The AirPods Max — Apple’s first crack at over-ear headphones — dropped earlier this week. At $549, they’re on the expensive side, nearly doubling the price of our current top pick for over-ear and noise-canceling headphones, Sony’s WH-1000XM4s.
We’ve spent several hours with the AirPods Max — not enough time for a full review — but we’re here to deliver our first impressions.
To sum it up, AirPods Max are a catchall gadget powered by a tremendous amount of technology inside. They remind us of the Dolby Dimensions, which had some of the best sound of any over-ear headphones we tested, delivering an almost home theater-like experience. The AirPods Max step that up a bit with spatial audio — using the built-in gyroscope and accelerometer in tandem with the gyroscope and accelerometer in an iPhone or iPad.
And that’s just one aspect. For sound and everyday listening, they sport Adaptive EQ, which uses a microphone that faces your ear to collect, analyze and adjust the mix of music in real time. It impressed us on the $249.99 AirPods Pro (our top pick for true wireless earbuds), and the same is true here. That’s paired with active noise cancellation and a transparency mode.
All of this comes together in a $549 pair of headphones, a price that we still think is a bit too lofty.
A high-end retro design
When unboxing the AirPods Max, you’ll find them encased in a, well, how shall we say, unique case. It’s kind of like a mini purse, as it just covers the two ear cups. It’s a polyurethane material on the outside with a soft velvet-like interior that protects the ear cups.
The pair we tested are the Sky Blue color — and they look terrific. It’s a light blue on the ear cups that’s similar to Sky Blue on the iPad Air. The stainless steel frame blends into the headband and canopy, which resemble a darker blue that’s similar to the iPhone 12.
Though many scoffed at the design when they first launched, we have to admit we’re fans. They’re big, and the ear cups fit comfortably over larger ears. But it’s also a retro design that looks incredibly nice and shows off quality craftsmanship. In fact, the design (and materials used) is really a striking difference next to the mostly plastic build of Sony’s WH-1000XM4s. (Then again, we haven’t broken the WH-1000XM4s after hundreds of hours of use.)
The backside of the ear cups are aluminum. In fact, they start from a single block of the material and get milled down, which gives some insight into the cost. The memory foam ear cushions are magnetically attached. They don’t create a significant amount of pressure on the ears and are very soft to the touch.
Lifting the ear cushion reveals an aluminum plate with holes. Behind this is the 40-millimeter drive, inside of which are dual neodymium ring magnets that move back and forth to create the sound. All of this is controlled by Apple’s H1 chip, of which there’s one in each ear cup. You’ll also see the optical sensor that detects when these are on your ears and when they’re off.
The right ear cup is the command center. The bottom features the Lightning port for charging as well as an LED indicator. Up top is the digital crown — yes, the same type of dial from the Apple Watch — which is enlarged here and acts as an action button. You’ll turn that crown to adjust the volume, click it once to play or pause, double-tap to skip forward, triple-tap to go back and long hold to engage Siri. The action button turns on active noise cancellation or transparency mode.
Let’s briefly talk performance and sound
The big question everyone is wondering: How do these sound? And the answer? Quite good. We’ve only had them for a few hours, but it’s safe to say Adaptive EQ works really well across genres. The AirPods Max deliver a wider soundstage than AirPods Pro, and you’ll notice a big boost with bass.
On the subject of noise cancellation, we’ve been limited to testing indoors with background noise created from a speaker and by standing near the air vents for our HVAC system. The AirPods Max are pretty neck and neck with Sony’s WH-1000XM4s in this regard. While the XM4s pump in white noise with ANC turned on and give you multiple levels of noise cancellation to play with, the AirPods Max leave you in space and no customization. Both cans use eight microphones in total to block out noise, so all in all, the experience is quite similar.
We prefer transparency mode on the AirPods Max, as it delivers a less grainy and cleaner version of the real world. Our voice, for instance, doesn’t sound as muddied in this mode. Call quality with the AirPods Max is quite clear and rich. We didn’t experience any issues with traditional phone calls or with VoIP. We’ll continue to test these in a variety of conditions as we conduct our full review processes, though.
The real star of our testing so far has been with spatial audio when watching TV shows or movies. The best way to describe the experience is that the AirPods Max feel like a home theater system for your head. Essentially, with spatial audio, AirPods Max use onboard accelerometers and gyroscopes in tandem with the device you’re connected to to properly place audio around you.
Watching “The Mandalorian,” you’ll hear a cruiser zooming past from the left side, starting in the distance behind you and zooming past you. And that audio placement adjusts as you move your head — all in real time. Think of it as a Dolby Atmos mix for your own personal enjoyment. But keep in mind that it’s limited to an iPhone or iPad, as it’s dependent on sensors being on both sides. We can only hope that future versions of the Apple TV will be able to support this feature.
Lastly, it’s the classic AirPods pairing experience, in that it just works seamlessly with Apple devices. It’s even faster on the AirPods Max, and we can chalk that up to the addition of a second H1 chip. We’ve encountered no issues with quick switching between devices, either.
Bottom line…for now
There’s still a lot more to test with the AirPods Max. Are they a good pair of headphones? Yes. Are they worth the $549 price tag? That we’re still not sold on. They’re up to snuff with other leading headphones.
We can’t understate the hefty cost associated with them. It feels like Apple is playing in another sector of the space. If you’re looking for a terrific pair of cans that are more affordable (and readily available), we’d recommend Sony’s WH-1000XM4s, which are just $278. They won’t disappoint, with 30 hours of battery life, strong noise cancellation and a wide soundstage.
And remember: Nearly all of the AirPods Max features are in AirPods Pro ($199, originally $249.99; amazon.com).