Ever since acquiring Beats by Dre for an ungodly amount of money in 2014, it’s been fairly obvious Apple was going to make audio products. The original AirPods were a hit despite being terrible, and the AirPods Pro are actually among the best true wireless earbuds you can get. So when Apple announced its long-awaited over-ears, the AirPods Max, we were excited but skeptical. Which way were they going to go?
Are these just another overpriced Apple product or are they actually a good pair of headphones?
First look?! Where’s the review?
Well, this will be it, but our new robot testing head wasn’t in the office when we had time with these headphones. As such, the scoring and the measurements are outdated. Be sure to check back sometime early February for updated charts, scores, and analysis. Until then, we stand by everything posted here—but as we’re moving to a new standard, the label of “review” doesn’t quite fit for the moment.
We’re taking our time with this one because it’s likely going to be among the most important headphones of 2021, so we need to get it right.
Who should buy the Apple AirPods Max?
- People in the Apple ecosystem. If you own the newest iPhone, Mac, and iPad, you’ll love these.
- People that love the AirPods Pro but want a pair of over-ears. These have many of the same downsides of the AirPods Pro, so if none of those bother you then you’ll likely love the AirPods Max as well.
- Anyone that wants the best noise cancelling. The AirPods Max have better active noise cancelling than the competition right now, outperforming both the Sony WH-1000XM4 and the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700.
What is it like to use the Apple AirPods Max?
Using the AirPods Max as my daily pair of headphones has been a mixed bag. These headphones are fantastic in particular situations, but any time you want to use the AirPods Max in a way Apple doesn’t intend, things get weird. For example, even just going wired means you need to jump through a few hoops.
The AirPods Max don’t have a 3.5mm headphone jack so if you want to use anything other than a Bluetooth-enabled device you’re out of luck unless you ante up for a $35 USD Lightning-to-3.5mm audio cable from Apple. If your chosen device doesn’t have a headphone jack (like Apple’s own iPhones) you need another $9 USD dongle. The entire situation doesn’t need to exist, and seems more hassle than it’s worth. That said, as long as you remain in Bluetooth land you shouldn’t have any problems. While connected to my iPad, iPhone, or PC I never experienced any drops or stutters even when I was on the other side of my apartment.
These also have top-notch noise cancelling and a transparency mode to let you hear what’s going on around you with the click of a button. Volume and playback controls are assigned to the digital crown at the top of the right ear cup and it is insanely smooth. At times I found myself accidentally raising or lowering the volume when I was just trying to adjust the headphones. Tiny sensors on the inside of the ear cups also auto-pause music when you take off the headphones. Resuming playback is as simple as putting the headphones back on.
There is no power button to turn the headphones on or off. Instead, they enter a low-power mode when you put them in the case and are ready to go when you take them out again. I have to admit, going straight to my music without needing to power on and connect the headphones to a device is super convenient. Unfortunately, this is only useful when you actually use the case. When the headphones aren’t placed in the case they’ll remain on for a few hours before going to sleep, draining battery the entire time.
How is the build quality and design?
The AirPods Max play the part of luxury headphones extremely well. The stainless steel headband and aluminum ear cups feel sturdy, and I don’t feel like they’ll break if I toss them in my backpack. All that metal means the AirPods Max are also really heavy, weighing in at 386 grams. That’s much heavier than the other top noise cancelling headphones we’ve tested, and you feel it. When I let my roommate try these on, the first thing she mentioned was how heavy they felt. That’s not to say these aren’t comfortable, though.
The plush padding and light fabric headband feel really nice. The ear cups feel amazing—they’re without a doubt my favorite thing about the headphones. They are comfortable and you can easily pop-off the padding to replace as needed. This allows you to mix and match colors, though you’ll have to shell out another $69 USD if you want to go that route.
The ear cups are extremely deep, which is actually very important. Providing a ton of room around your ears brings a number of benefits, from effective weight distribution, to making noise isolation easier to accomplish. It may seem like a little thing to gush about, but bigger ear cups mean more things go right for more people, which we’ll demonstrate a bit later on.
One notable downside here is the lack of any folding hinges. While the rotating ear cups are nice when you want to slip them into your bag, they don’t fold down like other headphones. The headband is made of metal that slides when adjusting the fit, but won’t fold to save space.
Is the AirPods Max waterproof?
The AirPods Max are not waterproof. Unfortunately, they aren’t even water-resistant. If you get caught in a heavy rainstorm it’s a good idea to take these off and stow them away. To be fair, most high-end headphones are like this, but open-back audiophile headphones aren’t made to be used outside of your house. The AirPods Max are made to be portable, so not having any kind of water protection is definitely a miss on Apple’s part. Especially when you consider that the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 have an IPX4 water resistance rating and cost far less.
Okay, so how is the AirPods Max case?
The case that comes with the AirPods Max is basically useless as a case—it acts more like an off-switch for me. Most headphone cases are supposed to protect your investment from serious harm, but that isn’t the case here. This case is more like a skin that protects the metal from minor scratches, but is useless in protecting them from anything more.
There’s just so many little accidents that happen in daily life that this case does not protect against.
While I’m confident that the metal headband won’t bend or break in most situations, I’m not so sure about the soft fabric. Tossing the exposed headband into a bag with just a few pens could potentially result in at least a few unwanted marks, if not an accidental puncture. There’s just so many little accidents that happen in daily life that this case does not protect against. Where the original AirPods case was a perfectly functional object, this feels more like a swing and a miss.
How is the active noise cancelling?
The active noise cancelling on the AirPods Max is fantastic. Like, really good. This is important because the better your headphones are at preventing outside noise from reaching your ear, the better the chances are that your headphones will sound as good as they can.
Wearing them while sitting at my desk completely blocks out the hiss from my heat turning on, as well as almost every other sound. The music my roommate plays in her room during the work day becomes barely audible, and even typing on the keyboard as I write are significantly quieter. One annoying thing about the noise cancelling is that you can’t turn it off unless you have an iOS device. The button on the headphones only toggles between transparency mode and active noise cancelling mode. If you don’t want either, you need to long press on the volume controls on an iOS device and toggle noise cancelling off.
Looking at the results of our isolation tests show just how impressive these headphones really are. To learn exactly how to read this chart make sure to check out our full explainer, but the short version you need to know right now is the bigger the peaks to the left of the chart, the better the noise cancelling. The blue line represents the active noise cancelling and the pink line represents just the passive isolation (how well these block outside noise with active noise cancelling turned off).
Most over-ear headphones do fairly well at blocking noise in the mids to highs, which are anywhere above the 1000Hz mark, but great noise cancelling headphones block sounds below that. This is where you’ll find sounds like airplane cabin noise or the hum of an air conditioner. It’s also where other headphones like the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 and the Sony WH-1000XM4 excel, which is why they’re consistently at the top of the list for best noise cancelling headphones.
How do the AirPods Max noise cancelling compare to the Sony WH-1000XM4?
If you compare these to the Sony WH-1000XM4 noise cancelling graph, you’ll see that the AirPods Max outperform them in this crucial part of the frequency range. Where the Sony WH-1000XM4 have a slight dip in the graph around the 150Hz mark, the AirPods Max hold steady, meaning they are more effective at cancelling those frequencies. The same is true in frequencies below 100Hz as well. While the Sony headphones are great, the AirPods Max are just slightly better.
How do the AirPods Max noise cancelling compare to the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700?
When you compare the AirPods Max to the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 you’ll see more of the same. While the Bose headphones do a decent job between 100Hz and 1000Hz, they fall short when it comes to sounds below 100Hz. The AirPods Max will block much more sound in this crucial range, which is something to keep in mind if you want to block outside noise. All of these headphones will do a good job at isolating you from sounds when you’re in a café or in an airplane cabin, but the AirPods Max outperform the competition where it counts.
How is the transparency mode?
The AirPods Max also have the best transparency mode I’ve ever used. This feature uses the noise cancelling microphones (of which there are eight) to amplify the sounds around you instead of cancel them out. Instead of lowering the volume of your music so you can hear what’s going on, it amplifies the microphones to match what you’re listening to. This means you’ll never feel like you’re missing out on your favorite part of a song while trying to be more aware of what is happening around you.
How do the Apple AirPods Max sound?
In short, you buy these headphones for the sound quality. For wireless headphones, they’re great.
The AirPods Max sound really good, and they don’t try to overemphasize any particular notes over others. For the most part, the frequency response is surprisingly neutral from around 100Hz all the way up to 1000Hz. Instruments in this range and the lower tones of some voices will sound true to life.
Before you take the following chart as gospel, it should be mentioned that these headphones were largely tuned with a different style of artificial head (scroll to the notes at the bottom of the link) than the one used to get this result. Consequently, the target these try to aim for aren’t going to be well-represented by this measurement. Because of that, we bought one of these heads, and we’ll be updating this first look into a full review once we’ve performed a new round of measurements on it.
There is a slight bump in the low end below 100Hz, but I don’t find it to be too much. Chances are you won’t use these as reference studio monitors, and I find that extra volume in the low end makes these a little friendlier towards all genres of music. You can really hear this in the song Sunday Vibes by Masego. At around the 0:40 mark, the sub-bass kicks in and it’s strong enough to feel a slight vibration in the ear cups on moderate volume, but not so strong that it masks the saxophone throughout.
I find that extra volume in the low end makes these a little more consumer friendly.
There’s also a slight dip in the mids around 1200Hz, which might help you avoid listener ear fatigue. That said, vocals in the mids are still plenty clear. The vocals of Longing For Your Love by Ady Suleiman remained present throughout the song even as more and more instruments began coming in. Of course, a lot of this has to do with the mix of the particular track, but I didn’t have any noticeable problems during my listening.
Typically I would expect to hear some harshness at higher volumes, but the highs never became overwhelming or unpleasant. Overall, I found Apple does a good job with Ambient EQ, which tunes music on the fly, optimizing how it sounds as you go. I don’t see many people taking issue with how these sound for that reason. They aren’t bass heavy, but they have solid bass. The midrange comes across nice and clear. The highs never approach harshness, and you don’t have to mess with any EQ apps and settings. Of course, that might not be good news if you enjoy the process working through your own EQ preset.
How is the connection strength?
The connection with the AirPods Max is fantastic. I haven’t experienced any skips or stutters, which I’m guessing has something to do with the H1 chip. The same chip is inside the AirPods Pro and I had a similar experience with those. Like the smaller AirPods Pro, these are rocking Bluetooth 5.0 with the AAC and SBC Bluetooth codecs.
For the unfamiliar, a Bluetooth codec is the method of communication between two Bluetooth devices. All Bluetooth audio devices use the standard SBC codec to transfer sound back and forth. The AirPods Max use AAC, which is a step above, but it tends to not play well with some Android phones (through no fault of its own). We have an entire explainer on what Bluetooth codecs are and why you should care about them, so be sure to check it out if you’re interested.
For the purposes of this review, just know that if you have an Android phone that supports higher quality codecs like aptX or LDAC, they’re not going to be of much use here. If you’re on iOS, you have nothing to worry about, since iOS devices are only compatible with AAC and the standard SBC anyway. However, this is something to be aware of if you plan on playing lossless files or using a high quality streaming service like Tidal or Deezer. You won’t be fully taking advantage of the quality those services have to offer.
How to connect AirPods Max to iOS devices?
Connecting the AirPods Max to iOS devices is just as easy as with any of the other H1 enabled devices. All that you need to do is hold the headphones about two inches away from the device you want to connect to and wait for a small card to pop up. From there just hit the “Connect” button and you’re good to go. The AirPods Max will now automatically connect to all devices on your iCloud account, so you won’t need to redo the process every time.
Will the AirPods Max work with Android or PC?
Yes! However, you’ll be missing a few smart features. To connect the AirPods Max to Android devices or Windows computers just follow these steps:
- Remove the headphones from the case, but don’t put them on—Seriously. I found this process doesn’t work at all if the headphones detect you wearing them.
- Hold down the noise cancelling button at the top of the right ear cup.
- When the small LED light at the bottom of the right ear cup begins to blink white then you know you’re in pairing mode.
- Navigate to the Bluetooth settings of the device you want to pair to and click on the AirPods Max to connect. That’s it!
As I mentioned, you won’t get all of the same features on Android or Windows. For example, the proximity sensors on the inside of the ear cups will not work. This means taking them off won’t auto-pause or automatically resume playback. You also won’t be able to access any virtual assistants on other devices. Long-pressing the digital crown to access a voice assistant only works with Siri, so if your device doesn’t support Siri then it won’t work.
Do the AirPods Max have Bluetooth multipoint?
Technically the AirPods Max do not support true Bluetooth multipoint, but they still function the same way as long as you’re using iOS devices. While you can pair the AirPods Max to multiple devices, they don’t switch automatically—you’ve got to manually go into Bluetooth settings to disconnect from one device and reconnect to another. This isn’t a problem if you’re only using Apple products, as the headphones will automatically switch to whichever device is playing audio. If you’re like me and jump between Apple and non-Apple devices, prepare to go through your Bluetooth settings a lot.
How is the microphone quality?
Here’s where things get especially sticky. You may have seen a few videos on YouTube referencing our 2018 deep-dive into Bluetooth audio quality, which mentions how some devices tend to make weird choices with their processing. This is very apparent with the AirPods Max.
Though playback audio quality is pretty good no matter what source you use, for whatever reason the same can’t be said about the microphone. It’s not always predictable which device will sound bad, but it’s easy to know which devices will work best with the AirPods Max: Apple devices. Below we’ve highlighted some extreme examples. It should be stressed here that the sound quality loss is dependent almost entirely upon your device’s handling of wireless communication.
The microphone quality is not great if you have the wrong device, but it’s not always clear which devices will be the “wrong” ones will be. That’s because it’s not entirely the headphones’ fault—it’s just that some devices have different defaults and settings when it handles data from the AirPods Max itself. For best results, always use a flagship Android or Apple device.
The AirPods Max have three microphones for voice pickup, two of which also moonlight as noise cancelling microphones. While phone calls were fine for the most part people did point out that my voice had a slight echo and was lacking in clarity on my Google Pixel 4a (again, due to the device I was using).
Apple AirPods Max microphone demo (Google Pixel 4a)
Apple AirPods Max microphone demo (Macbook)
Apple AirPods Max microphone demo (Huawei laptop):
Editor’s note: We have an iPhone on the way, so look for a sample to be uploaded shortly.
What is Spatial Audio?
Spatial audio is what Apple calls its surround sound technology. In a typical surround sound speaker system, you would have multiple speakers positioned around the listener to give the illusion of space. That isn’t possible to do with headphones, as there are only two drivers, one per ear cup. Instead, companies like Apple and Sony rely on software processing to create the same effect. Sounds get encoded into objects and come through the left and right channels at very slightly different times to mimic the difference in distance from a sound to both of your ears in real life, thereby produce a surround sound effect.
The overall effect is really cool and immersive when watching movies or shows that support it. Apple even makes sure the sound seems to be coming from the same place when you move your head. The AirPods Max (and the AirPods Pro) do this by matching the gyroscopes and accelerometers in the headphones with the ones in your iPhone or iPad. They can then figure out which direction your head is moving relative to the viewing device and adjust the sound accordingly.
Will Spatial Audio work with the Apple TV?
Unfortunately, Spatial Audio does not currently work with Apple TV. In order for Spatial Audio to work the source device that is playing video also needs gyroscopes and accelerometers built-in. As an Apple TV is a streaming box and was not built with any accelerometers inside of it, the AirPods Max can not sync up the directionality of the sound with it.
Can you use it wired?
The AirPods Max lack a typical 3.5mm headphone jack, but you can still use them wired. To do so, you need to buy the Lightning-to-3.5mm audio cable from Apple which currently sells for $35 USD. If you do happen to have a device that has a USB-C port like a newer computer or even an iPad Pro, you can’t use the included cable for audio passthrough. When I tried plugging it into my Windows laptop I got the error message pictured above. On the bright side, even if the headphone battery dies you can still use them to listen to music if you have this cable, so it might be worth investing in if you tend to go on longer flights.
How long does the battery last?
Apple claims the AirPods Max will last you around 20 hours of constant playback with active noise cancelling turned on. The test is still ongoing, but I’ll be sure to update this review with the final results once it’s complete. The headphones do a great job at sipping battery in my time with them, which is good considering you can’t physically turn them off.
Putting them in the case activates a low-power mode, and they will wait for a few hours before powering off automatically if you leave them out. I feel like this is a little too long and wouldn’t be surprised to see Apple push an update that shortens this time in the future.
How do you charge the AirPods Max?
To charge the AirPods Max, you need to plug them in via the Lightning port on the bottom. The included charging cable is a Lightning-to-USB-C. The headphones don’t even come with a charging brick. This got pretty annoying for me. I already have a USB-C cable and brick to charge my phone and other devices, but when I want to charge these headphones I need to swap out my existing USB-C cable for the Lightning cable. If Apple isn’t going to include a charger in the box, I would’ve preferred getting no cable at all in exchange for a USB-C input on the AirPods Max instead of Lightning.
Are the AirPods Max worth it?
Whether or not you should spend around $549 USD on a pair of headphones is your call, but I will say the AirPods Max are spectacular headphones. I really enjoyed using these in my daily life, and the smart features like auto-pause and the transparency mode are super practical. They also sound great, are well-built, and have solid battery life. However, they don’t exist in a vacuum, and to get the most out of them you need to commit to the Apple ecosystem.
For the price of one pair of Apple AirPods Max you can get a pair of truly great sounding open-back headphones that will make your audiophile friends jealous. Similarly, you can get either the Sony WH-1000XM4 or the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 and still have cash to spare. The AirPods Max are the best noise cancelling headphones out right now, but they’re not the best sounding, the easiest to use, or even the most comfortable. The lack of a headphone jack is frustrating and the “smart” case… isn’t.
If none of that bothers you, you’ll love the AirPods Max. If you’re not sure these are for you, they probably aren’t. To answer the question we started with, yes, the AirPods Max are overpriced—they’re also a great pair of headphones.