AirPods Max Review: Premium Price for a Premium Experience

Rating: 8/10 ?
  • 1 - Absolute Hot Garbage
  • 2 - Sorta Lukewarm Garbage
  • 3 - Strongly Flawed Design
  • 4 - Some Pros, Lots Of Cons
  • 5 - Acceptably Imperfect
  • 6 - Good Enough to Buy On Sale
  • 7 - Great, But Not Best-In-Class
  • 8 - Fantastic, with Some Footnotes
  • 9 - Shut Up And Take My Money
  • 10 - Absolute Design Nirvana
Price: $549
AirPods Max with Smart Case standing on a rock
Peter Cao

As an “audiophile” the AirPods Max intrigued me. They’re priced a bit high for a set of consumer headphones, and as most audiophiles know, active noise cancelation (ANC) degrades sound quality in one way or another. With this review, I set out to find out if the AirPods Max sound notably better than other popular ANC headphones on the market, most of which are much lower in price.

Here's What We Like

  • Class-leading ANC performance
  • Great, almost-balanced sound
  • Superb comfort and premium design
  • Physical buttons for ANC and media control
  • Near-infinite headband adjustment

And What We Don't

  • Lightning for charging and wired audio
  • Worse battery life than other ANC headphones
  • Smart Case offers almost zero protection

Many would think that the AirPods Max’s competitors would be headphones such as the Sony WH-1000XM4 or the Bose Noise Canceling 700. And that makes sense, as most consumers aren’t willing to pay a premium for headphones.

But the reality is that the AirPods Max are priced much too high to realistically compete with any of the aforementioned headphones. In reality, the AirPods Max’s one true competitor is Bang & Olufsen’s H95, which are priced $250 more expensive than the AirPods Max at retail price. I’ve tried the H95, and honestly, when it comes to sound quality, it’s really close. At that point, you’re looking at which one is more comfortable for you or what features one has over the other.

But I’m going to be honest. When I first picked up the AirPods Max on launch day, I expected to test them, review them, and return them. I was thinking, “No way do the AirPods Max justify its price point.” And after two months with them, I’m pleasantly surprised. The AirPods Max exceeded my expectations not only when it comes to sound quality, but in almost every other category as well. Let me explain.

Designed Well and Incredibly Comfortable

AirPods Max on a table displaying ANC and Digital Crown buttons
Peter Cao

I’ll try to keep this part simple and to the point. The AirPods Max are very comfortable for my head.  I had some discomfort when I first used them from the clamping force, but that went away after the first day or so of use. After that acclimation period, I had a chance to travel with them and had them on my head for 12 hours straight with no issues when it came to comfort.

The AirPods Max are heavier than most other ANC headphones on the market, but they aren’t that heavy, especially when compared to wired headphones. Most of the weight can be chalked up to the stainless steel headband and aluminum ear cups. If you’ve worn wired headphones in the past, the AirPods Max will feel no different.

The headband is an interesting design choice. I have the green model, which means I have the minty green/off white headband. I haven’t run into any staining or discoloring issues with the headband. It’s made out of a mesh material, which is surprisingly comfortable. I hardly feel the headband on my head at all.

The earpads are made out of what appears to be the same mesh fabric found on Apple’s HomePod smart speakers. The pads are both large and extend deep, which means those with big ears (like me) won’t have an issue with the drivers or pads touching your ears.

Most Bluetooth (and ANC) headphones are uncomfortable on my head, so I was pleasantly surprised to see no comfort issues with the AirPods Max. Usually, with other ANC headphones, I’d start to feel discomfort around the crown of my head (despite the lighter weight of most other ANC headphones) after 30 minutes to an hour of use.

For headband adjustment, Apple uses what it calls a “telescoping arm.” It’s one of those things that makes you think, “Why change this when what we have works perfectly fine? ” Fortunately, the stainless steel arm allows for very fine and precise adjustments. There’s a good amount of resistance and the arm feels super sturdy, so they won’t get readjusted if you slightly bump the headband.

Speaking of precise adjustments, the AirPods Max feature actual buttons for ANC and media controls. Placed on the right ear cup, the dedicated ANC button lets you toggle between ANC and transparency mode. Right behind it is what appears to be a supersized Apple Watch digital crown. Here, you can single-press the button to play/pause/answer or hang up a call, double-press to skip forward a track, triple-tap to go back, press and hold for Siri, and spin the dial to adjust the volume.

The AirPods Max easily trump any set of headphones that use touch controls that are often finicky and unreliable. Oh, and unlike most other headphones I’ve tested, you can simultaneously tap the ANC and Digital Crown buttons to pause and enter transparency mode and vice versa in one go. Usually, you’ll have to press one after the other, otherwise it flat out won’t work.

The (Dumb) Smart Case

AirPods Max Smart Case
Peter Cao

The AirPods Max’s Smart Case is both the most unique and dumbest headphone case I’ve used. First and foremost, calling it a “case” is a stretch. The headband is fully exposed, and there are odd slits all over that expose the aluminum exterior. It seems Apple intended you to carry the headphones by the headband, but in reality, most want a robust and sturdy case for travel.

The Smart Case is also the only way to “turn off” the headphones. They go into an ultra-low power state when in the case that helps prevent battery drainage. However, I have been hit by the battery draining issue so many people have been seeing where the AirPods Max are draining even while in the case.

The one upside with the case is that it does help allow the headphones to stand up on their own. So, there’s that.

ANC & Transparency Performance

AirPods Max hanging on a tree
Peter Cao

ANC performance is another area where the AirPods Max shine. Compared to the previous ANC King—the Sony WH-1000XM4—the AirPods Max easily perform 20-25% better, at least according to my ears. The biggest differentiator between the two is the AirPods Max are able to block out inconsistent noise such as talking more effectively.

Where the AirPods Max completely blow every other set of headphones out of the water is in their transparency mode. You almost forget you have the headphones on your head. Combine that with a transparency mode that not only sounds very natural but three dimensional as well. It’s one of those things you’ll have to try for yourself.

For comparison, the AirPods Pro’s transparency mode is really good, but lacks any sort of depth. But with AirPods Max, there’s a sense of distance and soundstage. This is likely thanks to the nine microphones on board, eight of which are used for ANC and transparency (and three for voice; two of which are shared).

Not surprising though, as the AirPods Pro already had one of the best transparency modes out there. The AirPods Max simply cranks it up to 11.

So-So Battery Life

AirPods Max laying on a table
Peter Cao

Apple claims 20 hours of battery life between charges with ANC or transparency mode turned on. For the price, this is pretty disappointing as many other ANC headphones (most priced much lower) have 30-40 hours before needing to juice up again.

Fortunately, in my experience, I’ve been able to squeeze closer to 24-25 hours. Still not the best out there, but the extra few hours make them above-average. And, unlike the Sony XM4s, you’ll be able to charge and listen to your AirPods Max via Bluetooth simultaneously. There’s no USB audio, which is pretty disappointing for those wanting to have high-res, low-latency audio while charging. But I’ll take that over not being able to use them at all while juicing up.

The AirPods Max charge over—sigh—Lightning. But to be fair, the logic makes sense. If you own an iPhone, it charges over Lightning. All other AirPods in the lineup charge over Lightning. It’s fine for most people.

But for me, I’ve switched over to wireless charging on both my iPhone and AirPods Pro. If you’ve done the same, that means you’re now carrying a Lightning cable just for your headphones. It’s not a dealbreaker but is definitely annoying.

Sound Quality

Sound quality will be split into two parts: tonality/frequency response and technicalities. The following will be my subjective opinions. If you’d like objective tests and graphs, check them out at Crinacle and RTINGS.

Tonality/Frequency Response

Peter wearing AirPods Max
Peter Cao

For most consumers who’ve only had ANC headphones like the Sony XM4 or Bose QC35, tonality is likely what you care about. Frequency response (or tonality) represents how the headphones sound.

I’m happy to report that the AirPods Max are mostly balanced here. There’s a small sub-bass boost, giving the AirPods Max a bit of thump, rumble, and warmth. In terms of treble, there’s a dip somewhere in the lower treble region, making vocals sound a bit dull. But, it does pick back up in the later ranges and gives the AirPods Max quite a bit of detail in the treble overall. The AirPods Max seem to follow the Harman frequency curve pretty closely. This is especially true in the midrange, which appears to be balanced throughout the range.

The AirPods Max join a small group of ANC headphones out there that sound fairly balanced. But that’s not all that surprising. The AirPods Pro also follow the Harman curve pretty closely as well and make a few small adjustments to make the sound more enjoyable for the average consumer.

When it comes to equalization (EQ), the AirPods Max are pretty limited. You get a few accessibility options on your iPhone or iPad that let you set them to “Balanced Tone,” “Vocals,” or “Brightness.” It’s all generic and you don’t have access to a graphic or parametric EQ here. Though, you can always wire them into your computer and EQ them via a third-party app. Just note that the EQ doesn’t stick on the headphone end, so you’ll have to enable it on every device you connect to (which is only available on iPhone and iPad via the device’s accessibility settings).

Technicalities

In terms of technicalities, the AirPods Max are okay. Their soundstage is wide for a set of closed-back headphones. This is mostly due to the large and deep ear cups, allowing for a more spacious sound overall. The AirPods Max aren’t analytically detailed, but they are pretty good. Good enough for the average listener to pick up details they’ve never heard before, but not too detailed where they can be fatiguing to listen to after a period of time.

Imaging is a bit odd. Compared to various other headphones, the AirPods Max sound … off. Certain instruments aren’t being placed where I’d expect. More quiet sounds can get lost and blend into the rest of the mix if things get really busy, which is disappointing.

Technicalities aren’t as important for a set of ANC headphones, especially when you’re using it in a busy city street, loud plane, or in a coffee shop. The noise floor is too loud to pick up subtle details anyways.

They Sound Great Wired, Too

Lightning to 3.5mm cable

The AirPods Max lack a proper headphone jack. In fact, the only connector on them is Lightning. This means you’ll have to shell out $35 for Apple’s Lightning to 3.5mm cable. No, you can’t buy a third-party one on Amazon (yet) as you’ll need a cable with an Analog to Digital converter (ADC). Your $9 Lightning to 3.5mm adapter won’t work either because it only has a Digital to Analog converter (DAC).

In laymen’s terms, this means that your typical Lightning to 3.5mm adapter converts the digital signal from your phone to an analog signal something like a pair of speakers can understand. Apple’s special cable does that in addition to converting the analog signal coming from your computer’s audio jack back into a digital signal that the AirPods Max’s Lightning connector can understand (it’s bi-directional).

Stupid cabling and port decisions aside, the wire is worth it if you’re looking for the best sound possible and lower latency. It’s not zero latency as the onboard amplifier and DAC are still working and that adds some latency, but that isn’t noticeable. I wasn’t able to notice a delay while working with Logic Pro on my Mac mini.

The AirPods Max also sound notably better when wired, which is to be expected. I had a handful of people blind test wired versus Bluetooth, and they all noticed a difference in 9 out of 10 tracks I had them test. The source material was Qobuz running directly from a Mac mini.

What’s even more interesting is that when I plugged them into my desktop headphone amplifier/DAC and was able to get them to play much louder than they are capable of over Bluetooth or directly into the Mac mini without any distortion. I did manage to get them to distort when I turned them up louder than any human would ever want to reasonably listen to. With that said, outside of volume there was virtually no difference between using the amp versus my Mac mini’s internal headphone port.

Extra Features

As with other AirPods in the lineup, the AirPods Max feature one-tap all of your Apple devices. Simply take the AirPods Max out of their Smart Case and bring them near your iPhone or iPad. From there, tap “Connect” and your AirPods Max will automagically pair to all of your Apple devices associated with your Apple ID. You’ll get other AirPods features such as automatic play and pause, which work exceptionally well. Just lift either ear cup and music will pause, release, and it’ll start playing. Put the headphones on and they automatically turn on and pair, take them off and they pause.

Spatial Audio offers a surround sound-like experience with your headphones. You’ll need an iPhone or iPad for it to work (no Mac or Apple TV) running iOS or iPadOS 14.3 or later. It’s a cool party trick and it does what you’d expect. Your iPhone or iPad is the anchor, and the audio moves as you move your head, similar to being at a movie theater. The surround sound effect is fantastic given its two-speaker limitation but don’t go out and pick up the AirPods Max just for the feature.

Conclusion

AirPods Max standing up right on a table
Peter Cao

The AirPods Max are a great set of headphones with a few questionable choices, which may be dealbreakers for some. For me, the higher cost is worth it due to the way they fit on my head and the comfort alone. The superb build quality and ANC capabilities may be a reason you pick them up versus their competitors. Of course, if you are deep in the Apple ecosystem, and are looking for a set of over-ear ANC headphones, the AirPods Max are a no-brainer.

The AirPods Max continue to be fairly difficult to find and there’s a clear demand for them despite their premium price tag. With that said, their price tag will be the biggest reason a lot of people won’t pick up a set of AirPods Max, period. If you’re in that group, Sony’s WH-1000XM4 offers great ANC performance, longer battery life, and a lightweight, comfortable design for $200 less.

Rating: 8/10
Price: $549

Here’s What We Like

  • Class-leading ANC performance
  • Great, almost-balanced sound
  • Superb comfort and premium design
  • Physical buttons for ANC and media control
  • Near-infinite headband adjustment

And What We Don't

  • Lightning for charging and wired audio
  • Worse battery life than other ANC headphones
  • Smart Case offers almost zero protection

Peter Cao Peter Cao
Peter is a freelance writer for Review Geek. He started out 7 years ago writing about jailbreaking the iPhone and that evolved into writing about general Apple. And now? He’s just writing about tech. He’s written for several major online publications in the past and has written several thousand news and reviews articles over the years. Read Full Bio »

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