“The AirPods Max are exquisitely crafted headphones, built for Apple lovers.”
- Best-in-class ANC
- Amazing transparency mode
- Excellent build quality
- Excellent sound quality
- Top-notch call quality
- Charges via Lightning cable
- Heavy on head
I’m a headphone geek and have been for almost two decades now. And without a doubt, the $550 Apple AirPods Max are the most fun headphones I’ve reviewed in 10 years — but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should buy them.
I’ve heard a lot about these headphones over the past few weeks, and now that I’ve gotten a pair for myself, I have to be frank: I don’t agree with a lot of what I’ve heard. I want to dig into these headphones from the perspective of not only someone who has tested gobs of headphones over the years, but as a studio musician, a fan of high-end sound, and a person who likes to make smart purchases with hard-earned money. Let’s examine what’s good, what’s great, and what’s not-so-great about the AirPods Max and, of course, toss in some comparisons to the Sony WH-1000XM4 and the Bose ANC 700.
When beholding the AirPods Pro, the most striking design element is their metal earcups. They feel great in your hand — in fact, every part of this set of headphones feels great to the touch. The fabric material in the headband has a cool springiness to it, the telescoping portion of the headband has a satisfyingly smooth movement, the earcups are squishy and covered with a lush textile, and even the oversized digital crown and noise-cancellation/transparency mode toggle button feel great to twist and press. It’s really astonishing just how enjoyable they are to hold.
But for as satisfying as they are to the touch, they aren’t called handphones — they’re called headphones, and they need to feel great on your head. Now for some users, the AirPods Max may feel perfectly fine. Deep earcups, breathable ear cushions, and well-balanced clamping force help a bit. But the problem is that there’s a lot of weight to compensate for. Too much weight in my opinion. These materials are nice. They make the AirPods Max feel super-luxurious, but practically speaking, I feel like these headphones may be too heavy for some folks. Especially if you wear your headphones for hours at a time as I do.
To be clear, Apple did an impressive job of reducing strain on the crown and ears by using clever engineering and materials, but there’s a reason headphones like the Sony XM4, Bose ANC700, and even the Bowers and Wilkins PX7 Carbon Edition are made with high-grade plastics and composite materials rather than metal: Because they work well for acoustics, and they are lightweight and comfortable.
As you might expect, the AirPods Max work best with Apple products. Not only do they connect immediately, but they can also switch from one Apple device to another in a snap. Another benefit is that you can use an iOS device to turn ANC off in the headphones section of the control panel, AND you can actually toy with the digital signal processor (DSP) through the accessibility section — which I will mention again later when we talk sound quality. Unfortunately, if you are an Android user, you lose all of that. There’s no turning ANC off as far as I can tell, and no adjusting the DSP without an Apple device. So for connectivity, AirPods Max win for Apple users, while Sony and Bose, which both have apps for both platforms with lots of adjustability, win for everyone.
The oversized digital crown is fantastic.
When it comes to controls, I have to give it to the AirPods Max. The oversized digital crown is fantastic. It’s easy to find when wearing the headphones, and the volume control is strangely satisfying to turn — you even hear a little clicking sound as you adjust the volume. The digital crown is also extremely accurate and granular. I had no problem reaching my loudness sweet spot, whereas with other headphones and phone volume controls, I find I’m always one click away from the volume being too loud or too soft.
Also, having an almost comically large button just for toggling ANC and transparency mode is actually a feather in the AirPods Max’s cap. Again, finding the button while wearing the headphones is no problem, and the satisfying button press is a far better experience than holding your hand over the right earcup on Sony’s XM4s or searching for whichever button may be the right one on the Bose ANC 700. I used to think the swipe control thing was cool, too, but I’m kind of over it now. The AirPods Max have straightforward controls on the headphones that I want to use. This is the kind of stuff Apple just gets right.
On the topic of battery life, charging times, and the fact that there is no power button — this may surprise you: I’ve got zero problems with any of it. Hear me out.
Some feel the fact that the AirPods Max don’t have a power button and can’t really be shut completely off is ludicrous. I don’t think it is.
The AirPods Max go into a low-power mode after a short period when you set them down. In fact, I set them down on my desk at about 8 p.m. and picked them back up at 7 in the morning the next day and they had discharged a measly 7%. I can get that power loss back plus lots more with five minutes of charging, which nets you 1.5 hours of listening time.
If the AirPods Max sit unused for about 72 hours, they go into an ultra-low-power mode of sorts, sipping even less power. Practically speaking, with such slow power loss, it is hard to imagine a scenario where needing a power button is absolutely necessary. Perhaps if you keep them around your neck unused all day as a fashion accessory? But even then, it’s not as if they are draining quickly and bound to die on you that day.
As for the claimed 20-hour battery life, I’ve found that rating to be conservative. I got closer to 25 continuous playing hours with ANC on, and that’s enough to get through a couple of days of use before you have to think about charging. So I’m good with the battery life, even if the rating is about half that of the Sony XM4 — in real life, it’s perfectly sufficient.
I think what’s valuable about this always-on-standby strategy is that if you get a phone call or a Zoom call, they are immediately ready to go. Just put them on and click to answer. I love that — it’s far better than having to long-press a power button and wait around for the headphones to boot up while the phone continues to ring.
What I don’t love is the USB-C to lightning cable included with the headphones. I think it was a mistake to go with lightning when USC-C is a much more sensible choice.
One area in which I agree with other reviewers and commenters is the so-called “case” that comes with the AirPods Max. Since there are plenty of others trashing this “not-a-case” as I’ll call it, I don’t feel the need to pile on with more vitriol. It’s not a case, it isn’t protective, and if it weren’t for the magnets inside it, which are needed to activate ultra-low-power-mode, I’d say toss it.
Transparency mode is amazing.
I want to start with transparency mode because it is amazing — perhaps the AirPods Max most impressive feature. It’s as close to NOT wearing headphones as I’ve ever heard. Everything else pales in comparison.
I’m also looking forward to checking out the active noise canceling on a flight one day because, from what I can tell, the AirPods Max may just rule the skies. Since I’m not getting on planes just yet, to test the headphones, I tried the AirPods Max, Sony XM4, and Bose ANC 700 near some loud fans and an HVAC system. The AirPods Max did extremely well compared to the best noise-canceling headphones I’ve tested.
The AirPods Max do even better with every day sounds like the hammering of a mechanical keyboard, slurping of coffee, and other annoying stuff. I wore them into a coffee shop and was surprised by how little I heard coming from the espresso machine and general barista noises. Is it the best noise canceling on the planet? I can’t say yet. I really need to get on a plane to be sure, but it is darn close. Close enough that I can’t just call the Sony XM4s the reigning champ any longer, as there’s now another big dog on the hill. I will say, however, that the AirPods Max won’t leave anyone wanting for more noise canceling.
The AirPods Max are outstanding for making calls and taking video meetings — even better than the Bose ANC700, which are excellent in their own right. I found that surrounding noises were very well muted, while voice clarity was superb. The AirPods Max are also very adept at handling wind noise.
Before I get into fidelity, I do want to mention that I did some testing with Spatial Audio, which if you are unfamiliar, is a 3D sound technology that lets Apple make its headphones compatible with formats like Dolby Atmos Music. I think it is fun for watching movies, but I’m less enthusiastic about its implementation for music. It’s a cool feature, but not a selling point for me.
When it comes to audio fidelity, the AirPods Max sound very good. In particular, I think the midrange has gorgeous presence and clarity — something that you don’t get as much of from the Sony XM4 since they have have a bump in the midbass that tends to crowd the vocal range.
The Sony’s midbass bump is also notable because it lends the XM4 more punch, so when compared directly to the AirPods Max, the Apple cans seem less impactful. That doesn’t mean the AirPods Max lack solid bass. They actually get very deep — deeper than the Sony XM4 or Bose ANC 700 — so tonally everything is there. I just noticed that the bass guitar in many of the tracks I like to listen to was less prominent and the kick drum had a little less punch than with the XM4 and Bose headphones. But, as mentioned before, the more balanced midbass allows for the Max’s excellent midrange response.
“I found Apple Music sounded better than Spotify with the Apple AirPods Max.”
As for the treble region, there’s a good amount of sparkle in cymbals and brass instruments, which I enjoyed quite a bit — sibilance or harshness is not an issue here. However, I didn’t note particularly well-executed instrumental separation, and as far as soundstage and imaging go, I think the AirPods Max fare about average.
In general, I feel a little closer to the music when listening to the Sony XM4 and the Bose ANC700, but I feel like I hear more detail with the AirPods Max, which are certainly the most balanced of the three headphones I compared.
An interesting note: I found Apple Music sounded better than Spotify with the Apple AirPods Max, and I suspect that’s because Apple’s default streaming quality is higher than Spotify’s.
I’ve noted that some have said the AirPods Max sound better with the ANC turned off. I did not find that to be the case. Perhaps the frequency response is flatter, but I feel like the music loses some of its life. I also heard that making adjustments to the DSP through the accessibility menu in iOS could improve the sound, but frankly, I like the way they sound out of the box with the balanced setting and the slight boost setting.
So from an audio perspective, I enjoy the AirPods Max very much, and I want to continue to listen solely to the AirPods Max a bit longer because I’m guessing my penchant for punch may subside a bit over weeks and months, but for right now, I tend to prefer the Sony XM4 sound signature. That’s a deeply personal preference, though. I can see why someone might prefer the sound of the Max over the long haul, and I’ll adjust this review if I change my tune. They sound very good. Good enough to lend some justification to their $550 price tag.
In terms of cool factor, there’s no doubt the AirPods Max have it in spades, and there’s no doubt they are one of the most fun headphones I’ve gotten to test in many years.
The AirPods Max are darn-near perfect, with best-in-class noise canceling, the most remarkable transparency mode I’ve ever heard, balanced and detailed sound with plenty of deep and musical bass, and a very premium feel. My chief complaints are their weight, which I worry may not work for multi-hour use, and the lack of a proper carrying case.
Is there a better alternative?
For a higher level of comfort, I would suggest considering the Sony WH-1000XM4, which offer competitive sound quality and noise-canceling, and superior battery life in a lighter-weight headphone. The Sony also come with a legit carrying case and are more portable. With that said, the AirPods Max are a wonderfully premium headphone with unmatched build quality.
How long will they last?
Given the outstanding build quality I just mentioned, I imagine the AirPods Max will last as long as their rechargeable battery will allow them to. They come with Apple’s standard one-year warranty against manufacturer defects.
Should you buy them?
If you don’t mind a heavier headset with a premium price tag, then absolutely yes.
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