a wireless charging pad big enough for the AirPods Max to sit on, so that’s not a concern of mine, either.

I suppose I should mention the case because damn near everyone else has. Yeah, it’s a weird-looking case. Yeah, it inexplicably doesn’t offer any meaningful protection to the headphones. Yeah, it kinda looks like a bra or makes the AirPods Max look like a weird purse. But I’m not really going to complain about them because I rarely use the included cases with any of my headphones (unless it is a charging case). The only reason I really would use the case for the AirPods Max is to prevent the ear cups from banging into each other, which they do when they are flipped into a storage position. It’s a case, it’s included in the price, and it’s up to you if you want to use it. From what I’ve read, the “power-saving benefits” of this case are negligible (though I haven’t tested that one for myself).

Sound

AirPods Max angled shot.
AirPods Max angled shot.
Photo: Joshua Beck

The AirPods Max sound absolutely fantastic. I cannot stress this enough. They sound wonderful. I heard someone else describe listening to certain songs on the AirPods Max was like hearing the song truly for the very first time. And I honestly have to agree.

I think this is in part due to the active noise cancellation (ANC) feature, which is every bit as good as (if not better than) the same feature in the AirPods Pro. I get a much better seal with the Max than I ever have with the Pro (none of the included ear tips give me a good seal in Apple’s fit test), and so far, the ANC hasn’t caused any major headaches like the Pros tend to cause (though, again, if I’m coming into it with a headache already brewing, the ANC and clamping pressure may exacerbate it; I learned that one the hard and painful way).

With ANC turned on (which it is by default), music comes in crystal clear. The sound is very well-balanced, and I can honestly say that for the first time with a pair of headphones, I was able to get completely lost in a song.

That’s not an exaggeration; combined with the near-perfect ANC, the comfort of the AirPods Max, and the clarity of the music, it felt like a listening experience I had yet to experience anywhere else. Granted, I’ve never tried headphones anywhere near this price point, so I’m sure it is not an experience unique to the AirPods Max, but it is one unique to me.

For example, I listened to Eisley’s live rendition of “Just Like We Do” (one of my favorite songs from my favorite band) from their 2005 EP Head Against the Sky, and it sounded like I was sitting right next to the Dupree sisters as they sang and played guitar. It was that good. And that’s a pretty old, relatively low-quality track from one of the band’s very first releases. Since then, I’ve gone through so many of my favorite songs—from Aurora’s “It Happened Quiet” to John Williams’ “Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra”—and each track sounded excellent and, more importantly, sounded the best I’ve ever heard them.

I did a couple of comparisons to get an understanding of how good the AirPods Max actually sound. I don’t currently have any other over-the-ear headphones with which I can put them up against (and despite my love for music, I’m not an audiophile—I think that’s important to mention here), but I do have the AirPods Pro and the Beats Flex, which are two of my go-to earbuds. I’ve always thought the AirPods Pro sounded excellent, but by comparison to the AirPods Max, they sound entirely flat. The Beats Flex fared better, giving more punchy bass than the AirPods Max, but overall, the Max had much better clarity and sound.

In fact, the only headphones in my current collection that I thought came close to sounding as good as the AirPods Max were Anker’s Soundcore Liberty Air 2 Pro, mostly due to Anker’s plethora of EQ settings. But even those sounded less “full” than the Max (probably because they are earbuds and not fully covering my ears), and they are nowhere near as comfortable (they tend to slip out of my ears over time just like the AirPods Pro).

I didn’t get to do a direct comparison to the Beats Studio3 or the Sony XB900N, but I tested those pretty extensively when I had them. I’d say both the Beats and the Sony headphones offer more thumping bass (which makes sense as the XB in the Sony’s name stands for extra bass, and the Beats are, well, Beats), but neither had the pure clarity that is on display with the AirPods Max. Maybe I’ll pick one of those up again to compare them more directly (or maybe I’ll finally try out the Sony XM-4 headphones), but I’m pretty confident in my belief that the AirPods Max sound way better than those cheaper headphones. And no, I’m not about to spend the AirPods Max price on any other headphones to compare them with others in their price-point; if you want that review, please look elsewhere.

Features

AirPods Max macro shot.
AirPods Max macro shot.
Photo: Joshua Beck

Perhaps the biggest category in which the AirPods Max shine is with features.

Of course, if you are buying AirPods Max, you should probably be planning to pair them with Apple products. I didn’t test them with Android or Windows, but as we’ve come to expect with any Apple headphones, the AirPods Max are made for Apple’s ecosystem, with the ability to easily switch between MacBook, iPad, and iPhone. In fact, I found the Max did a better job of this than my regular AirPods, which stumble on occasion.

They feature active noice cancellation, which I’ve already mentioned, but I’ll mention it again: They are some of the best I’ve used in this category. I can’t say how well they’ll do against the hum of jet engines (even before the pandemic, I rarely got onto planes), but in my house, with various noises like the neighbor’s dogs barking or with the air conditioning running, they simply silence the world around me as if I’d just cast a Muffliato charm. I literally cannot even hear myself clapping along to a song. For reference, I’ve tried ANC on several other headphones—the AirPods Pro, the Sony XB900N, the Beats Studio3, and the Soundcore Liberty Air 2 Pro—and nothing, not even the AirPods Pro, came close to the excellence of the ANC on the AirPods Max.

Likewise, they have a transparency mode that allows outside sounds to come in. I didn’t use this nearly as much, but it was very nice that with a simple push of a button, I could suddenly hear my surroundings with absolute clarity. I had a conversation with my wife while wearing the AirPods Max, and I could hear her so well that I forgot I was even wearing the headphones. Again, compared to other headphones I’ve used with a transparency mode—like the aforementioned XB900N—these are simply a class above.

The feature that perhaps was my favorite has to be spatial audio. Now, I’ve tried spatial audio on my AirPods Pro. It was cool, giving my iPad and solo listening session the impression that I was watching a television with surround sound in a quiet room. But the AirPods Max feel like they were made for this feature (and truthfully, they were).

Watching Star Trek: Voyager on my iPad (yeah, I know, not the best test of the AirPods Max sound capabilities, but I’ve been on a Voyager hook for a while now), it felt like I was surrounded by the sound, and the perception that the sound stayed in the same place no matter how I turned my head was real and fascinating. It is hard to describe, but it is absolutely a cool feature. Likewise, the experience of watching music videos for Half-Alive’s “Still Feel” or Jain’s “Come” were elevated by the spatial audio feature.

That said, it is very limited right now. Spatial audio is only supported on a few of Apple’s devices; though my iPad and iPhone can take full advantage of it, my MacBook Air cannot despite it being the latest M1 variant. Likewise, the Apple TV—even the brand new one—cannot currently support it, meaning I can’t use this excellent feature with my large, 4K television, and instead, I’m relegated to the two smallest screens in my arsenal. This isn’t so bad for personal use; I mean, I’m probably only listening to my headphones while using my phone or tablet (or my computer, but whatever), but it would be nice to have the option to use my personal surround sound with my 55-inch television. I mean, Apple, come on: When I’m not watching television with other people, I would always be watching with the AirPods Max if I had that option. I don’t currently own an Apple TV box (I use the app on my Roku television), but this would absolutely be the feature that would get me to buy the new 4K Apple TV without a second thought. Apple, if you’re listening (doubtful), think about it.

Likewise, spatial audio only works with certain apps. Of course, the Apple TV app and all its content work with the service as do other apps like Hulu, Disney+, HBO Max, and Paramount+ (can’t wait to watch some Star Trek: Discovery with these headphones, and I bet WandaVision will be a mind trip with these things when I get around to revisiting it), but there are some very popular apps that don’t offer spatial audio support, such as Netflix, YouTube, or Amazon Prime (so, sorry if you click on those music video links in the hopes of trying out spatial audio on your own headphones—you’ll need to watch them in the Apple Music app instead).

Certainly, all of your favorite apps will probably offer the option in the future, and Apple probably will extend support to MacBooks and maybe even the Apple TV one day, but for now, these limitations are definitely something to keep in mind if spatial audio is factoring into your decision to buy the AirPods Max (or even the AirPods Pro).

One final feature that I love about the AirPods Max isn’t exclusive to the Max, but it is one of the reasons I really tend to stick with Apple’s headphone offerings: With the Apple Health app, they will track how loud I’ve been listening to music and notify me if I’m listening to it too loud for too long. You get this tracking with all of Apple’s headphones, including newer Beats models, but looking over my data, I’m consistently listening to the AirPods Max at lower volumes than what I saw with headphones like the Studio3. I imagine this has to do, once again, with the excellent ANC keeping me from having to raise the volume too much (and you can also limit the max decibel levels in iOS settings to prevent volumes that are too high).

As someone who occasionally suffers from tinnitus (ringing in my ears, which can get set off by loud sounds), having this data and control over my hearing is essential. It is, to me, one of the most important health metrics I can track. Some other brands of headphones will also provide decibel levels to your Apple Health app, but none seem to do it as consistently as Apple’s own.

Shortcomings

AirPods Max macro shot.
AirPods Max macro shot.
Photo: Joshua Beck

There are very few shortcomings that I’ve discovered with the AirPods Max, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any.

First and foremost, they don’t have a headphone jack for plugging in and using them in a wired format, which a lot of people apparently like to do (it doesn’t bother me so much; I bought Bluetooth headphones for a reason). They do have the option to work with a lightning adapter for this function, but that is not included in the box. It’s only $35, which isn’t a lot compared to the price of the AirPods Max, but considering the price of the AirPods Max, it kinda stings that Apple didn’t just throw it in with the headphones, especially since most headphones at this price point and with this capability include the cable.

On top of that, they do not have the ability to play music through a wired connection without battery power. This is likely because you would need power for either ANC or transparency modes, but it sucks a little that you can’t even use them passively without some juice (though this isn’t entirely surprising, as Beats also need power to play when connected through a wire).

I mentioned headaches with ANC earlier, and I do want to bring that up again. No, the AirPods Max did not give me the kind of crippling headaches I experienced when I first started using AirPods Pro, but they can happen, especially if I’m already feeling a headache coming on. On my third day of using them, I got a massive headache that lasted for hours after I stopped using the AirPods Max; this headache wasn’t caused by the AirPods—I am pretty sure it was because I hadn’t had any caffeine all day after a week of having bottled Starbucks espresso drinks every morning for work—but I definitely felt the headache get worse when I used the ANC on the AirPods Max.

From what I’ve read, this is something that affects some people and not others, and for some who are affected (but not all), it will go away after you get used to using them (I no longer have this problem with the AirPods Pro). But it is worth bringing up: If you’ve had experience with ANC causing or worsening your headaches, know that the AirPods Max may cause the same problem for you. Thankfully, I’ve only noticed this once for myself, and in long listening sessions after that incident, I’ve yet to have any further head pain.

If you are planning on traveling with the AirPods Max, you should also consider that they take up a lot of space. They lay flat, but unlike other headphones that are similar (and cheaper), they do not fold up. In my computer bag, which admittedly is on the smaller side, they take up the majority of the remaining space not reserved for my laptop and tablet. Not necessarily a drawback, but it’s something to consider.

I also must admit that at first, I was a little wary of the longevity of the headphones. They look and feel completely premium, but I’m confident that if the headband—which is not protected in any way by the included case—would get ruined if the fabric got caught or hung up on something. However, like the ear cushions, the headband appears to be easily removable by the user, and while I don’t see the option to buy a replacement headband through Apple at this time, the potential for this to be easily replaced (not to mention the inevitability for third-party headbands or even other headband options directly from Apple) eases my concerns a little (but maybe you should still get AppleCare+ for them, just in case).

There’s one other concern I’ve seen online that I want to address: condensation. I only experienced a tiny bit of condensation in a couple of uses of the AirPods Max. The first occurred when I put the headphones on within 10 minutes of getting out of the shower, so I’m pretty sure the moisture came from my head and not the AirPods Max (plus I had just wiped them down with a Clorox wipe an hour or so beforehand—they were open-box and we are in a pandemic after all). The second occurred after a long listening session in which my head was noticeably warm (I’d been outside all day doing yard work before wearing them). I can’t help but wonder if condensation like this is more common on over-ear headphones and we are only seeing it here because the cushions can be easily removed, but it is something worth keeping in mind. I’ve not heard of anyone having issues with the AirPods Max caused by condensation, so maybe Apple considered that when designing them (they aren’t rated for water resistance, but I don’t see any way for this small amount of water to easily get through the plastic of the inner cup and into the workings—just don’t submerge them, and maybe stop wearing them if you are generating a lot of body heat or were recently soaked in water).

The Apple tax

Apple Logo artistic shot.
Apple Logo artistic shot.
Photo: Joshua Beck

So now that I’ve gone over my thoughts on the AirPods Max, I want to come back around to it again: Are these headphones worth $549?

No… but…

They are absolutely excellent headphones. They are, perhaps, the best headphones I’ve ever used. They are, perhaps, the best headphones ever made for Apple products.

If you use Apple products, and especially if all of your music-listening devices are Apple-made, it may very well be worth paying the Apple tax to get the AirPods Max over some of their cheaper competitors as simply you won’t find a better headphone experience anywhere else. Of that, I feel pretty confident.

Beats might get you more bass and similar switching between Apple devices, and Sony’s may get you close to the same music quality and similar ANC and transparency features, but nothing else out there can do everything in one package that the AirPods Max can do. And that just might make them worth their excruciatingly high price tag.

I am just clever enough to get myself in trouble…

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