Apple AirPods Max Over-Ear Headphones Review
Matthew Jens is overawed by Cupertino's latest technology-packed pair of wireless cans…
Fun fact: Analysts estimate that the Apple AirPods make up sixty percent of the global wireless headphone market. Sixty! Forget about the Koss Portapros, Beats or those classic Sony buds you once used with your Walkman. The people have chosen, and AirPods are here to stay.
The tiny little white buds that sit in your outer ear have changed the headphone landscape permanently, for better or worse. But it seems that Apple isn't ready to lay down its arms just yet – the AirPods have now taken form into new full-size, over-ear Bluetooth headphones, with all sorts of unusual gadgetry packed into them. Meet Apple's new AirPods Max.
Let's be clear: this is the Cupertino company doing what it does best – breaking new ground by taking an older concept and rebuilding it to make something truly unique. The only problem is that they're disgustingly expensive at £549, and have a silly name…
Never in my life have I come across Bluetooth headphones that cost so much. But then again, never in my life have I come across full-size headphones that boast so much wizardry and gadgetry packed into a premium, luxurious wireless offering. Is this Apple reinventing a classic, well-known household product for the better once again? Or will the AirPods Max go the same way as the Apple Newton, and fall into the history books as another “what were they thinking” moment?
I hear you scoffing at the price and shouting, “so just how different could a pair of headphones truly be?” Well, let's start with the outside. There are well-made designs, and there are luxury designs, and then there are these. Not a hint of cheapness, nor any plastic. All you'll find here are solid metals, beautifully crafted woven padding, creative design quirks, and every single element being over-engineered to within an inch of its life.
The headband isn't just the usual faux leather and padding arrangement. Instead, it's a “canopy” of soft mesh material, which distributes the not-inconsiderable 384 grams of weight over an expanded area of the head, instead of pinpointing it to one location. It's a similar design principle to how some bulkier planar magnetic audiophile headphones deal with weight, but executed in a slimmed-down, neat little package.
There's one single button on the top of the right earcup for changing noise-cancelling modes, and a volume wheel for volume adjustment. Yes, you heard me correctly. A volume wheel, on a pair of headphones. Apple has taken the crown from the Apple Watch, expanded it, and plonked it directly onto the AirPods Max. The silky-smooth wheel is far better for volume adjustment than any touch panel I've ever tried. I'm not going to lie – it's a game-changer, and I love it.
There are nine built-in microphones dedicated to either noise cancelling or voice calls, plus one little guy dedicated to Siri. The bundled storage case isn't great; it uses magnetic cleverness to protect the only non-fragile part of the headphone – the cups – and annoyingly, using this case is the only way to manually put the headphones into standby mode.
The H1 chips that existed inside the AirPods Pro are back, and the beating heart that pumps life into the proprietary 40mm drivers that sit right in front of them. These chips allow for all of the delicious processing and features that are packed inside. Battery life is rated at twenty hours with all of the noise-cancelling and spatial audio options turned on. Apple says that five minutes of charging should give the AirPods Max enough juice of ninety minutes of audio – so, in theory, a quick ten-minute zap should be enough to get you from Melbourne to Brisbane on a direct flight.
Connecting these to an Android device might lose you the spatial audio and Siri features, and maybe some of the customisations, but not much else. It's a shame I can only pair these to one device at a time, but using these with an Android device is still a treat.
Despite the weight of these being nearly double the competition – the Bose ANC700 is 130 grams lighter – they're surprisingly comfortable to wear. The load is distributed nicely over the top of the head, and the pads sit nicely around the ear. Those woven pads are held onto the cup via magnets, and you can buy replacements from the Apple store for the price of your left kidney…
There are plenty of unique audio features under the hood too, such as 'adaptive EQ' which continuously tunes the sound of the headphones. While this sounds like it might be weird, Apple says that this tuning is to compensate for a forever changing environment; for example, if you're wearing glasses, you wouldn't get as good a seal compared to without. Adaptive EQ bridges that divide, and proactively tunes the sound to ensure consistency.
'Spatial audio' was added via a firmware update to the AirPods Pro, which (back then) I found to be gimmicky. Apple uses various methods and algorithms to convert surround sound (5.1, 7.1, or Dolby Atmos) into stereo sound. It then applies directional audio filters, equalisation and other various DSP to be as immersive as possible. From there, aided with the built accelerometers, your content will be delivered to you in a fully immersive environment.
Think of it as virtual reality, but for audio. You turn your head, and the audio will remain in the same place. The latency is minuscule, the accelerometers are pinpoint accurate, and the DSP is incredibly tight. I'm no longer watching my iPad on a flight to Perth; I'm sitting in a theatre. Amazing.
The noise-cancelling quality is surely best-in-class. I put the AirPods Max against the Bose NC700, Audio-technica ANC700BT and Sennheiser Momentum 3, and the Apple's NC blows them all out of the water. Engine noise on my flights was immediately reduced from a dull roar to a gentle rumble.
When it came to music, I started things off gently with An Amalgamation Waltz 1839 by Joep Beving, a gentle piece with plenty of hidden details of fingers hitting keys, pedal presses and room noise. The AirPods Max retrieved so much of this that I almost found it distracting, yet at the same time, it was a very natural, relaxing listening experience with the ambient sound mode turned on. It was almost as if the piano was being played in the same room I was in, and I could hear everything around me at the same time. Some of that detail went missing once the noise cancelling was in full swing, but not in a distracting way.
Kicking things up a notch, I pitted the AirPods against California Dreaming by Freischwimmer. Immediately, the thumping kick drum reminded me of an L'Acoustics PA system, with tight, firm and controlled midbass thumps and plenty of low-end rumble – as much as a 40mm displacement can produce. I did behind to notice a dip with the higher vocals – perhaps even a roll-off – around the 9kHz mark. Despite this, the high and low-end response is well balanced, and the adaptive EQ keeps this song in check, regardless of the environment. The lower end of the bass spectrum feels like it's paying homage to the Bose NC700, which currently sits atop the noise-cancelling throne.
Enough messing around! It was now time to throw some juicy low end at these things to see what they could handle. Slingblade by DJ Shadow is a real test of low bass response. A crowded, noisy flight with noise cancelling at its maximum setting is usually a place where such subterranean sounds go to die, but not this time! The AirPods Max gave me the full force of everything below 200Hz in its entirety.
I haven't seen this much effort expended to make a groundbreaking headphone since the Nuraphone. The volume wheel is a neat trick, the noise-cancelling is excellent, and spatial audio very well may change the way I view content in the future. Let's just not mention the strange, terrible case…
With a sound signature that inherits the crisp response of Apple's AirPods Pro, but in a more oversized format and with plenty of extra bass, I would be happy to use these as my new “flyers”. But are the AirPods Max worth its weighty price tag? Well, that depends on who you ask. For most people, no. If you were buying smart, you would pay half the price for something that still has excellent sound quality, effective noise cancelling and plenty of features.
Yet this is Apple doing what it does best – reinventing a classic, well-known product for the better, with some quirks along the way. So if you're the type of person who's happy to spend serious sums of money to be on the bleeding edge of quality craftsmanship, performance and features – well, here's your next pair of headphones.
Constantly keeping himself busy, Matthew is a production manager, Brazilian jiu-jitsu blue belt, Head-Fi fanatic, coffee enthusiast and all-round cool Dad.
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