Anton D. Nagy contributed to this post.
I don’t even know how to say this politely, so I’ll just start from the beginning. Apple’s AirPods Max is the most frustrating piece of hardware that I’ve ever wanted to almost love… There, I got it off my chest.
Let me explain: I travel a lot, 150,000 miles a year kind of a lot. It’s been the story of my life since I was 3, and for the past 20 years, it’s a sort of requirement I’ve set before taking any job. I’ve always been kind of like that George Clooney character in Up In The Air, where I only buy toiletries in small packages, I spend insane amounts of money on specific kinds of luggage just because they’re easier to drag, and I use Peak Design bags and tripods almost exclusively because of the amount of thought that’s put into making them compact.
Point is, I value ergonomics, practicality, and thoughtfulness before buying any product, and I’m willing to spend more on it. Obviously, with this pandemic, we all had to take a break from travel, but it’s the main reason I felt the only way to finalize the review of these Max correctly, was to wait until I could fly again with them. The sound should be one of the most important reasons for you to buy a pair of headphones, but for anyone willing to spend so much money, it’s not everything.
Thoughtfulness, as a noun, is the consideration for the needs of other people. Let’s be real, Apple hasn’t always been famous for this. Remember the excessive obsession over thin and light at the expense of battery life? Remember the only two USB ports stuck so next to each other that one was pretty much useless on the old MacBooks. Or fine, just one USB-C port for everything on the MacBook? Sure, this is the company that put a thousand songs in your pocket, but it also killed the headphone jack against user feedback.
So, AirPods Max. Let me start with basic a disclaimer. This is not an audiophile review, and I’m sure the Internet is full of them. I even battle with the idea of such an analysis for wireless headphones. At the moment, Bluetooth hasn’t really reached what most would consider as High Fidelity territory, even if Apple disputes it in their marketing. You either choose the convenience of a wireless connection at the expense of quality or the other way around at the expense of money, cause yeah, it can get thousands of dollars more expensive.
That said, for Bluetooth, the AirPods Max is NOT at all affordable. At this price, *any* pair of headphones should sound amazing, and these do but bear with me. Let me begin with the things I like before you get the impression that this is a bashing piece. What we have here is a different approach through computational audio, where the H1 chip detects everything from the music you hear to the fit in your ears in order to balance the EQ dynamically, and I can tell. I actually do appreciate the aluminum design, but for reasons that contradict the purpose.
I seriously think Apple chose the materials more to boost the audio experience than the build quality. See, probably what I like most about these headphones, is that I’ve never heard a broader soundstage from Bluetooth Headphones. I’m talking instrument separation, and crisp bass, if there is such a thing. I’m trying to find a word to describe how I can actually feel it without providing any sort of distortion. The aluminum actually seems to contribute to creating this sort of rumble all around that I can’t say I’ve experienced before.
Now, disclaimer number 2. I have no scientific way to prove this, but I’ve only experienced this soundstage on Apple Music. Yes, I know this is the same exact AAC codec that Spotify uses, which I also download at maximum quality. Thing is, for whatever reason that should seriously be obvious, Instrument separation and audio quality on Spotify is good, but I consider it better on Apple Music.
I say obvious because this is a very Apple thing to do. If you want to take maximum advantage of what these headphones can do, you have to be in their ecosystem. Pair them to one, and then they’re smart enough to switch between the rest of your Apple devices. Spatial Audio capabilities exist depending on the content supporting it, and all you have to do is say Hey Siri to get them to play whatever music you want… on Apple Music, of course. The concept of having this Apple Watch-style digital crown for audio and music playback is a smarter approach to capacitive controls, but I think my favorite feature is the button next to it.
AirPods Max noise cancelation
See, Noise cancelation on these headphones isn’t just great, but different. The biggest problem with most other offerings is the sort of suction they produce, which can make anyone feel uneasy for an extended period of time. By contrast, the choice in hardware and materials help these balance out the feel so well that you’ll notice the noise dissipate without added discomfort.
That said, what I like about these AirPods Max most is their Ambient Mode. Like on AirPods Pro, these headphones can also balance the inner feal and outside noise so well that you can barely tell you’re covering your ears, which is quite convenient in cold New York winters, even if it throws people off because they think you can’t hear them. Match this with a pretty good set of microphones, and yes, I have no problem recommending them for phone calls.
I also appreciate the mesh used in the earcups, which does a far better job at not making your head sweat than the faux leather on other offerings. The fact that they’re easily replaceable guarantees they’ll look good for longer.
The not so good
So yes, they sound great, they cancel noise or invite it better than most. So, what’s wrong? Well, I wish that the same amount of thought that was put into their audio experience was ported to the practicality of their design. This is the company that forced every competitor to make smaller cases for their earbuds, and yet somehow failed at it here.
First, they’re large, which is fine while you’re wearing them, it comes with the territory, but the problem is when you don’t. They don’t collapse in any way, which makes carrying them an exercise in frustration. People make fun of the case, I don’t since it barely adds to the footprint. The problem is that it makes you flip the muffs sideways, which only makes them even less compact, which then leads to the problem that if they don’t fit in your bag you’ll do what I do and carry them on the side, which is then more of a problem since they’re not water-resistant nor protected by the case, which means. Figure out how to make them fit, or just don’t take them off, or just don’t travel with the damn things at all.
Second, don’t carry them in this extended position or let alone drop them without the case. As it is, the aluminum finish collides with itself, meaning you’ll end up scratching them quicker than you think, which is more visible on every color except silver.
The third is that if you have a large head as I do, you’re not gonna like to wear them for extended periods of time. They’re heavier than average, and really the light canopy at the top seems to just serve as a way to join them together as the stainless steel bar mechanism is really what’s clamping them to your head. As a result, that continuous force you’re receiving can make wearing anything else on your face uncomfortable, whether it’s eyeglasses depending on how thick they are, but I even feel this way about face masks. And then you’d think the solution for that is to take them off and carry them around your neck every now and then, but since the stems aren’t long, the force of that clamping mechanism on your neck is also uncomfortable. I know! It’s like if your head doesn’t get a break unless you fully take them off, and we already know carrying them is a nightmare.
Last but not least, there’s Lightning. Like, what year is this? This is a cable that Apple has been phasing out. I charge my Mac and iPad with USB-C and my iPhone and AirPods Pro through MagSafe. Now I have to carry an extra cable because there’s also the problem that there’s no way to turn these off without the case. The 20 hours of battery life is quite accurate if you keep in mind that at least a little power is constantly drained by them, meaning a week-long trip might require you to charge them once or twice. But then my other problem is the need for Apple’s expensive lightning to headphone jack cable if I’m editing a video. Sadly even with all the advancements on these Max, you will jump into the eventual latency issues on Final Cut Pro that every other headphone brings unless you use a wire. So yeah, two cables to carry, and a carrying case that can’t fit them.
AirPods Max: conclusion
To conclude, I think you know where I’m going with this review. Apple’s AirPods Max are the best sounding pair of Bluetooth headphones that I’ve ever used, so long as I’m using Apple Music, or if I’m listening to Spatial Audio from content that supports it, only on an iPhone or iPad, so long as I’m not having to carry them anywhere.
This makes, and doesn’t make sense. At this price, we want amazing audio without compromise in basics like how to carry them around. This only reminds me of how much I hated the first AirPods, but for opposite reasons. Those were great for calls, and carrying them was effortless, but the fit was so bad that it made the audio quality forgettable. We needed AirPods Pro to fix the fit problem in order for the entire experience of using them to be worth the money.
Same problem here. The AirPods Max is clearly a fantastic idea that suffers from the curse of a first-generation product. Unless your bag has enough space, I struggle to recommend them for a frequent traveler, or who wants them for the daily commute on the train. The weight and lack of an IP rating also mean they’re not for fitness. Really I’d call these more a good pair of headphones for the couch, which kind of defeats the purpose of their wireless connection or longevity.
If you’re looking for amazing sound quality from a pair of Bluetooth headphones and the price is not a problem, then sure, buy the AirPods Max. But know what you’re in for. If your plan is to use these to replace all the convenience of say, a pair of Bose QC35s, or 700s, the Sony Mark Fours, or the Jabra Elite 85H which are my favorite, you might want to wait for generation 2. All of them sound great, cost a lot less, and can collapse into something smaller when you’re done. You know, logical things can only be achieved when thoughtful design considers that audio is just part of the experience.