Review: Apple AirPods Max : Through the Beats subsidiary, Apple has been producing headphones that fit over the ears for some time. However, the AirPods Max are the first full-size headphones that the Apple brand name dangles from. Are unique design and features convincing enough to get you to pay double that for rival noise-canceling headphones? Good question.
Apple AirPods Max
Dozens of new headphones are released every year. What do we say: there may be hundreds, especially if you also include budget products. But if Apple launches one, the world will stand still a little bit. However, the AirPods Max is not Cupertino’s first foray into this market. Apart from the Beats products, Apple has scored enormously in recent years with the AirPods and AirPods Pro. These are in-ear models that fit in the ear, while the AirPods Max are ‘real’ headphones with cushions that lie completely over your ears. That is a bit less discreet than the Apple earbuds, but the downside is that you can count on more effective noise canceling because your ears are completely covered.
The AirPods Max is without a doubt a premium product. Its $ 629 price tag makes it one of the most expensive wireless noise canceling headphones currently available. Apart from exotic excesses, we only know about the Bang & Olufsen H95, which costs more (800 euros). Anyone who knows Apple will of course not be surprised by this. The brand sees a higher price tag as an asset, not a disadvantage. And fair is fair: you also get something for the Apple additional price. At least a nice design, as always. And in the case of the AirPods Max, Apple also promises you some technological extras.
|What||Wireless headphones with noise canceling|
|Autonomy||20 hours (with NC, Spatial Audio or Transparency mode)|
Apple and packaging, it is always a special relationship. The brand realized long ago that the unpacking experience is very decisive for how a consumer feels about their purchase. It’s like going on a date and forgetting your deodorant. It is difficult to get rid of that first bad impression afterwards. In the meantime, Apple has become a master in giving you a pride of ownership feeling right away. Although we still think that the protective cover / case in which the headphones are placed sends out a double signal. It is not a full case but a flexible cover that only covers part of the AirPods Max. And it won’t really protect against a tap or a heavier impact. It also looks a bit… special. Online it is already jokingly referred to as the Apple BH.
Officially, however, the cover is called the ‘Smart Case’. What is smart about it now? If you plug in the AirPods Max, the headphones will immediately switch to a power-saving mode (instead of after five minutes). After 18 hours in the case, an Ultra Low-Power mode activates (instead of after 72 hours), a kind of extreme standby for when you store the headphones for a longer period of time. Beautiful, but not that spectacular either. Third parties will also release cases for the AirPods Max that are ‘smart’ in the same way. The headphones cannot be folded.
We are especially sorry that Apple itself does not put a full-fledged case in the box so that you can better protect that precious device while traveling. With the smart case, the headband – especially the tightly stretched textile between the two brackets – remains vulnerable. Ok, you can solve that with an additional purchase, but for something like 600 euros plus, a decent case can simply be part of the package.
It is an eye-catcher
As you can expect from Apple, the build quality of the AirPods Max impresses and the design is stylish and distinctive. The metal housings provide a dash of class, much more elegant than the plastics that are usually used in headphones. The metal hinges that merge into the bracket remind us a bit of the Parrot Zik designed by Philippe Starck, but otherwise the design seems quite original. Maybe too original sometimes. The headband is indeed very comfortable because the two supporting braces do not touch your crown, only the fabric that is stretched between the two. But is this part sustainable? You also sweat quickly on the top of your head, we cannot estimate how long the textile can remain stain-free. This is a question especially with the white version.
It is also special that you can get the AirPods Max in different colors. Not just the black or white of most competitors, but also shades such as green, red and blue. It is no coincidence that it is also largely the colors that Apple introduced with the new generation iPad Air and iPhone 12.
The weight of 385 grams makes the AirPods Max far from a featherweight in its category. Both the Bose NCH700 and Sony WH-1000XM4 are a lot lighter (approximately 255 grams). At the same time, that higher weight is less of a problem than we feared. To begin with, because 385 grams is still not that bad, but mainly because the weight distribution is good. That is often just as important as the number of grams. We would describe the AirPods Max as comfortable to wear. The ear pressure is on the slightly higher side, which is related to the passive isolation and that weight distribution. They are very stable on our heads.
Setting up is easy
The AirPods Max are easy to set up on a device with iOS 14. In some cases you will first have to update your iPad or iPhone software to version 14.3.
For compatible devices, a small window immediately appears over the Home screen to indicate that the headset has been detected. It is exactly the same approach as when setting up the Apple TV 4K that we tested a while ago. With other devices, such as our Huawei P30 Pro with Android, you follow the same steps as with most Bluetooth headphones. Just press a button on the AirPods Max a little longer, after which they become visible in the Bluetooth settings of your phone. Click, approve and the link is established. It is not all difficult. Before you know it, you are listening to music.
Some noise canceling headphones come with an app in which you can, for example, set the level of the noise reduction or find an equalizer to adjust the sound. None of this with the AirPods Max. With an Android device you can’t even set anything, but since Apple likes to keep you in its ecosystem, that’s no surprise. With an iPad with iOS14 you can switch between noise reduction, no noise canceling and transparency mode. You do this by swiping down so that the Control Center becomes visible. If the AirPods Max is connected to your Apple device, you can find additional options by tapping longer on the volume control. If you go to the Bluetooth menu in the settings and tap the headphones, you will find some extra options. Here you can set what the two buttons on the AirPods Max do and switch the automatic head detection on / off. This pauses the music when you remove the AirPods Max and connects automatically when you put it on.
One of the new marketing buzzwords at Apple is “computational,” followed by a keyword. With the AirPods Max, that becomes computational audio, a reference that these headphones contain powerful chips that can do all kinds of things. The marketing department obviously makes a whole story out of it, but every noise-canceling headphones contain a DSP chip that takes care of things like noise canceling. Apple goes a step further by using those two H1 chips in combination with certain sensors (such as a gyroscope) for other things, such as Adaptive EQ. This is a feature that uses the two microphones on the inside of AirPods Max ear pads to measure how the headphones rest on your head and ears. After all, the position on your head is quite decisive in terms of sound reproduction. You can easily experience this yourself by putting on any headphones and moving them around on your ear. The bass response can vary quite a bit depending on the position, just like the detail display. Adaptive EQ compensates for those position-related effects, so that in principle you always hear the correct frequency response. Unlike other older headphones that do something similar (like Sony’s WH-1000XM3 or the AKG N90Q), the AirPods Max does this without emitting a test tone. It just happens automatically. It seems to work well: if we move the headphones a little on our heads, the reproduction remains consistent. Or more consistent than with other headphones. What Adaptive EQ mainly offers you is a bit of comfort.
Another computational audio application that the AirPods Max offers is surround playback when watching movies. The extra step that Apple takes is that the display takes into account the position of your head and head movements. We have seen such an HRTF function before with the Audeze Mobius and it ensures greater realism because voices always come to the screen. Even if you look to the side for a moment. So front-left-back-right is absolute and anchored to the screen, not relative as with regular headphones. With music this does not matter much – perhaps with live recordings – but with films and games it is nice.
Sounds good? The first difficulty is that this function only works with the latest iPhones and iPads. Do you have an older iOS device, an Apple TV or – imagine – a mobile device from another brand? Then this position seems to be a no-go. In itself that is typical Apple, but we actually think that expensive headphones should just work with the other stuff you prefer. In addition, this surround function is only available with certain apps.
Although our house is full of relatively new iPads (including a 2nd Gen iPad Pro), to test this function we still had to buy a newer model. To be clear: you can use the AirPods Max with older iOS devices and Android devices. However, spatial audio is only available with those new models, starting with devices from 2019. And no, the Apple TV 4K does not offer computational audio either. A pity, because it would fit well with the media player.
With a new iPad Air (4th Gen) for example, you will indeed see a new option appearing in the settings that refers to spatial audio. To indicate the difference with the normal stereo mode, you can switch between two-channel and that spatial surround mode. This baked-in demo makes the effect immediately clear. Our eye also catches the small letters that Apple conjures up on this screen: spatial audio only works with videos that support it. That soon turns out to be not all the usual suspects among the streaming services. With Netflix or Amazon Video, for example, you don’t get spatial audio served, although those services do offer surround on other platforms. You also continued to hear your own media that you play via VLC or Infuse in stereo. Since Apple doesn’t publish a list of supported services anywhere, it’s really a matter of finding out for yourself. Spatial audio turned out to be possible via Disney + and Apple TV +. The spatial audio mode also works with films that you purchased through Apple. We reach for ‘Specter’, because we have recently used that James Bond film more often to test surround equipment. The long intro, which takes place during Dias la Muerte in Mexico City, has several interesting audio elements. To begin with, there is the long walk 007 takes on a street filled with revelers, with a deep bass that acts to set the rhythm. This is followed by a major explosion in which a building collapses that is very spectacular, leading to a thrilling chase with lots of shouts and party noises in the background.
What we hear here is quite impressive and partly removes our skepticism about the hype surrounding computational audio. It is indeed a much larger soundscape that we are presented with, as if everything takes place in a much larger space. If you look away from the screen, the audio does indeed move appropriately. This is a lot nicer than in stereo. The bass tones are incredibly powerful, giving the impression of being a lot deeper than most otherwise NC headphones can handle.
But there are some caveats to make. That parade in Mexico-Stat takes place on a street, a very open space. But it still sounds like you’re in a big room – it’s not quite right. It’s very subtle, but you can tell. Some sounds, such as screams, also come across as quite artificial. In addition, the tonality of certain sounds changes when you turn your head really far. For example, we looked away during dialogues in Specter, causing the actors’ voices to move completely to our left ear. Of course that sounds different than if you pick up everything through two ears, but the transition was too sudden in nature. In short, the algorithm still needs some tweaking. The great thing about a device like the AirPods Max is that a software update can solve such problems.
Wears a crown
Switching between noise reduction and transparency mode is a bit cumbersome via the iPad. But that’s okay, because via the one print head on the AirPods Max you do this naturally faster anyway. The coolest control on these headphones, however, is the crown, a finely crafted knurled dial that Apple fans know from the Apple watch and the rest of the luxury watch world. With a feather-light touch, you adjust the volume, and press it to pause the music.
This is Apple at its best: take something and make it really easy to use. Quite a few rivals opt for touchpads on the sides of their headphones. Sometimes that works well, but often we find them inconvenient to use. For example, you have to tap 1x to do one thing, 2x to activate something else… It quickly goes wrong. A number of devices just don’t work when you wear gloves, which is also difficult. In that sense, the effective operation of the AirPods Max is a relief.
Noise-canceling headphones are in high demand, especially now that a multitude of people have to work from home while teenagers pretend to take classes online or the neighbors do manically. However, one noise-canceling headphones are not the other. Some NC is more effective than others; often there is a relationship between effectiveness and price. Considering that the AirPods Max costs 629 euros, roughly double most top-class rivals, the noise cancellation here must be great, right? We are not going to be silly and say ‘no’ now. The noise cancellation on the AirPods Max is indeed excellent. Not only does it really filter out all sound when playing the video of a train ride that was played at maximum volume, we also didn’t notice that someone was practicing the saxophone in the next room. Speech is also barely audible,
If you listen to music at the same time, you will hardly hear anything from your surroundings in the noise reduction mode. When we then pause the music, those train noises from the test video still came in only minimally and very quietly. Really good. In this area, the Apple headphones can perfectly compete with the best of Sony and Bose, the pair that deliver the best noise cancellation in our opinion.
There are also very few noise canceling artifacts, such as noise or what some people perceive as a slight buzz. Even if no song is playing, you will be served near-silence. We suspect that this is partly due to the high computing power of the two H1 chips. In any case, it makes the AirPods Max interesting for people who use NC headphones to take a nap during a flight.
Also striking is how natural the Transparency mode sounds. With many other NC headphones with a similar function to let voices through (useful if someone at the office comes to ask you something), voices sound tinny and there is some noise. Rarely do we want to leave this mode on for a long time, it gives you a headache. The AirPods Max, on the other hand, do not irritate at all in this area.
And how does the AirPods Max perform when it comes to audio quality? Overall, the Apple headphones perform very well, especially compared to certain rivals. The tuning is a bit more commercial and bass heavier (which is actually a good thing for mobile use), but it’s not unbalanced. Details and mids remain fresh and natural. There is always a certain audio processing – acoustic guitars just don’t sound right, but not everyone notices that – but in this area we do have the feeling that you get your money’s worth. We also dare to say that the AirPods Max are a lot more universal than most noise-canceling headphones.
Apple AirPods Max – Conclusion
If we ignore the existence of cheaper rivals and focus purely on the qualities of the AirPods Max, we cannot be very critical. Noise canceling is excellent and Adaptive EQ seems to work well. We would like to get a little more control through an app, but Apple remains true to its make-it-easy philosophy by opting for few controls and an automatic operation. Both aesthetically and in terms of functional design, the AirPods Max is very successful – although we are concerned that it will prove difficult to keep the headphones clean. Above all, they sound very good, which is of course essential with headphones. So you will not be dissatisfied when you purchase the AirPods Max. But our enthusiasm would be greater if they cost ‘only’ 400 euros.
Positives of Apple AirPods Max
- Premium, distinctive design
- Excellent autonomy
- Excellent sound quality
- Top-notch noise canceling
- Spatial audio is (mostly) convincing
Negatives of Apple AirPods Max
- Surround mode only with the latest iOS devices
- Really expensive for what it offers
- No Personalization
- Limited to AAC codec
- The case: no.