Apple AirPods Max review: Audio quality and price to the max
Quick verdict: Apple’s AirPods Max offer exceptional sound and great noise cancelling, but their price point puts them within reach of only the most fanatical Apple fans.
- Astonishingly good audio
- Good battery life
- Excellent noise cancellation
- Case is laughably bad
- Quite expensive
- No included cabling or charger
- Plays best only with Apple products
Apple’s AirPods lines started out as small true wireless style buds with stalks in the form of the original AirPods. Then came the AirPods Pro, for folks who wanted a lot more oomph in their sound while retaining the same core design.
The Apple AirPods Max are an entirely different take on wireless audio, shifting to a full set of over-ear headphones and an entirely new price level for Apple-branded audio gear. For sure, part of the Apple experience is the idea that they’re selling a premium brand, but these are headphones that sell for $500 more than the AirPods Pro do. You could literally buy two sets of AirPods Pro headphones and still have money left over.
That’s a big ask for a set of headphones, although not outside the scope of general audiophile headphones. The question is: can Apple justify that price and premium against the big players in both the audiophile and general consumer audio spaces?
- Range of colour choices
- Heavy, but very comfortable
- Beautifully built headphones
- Terrible case
- No included audio cable
Design is key to just about everything that Apple does and the AirPods Max really do show this off, for both better and worse.
So let’s tackle the good stuff first. The AirPods Max ship in a range of colours: Space Grey, Silver, Green, Sky Blue or Pink. You can further mix and match colours up just a little, because Apple also sells replacement ear cushions in all five colours. Want a set of Silver body AirPods Max with Green Ear cushions? As long as you’re happy to part with a further $99 for every extra set of cushions, you can totally do that.
Colours aside, as soon as you pick up the AirPods Max, you’ll be struck by two features of these particular headphones. First, they’re very well built, from the rotating and extensible arms to fit the cups smoothly over your ears, the mesh band at the top for comfortable wearing and the excellent digital crown torn from an Apple Watch that acts as an interactive button and volume control. You can totally feel the quality and that does go some way to justifying the price.
Second, they’re very heavy when you pick them up. To give this a little context, the AirPods Max weigh in at 384.8 grams. Our general pick for the best wireless headphones to date, Sony’s WH-1000XM4 weigh in at 254 grams. If you’re packing them for a trip, those kinds of weight differences can be a real issue.
Speaking of packing for a trip, I can’t ignore the other area where Apple’s design department has made a big impact, and that’s with the AirPods Max case.
I’m reluctant to call it a case, really, because while many jokes have been made about its resemblance to female underwear, the reality here is that while it’s a striking looking design for a “case”, it actually fails to work all that well in the key ways you’d want a case to function.
Seriously, the only thing that it does on a positive level is put the AirPods Max into a low power mode when you pop the case onto the headphones. They’re never really "in" the case, because it doesn’t fully enclose them in any way.
This is my core problem with the case, because it’s a disaster area in terms of protecting your investment in the AirPods Max.
The headband area isn’t protected at all and the sides of the case are open, so over time small detritus in a bag could very easily make its way into the ear cups. At a minor level, that could lead to unsightly scuffs, at a major level that could impede their actual function.
Apple’s contention is that it has opted for such a light touch case so that the AirPods Max are easier to stow and carry than competing noise-cancelling travel headphones, but even here that doesn’t stack up to even the most rudimentary level of comparison.
I grabbed out the Sony WH-XM1003 headphones in their case to run a quick size comparison. Sony’s case protects the headphones within and it’s actually smaller anyway. Sorry Apple, but the case for the AirPods Max is, frankly, a disaster.
The AirPods Pro ship with a lightning connector in the base of the right ear cup, but what they do lack – and it’s surprising for headphones designed to appeal to the audiophile crowd – is any kind of bundled headphone cable.
Sure, they’re wireless headphones and for many that’s enough, but the audiophile crowd tends to prefer to avoid the issues around Bluetooth audio and go for a direct wired connection every time. If you want that, you’ll have to pony up extra for a lightning-to-3.5mm adaptor to connect up to your legacy Hi-Fi gear.
- Easy Apple pairing
- Very comfortable for extended wear
- Exceptional noise cancelling
- Not so great for non-Apple users
Set-up of the AirPods Max will be instantly familiar to any iPhone user who’s ever cracked open a set of AirPods or AirPods Pro. Take the AirPods Max out of their stupid case and your iPhone should almost instantly spot them and ask to connect up. Once they’re paired with your Apple account, they’ll almost seamlessly pair with iPads, iPhones and MacBooks.
It is possible to pair with other devices, because these are still at their heart Bluetooth headphones, although Apple rather predictably makes this a less compelling proposition for those not in the Apple ecosystem. It’s no surprise that you don’t get Siri on an Android phone, but equally you don’t get the surround-like audio features either.
Once they’re paired, you can get to listening through the AirPods Max, although only via Apple’s preferred AAC codec for now. Again, some audiophiles may have preferred a wider range of codec support, but this is very much a product that plays Apple’s way or not at all.
With their heftier weight, I was prepared for the AirPods Max to feel rather uncomfortable on my head. My head is bald – thanks, genetics! – and on the larger side – thanks, bigger brain! – and that means I usually feel every single part of a headphone band on my skull. I was expecting the AirPods Max to drag badly over time, but was very pleasantly surprised when they simply didn’t do that at all.
These are the most comfortable over-ear headphones I think I’ve ever worn. Given that this is the same company that built the rather uncomfortable Beats Solo headphones, that’s not a small call on my part.
You do still get the predictable issues around heat build-up if you’re wearing them for a long time on a hot Australian summer’s day, but that top band is supremely comfortable. It just never feels like a weight trapping on your head, even when walking around with them on. Like most over-ear headphones, they’re not built for running or exercise, though.
The use of the digital crown for quick track skipping and volume adjustment is truly brilliant – I like it more than I like the digital crown on an Apple Watch – paired with a single button that switches by default between noise cancelling and transparency modes. These are heavy headphones, but they’re superbly engineered ones.
That superb engineering extends to the audio output of the AirPods Max. Keeping it all in the family, I’ve been listening to a variety of music through Apple Music and I’ve been seriously impressed with the clean and crisp audio output they deliver.
Now, with any music appreciation there’s a level to which personal preference comes into play. Apple’s ownership of Beats could have led it down a predictably bass-heavy path (and some people love that approach), but instead it has opted for an overall more balanced soundstage for the AirPods Max.
Taking a little classic rock and roll for a spin, Elvis’ classic Jailhouse Rock really does rock, with some superb crispness on the snare drums that gives the track a real thump without overworking the impact of Presley’s growled vocals.
For a track with equal drum hits but a far more complex instrument and voice arrangement, Suzanne Vega’s I Never Wear White presents a complex but highly enjoyable audio soundstage that balances out superbly.
To really overload the audio, the Beatles’ complex and often noisy Helter Skelter sounds superb, with some real differentiation on Paul McCartney’s vocals that I’d not picked up on before. The AirPods Max are very good at bringing out those subtle details in music, making them great for those times when you only want to listen to music and nothing else.
Given its mastered-from-a-cassette-in-the-Prince-vault status, it’s really rather exceptional how good the AirPods Max make Prince’s version of Mary Don’t You Weep from Piano And A Microphone 1983 sound. It’s one of the rare instances where a set of headphones has given me the impression that I was in the room – given this wasn’t, strictly speaking, a studio-grade recording – listening live.
So the AirPods Max do live up to their general high-grade audio profile, although you do have other choices in this regard. The other area that Apple makes bold claims is in noise cancelling. Again there are levels of personal preference here.
Some over-ear headphones allow for multiple levels of noise cancelling against user preferences, but that’s not Apple’s call here. Instead, it uses the AirPods Max headphones to dynamically assess the external audio and apply its own level of noise cancellation by default. You can switch to a transparency mode to ensure you hear the outside world, but there’s no true "neutral" state where you’re just relying on the in-built isolation present in any pair of over-ear headphones.
The classic way to test noise cancelling and the frequent reason that people want it is plane travel, but that’s just not really a factor at the current time. To try to test this out, I used the AirPods Max on a Sydney train, checking how much essential or non-essential audio they managed to block out.
As with any noise-cancelling headphones, you’re never really inside your own audio world, but I was very impressed with how much background train noise the AirPods Max managed to block out. My one small critique here is that when you first put the AirPods Max on, there’s no real way to tell if they’re in noise-cancelling mode or transparency mode. Only a beep tells you you’re switching, so you have to manage this by audio feel.
- Mostly lives up to 20-hour claim
- No included charger, so charging rates may vary
The heavier weight of the AirPods Max might make you think that Apple's stuffed them full of batteries. While it doesn't disclose actual battery characteristics, iFixit's teardown suggests a 664mAh battery capacity, about the same as you'll find in Bose's NC 700 headphones but less than the Sony WH-1000XM4s.
All of that adds up to a claimed 20-hour battery life between recharges, depending on your precise volume and to a lesser extent Bluetooth usage. Having tested them over a couple of weeks, I'd call that a fair assessment. While we're probably a year or more before many of us attempt international travel, that's a level that should allow for most single-hop flights to be nicely covered.
Like the iPhone 12 family, Apple doesn't include a charger in the box with the AirPods Max, although you do get a lightning cable with a USB-C charging end. That means you can top them up from an M1 MacBook Air or M1 MacBook Pro, but you'll have to spend extra on a wall charger if you want faster charging or extra again if your wall charger of choice actually has a USB-A socket rather than USB-C. I do get Apple's point about environmental waste, but for an $899 set of headphones, it does feel rather cheap to not include a fast charger to fully accentuate that premium feel.
Should you buy the Apple AirPods Max?
- Buy it if you’re happily in the Apple ecosystem and want some great audio
- Don't buy it if you want more compatibility, a lower price or a functionally useful case.
Any discussion of the value of the AirPods Max inevitably comes back to that hefty asking price. Yes, the higher-end audiophile gear marches right past the AirPods Max’s asking price, twirling their moustaches while they do so. Those buyers probably aren’t going to opt for AirPods Max anyway given the focus on Bluetooth audio rather than wired anyway, along with the lack of wider codec support.
That puts the AirPods Max more sharply in contrast to the likes of Bose or Sony’s best headphones and those are units that are seriously cheaper than the AirPods Max. Find yourself a good sale and it’s not too hard to score them for half the asking price of the AirPods Max.
Are the AirPods Max twice as good as the Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones?
No, they’re very good, but I don’t think they’re entirely twice as good.
They’re exceptionally good headphones, best suited for the Apple faithful who want both the style and (to an extent) the fashion statement value of the AirPods Max alongside great audio. They’re insanely comfortable given their weight and the battery life is good. But still, they’re very expensive and for that reason I’d generally steer most folks towards the Sonys in most cases.
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Images: Alex Kidman