Apple AirPods Max review: luxurious sound for a luxury price

After a protracted lead-up of rumors, Apple managed to squeeze within the AirPods Max slightly below the wire as its final large {hardware} launch of 2020. It wasn’t stunning to see the corporate launch its personal over-ear, noise-canceling headphones after the meteoric rise and recognition of AirPods, which have come to outline the class of true wi-fi earbuds; no one actually managed to crack it earlier than Apple. The AirPods Max are getting into a really completely different area, the place many different corporations have wonderful choices accessible.

There have been a number of preliminary reactions to the AirPods Max, however the one which’s dominated all of them is sticker shock: the $549 worth is tons of greater than what established rivals like Bose and Sony are charging for his or her fairly wonderful noise-canceling headphones. And that’s the crux of the problem Apple faces: not like with AirPods, it’s late to this sport, and there’s so much to show if customers are going to be bought on spending a lot extra.

The value tag of the AirPods Max sits far above mainstream noise-canceling headphones, however there are numerous headphones that go for a similar quantity and past — wi-fi ones, too. I don’t assume it is smart to check these in opposition to thousand-dollar (and wired) open-back headphones you’d plug right into a DAC for listening classes with a hi-fi music assortment; essentially, these are Bluetooth headphones aimed toward a big client viewers.

Even so, Apple has tried to match that higher echelon of boutique headphones by way of construct high quality and craftsmanship: the AirPods Max have a design heavy on aluminum, metal, and material that’s the polar reverse of one thing like Sony’s plastic-everywhere WH-1000XM4 headphones. There’s nothing unsuitable with plastic; these Sony cans have taken a beating in my bag and nonetheless work nice. However all the pieces concerning the AirPods Max exudes precision — even their unibody steel ear cups, bland as they may appear. (The extensively ridiculed carrying “case” is antithetical to this complete notion, however I’ll get to that later.)

This isn’t a overview the place I’m going to say that the AirPods Max are the perfect headphones for most individuals. They’re not. If all you need is an effective, dependable set of noise-canceling headphones for commuting, journey, or working from residence, save your cash and follow one thing just like the Sony 1000XM4s, Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, or the Microsoft Floor Headphones 2, all of which value not less than $200 much less. You’ll be properly served by any of them.

That mentioned, the AirPods Max will make sense for sure individuals who can instantly discover a purpose they’re “price it.” The consolation and really feel are high notch, they sound fantastic, the noise cancellation is up there with the perfect, and so they supply distinctive options like spatial audio that you just actually can’t get elsewhere. At the least, not fairly like this. So it’s price breaking down some the reason why the AirPods Max could possibly be price shopping for for those who’ve bought the disposable money.

Match and end high the checklist of execs. The AirPods Max have a chrome steel headband that’s wrapped in a mushy polyurethane materials. A knit mesh cover does a very good job of preserving the substantial weight of those headphones from placing irritating strain on the highest of your head. The rotating, pivoting aluminum ear cups are connected by telescoping metal stems that take some effort to increase however all the time keep in place at no matter size you permit them. (The headphones can’t fold up for extra environment friendly storage, sadly.)

Apple’s craftsmanship is on full show with the AirPods Max.

The ear cushions are constituted of acoustic reminiscence foam with a breathable mesh layer on high. Hopefully, that’ll make for much less sweaty ears in hotter months. They connect magnetically, are simple to take off, and popping them again into place is immensely satisfying. The ear cushions are giant and oval-shaped, so that they received’t uncomfortably press in opposition to your ears like some round ear pads can. Substitute units (and different colours) can be found for $69 a pair.

I’d advocate steering away from the silver or different lighter colours; the white ear cushions on my overview unit are already beginning to look a bit soiled after just some days of carrying them. Going for area grey or the blue shade could be my advice. The trade-off of Apple’s high-style design is that these supplies received’t keep pristine; the corporate provides basic cleaning instructions, and the ear cushions are simple sufficient to pop off and wipe down, however I’m undecided what you’re speculated to do if, say, the scarf material will get mucked up.

The cushions are tremendous snug and will accommodate ears of any dimension.

Look across the AirPods Max and also you’ll discover simply two buttons: there’s the Digital Crown — a a lot bigger model than the dial on the Apple Watch — and a button that switches between noise canceling and transparency modes. I’ve actually come to love the crown for controlling quantity and playback; you don’t get the false inputs or missed swipes that may occur with contact gestures. It’s additionally simpler to make use of with gloves in chilly climate. You press it as soon as to play / pause, twice to skip tracks, or thrice to return; holding it down will activate Siri. Generally my fingers will hit the metal stem when feeling for it since they’re shut collectively, however that’s a minor gripe that muscle reminiscence ought to overcome.

You’ll discover I mentioned nothing a couple of energy button, and that’s as a result of the AirPods Max lack one. They energy on when positioned in your head, and robotically pause music if eliminated (or for those who carry one ear cup). Take them off totally, and so they’ll go right into a sleep mode when left on a desk or round your neck for a couple of minutes. When slid into their case, the headphones enter a deeper ultra-low-power mode. I’ve left the AirPods Max out in a single day a number of instances with out the case and so they’ve barely misplaced any of their cost, so that you don’t want to fret about battery drain. This design quirk has been deemed “very Apple” by some, however I want they’d simply caught an influence button someplace for simplicity’s sake.

There are a number of cutouts for microphones and sensors across the AirPods Max — there are 9 microphones in all, with eight of them used for noise cancellation — and behind these ear cushions are highly effective, custom-designed 40-millimeter drivers. Apple says the “dual-neodymium ring magnet motor” backing every driver is impressed by floor-standing audio system which explains you received’t hear any distortion even when the Max headphones are cranked to peak quantity.

The AirPods Max function 40mm drivers designed by Apple.

On that be aware, the second professional for the AirPods Max is sound high quality. These headphones make for pleasant listening. Apple has struck an ideal stability between the highs, mids, and lows, and there’s a broader soundstage with these than you’d get from the Sony or the Bose cans. The bass isn’t going to rattle your cranium, however in my checks, I’ve persistently discovered there’s all the time sufficient to make songs shine as they’re speculated to.

Apple makes use of “computational audio” with the H1 chips in every ear cup and the aforementioned mics to always measure what you’re listening to from the headphones, and it adjusts EQ to account for the way the headphones suit your head and seal in opposition to your ears. The corporate says it goals for a devoted copy of your music, however don’t mistake these for flat or impartial studio headphones. If I needed to decide two phrases to explain them, I’d say tight and refined. You get ample bass, and better frequencies by no means sound harsh or fatiguing. Complicated, multi-layered preparations from Bon Iver or Phoebe Bridgers are immersive and uncluttered. Acoustic guitars come via with satisfying heat and readability. The low finish isn’t muddy — no matter style — and the AirPods Max do an ideal job of showcasing each ingredient of a well-produced monitor. With these headphones, you get the perfect of all the pieces Apple has realized about audio.

However lots of people wish to know whether or not the AirPods Max sound so significantly better to justify their excessive worth. And there’s no simple reply. Should you’re nitpicky about audio high quality, you’ll discover how nice these sound. However the Sony 1000XM4s are standard for a purpose, and one in every of them is booming bass, a standards the place they’ll nonetheless handily beat out the AirPods Max. Different noise-canceling headphones just like the Sennheiser Momentum Wi-fi 3 additionally give Apple a run for its cash on sound high quality.

In the case of energetic noise cancellation, Apple is neck and neck with the perfect. The AirPods Max do an equally good job as Sony and Bose at quieting the surface world. They could even be higher, nevertheless it’s all very shut. They aced my checks on the espresso store, on the subway, and strolling via Manhattan. Once you do want to listen to what’s occurring, transparency mode sounds simply as pure right here — virtually such as you’re not carrying headphones in any respect — as with the AirPods Professional. Apple leads the pack on this function.

Another excuse to contemplate the AirPods Max is spatial audio. Just like the AirPods Professional, these may give you an immersive expertise that mimics encompass sound on an iPhone or iPad once you’re watching movies with supported apps like Apple TV, Disney Plus, and HBO Max. (Audio from reveals and films with a 5.1 or 7.1 combine could be transformed into spatial audio.) We’ve seen Dolby and different corporations pursue immersive encompass sound headphones earlier than, however Apple’s method feels a bit extra visceral and charming and will solely get higher with time.

Since iPhones and iPads have positional consciousness from their built-in sensors, they’ll ship that knowledge to the headphones to maintain the sound in entrance of you always; even for those who flip your head aspect to aspect, the sound subject stays planted wherever the system is. Spatial audio doesn’t fairly stack as much as an precise 7.1 Atmos system. How may it? But it surely’s a charming expertise that can turn out to be useful as soon as everybody begins touring once more. You’ll completely discover the downgrade for those who change again to common stereo audio for a superhero flick. I actually want spatial audio labored with the Apple TV, so you can expertise nice sound in the lounge — and from an enormous display screen – even for those who don’t have a soundbar or encompass setup. This might additionally allow you to get absorbed in an motion blockbuster with a accomplice sleeping beside you at evening. However for now, the Apple TV can’t do spatial audio because it lacks the positional sensors in Apple’s cellular units.

The final large win for the AirPods Max is that they’re simply… simple. Like common AirPods, they pair to your cellphone just by holding the 2 shut collectively. And with the newest iOS and macOS software program updates, they’ll now robotically change between an iPhone, iPad, and Mac relying on what system you’re utilizing at that second — with out you having to do something. If I’m paying $550 for headphones, I rattling certain need that degree of comfort. That mentioned, the Sony, Bose, and plenty of different headphones allow you to pair with two units on the similar time, in order that may be sufficient flexibility for you, particularly if not each system you employ has an Apple emblem on it.

This AirPods Max “case” provides little in the best way of on a regular basis safety.

However now we come to the cons, and much and away the worst factor concerning the AirPods Max is their case. Should you can name it that, which I think about beneficiant. Look, placing apart all of the memes about it wanting like a purse or bra, it’s a failure on each degree at performance, and I don’t know what Apple was considering. It makes the AirPods Max simple to acknowledge at a distance — perhaps that was the primary purpose — however by way of doing case issues, it’s a joke that gives nearly no safety in your $550 headphones.

I wouldn’t be ok with throwing this right into a packed bag; the ear cups may get scratched since there are such a lot of slits within the case, and one thing may poke via that uncovered mesh cover. The case additionally picks up grime and smudges very quickly. It is a dangerous sufficient misfire that it drags down your complete product. Everybody else will get this proper, and it’s baffling that Apple may get it so unsuitable. I’d anticipate to see many third-party circumstances for the AirPods Max very quickly, and I predict Apple will promote a few of these immediately. As a result of this factor is simply untenable.

The AirPods Max lack a 3.5mm jack and solely have a Lightning port.

One other draw back? No 3.5mm jack. The AirPods Max solely have a Lightning connector, so if you need higher-quality wired audio or to plug them in on a aircraft, you’ve bought to get a $35 cable. (No, placing an aux twine between two iPhone headphone dongles received’t work.) Ouch. I can reside with out the three.5mm jack, however to not embrace the cable within the field? At this worth?! Impolite. Additionally, it’s price mentioning that there’s no passive mode for the AirPods Max. Once they’re out of juice, they cease working altogether — even for those who’re wired. You’ll be able to’t use the superb, clear-sounding voice mics on the headphones when plugged in, both. However the cable is sweet for eliminating all latency if you wish to use the AirPods Max for recording or monitoring functions.

Battery life is rated at 20 hours with all of the options like noise cancellation turned on, which is sweet and greater than sufficient for prolonged flights, however nonetheless 10 or so hours lower than Sony’s whole operating time. On a drained battery, charging for 5 minutes will get you round 90 minutes of enjoying time.

Now let me double again to only how a lot the AirPods Max weigh. The open mesh cover does a very good job of distributing their heft (even on my huge head), and the ear cushions cut back any feeling of being weighed down. However at 385 grams, there’s no denying these a very good deal heavier than cans from Bose or Sony (254 grams). They’re not uncomfortable for me — even after a pair hours of continuous listening, however you all the time very conscious that they’re on. And for those who’ve had any neck issues, it’s one thing to be conscious of. These are positively leisure headphones meant for the sofa or sitting at your desk. And ultimately they’ll be nice journey headphones — however health club or operating headphones they don’t seem to be. The AirPods Max aren’t water-proof in any respect, however that’s true of most premium noise-canceling headphones.

The final purpose to carry off on the AirPods Max proper now could be what I think about unrealized potential. Most individuals are going to be streaming Apple Music or Spotify via this stuff. And which means (within the case of Apple Music) you’re restricted to the identical compressed 256kbps AAC recordsdata we’ve been listening to for years. Apple nonetheless doesn’t supply a lossless tier, and I’ve to ask, if not now, when? I can plug into my iPhone with the cable and get larger high quality music from Amazon Music HD or Tidal than I can from Apple itself.

On the Android aspect, Sony’s headphones have LDAC, a wi-fi codec that may wirelessly stream music at near-CD high quality. Apple is falling behind right here, however there’s no indication that the corporate cares. You may make all of the arguments you need about the way it doesn’t matter or that folks can’t hear any distinction, however once we’re speaking about $550 headphones — to not point out the highly effective HomePod speaker — an choice to get pleasure from higher-quality audio ought to not less than be there. Apple moved to 256kbps AAC all the way back in 2007 and we’ve been caught there ever since. (“Mastered for iTunes” albums can supply improved dynamic vary and refined enhancements, nevertheless it’s no substitute for going lossless.)

Transport estimates for the AirPods Max are already extending into March, however I hesitate to learn an excessive amount of into that. These headphones may find yourself a success just like the earbuds they share a reputation with, however they may additionally simply coast by in the identical vein as one thing just like the HomePod, one other Apple product that was priced larger than the competitors when launched (and harm by it). Should you’re the type of person who is aware of you’ll love the AirPods Max, you shouldn’t hesitate to go for it. They sound killer for music and films alike. And so they really feel like they need to value much more cash. They’re about as luxurious as noise-canceling headphones get — however not as expensive as they come.

However there’s nonetheless no world the place I like to recommend the AirPods Max to your common headphone shopper, particularly when the AirPods Professional supply a number of the identical options for much less. A lot of you that can be completely comfortable sticking with the tried and true choices from Sony, Bose, Microsoft, and elsewhere. On the very least, it’s most likely price ready for Apple Music HD, or spatial audio on the Apple TV or, for god’s sake, a greater case.

Pictures by Chris Welch apart from lead picture by Becca Farsace / The Verge

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