theguardian– Apple’s first own-brand noise-cancelling headphones are heavy on the luxury and sound – but also on price.
The AirPods Max cost £549 and are the most expensive of Apple’s headphones line that includes the £159 AirPods, £249 AirPods Pro and sets from the Beats brand such as the £270 Solo Pro and £300 Studio 3 Wireless.
They share the AirPods name but the Max are a completely different beast, designed to beat the market leaders Bose and Sony in the premium noise-cancelling game.
Comfortable and airy but weighty
The Max are made of aluminium and stainless steel, which feel more luxurious than plastic but weigh 385g – 130g more than most rivals.
The weight is primarily in the ear cups, not the headband, which makes them well balanced on your head. Tilt your head forward or back and the ear cups will move a little but the mesh headband stays in place.
- Weight: 384.8g
- Drivers: 40mm
- Connectivity: 2x Apple H1 chip, Bluetooth 5.0, Lightning charging
- Bluetooth codecs: SBC, AAC
- Battery life: 20 hours ANC on
Connectivity and controls
The Max have Apple’s H1 chips in them, the same as the AirPods Pro, which means they have the same strong Bluetooth 5 connection supporting SBC and AAC audio formats, plus instant pairing and seamless, automatic switching between Apple devices. They also have the option of having voice assistant access using the “Hey, Siri” wake word and having Siri read messages to you as they come in. It all works very well.
Connectivity with other non-Apple devices was solid, but only Apple devices, such as an iPhone, can change settings and remotely control features such as the noise cancelling.
The top of the right ear cup has a button for toggling noise cancelling modes; press and hold it to put the headphones into pairing mode or continue hold to reboot them. There is also an enlarged digital crown jog-dial button, as previously seen on the Apple Watch, which you turn for volume and press once, twice or thrice for playback controls. Press and hold it to invoke Siri. Both buttons are top notch.
Oddly there is no power button. The headphones go into a standby state when taken off or put around your neck for a few minutes but only turn off when slipped into the case.
The Max produce the sort of fantastic sound you should expect, joining a rare bunch alongside the B&W PX7 and Sony WH-1000XM4 that sound so good you will be able to hear new elements in well-worn tracks.
Bass is powerful and tightly controlled: present when needed but not overpowering. Mids are precise and do not dominate, while highs sparkle with energy and clarity. Every tone is finely balanced but they are not flat, with a pleasing, full and well-judged sound that is good at any volume.
Grand orchestral scores delight with dynamic range and a wider sound than most. Subtle when needed, the Max can still highlight detail even in complex tracks such as The Who’s Baba O’Riley. They have plenty of punch in tracks such as Highly Suspicious by My Morning Jacket, aggression when needed in Dr Dre’s Next Episode and enough power to give a full rendition of the deep bass in Lindsey Stirling’s Crystallize. Miles Davis sounds particularly sumptuous and they can just as easily make the most out of high energy EDM as chilled-out downtempo.
Bass heads looking for thumping low-end in every track will need to look elsewhere – there’s no equaliser to crank up – while they could be a touch more raw in grunge tracks such as the classic Smells Like Teen Spirit.
Powerful movie sound
The Max are unique in that the film audio performance is a bit different from music. In standard stereo, they produce more low-end grunt for explosions while keeping the dialogue clearly audible.
But they also have a special spatial audio mode, which acts as surround sound but with just two speakers. This virtual surround sound is nothing new but how it works for the Max is novel. When fed a 5.1, 7.1 or Dolby Atmos sound track the Max use motion sensors to detect the position of your head in relation to the screen, creating a pretty convincing surround sound. You can turn your head but it will always sound like the dialogue is coming from the screen.
You also get properly implemented low-frequency effects, which would normally be produced by a subwoofer in a surround setup. While it is genuinely great, it is disappointing that it works only with the iPhone and iPad as they have the sensors required to make it work. It does not work with the Apple TV set-top box or any other audio source. And it works for only a handful of apps at the moment, including the Apple TV app (Apple TV+ and iTunes) and Disney+. Great for watching on a train or plane, but a soundtrack that good deserves to have the movie playing on the best and biggest screen in the house.
Top noise cancelling
The Max have active noise cancelling, which uses microphones to detect unwanted incoming sound and produces anti-sound to cancel it before it hits your eardrum. Apple’s noise cancelling is easily as good as the best in the business, handling road noise, drone, fans, the sounds of roaring boiler or extractor fan just as well as Bose, B&W or Sony.
They also have a class-leading transparency mode that lets you hear the world around you, almost as if you were not wearing the headphones. They do, however, bleed sound more than competitors with people sitting across the room able to work out what was happening in a movie soundtrack when cranked up loud.
Solid battery life
The Max last for about 20 hours with noise cancelling on or longer with it off, matching Bose’s NCH 700 but 10 hours short of the B&W PX7 or Sony WF-1000XM4. They lose 0.5% of battery an hour when left on standby out of their case.
It takes about two hours to fully recharge the Max using a 5W or greater USB power adaptor. A five-minute charge will provide up to 90 minutes playback. They come with a USB-C to Lightning cable but not a power adaptor and cannot charge any faster with higher-power adaptors.
Apple does not provide an expected lifespan for the battery in the AirPods Max, which is typically 500 full charge cycles while maintaining at least 80% capacity for cells in other headphones, but it is replaceable costing £75 and the headphones are generally repairable. Replacement ear cushions cost £75 in various colours.
The headphones are not made of recycled materials but are put together using renewable energy. Apple does not publish environmental impact reports for accessories such as headphones. The company offers trade-in and free recycling schemes, including for non-Apple products.
- Call quality is great – loud and clear on both ends of the call.
- When you take the headphones out of their case the metal sides clash before you rotate the ear cups.
The Apple AirPods Max cost £549 in the UK or $549 in the US and come a choice of five colours.
For comparison, the RRP for the AirPods is £159, the AirPods Pro cost £249, the Beats Solo Pro cost £269.95 and the Beats Studio 3 Wireless cost £299.95. The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 cost £349.95, the Bose QuietComfort 35 II cost £299.95, the Sony WH-1000XM4 cost £350, the B&W PX7 cost £349.99, the Master and Dynamic MW65 cost £449 and the B&O Beoplay H95 cost £700.
The Apple AirPods Max are big, expensive and flashy noise cancelling-headphones that manage to stand out in a crowded market. They sound fantastic with most genres of music, brilliant with movies including some fancy virtual surround tech, plus superb noise cancelling that matches the best in the business.
As with the firm’s earbuds, the new headphones have Apple-exclusive features, such as spatial audio, instant pairing and automatic switching. Plus seamless device switching, which also works with non-Apple gear.
They are also some of the most comfortable headphones I have worn, particularly over long listening sessions, despite being heavier than most.
But they cost £200 more than some exceedingly good headphones and I do not think they do much to justify the difference. You will also need to spend another £35 for the cable to use them with aeroplane entertainment systems. And the case/bra-thing is just weird, particularly because you need it to turn them off.
I would not recommend them for non-Apple users, but if you are looking to splash the cash on a luxury set of noise-cancelling headphones with exquisite audio, the AirPods Max deliver.