AirPods Max review: Stunning sound and premium design come at a very high price
When Apple held its “One More Thing” event back in November, we assumed its new M1-powered MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, and Mac Mini would be the final product launches of the year. However, the US technology firm wasn’t done for 2020 and definitely saved one of its most exciting new products until last. The new AirPods Max landed without any warning before the Christmas rush.
Of course, Apple has owned and operated the Beats audio brand since 2014 and has enjoyed huge success with its popular AirPods since 2016, but this is the first time the US firm has launched its own over-ear headphones.
As you might expect from Apple, these new cans come with a premium design and a price tag to match. Yes, they really do cost £549.
So, are they worth your hard-earned money and can they take on the well-established and award-winning rivals from the likes of Sony and Bose? Read our in-depth AirPods Max review to find out…
First off, let’s talk about the design. Ever since Apple revealed its AirPods Max earlier this month, they’ve created quite a stir (and plenty of online memes) with a look that some adore and others really aren’t convinced about. When tucked inside their unique case, they’ve been compared to a handbag and there’s been criticism of Apple Watch-style Digital Crown and fruity colours that Apple has chosen for its first over-ear headphones.
We’ll come to the case a bit later in this review, but one thing we do want to clear up is the AirPods Max really don’t look bad once you pop them on your ears. In fact, for our money, we prefer AirPods Max metal design to the plasticky feel of Sony’s WH-1000XM4s.
The all-aluminium shell gives these headphones an incredibly premium feel and the soft breathable knit mesh headband also makes them supremely comfortable to wear for long periods of time. That’s crucial as aluminium earcups are much heavier than their plastic counterparts (the main reason why Bose and Sony don’t use metal for their award-winning cans).
Apple has ensured its comfy memory foam earcups are fully detachable. These are held in place using magnets and pop out so they can be cleaned or replaced when the material starts to perish. It’s a brilliant idea as these all-important pads are almost always the part that takes the biggest battering and often end up looking terribly tatty with years of use. If that happens on the AirPods Max, you’ll only need to buy new cushions from the Apple Store (priced at £75), instead of replacing the headphones entirely.
Apple has kept the rest of the design pretty minimalist, with only the Digital Crown (borrowed from the side of the Apple Watch) and an on/off button for the noise-cancelling feature beside it.
The AirPods Max are, without doubt, some of the most comfortable headphones money can buy and they won’t pinch or hurt even if you wear glasses – something that definitely can’t be said for some of the cheaper competition. Of course, the way they look is nowhere near as important as the sound and we certainly have no complaints about the audio quality.
Apple’s audio team has had a stellar few years with the likes of the HomePod, HomePod mini and AirPods Pro showered in praise for their sound quality. And now, these sound credentials have now been transferred to the AirPods Max.
Everything we’ve listened to using these pricey headphones sounds great – packed with detail and with plenty of depth. Of course, true audiophiles will need to look elsewhere as the quality of these headphones is still limited by the Bluetooth connection and lower-quality stream from Apple Music.
However, compared to other consumer-focused cans, like the Bose 700 Series and Sony WH-1000XM4s, these sound stellar.
The technology inside basically consists of a 40-mm Apple-designed dynamic driver. Apple has fitted two of its custom-designed H1 wireless chips to monitor the sound and dynamically adjust the EQ.
Bass is rich without overpowering the tracks and vocals sound crystal clear even when things are pumped up to the max. This easily makes them as good, if not slightly better, than the award-winning Sony WH-1000XM4s and Apple should be commended for producing such an epic experience.
To help boost things further there’s some really impressive active noise cancellation, also known as ANC, which blocks out all background sound allowing you to enjoy things without any interruptions. ANC can be easily switched to a transparency mode via a tap of a button on the Max, or via your iPhone, to let enough sound through that you’ll be able to hear an announcement at the train station without taking the AirPods off.
This will be ideal when we all start travelling again and you don’t want to miss your departure gate being announced at the airport.
You’ll also find that the AirPods Max use spatial audio with dynamic head tracking to place sounds virtually anywhere in a space. When you find compatible content it really is impressive with audio appearing to hit your ears from all directions. The same is also available in the AirPods Pro.
As we mentioned earlier the Digital Crown can be spun to increase or lower the volume and easy taps on the top will pause music and skip tracks. It all works really well and some may actually prefer this physical method of controlling things rather than the swipe gestures found on other headphones.
Some final things to mention are the solid, although not market-leading, 20-hour battery life and the brilliant automatic pairing which not only makes them simple to set-up but also seamless to switch between other Apple devices such as you iPhone, Apple Watch and MacBook.
Now, we can’t put it off any longer – let’s talk about that case.
This is something that truly separates the AirPods Max from its rivals as the protective sleeve the AirPods Max are designed to slide into doesn’t quite cover the entire product. It simply shields the cups and nothing else, which some – like us – find extremely worrying.
Right now it’s fine as we’re only using the Max at home, but as soon as we’re back on the road, there’s no way we’d trust that case to keep the £549 AirPods Max protected at the bottom of our rucksack.
Every other headphone on the market, including those that cost a fraction of the price of the AirPods Max, ship with a tough case that covers every inch of the product. Given the choice, we prefer that design as it offers more confidence that your shiny new headphones won’t get damaged. It also means you can store extra cables or adapters in the case too, something you can’t do with the one that ships with the AirPods Max.
There is something else that’s extremely strange about the Apple-designed case – it’s the only way to physically turn the headphones off.
Yes, you did just read that correctly. When you lift the Max from your head the music automatically stops, but they will stay powered on until you pop them in the sleeve. This means the battery can continue to drain for a number of hours if you forget to slot them in the colour-matched sleeve.
Another thing that’s mildly annoying is that, unlike its Bose and Sony rivals, Apple doesn’t include any way of connecting them to a standard 3.5mm port. That means the next time you get on a plane you’ll be left stranded with those cheap airline headphones rather than your premier AirPods Max. Given the impressive noise-cancellation available in the AirPods Max, that’s a real shame.
Of course, you can buy an adapter from Apple, but this will set you back at least £10 (provided you already have a 3.5-to-3.5mm cable) or there’s the £39 Lightning to 3.5mm cable. Both of these are pretty grating given the starting price and we really can’t help thinking at least one of these two options should’ve been included in the box.
Apple AirPods Max review: Final Verdict
PROS • Stunning audio quality • Premium build oozes class • Solid battery life • unrivalled noise cancellation
CONS • Case doesn’t cover the whole product • High price • No off switch
Apple should be incredibly proud of its new AirPod Max. These headphones were a surprise launch at the end of a product-packed year from the firm, but have continued to surprise us throughout our testing.
The industrial design is pleasingly minimalist and the build quality is sublime. Streaming Apple Music and Spotify, the audio quality is truly epic and the noise-cancelling is easily some of the best we’ve ever heard.
The AirPods Max can also be worn for hours and still feel comfortable, which is good as they pack some solid battery life that should keep the music playing from dawn until long into the night.
There are clearly plenty of positives, but we can’t avoid the eye-watering price and that awful case. At £549, these cost £200 more than the WH-1000XM4 from Sony, which is a hefty premium to pay for the Apple branding and simpler one-tap pairing afforded to iPhone owners.
The protective sleeve that ships with the AirPods Max is really odd and we’re not convinced that lovely design wouldn’t be a little battered when keeping in a backpack on our travels. The fact that Apple hasn’t included any way to connect these headphones to a 3.5mm port is also incredibly annoying and paying extra for a cable does leave a bad taste in the mouth.
For Apple fans who want a premium pair of headphones that work well with their iPhone, iPad and Mac, the AirPods Max won’t disappoint. But for everyone else… you need to decide if it’s really worth paying that very price.