The much-anticipated Apple “AirPods Studio” are here, but the over-ear active noise-canceling (ANC) headphones are officially called the AirPods Max, and the name isn’t the only surprise. Apple’s asking price of $549 sets a new high watermark for the over-ear ANC category. To put it in perspective, Sony’s top-rated WH-1000XM4 are just $350, while their biggest traditional competitor, the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, sell for just $380.
The AirPods Max come in space gray, silver, sky blue, green, and pink, and they ship with their own carrying and storage case. They can be ordered via Apple.com starting today, with availability beginning Tuesday, December 15.
So what is Apple offering for that massive price premium? Let’s take a look.
As with so many Apple products, the design of the AirPods Max is one of their biggest points of distinction. The headband uses a unique mesh material that reminds us of the pressure-distributing fabric of the Herman Miller Aeron office chairs. Apple concurs, saying that the material is meant to “distribute weight and reduce on-head pressure.” A similar fabric is used on the ear cushions, which are made from memory foam.
Meanwhile, a set of stainless steel sliders connect the headband to the aluminum earcups. Apple says the connection between these two parts is a mechanism that “balances and distributes earcup pressure, and allows it to independently pivot and rotate to fit the unique contours of a user’s head.”
These comfort features will be important: The AirPods Max weigh 13.6 ounces, which is heavier than both the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 (8.96 ounces) and the Sony WH-1000XM4 (8.95 ounces).
The right earcup features a similar digital crown multifunction dial to the one that Apple uses on the Apple Watch. This controls volume, play/pause, skip forward/back, answer/end calls, and activate Siri. Siri can also be activated hands-free using a wake word, as you can do on the AirPods and AirPods Pro. A dedicated noise control button lets you quickly switch between ANC and transparency modes.
There are a total of nine microphones onboard. Three per earcup are used for voice pickup, and two of these mics are shared with the ANC feature. ANC uses eight of the nine mics.
The AirPods Max are strictly wireless-only. There is no analog input, so if you wanted to use them with an non-wireless source, you’d need to buy an analog-to-Bluetooth adapter like the AirFly.
The AirPods Max use a 40-mm Apple-designed dynamic driver in each earcup, powered by a dual neodymium ring magnet motor. Apple claims that they will offer “rich, deep bass; accurate midranges; and crisp, clean high-frequency extension.” It’s also promising a total harmonic distortion of less than 1% across the entire audible range, even at maximum volume.
As impressive as that hardware sounds, what might make the biggest difference in the actual listening experience versus other headphones is Apple’s use of computational audio. It’s the same technology the company runs inside the HomePod mini, which helps that product produce sound quality that is considerably better than the speaker’s small size suggests. It’s all powered by the same H1 wireless chip that Apple uses in its AirPods, AirPods Pro, and several of its Beats by Dr Dre line of wireless headphones and earbuds. The AirPods Max use two of these chips (one per earcup) for many of the same features as the AirPods Pro, including adaptive EQ, active noise cancellation (ANC), transparency mode, and spatial audio.
Speaking of spatial audio, this feature works similarly to the AirPods Pro: A more cinematic, immersive soundscape is on tap for specific Dolby 5.1 surround movies and shows. The hallmark of the feature is head-tracking. While watching a TV or an iPhone or iPad playing spatial audio content, moving your head preserves the location of on-screen voices, which always appear to be coming from the screen, regardless which way you are facing.
Many of the AirPods Max’s features, like spatial audio, only work when the headphones are used with Apple’s own devices. Critically, these devices need to be running the latest version of Apple’s software, so if you have a an older iPhone or iPad that is no longer receiving iOS/iPadOS updates, some functionality may be limited.
In keeping with Apple’s tradition of offering just enough battery life to get you through a day — but no more — the AirPods Max offer 20 hours of battery life on a full charge with ANC and spatial audio enabled. No life estimates have been given for how long the battery will last if you disable these features.
A fast-charge feature gives you an additional 1.5 hours of listening time for just five minutes of charging time.
Charging is accomplished via an included USB-C to Apple lightning cable, but there’s no AC adapter included in the box. This means you’ll need some kind of USB-C-equipped device for charging, like a newer Apple laptop, or a dedicated USB-C charger.
Like the Sony WH-1000XM4, the AirPods Max have optical sensors inside the earcups to detect whether the headphones are being worn or not. An automatic music pause feature can be activated when your remove the headphones, or even lift one earcup away from your head.
There’s no Bluetooth multipoint for pairing with two wireless source devices simultaneously (e.g., a phone and a computer), but the AirPods Max can make use of Apple’s automatic switching feature, which lets you jump seamlessly between paired Apple devices if you’ve enabled iCloud sharing on each device.
With audio sharing, the AirPods Max can be used simultaneously with any other pair of W1- or H1-equipped wireless headphones with a single iPhone, iPad, Mac, or Apple TV for a dual-listening session.
The AirPods Max ship with their own carrying case, which Apple calls the Smart Case. It stores the headphones with the earcup in a flattened position, but the headphones themselves do not fold. When inside the Smart Case, the headphones automatically enter a low-power mode to preserve battery life.
Will Apple be able to justify the sky-high asking price of the AirPods Max by delivering superior audio performance? A few years ago, we might have doubted this. However, the AirPods Pro have proven that Apple knows a thing or two about premium sound quality and noise cancellation. If the AirPods Max are able to continue and improve on this established track record, we suspect they will give Sony and Bose some serious competition, even if the price remains a barrier for many.
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