AirPods Max review: The biggest test yet for Apple loyalists

Apple's first over-ear AirPods are one of the best-sounding ANC headphones available. But the $550 price really stings when there are so many great alternatives that cost hundreds less.

AirPods Max review: One big Apple loyalty test
Raymond Wong / Input

It was only a matter of time before Apple released the AirPods Max. Since AirPods debuted in late 2016, the wireless earbuds have weaved into the zeitgeist, much like the iPod, iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch did.

Four years later, people are still going gaga for AirPods, despite there being hundreds of alternatives readily available with better sound quality or lower pricing. I, myself, reviewed many like the Pixel Buds, Galaxy Buds Live, and OnePlus Buds this year.

AirPods’ popularity has been even better for Apple’s bottom line. Revenue from the company’s “Wearables, home, and accessories” category, of which AirPods are part of, grew 21 percent year-over-year, accounting for $7.9 billion.

With such strong branding and demand, it was never a question of if, but when Apple would extend the AirPods name to wireless over-ear headphones. Capping off a year of home runs — iPhone 12s, M1 Macs, iPad Air 4, HomePod mini, and iOS 14 — Apple dropped AirPods Max as a sort of holiday surprise.

I’ve had AirPods Max practically glued to my head for a week. I’ve been listening and comparing them to the active noise-canceling over-ear kings: the Bose 700, Sony WH-1000XM3, and even Microsoft’s Surface Headphones 2. I’m convinced AirPods Max look and feel like they’re $550 headphones. But I don’t think they sound hundreds of dollars better. Apple’s “computational audio” and “spatial audio” are impressive but these are still really pricey headphones. And the Smart Case? It’s truly terrible design.

AirPods Max feels more like a test of your loyalty to Apple than anything else. How much do you love Apple that you will pay a hefty premium for these ANC headphones?

They're fancy

For the money, the AirPods Max are engineered to look and feel like expensive over-ear headphones. With more premium materials like stainless steel telescoping arms, aluminum cups, knit mesh for the headband canopy, and super soft cushions, the AirPods Max makes the plastics on Bose, Sony, Microsoft ANC headphones feel cheap by comparison.

Apple loaned me a space gray model to review. They come in four other colors (silver, green, sky blue, and pink). I’m usually a boring guy when it comes to headphones. But the pink does look nice — it’s got a softness that doesn’t scream the way a pair of vibrant Beats headphones do.

The mesh canopy on the headband is super comfy.Raymond Wong / Input
The digital crown is cloned from the Apple Watch and controls volume and playback.

Apple’s not the first to make luxury ANC headphones. Bang & Olufsen, Bowers & Wilkins, and Master & Dynamic all make ANC headphones made of metal and real leather. AirPods Max fit right into this class of premium over-ear cans. The clean aesthetic is classic Apple. (There isn’t an Apple logo anywhere.) Whether you’re dressing up or down, these headphones look good. If anything, I think Apple made them too minimalistic. The telescoping metal arms are smooth and the small ball joints connected to each cup pivot just enough, but why is there no on/off button? There’s a single button on the right ear cup for toggling noise-cancellation and transparency, and a Digital Crown (cribbed from the Apple Watch and enlarged) for controlling volume and playback, but that’s it.

The cushions themselves pop right off with magnets. Come replacement time, this is going to be a five-second job. But you pay for this convenience. Apple sells replacement cushions for $69 a pop; replacing the cushions on Bose 700 is less elegant, but official replacements pads cushions are only $35 (even cheaper on Amazon).

The cushions snap on with magnets. Replacements are pricey, though.Raymond Wong / Input

Kinda heavy

It’s only natural for headphones made of stainless steel and aluminum to be heavy. The AirPods Max weigh 384.8 grams. This is considerably heavier than Bose 700 (249 grams), Sony WH-1000XM4 (251 grams), Surface Headphones 2 (295 grams). Even more premium headphones like the Master & Dynamic MW65 (245 grams), Bang & Olufsen Beoplay H9 3rd Gen (285 grams), and Bowers & Wilkins PX7 (302 grams) weigh less. It’s clear that every company is shooting for under 300 grams.

The weight is mostly from the ear cups and the stainless steel frame. The headband and mesh canopy is slim and low-profile. This might sound dumb, but I appreciate that the headband doesn’t crush my hair. I just hate when over-ear headphones flatten my volumized hair, which is why I prefer to use earbuds outside and headphones only when I’m at home.

They're one of the heaviest wireless headphones you can buy.Raymond Wong / Input

Heavy doesn’t necessarily mean uncomfortable. The AirPods Max cups are big and the overall design is heavy, but they feel very comfy… when I’m leaning back on my couch or sitting upright at my desk. That is to say, they don’t feel unbearably weighty when you’re stationary. This bodes well for use when you’re sitting on a plane or bus for many hours, but not if you can’t sit still.

I wouldn’t recommend going on long walks with them. I wore AirPods Max on my daily two-mile round trip walks to the park and back and had to take them off and rest them around my neck a few times because they were pressurizing my skull; I never have this issue with my Bose 700 or WH-1000XM3, which are 35 percent lighter. And around your neck, I dislike that the aluminum cups make contact with each other; metal on metal sounds unpleasant and will bruise over time. I also wouldn’t recommend running or working out with the AirPods Max. They’re not water or sweat-resistant and heavy cans are the opposite of what you want when you’re moving your body or lifting weights; this is disappointing if you just signed up for Apple Fitness+ like I have.

Apple sound and pairing

Both of these are things that make AirPods Pro great, so Apple copy and pasted them for the AirPods Max. If you’re an iOS user, you get the same seamless pairing and smart switching with Macs. If you’re not, they work like any pair of Bluetooth 5.0 headphones.

The AirPods Max comes with two H1 chips (one in each cup), nine microphones (eight for active noise-cancellation and three of the nine used for voice), and “Apple-designed dynamic drivers.” Apple’s touting the same “computational audio” present in the HomePod mini and the same “spatial audio” you get in AirPods Pro.

If you’re new to computational audio, the gist is that Apple uses hardware (H1 chip) and software to enhance audio across the lows, mids, and highs; produce audio with less distortion at all volumes; measure ambient noise and then cancel it out or filter it in Transparency mode; and create virtualized surround sound. You know how iPhones use computational photography to enhance photos? Computational audio is like that, but for enhancing audio in real time.

Spatial audio is particularly orgasmic on the ears.

This “Apple sound,” as I like to call it, is becoming a major differentiating factor for Apple’s audio products. Just like how different phone cameras produce pictures with different color temperatures, Apple tends to have a certain sound profile in mind for its devices. Like the AirPods Pro and HomePod mini, the sound tends to be bright, which means you hear more clarity across the frequency spectrum. Snaps, thumps, strings are more distinct; songs have more feeling to them than the warmer and mushier sound you get with Sony’s WH-1000XM3s and Bose 700.

Spatial audio (with content that supports it) is particularly orgasmic on the ears. I rewatched the entire second season of The Mandalorian with AirPods Max and spatial audio turned on and it felt like I was sitting in a movie theater (remember those?) with speakers aimed at me from all directions. The difference between spatial audio and stereo is night and day. Of course, you don’t need AirPods Max to get this virtual surround sound experience; AirPods Pro have spatial audio too and the experience is not much different.

Active noise-cancellation on the AirPods Max is one of the best on any wireless over-ear headphones.Raymond Wong / Input

Active noise-cancellation is a different story. It’s noticeably better on AirPods Max than AirPods Pro because the over-ear design simply covers your ears and blocks out more sound. AirPods Max cancels out more noise at lower volumes than AirPods Pro. However, if you compare AirPods Max ANC to Bose 700 or Sony WH-1000XM3 (and 4 for that matter), there’s less nuance. ANC on all three headphones is almost indistinguishable. That tells me two things: ANC is no longer a feature that’s really hard to get right and perhaps there’s a ceiling to ANC for headphones in this class. What I can definitively say is that AirPods Max block out more noise than Surface Headphones 2.

The bra/butt case

I have no nice things to say about the Smart Case. Apple’s designed bad accessories before — a Smart Battery Case with a battery cell that bulges out, the Magic Mouse 2 that charges via Lightning cable on the bottom, and the Apple Pencil that plugs into an iPad’s Lightning port, to name a few — but the Smart Case that comes with the AirPods Max easily wins the award for the worst.

One of the ugliest things to ever come from Apple's design labs.Raymond Wong / Input

Apple deserves to be roasted for eternity for this bra-butt-purse abomination. It looks awful, feels flimsy, and doesn’t protect the headband or the mesh canopy at all. No amount of spin can redeem its design. If I had a fireplace, I wouldn’t hesitate to chuck it in. Its functionality is so confusing that Apple has an entire support document on it. Here are the various battery modes the AirPods Max go into with and without the Smart Case:

Low power mode turns on when:

  • You leave AirPods Max stationary for 5 minutes
  • You put AirPods Max in Smart Case

Ultra-low power mode turns on when:

  • You leave them stationary for 72 hours
  • You leave them in the Smart Case for 18 hours

So there you go. Do you need the Smart Case? Not unless you’re desperate to conserve every minute of battery life. I used the Smart Case maybe twice. The rest of the time, I left AirPods max on my desk or couch and I can’t say I saw unusual rapid draining. Low power mode sips very little battery life.

Apple advertises up to 20 hours of listening time with ANC. That’s on par with what you get with Bose 700 and is enough to get you about 2-3 days on a single charge. But falls short when stacked up against Sony’s WH-1000XM3/XM4, which last for up to 30 hours with ANC. Surely, Apple could have justified the heavier design with slightly larger batteries that matched or exceeded Sony’s battery life. That would have been something, but I guess Apple’s got to save something for AirPods Max 2.

A five-minute charge also adds about 1.5 hours of listening time. This is fine in a pinch, but I would have liked to see even faster charging. How is it that you can fast charge an iPhone with a much larger battery to 50 percent in 30 minutes, but not AirPods Max in like a fraction of the time? Somebody needs to figure this out.

I've heard quite a few people complain about the headphones charging with Lightning not USB-C. Is this really a complaint? It's an Apple product. I know that iPad Pros have gone USB-C, but that's more because they need the accessory support rather than because Apple wanted to ditch Lightning.

The price hurts

The sound is great, but the price hurts. Real bad.Raymond Wong / Input

Now comes the part that stings the most: the price. $550 is an absurd amount of money to spend on ANC headphones. You could get an iPhone XR starting at $500. You could get two pairs of AirPods Pro (the second for when the first’s battery inevitably dies). You could buy a basic iPad with AirPods Pro for $580.

And compared to ANC over-ear favorites like the Bose 700 ($380), Sony WH-1000XM4 ($280), and Surface Headphones 2 ($250) — all of which can be found for less now — $550 for AirPods Max really feels like an exorbitant price premium. Many of the more premium ANC headphone brands I mentioned earlier like Master & Dynamic, Bowers & Wilkins, and Bang & Olufsen also sell for less. Not half as much, but in the $400-500 range.

I will be the first to tell anyone that sound is one of the most underappreciated entertainment experiences and is worth paying for. Most people prioritize visual fidelity over audio quality. But in the case of the AirPods Max, I think Apple overshot. The industrial design team went too premium with the design of these headphones, which makes them less accessible the way AirPods wireless earbuds are. I wish they had gone beyond the competition on battery life and sound quality to justify the high price tag.

AirPods Max are a beautiful crown for your head — a way to show off.

There are rumors that Apple intended to also release a lower-priced version, kind of like the “sport” version to the stainless steel Apple Watch. Maybe the materials wouldn’t have been as nice, but I think “AirPods Max Sport/Lite” priced at $400 would kill. Beats’ Solo Pro ($350) and Studio 3 Wireless ($400) fill in the gap between $250 AirPods Pro and $550 AirPods Max, but they don’t have computational or spatial audio. So there’s clearly room for more affordable AirPods Max.

As they are, AirPods Max are a beautiful crown for your head — a way to show off you’ve got Apple’s priciest headphones. The sound quality is top-notch, but they’re too expensive for anyone but the biggest of Apple fans. There are too many equally good-sounding ANC headphones that cost less and fit as well (if not better).