The AirPods Max weren’t exactly a well-kept secret. Rumors that Apple was working on a set of high-end over-ear headphones have been making the rounds since 2018. In fact, we pretty much knew what they would look like and how they would be built. Still, Apple managed to surprise us with a low-key December reveal, announcing the $549 headphones in a press release rather than holding another keynote. While the initial response was sticker shock, I can tell you after a week of testing that the AirPods Max are compelling, but these certainly aren’t the headphones for most people.
Gallery: AirPods Max review | 17 Photos
Gallery: AirPods Max review | 17 Photos
Designed in Cupertino
I’ll be the first to admit, when the initial renders of the “AirPods Studio” leaked, I was not impressed. Thankfully, there’s a big difference between renders and reality. The final version of the AirPods Max look like premium headphones. In true Apple fashion, there’s plenty of aluminum and metal, along with five trendy colors to coordinate with your iPhone. The AirPods Max are exactly what you’d expect a set of Apple headphones to look like. And that’s not a bad thing.
- Excellent balanced sound
- Solid ANC
- Handy features
- Unique but reliable controls
- Solid battery life
- Spatial audio is limited right now
- The “case” offers little protection
- No high-res music streaming service support
The earcups bear a resemblance to MacBooks. They’re entirely aluminum, and tinted to match the color of the headband. On the inside, memory foam cushions seal off your ears from the outside world. They’re also attached with magnets, and easily (if not cheaply) replaceable -- Apple will sell you a new pair for $69. I’m not sure how often you’ll need to swap them out, but some reviewers have noted the white variety already looks grimey after a couple weeks of use.
The headband is noticeably wider than most headphones, to help bear the burden of the extra weight. It’s a metal frame with breathable mesh -- a soft, comfy material that also reduces any strain. The headband attaches to the earcups via telescoping arms that adjust for a proper fit. Plus, the cups rotate and pivot to fit your head.
One of the most surprising things about the AirPods Max is the weight. They’re nearly 385 grams -- over 130 grams more than Sony’s WH-1000XM4. But just as surprising is that the heft isn’t really an issue. They’re actually pretty comfortable in spite of it. However, these aren’t the best headphones I’ve tested in that regard: I can feel the rings of the earcups after just a few minutes due to the softness of the memory foam (and my big head). But that was the only source of discomfort and it has nothing to do with weight.
For the on-board controls, Apple opted for a rotating crown like it uses on the Apple Watch. It rotates to adjust volume and accepts a variety of presses to control audio and calls. There’s also a separate button that switches between active noise cancellation (ANC) and transparency mode. Those two controls sit atop the right earcup, with the buttons separated by the headband. And honestly, they’re a joy to use. I was skeptical about the crown, but after a week of testing, these are some of the simplest and most effective controls I’ve used on headphones. Everything you need is there, the experience is reliable and you can hit both pause and activate ambient sound with ease. Those are the only two buttons on the AirPods Max. There is no power button, and there’s no 3.5mm headphone jack. If you want to go wired you’ll have to connect via a Lightning cable, which is also how you charge them.
Apple also built in automatic wear detection. The AirPods Max will pause when you remove them from your head, but they’ll also do so if you raise one earcup off your ear. After a period of inactivity, the headphones will enter a low-power mode to conserve battery.
Then there’s the “case.” Apple made a few head-scratching decisions on the AirPods Max, but the included Smart Case is one of the worst. First, it offers little in the way of protection for your $549 investment. The headband is left completely exposed, as are the edges of the earcups. So if you drop these in a bag, it’s only a matter of time before they get scratched up. Sure, leaving the Lightning port accessible so you can charge the headphones is handy, but so too would an accessory that actually protects your gear. This is much more of a wrap than a case, and it almost seems like Apple just cut up surplus iPad covers.
Built for iOS
Like other AirPods, there’s no companion app for the Max. Everything you need software-wise is built into iOS. (You’ll need to update to 14.3 to use these.) From the Bluetooth menu, tap the “i” icon beside the device name and you’ll get all of the customizable features. You can manually change the noise control (ANC, off, transparency) and adjust the functionality of the ANC button by adding “off,” or neither ANC or transparency is active. You can access volume, noise control and spatial audio in Control Center, too. You can also change the rotation of the digital crown from front to back or back to front. Apple will let you disable head detection and spatial audio here as well, in addition to turning off automatic connection to your iPhone. Most of this is exactly what you get with the AirPods Pro.
You’ll notice I didn’t mention a custom EQ. Apple offers some presets in the settings for Apple Music, but they’re not very good. With the AirPods Max, the default option is the best in my opinion. They do include an adaptive EQ system that uses “advanced software” and “computational audio” to adjust the low and mid-frequencies in real time to account for changes in fit and earcup seal.
These are AirPods after all, so you get the handy features built explicitly for iPhone owners. That includes automatic pairing to devices you’ve connected to your iCloud account and hands-free interactions with Siri. And the initial setup is done with one tap, all of this is thanks to Apple’s H1 headphone chip.
For Android users, you technically can use the AirPods Max with those devices. However, you lose a lot of the core functionality, like spatial audio, if you do. And for that reason you’d be better off with a more software agnostic set of headphones that don’t require any sacrifice.