Apple unveils AirPods Max, its first over-ear noise-cancelling headphones

With a whopping $549 price tag.
Billy Steele
B. Steele|12.08.20

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After months of rumors, we finally have confirmation. Apple officially (and quietly) announced its first over-ear headphones today. The AirPods Max offer active noise cancellation (ANC), hands-free access to Siri and all the current elements of Apple design for $549. Apple says these pricey headphones offer “incredible high-fidelity audio,” Adaptive EQ and spatial audio on top of their noise-cancelling abilities.

“With AirPods Max, we are bringing that magical AirPods experience to a stunning over-ear design with high-fidelity audio,” Apple senior vice president Greg Joswiak explained. “The custom acoustic design, combined with powerful H1 chips, and advanced software enable AirPods Max to use computational audio to wirelessly deliver the ultimate personal listening experience.”

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In terms of design, Apple uses a “breathable knit mesh” for the headband that the company says helps evenly distribute weight and reduce pressure. The headband’s frame is made of stainless steel and adjusts to fit “a wide variety of head shapes and sizes.” Apple says a “revolutionary mechanism” attaches the ear cups to the headband which allows each one to pivot and rotate for a better fit. The ear cups are cushioned with memory foam, which the company explains helps with both comfort and the all-important seal needed to ensure sound quality is top notch.

For the on-board controls, Apple opted for an Apple Watch-inspired Digital Crown for volume and audio controls, in addition to taking calls and activating Siri. The company’s H1 chip is inside each ear cup, which powers “computational audio” with the help of the AirPods Max acoustic design and “advanced software.” The headphones employ 10 audio cores of each chip, which Apple says offers “a breakthrough listening experience” for Adaptive EQ, ANC, transparency mode and spatial audio. The AirPods Max packs in 40-mm drivers that the company promises will deliver deep bass, mid-range accuracy and crisp highs. Apple also uses a dual neodymium ring magnet motor that it says keeps total harmonic distortion at less than 1 percent — even at max volume.

The Adaptive EQ automatically adjusts low- and mid-range frequencies in real time to account for the fit and seal of the ear cushions. The AirPods Max does this by measuring signal output to ensure you don’t miss any details in the audio. For the ANC, each ear cup has three external microphones that monitor the noise around you, and there’s another mic inside to catch anything that might sneak in. Like the EQ, the noise cancellation “continuously” adapts to fit and movement.

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Image Credit: Apple

Transparency mode does exactly what you’d expect: it allows you to enjoy music or other audio while keeping tabs on your surroundings. What’s more, you can switch between ANC and transparency modes with the press of a button. Like the AirPods Pro, the AirPods Max use head tracking to place sounds virtually around you for the spatial audio. Apple says this “immersive, theater-like experience” is available for content recorded in 5.1, 7.1 and Dolby Atmos. With a combination of the gyroscope and accelerometer inside the AirPods Max and an iPhone or iPad, spatial audio tracks movement of both before comparing motion data and then remapping the sound. Apple also allows you to share audio streams with another set of AirPods with a single tap. All you have to do is bring the AirPods Max close by and you can listen to the same thing from a connected iPhone, iPad, iPod touch or Apple TV 4K.

AirPods Max also have automatic head detection, thanks to optical and position sensors. This means they’ll automatically pause when you lift just one ear cup. And as you might expect, Apple is promising “crisp and clear” voice calls and Siri commands via beam-forming microphones that focus on your voice rather than ambient noise. Of course, mileage varies greatly on headphones in that regard, so we’ll have to put this to the test to see if it holds true. The AirPods Max also has automatic device switching, so you can take a call on iPhone while you’re listening to music on your iPad or Mac.

Apple is promising up to 20 hours of battery life on a charge with the AirPods Max. And that’s with ANC and spatial audio turned on. The headphones also come with a Smart Case that activates “an ultralow power state” to “preserve battery” when you’re not using them.

AirPods Max are available for pre-order today for $549 from Apple.com and the Apple Store app. The headphones will ship December 15th. The company also offers a $35 Lightning to 3.5mm audio cable, if you need to use the AirPods Max as a set of wired headphones.

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