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Apple AirPods Max Review | PCMag

The AirPods Max are nothing if not aptly named. At $549, these are the most expensive noise-cancelling headphones we’ve tested in recent memory—by a wide margin. They’re also some of the most gorgeous headphones we’ve encountered, ever, with a design that’s reminiscent of a Herman Miller chair and a unique battery-preserving Smart Case that looks like a prop from 2001: A Space Odyssey. They’re even maxed out in the features department, with Adaptive EQ, spatial audio, and hands-free Siri access. That said, our current top picks in this category, the $399.95 Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 and the $349.99 Sony WH-1000XM4, cost significantly less.

The good news is that Apple’s headphones deliver high-quality active noise cancellation (ANC) that actually bests the Bose and Sony models in some circumstances. And sonically, the AirPods Max have a sculpted-but-balanced sound signature, with rich bass that’s met with well-defined mids and high-frequency clarity. For $550, however, this sound signature, with Adaptive EQ and plenty of digital signal processing in play, isn’t for purists seeking a transparent listening experience. And even though the AirPods Max are undeniably beautiful and deliver a fantastic user experience, it’s hard to justify a $150 to $200 price bump over their most worthy competition.

A Stunning Design

Available in very Cupertino color options (light green, pink, silver, sky blue, or space gray), the circumaural (over-ear) AirPods Max have large earcups with unadorned outer panels in anodized aluminum. The stainless steel headband has an eggshell-like finish and is designed like none we’ve ever seen—it features what Apple calls a “canopy” of knit mesh that makes contact with your head where headband cushioning usually would. This part, in particular, really looks like a detail from a Herman Miller office chair.

AirPods Max

The earpads are memory foam, lined with an attractive cloth, and while they might look a bit bulky, the fit is exceptionally comfortable. The headphones weigh 13.6 ounces, but they don’t feel heavy on your head, nor does the pressure from the earpads feel too powerful despite the pads forming a solid seal around your ear. With the Smart Case, the total packages weighs just over 1.1 pounds.

Internally, the AirPods Max employ 40mm dynamic drivers and a neodymium ring magnet motor that Apple claims allows the headphones to maintain total harmonic distortion of less than 1%. The drivers are covered in cloth grille, reminiscent of the quilted fabrics you see on stylish running shoes, with L or R stitched into the fabric in a classy design touch. Each earcup also houses an H1 chip, which allows for seamless iOS pairing and integration, as well as an accelerometer and a gyroscope. The headphones are compatible with Bluetooth 5.0, and support AAC and SBC Bluetooth codecs.

AirPods Max

Along the rounded side panels of the right earcup, there’s a Lightning connection for the included Lightning-to-USB-C charging cable. There’s no power adapter included, however, so you’ll either need to buy one or charge via a USB-C port. There’s also an LED status indicator along this panel, and both ear panels have various tiny slits for the nine included mics. (Yes, that’s a lot of mics—more on them in a bit.) 

Up top on the right earcup, there’s a button for switching between Noise Cancellation and Transparency modes; this button also handles manual Bluetooth pairing when held down. By default, the headphones toggle between ANC On and Transparency mode, but you can choose to add Off to these modes. Next to this button, there’s a control Apple calls the Digital Crown, a design element inspired by the side dial on the Apple Watch. It controls playback when pressed once, track forward when pressed twice, track backward when pressed three times, and Siri access when held down (Siri can also be accessed by voice). The dial itself operates volume and moves fluidly, but it takes some getting used to as it doesn’t protrude from the earcup very far.

The placement of these buttons is fine for operating the controls, but because of how the headphones use tension to adjust, your natural inclination is to pull down on the earcups from the top in order to loosen the fit slightly—something I found necessary to make room for my glasses. When doing this, it’s easy to accidentally press both control buttons, which can trigger any number of functions.

Smart Case

Apple estimates battery life for the AirPods Max to be roughly 20 hours, assuming a mix of ANC and audio playback. Ultimately, your results will vary with your ANC usage and your volume levels. When the headphones are stored in the included Smart Case, they enter an ultra-low battery consumption/sleep mode.

Speaking of the Smart Case, it sure looks cool, but it’s odd that it does very little to protect the headphones—plenty of the earcups’ side panels, and all of the headband (and potentially easy-to-tear canopy) are exposed. Nearly every competitor offers a more traditional case that may not look quite as cool, but does the job of protecting the headphones in a more thorough manner. The case’s rubberized surface is also a dust magnet—it would’ve been nicer (especially at this price) to see a material here that works less like a Swiffer, such as a smooth leather or a classy fabric.

AirPods Max

Pairing the AirPods Max

Like the AirPods and AirPods Pro, the AirPods Max will automatically appear on your iPhone or iPad screen, ready to pair, when powered up and placed nearby. Even if this only eliminates one step of the usual Bluetooth pairing process (going to the Bluetooth menu to pair manually), it’s always a cool way to get things started. You can also use the physical button mentioned above for manual pairing with non-Apple devices.

The settings menu—accessed by tapping on the AirPods Max in your Bluetooth menu when paired—has several useful functions. You can name the headphones here, adjust what the ANC button toggles between (ANC, Transparency, and Off—any two or all three can be selected), and adjust how the Digital Crown scrolls (back to front or front to back). You can also disable/enable Automatic Head detection (this automatically transfers audio from a connected to device to the headphones when they’re placed on your head), toggle spatial audio on or off, and access the Disconnect and Forget This Device options. The menu also has your serial number and model/version numbers.

AirPods Max

AirPods Max Noise Cancellation Performance

Once they’re up and running, the AirPods Max deliver excellent noise cancellation. When it comes to intense low-frequency rumble at high volumes, similar to that you’d hear on an airplane, the AirPods are actually slightly more effective than the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 and the Sony WH-1000XM4. In testing, the AirPods would sometimes seem to eliminate the rumble completely—an impressive feat we’ve never experienced before. Other times, they would simply perform as well as the Bose and Sony models—much depends upon getting just the right placement of the headphones on your head. A slight adjustment of the headband tension, resulting in a slightly different or tighter seal around my ear, was capable of improving the ANC noticeably.

That said, both the Bose and Sony models are better eliminating at higher frequencies, such as the loud chatter of a restaurant (simulated via recording because of social distancing restrictions). The AirPods Max struggle slightly on this front, taking out a solid swath of mids, but almost seeming to amplify the higher frequencies. Yes, it sounds crazy, but at times the higher frequencies sounded like they were coming through bright and clear, as if the headphones were in Transparency mode (they weren’t).

Blasting some bass-heavy mixes through near-field studio monitors gives the headphones another stress test—no ANC headphones will be able to eliminate these sounds, but it’s telling what parts of the frequency range they tamp down. On the Oneohtrix Point Never track “No Nightmares,” all three models do a respectable job dialing down the bass frequencies and lows. But again, the AirPods Max struggle a bit with the highs.

The headphones don’t seem to affect the sound signature when ANC is on or off, which is the way it should be, though many manufacturers get this wrong. There’s also barely any audible hiss added when ANC is enabled. Often, ANC will create a faint, white noise-like signal to help mask the higher frequencies it struggles to eliminate. There’s an ever-so-faint hiss here, which is common, and it’s quiet enough that you probably won’t notice it.

In Transparency mode, you can hear your surroundings clearly, without any semblance of slapback delay. Some ambient listening modes boost levels to increase the volume of your surroundings compared with how loud they actually are, but the AirPods Max seem to match the volume of your surroundings perfectly. If you run your fingers over the earcups while this mode is enabled, you’ll hear strange, sometimes surprising swishing sounds that can seem louder than everything else you’re hearing—there are so many mics, it’s easy to unintentionally drag a fingertip across one.

It’s worth noting that the AirPods seem to exert more noticeable pressure on your eardrums than the other two pairs. And, unlike the Bose or Sony models, you can’t adjust the ANC levels here—it’s either on or off.

AirPods Max

How Do the AirPods Max Sound?

The AirPods Max use what Apple calls Computational Audio. We call this digital signal processing (DSP), as does the rest of the industry. It hardly matters—computational audio and DSP both mean that the signal is being adjusted, digitally, to achieve various goals, namely to avoid distortion at higher volume levels by controlling bass levels and overall dynamics to keep bass response consistent at lower volume levels. DSP usually amounts to varying degrees of dynamic compression and EQ being applied to the signal depending on what volume level is being used, and, of course, what’s happening in the music—an electronic track with deep sub-bass will not likely receive the same treatment as a piano concerto at the same volume level. Translation: Audio purists will be annoyed by Computational Audio, but there will always be some DSP in the mix for Bluetooth headphones, and most headphone manufacturers apply quite a bit of it.

See How We Test Headphones

The AirPods Max also use what Apple calls Adaptive EQ, which is supposed to adjust the sound signature depending on how the headphones fit you personally to provide the best possible audio experience, factoring in obstacles like eyeglasses or earrings that may potentially result in a less secure fit. Between this and the DSP, these obviously aren’t headphones for audiophiles seeking a transparent critical listening experience, but ANC/wireless headphones are rarely aimed at audiophiles, as there’s always a lot of boosting and sculpting.

What’s missing here is user-adjustable EQ. Apple wants to tailor the sound for you and not give you the opportunity to tweak it to your own taste—at this price, Apple should be giving you more control, not less. Worse than not being able to adjust the EQ is not being able to disable the Adaptive EQ—there’s no way to hear any mix in a relatively pure form, so you’ll never know just how Adaptive EQ is altering things. It’s frustrating, but that said: These headphones sound pretty damn good.

On tracks with intense sub-bass content, like The Knife’s “Silent Shout,” the AirPods Max deliver powerful low-frequency response. At top, unwise listening levels, there’s no distortion, and at more modest levels, the lows still sound intense, but they’re always nicely matched by the higher frequencies.

Bill Callahan’s “Drover,” a track with far less deep bass in the mix, gives us a better sense of the general sound signature. The drums on this track sound full and round, almost thunderous, but they avoid veering into overly boosted, unnatural territory. Callahan’s baritone vocals get a pleasant low-mid richness and an ideal high-mid crispness to help maintain definition in the mix. The high-mids and highs bring out the acoustic strums and higher-register percussion with brightness and clarity. This is a sculpted sound signature, but balanced, with a lovely bass depth and ideal high-frequency clarity. 

On Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild,” the kick drum loop receives ideal high-mid presence, allowing its attack to retain its punchiness, while the vinyl crackle and hiss, typically relegated to background status in this mix, take a notable step forward. There is plenty of sculpting happening in the highs, but it’s generally in the name of clarity. The sub-bass synth hits that punctuate the beat are delivered with solid low-frequency depth—it doesn’t quite sound like there’s a subwoofer in your skull, but it shouldn’t. The lows are dutifully represented, and the drum loop gets a little more thump than usual, so there’s some bass boosting happening, but it’s refined. The vocals on this track are delivered with ideal clarity—if there’s any added sibilance, its just a smidge. This is a balanced, rich, bright sound signature.

Orchestral tracks, like the opening scene from John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary, get some ideal low-frequency presence—the lower-register instrumentation isn’t pushed too far forward in the mix here. The higher-register brass, strings, and vocals retain their crispness without sounding overly sculpted or bright—the spotlight is on them. This track probably sounds the most natural of the four mentioned here, and generally speaking, classical and jazz sound excellent through the AirPods Max. 

AirPods Max

Spatial Audio, Mic Performance, and Siri

Like the AirPods Pro, the AirPods Max support spatial audio, an immersive listening mode that works with video content encoded in 5.1, 7.1, and Dolby Atmos. Spatial audio itself is more or less an effect that tracks your head’s position in relation to your sound source. If you move your head to the right, the mix changes a bit, as if the audio is coming from the physical location of your phone or tablet. It’s undeniably cool, but it only works on material encoded with surround mixes. And to be clear, when you wear the AirPods Max and watch a movie, you will not be listening in real surround, nor does spatial audio create a surround-like experience. Still, it’s a welcome extra feature, if not a must-have one at the moment.

As mentioned, there are nine microphones built into the AirPods Max. Three are used for voice pickup, and eight are used for ANC.

The three-mic voice array offers solid intelligibility. Using the Voice Memos app on an iPhone 8, we could understand every word we recorded, but there was still some Bluetooth distortion fuzzing up the edges of words a bit. For such a formidable array of mics, the clarity isn’t the best we’ve heard—it’s closer to the middle of the pack. Still, callers should have no trouble understanding you on a clear connection.

There’s also hands-free Siri support (which can be disabled), and we had no problem communicating clearly with Apple’s voice assistant for playing music (you can simply say, “Hey Siri, play Radiohead on Apple Music”) or getting an accurate weather report.

AirPods Max

Are the AirPods Max Worth It?

There’s no other way to put it: The AirPods Max are a luxury item. To be clear, we’ve reviewed $1,000 headphones that are worth every penny, so we don’t have an issue with the price itself. There are many $500 to $600 audiophile-focused headphones that sound better than the AirPods Max, but there are none that offer the same range of features, including high-quality ANC, spatial audio, hands-free Siri, and a stunning design. For some, that will be enough to justify the very high price. We can say that if $550 doesn’t make your jaw drop, and you value the design and/or features here more than simply having the best audio for the price (without all the bells and whistles), the AirPods Max will not disappoint.

For everyone else, the $400 (but often on sale) Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones and the $350 Sony WH-1000XM4 offer comparable (and sometimes better) ANC and audio performance for much less money. The $400 Bowers & Wilkins PX7 headphones are also worth considering, for that matter. While Apple’s AirPods Max are certainly worthy rivals to each of these models, we simply can’t say that they’re worth $150 to $200 more. So depending on what you’re looking for, you might be better off spending far less on one of these models and picking up a pair or AirPods Pro to wear to the gym.

Pros

  • Excellent audio performance with rich lows and crisp, detailed highs

  • High-quality active noise cancellation, especially for low-frequency rumble

  • Stunning, unique design

  • Adaptive EQ and Spatial audio

  • Hands-free Siri access

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Cons

  • Expensive

  • Sound signature and Adaptive EQ/spatial audio aren’t for purists

  • No user-adjustable EQ

  • Button placement makes it easy to misfire when adjusting fit

  • Smart Case does little to protect the headphones

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The Bottom Line

Apple’s AirPods Max headphones deliver excellent audio performance, top-notch noise cancellation, and a bevy of useful features in an absolutely gorgeous design for a bit too much money.

Apple AirPods Max Specs

Type Circumaural (over-ear)
Wireless Yes
True Wireless No
Connection Type Bluetooth
Water/Sweat-Resistant No
Active Noise Cancellation Yes

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