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AirPods vs. AirPods Max

Apple has come a long way since it first included its traditional round earbuds in the box with the original iPod in 2001. Since then, the AirPods brand name has begun to dominate the wireless music experience. For on-the-go listening and something that will fit easily into your pocket, Apple’s AirPods have established themselves as a solid choice.

Now, the AirPods Max claim they have something additional to offer, especially for those who like an over-ear experience. We’re taking a deep dive into these two music-listening options in this overview of the latest AirPods (including the AirPods 3) versus AirPods Max.

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Women wearing Apple AirPods Max.

Let’s begin by addressing the elephant in the room — the price of the AirPods Max. If you want to pick up a pair of Apple’s high-tech over-ear headphones, you’ll need to shell out $550. If you’re going to utilize the AirPods Max with non-Bluetooth audio devices, you’ll also need to spend an extra $35 to obtain Apple’s Lightning to 3.5mm Audio Cable.

In comparison, you can pick up Apple’s AirPods 3, with its most advanced feature set including spatial audio support, for $179, or save money with the AirPods 2 at $129, which still includes a wireless charging case and other benefits. It’s not hard to see the significant price difference between the two options, and we believe that price alone will determine purchasing decisions for many users. If you’re looking for the best bang for your buck, we’re going to stick with the well-established AirPods, especially with the latest smart upgrades that the AirPods 3 have received.

Winner: AirPods

Design and fit

Apple AirPods Max in five colors.

Apple’s AirPod earbuds feature a slim white design paired with a small charging case of the same color. AirPods cannot adjust to different users’ ears when it comes to fit, and while Apple attempted to create a one-design-fits-all solution, some users have reported issues with the earbuds staying in their ears. We recommend heading to a local Apple Store, if possible, to try a pair of AirPods and get a better feel for their fit. However, for those who just so happen to have perfect AirPods-sized ears, the experience can be quite pleasant — you may even forget that you are wearing them.

Note that the AirPods 3 have a slightly different shape the second generation with a shorter stem and more rounded form, but they still skip out on the silicone tips the AirPods Pro use and instead opt for the same more general in-ear design.

The AirPods Max are over-ear headphones, and as such, users will have fewer issues with finding a proper fit or feel. When it comes down to design, we don’t think Apple could have come up with a concept more minimalist. Each ear cup is a smooth, rounded shell crafted from anodized aluminum and paired with an ear cushion wrapped in a custom-designed mesh textile — these can be swapped out when the need arises. Connecting the two ear cups and spanning across the top of your head is what Apple calls the canopy, a headband made from breathable knit mesh that helps to redistribute weight and reduce on-head pressure.

As far as color is concerned, the AirPods Max certainly have the AirPods beat with five options, including Space Gray, silver, green, Sky Blue, and pink. While the AirPods Max are heavier than the AirPods and may not be suitable for use while exercising or other vigorous activities, the AirPods Max showcase a level of design and comfortable padding that are difficult to ignore.

Winner: AirPods Max

Controls and battery life

Apple AirPods 3.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Controlling AirPods relies heavily on Siri, with many requests requiring you to speak “Hey Siri” before issuing a command, such as forwarding to the next song, controlling volume, or pausing your content. You may also double-tap the stems of your AirPods to trigger specific actions: The AirPods 3 received a significant upgrade for these controls with force sensor control along with double and triple-press options, making them more versatile and more similar to the AirPods Pro. However, even with triple-press, not all of these functions can be enabled at once and must be selected within the Settings app. Additionally, there is no way to control the volume of your content directly via AirPods; you will need to use your iPhone or Apple Watch.

The AirPods Max feature two control buttons on the top of the right ear cup: A Digital Crown and a singular button. The Digital Crown is similar to the one found on the Apple Watch but instead larger — you can use the control to adjust the AirPods Max’s volume level, skip between tracks, answer phone calls, and activate Siri. The singular button can switch between Apple Active Noise Cancelation and Transparency Mode quickly; block out the surroundings, or amplify them when needed.

If you plan on an extended jam-out session, the AirPods 3 offer up to 30 hours of listening time when paired with their respective charging case, but each AirPod only holds six hours of charge (less if you are using spatial audio). You can charge up your earbuds with three hours of listening time in only 15 minutes. On the other hand, the AirPods Max will get you through 20 hours of listening time without needing to recharge. Apple even notes that five minutes of charging will give you up to 90 minutes of listening when needed.

The only battery feature we don’t love with the AirPods Max is that they must be placed into Apple’s custom-designed case to shut off. That’s right, there is no actual power button on the headphones. Instead, they use magnets to detect when they’ve been inserted into Apple’s case. Otherwise, when it comes to battery life, AirPod Max takes the cake.

Winner: AirPods Max

Sound quality

Woman wearing Apple Airpods Max.

Let’s begin by noting that sound quality is subjective based on one’s listening preferences, so there may be more than a little room for argument. However, we feel that Apple’s AirPods provide a pleasant listening experience for most scenarios, and the improvements of the AirPods 3 are easy to see. That being said, the AirPods lack the thumping bass that many listeners look for in consumer headphones. It is best to consider the AirPods on their merits as an ultra-portable, magically-connected pair of earbuds rather than a fantastic listening experience.

The AirPods Max offer similar benefits, like spatial audio, but are designed to take full advantage of them. They were crafted to a higher level of quality — that extra cash has to have gone somewhere. The AirPods Max feature custom-built dynamic drivers and dual neodymium ring magnet motors that help to minimize harmonic distortion. Additionally, Adaptive EQ helps to adjust the sound using two inward-facing microphones that measure the fit and seal of the ear cushions on your head, tweaking the sound accordingly. Overall, the AirPods Max offer lows, mids, and highs that are a pleasure to listen to whether you’re in your favorite chair at home or taking a flight across the country.

Winner: AirPods Max


Watching AirPods battery on iPhone.
Dan Baker / Digital Trends

AirPods don’t offer much beyond the built-in Apple H1 chip when it comes down to features, allowing for fast and stable connections between Apple devices — a feature that is quite brilliant and we don’t wish to downplay. With the firmware update and iOS 14, second-gen AirPods also now benefit from Apple’s automatic switching feature, which seamlessly jumps you between multiple devices you’re connected to. Built-in microphones allow you to either take a call or summon Siri with a command or tap, but more advanced features, such as noise cancelation, are not found on this model. The AirPods 3 take these features even further, adding dynamic head tracking, Adaptive EQ, additional touch control options.

The AirPods Max came with the H1 chip, spatial audio support for Dolby Atmos files, and Adaptive EQ. These features all arrived with the AirPods 3 as well, but if you have an older version of the AirPods you won’t be able to access them. And, as we noted, the AirPods Max are simply better designed to take advantage of these audio features than the AirPods line.

One significant difference is that the AirPods Max also provide Active Noise Cancelation for muting the world around you and Transparency Mode for allowing the outside sound in so that you can stay aware of your surroundings. One of our favorite features on the AirPods Max is on-head detection, which automatically pauses or resumes playing your music when you remove or place your AirPods Max headphones back on your head. Even the AirPods 3 don’t come with any noise cancellation, so this is a significant upgrade.

Finally, we’ll note that the AirPods Max are not water-resistant at all, and you may not want to wear them in the rain or other conditions where they can get wet. The AirPods 3, on the other hand, come with IPX4 water resistance, making them the superior option for jogging or using outdoors in general.

Winner: AirPods Max


Man wearing AirPods Max on sofa.

When comparing AirPods and AirPods Max, the latter is the clear winner with their high-quality, audio-focused design and extra computational features. However, it is worth considering that the audiences for these two devices are quite different. While the AirPods are best suited as a quick mobile wireless solution, the AirPods Max are best left in the studio or your bag until you’ve taken a seat and want to experience some of the best audio possible.

Winner: AirPods Max

Editors' Recommendations

Michael Archambault
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Michael Archambault is a technology writer and digital marketer located in Long Island, New York. For the past decade…
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