Why it feels like your AirPods Max have worse ANC lately

New testing proves you’re not imagining things.

Originally Published: 
AirPods Max on Raymond Wong
Raymond Wong / Inverse
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If you’ve been hearing the low rumbles of the subway on your daily commute through your AirPods Max, you’re not alone. After Apple introduced the 4E71 firmware update in May, some users reported experiencing worse active noise cancellation (ANC) on their premium headphones.

After some rigorous testing from RTings, that may actually be the case. According to the report, the latest AirPods Max firmware update cancels out bass sounds worse compared to the previous firmware. But just how bad is the ANC on AirPods Max now? Is the “issue” really a concern or overblown? Should you head down to your local Apple store and demand a refund?

What were the ANC findings?

From RTings’ report, Apple AirPods Max scored an 8.3 in the “Isolation” category of the review, which is a noticeable drop from the 9.0 score from before the latest update. RTings says that the new firmware “blocks out a bit less noise between the mid-bass to high-bass range than the previous firmware.”

That’s the range you’d hear low rumbling noises, like the engines of buses, planes, or cars. RTings’ report does note that the AirPods Max still does a decent job at this range though, albeit worse than before. Otherwise, there’s a slight difference in the mid and treble ranges, but not anything that you’d notice.

How does the ANC compare?

If you take a look at RTings’ latest chart for the AirPods Max and compare it to the tests conducted on the previous firmware, you can see a noticeable drop in the mid-bass to high-bass range. Particularly in the high-bass zone, there’s only a 10-decibel reduction this time around, whereas previously it was almost up to a 30-decibel reduction.

Overall, the previous firmware update scored a -19.92dB for bass noise isolation, while this 4E71 firmware version came in at a -15.53dB rating. The mid and treble levels didn’t change much.

Active noise-cancellation on the AirPods Max is still one of the best on any wireless over-ear headphones.

Raymond Wong / Inverse

Will you hear a difference in ANC?

Yes and no. If you’re around cars, trains, or planes for a good chunk of your day, you might notice a reduction in noise-cancellation with AirPods Max. If you’re commuting by subway daily or work near a highway, it’ll likely be a noticeable issue.

Otherwise, it’s unlikely you’ll hear a significant difference in ANC. “When it comes to the mid and treble ranges, this firmware update has slightly changed the level of isolation, but it's a relatively minor difference,” writes RTings.

The AirPods Max still do a great job at canceling out ambient chatter or the high-pitched whirring of an air conditioning unit, according to RTings. So when you’re in the office, you should still be able to get in the zone with strong active noise cancellation.

What can you do about it?

The technical report demonstrates the latest 4E71 firmware for AirPods Max indeed reduces the ANC and it’s not just in peoples’ heads. At the time of this writing, Apple hasn’t yet addressed RTings’ findings. There’s no class action lawsuit, though some believe it could happen. There is, however, an ongoing lawsuit between Apple and Jawbone Innovations claiming that Apple infringed on its noise cancellation patents, as discovered by Reddit user u/facingcondor.

If Apple thinks it’s a real issue, it could do a recall, or more likely, fix the ANC reduction problem in a future firmware update.

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