Apple AirPods Max review

Apple AirPods Max review

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Epblogs verdict

The Apple AirPods Max are among the best-sounding headphones we’ve ever tested, they’re easy to use, and their noise cancellation can easily stand up to the likes of the Sony WH-1000XM4 and the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700. However, their high price, limitations for Android users, and lack of 3.5mm audio port means we’d only recommend them to iOS users with a lot of money to spare – and no interest in Hi-Res Audio.

Apple AirPods Max price and release date

The Apple AirPods Max cost $549 / £549 / AU$899 and were officially released on December 15, 2020.

That price makes the AirPods Max far more expensive than many of the best over-ear headphones on the market, including our current favorite cans, the Sony WH-1000XM4; anyone hoping for a budget-friendly price, as we saw with the recently-launched HomePod mini, will be disappointed.

A year on from their launch, and we’re starting to see some good discounts on the AirPods Max, so you’ll probably find them cheaper than their original RRP.

There are rumors that Apple is planning to release a cheaper, sports-friendly variant of the AirPods Max, but even then you can expect those to cost a pretty penny. 

Design

After the price, the next biggest controversy surrounding the Apple AirPods Max is their design; they look quite unlike any other headphones on the market right now, with large flat earcups crafted from stainless steel, and a carrying case that’s instantly recognizable. 

There’s an unmistakably ‘Apple’ quality to the earcups; some may describe them as stylishly minimal, while others might say they’re rather featureless. Those that are looking for a bit more impact from their headphones may want to try the AirPods Max in one of their brighter color options, which include, silver, sky blue, green, and pink

We weren’t sure about the overall design at first, but we have to say it’s grown on us; they do look rather special compared to the competition, with a build quality that feels suitably premium for the price. 

Special though they may be, those stainless steel earcups mean that the AirPods Max are quite heavy, coming in at 385g – for comparison, the Sony WH-1000XM4 weigh 254g. Sure, that extra heft does make the AirPods Max feel as though they’re sturdy and well-made, but it’s a lot of weight to be carrying around on your head all day. 

To offset that added weight, the Apple AirPods Max come with a headband made from a knitted mesh fabric that’s designed to reduce on-head pressure. The look of the headband is certainly novel, but after spending time with the AirPods Max, we’ve come to appreciate it – they’re very comfortable to wear despite their relative heaviness. 

Are they as comfortable as the Sony WH-1000XM4? We don’t think they quite measure up to the best headphones you can buy today in that respect, but the AirPods Max don’t come with that uncomfortable clamping feeling that some over-ear headphones cause. 

The headband frame itself is made from stainless steel, with telescoping arms that you can adjust to find a good fit – they’ll stay in place once you adjust them, so you won’t be constantly fiddling with the fit. The frame feels sturdy and well-made, but it’s not so heavy as to put pressure on your head. 

The memory foam earcups also feel comfortable, and can pivot independently to fit your head. The earcups are easily removable, snapping in place via a magnet; you’ll be able to buy replacement earcups for the AirPods Max for $69 / £75 / $99 from the Apple Store.

The on-ear controls on the AirPods Max are minimal; interestingly, Apple has reprised the Digital Crown dial of the Apple Watch, which it says enables precise volume control, as well as allowing you to play or pause audio, skip tracks, answer or end phone calls, and activate Siri. 

You can simply turn the dial on the top of the right earcup to adjust the volume, or press once to play / pause your music, press once to answer and end phone calls, press twice to skip to the next track, and press three times to skip backwards.

We liked the tactility a dial provides, and it definitely feels like a more precise way of adjusting the volume as opposed to a button or swipe controls. In fact, we’re quite pleased that Apple hasn’t opted for touch-sensitive housings; in our experience, they can be temperamental, and it’s tricky to remember all those different gestures.

The right earcup also houses a noise control button that allows you to switch between active noise cancellation and Transparency mode, which allows some environmental noise to pass through the headphones, while the bottom of the earcup houses an Apple Lightning port for charging. 

What isn’t included is a 3.5mm audio port. So, if you want to listen with a wired connection, you’ll have to fork out for a Lighting to 3.5mm audio adapter for an additional $35 / £35 (about AU$45). 

It’s frustrating that this doesn’t come included with the headphones when you consider how expensive they are – if you’re paying $549 / £549 / AU$899 for a pair of headphones, you might (quite reasonably) expect to be able to plug them into an amplifier or DAC to squeeze out every last drop of fidelity right out of the box. 

Interestingly, the lack of audio port isn’t the most divisive design aspect of the AirPods Max; that award goes to the unusual-looking Smart Case, which puts the headphones in an ‘ultralow power state’, preserving the battery while the headphones aren’t in use. 

So far, the Smart Case has been compared to a bra, a sleeping mask, and a handbag by bemused Twitter users, and we can’t say that we blame them. 

That design wouldn’t be so egregious if the case actually did what it’s supposed to do: protect your headphones. Instead, the Smart Case leaves the headband of the AirPods Max totally exposed, and while an opening at the bottom of the case does make it easy to charge the headphones without removing them, it leaves them vulnerable to debris finding its way inside. 

The rubberized material is also a magnet for smudges and scrapes, and just placing the Smart Case in a bag is enough to ruin the pristine look you get straight out of the box. Again, we’’d expect more from Apple at the price; while lightweight and compact, a hard case with a zip would provide far more protection and peace of mind.

Audio performance

The audio quality offered by the Apple AirPods Max is simply outstanding. They come with a wide, well-balanced soundstage that leaves plenty of room for each instrument to really sing – pair that with cool extra features like automatically pausing your music when you remove the headphones and Spatial Audio, and you’ve got yourself a very special pair of cans. 

Listening to Phoebe Bridgers’ Garden Song, and her soft vocal sounded smooth and clear, with every detail meticulously conveyed by the AirPods Max. The glitchy picked guitar had a lovely rich quality to it, with a fantastic sense of rhythm and stereo separation. 

Moving onto Love My Way by The Psychedelic Furs, the glockenspiel sounded bright and vivid, while the tightly-controlled bass provided a solid bedrock for the guitar and vocals. As we turned up the volume, we didn’t experience any issues with distortion, partly thanks to the neodymium ring magnet motor inside the headphones that powers its 40mm drivers.

The AirPods Max are great for listening to pretty much any genre of music, whether you’re into sparkly pop with strong vocals or hip-hop with punchy basslines – and unlike the AirPods Pro, they can handle classical music, too. As we listened to Mozart’s Jupiter, the raucous opening sounded expansive and decadent, while the quieter flute passages were handled delicately with accuracy and precision. 

Despite the high price of the AirPods Max, support for Hi-Res Audio files is limited to Apple’s own Apple Digital Masters tracks, which are only available via Apple Music. Again, this makes it feel as though we’re being somewhat shortchanged, as we’d expect comprehensive codec support at this price – and now that Apple Music offers Lossless Audio, the lack of lossless streaming support is unfortunate.

Spatial audio

Like the AirPods and AirPods Pro, the AirPods Max come with the Apple H1 chip in each earcup, which features no less than 10 audio cores to allow for Adaptive EQ, active noise cancellation, Transparency mode, and Spatial Audio.

Released as part of iOS 14, the Spatial Audio feature first came to the AirPods Pro, and works for content in 5.1, 7.1 and Dolby Atmos, which positions sound all around you within a virtual sphere – this means that, for example, if you’re watching a Dolby Atmos film that shows a plane flying overhead, it will sound as though the plane really is passing above you.

Something that’s unique to Spatial Audio is the fact that the AirPods Max are able to track your head movement using inbuilt accelerometers and gyroscopes, as well as the position of your iOS device; that means that as you move your head, the audio will always sound as though it’s coming from the screen.

To try it for yourself, you just need to find content that’s available in the aforementioned surround formats – Apple TV Plus, Disney Plus and HBO Max all allow for Spatial Audio, though the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime Video are yet to follow suit and add surround sound support for their iOS apps.

Happily, it’s possible for stereo content to be converted to Spatial Audio while using the AirPods Max or AirPods Pro by opening the headphones’ settings on your device.

We tested out the Spatial Audio feature on the AirPods Max with content from Apple TV Plus, and we have to say it’s very effective. No, it’s not as convincing as a true Dolby Atmos surround setup, but it does make movie-watching feel far more immersive – and it’s a fantastic extra feature for those that watch a lot of TV shows and films on an iPhone or iPad.

Noise cancellation

The noise cancellation provided by the Apple AirPods Max is very strong, and we’d say it’s on par with the likes of the Sony WH-1000XM4 and the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700.

Each ear cup features three outward-facing microphones to detect environmental noise, while one microphone inside the ear cup monitors the sound reaching your ear. 

Apple says the AirPods Max use computational audio to continuously adapt their noise cancellation performance based on “the headphone fit and movement in real time”. It certainly seemed effective when we tested them out in a range of situations. 

During a commute, most of the rumble from the train was blocked out, and with our music playing, we couldn’t hear it at all. You truly get a sense of peace when using the AirPods Max in noisy environments, whether you’re working in your kitchen with the washing machine roaring away in the background, or trying to steal a few moments of solitude on a busy journey.

The Transparency mode is useful, too; you just need to press the noise cancellation button on the right earcup to allow environmental noise to pass through the headphones, allowing you to tap into your surroundings. 

It’s certainly handy if you need to have a quick conversation with someone without having to stop your music, and it worked really well in our tests, making it feel as though you’re not wearing headphones at all. 

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