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Review: Apple’s AirPods Max hit top notes for audio quality and noise-cancellation

The sound is excellent and they take spatial audio to the next level – but they are very, very pricey

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Apple’s AirPods Max in green. Photo: Adrian Weckler.

Apple’s AirPods Max in green. Photo: Adrian Weckler.

Apple’s AirPods Max in green. Photo: Adrian Weckler.

Rating: 4/5

PROS: excellent sound and noise-cancellation, great controls, spatial audio, replaceable ear cups, high build quality, comfortable

CONS: no certified water-resistance, relatively pricey, heavier than rivals, questionable case, no on-off button

I know, I know. €618.

But if you’re reading this review, I take it that you’re interested in more than just the pricing of Apple’s shiny new AirPods Max.

I take that interest seriously: this is one of the most in-depth reviews I’ve written this year.

I’ve been testing my green AirPods Max for almost a week, pairing them with iPhones, iPads, Macs and even non-Apple devices. I’ve put them head to head against the best of the rest, particularly the market-leading Sony 1000XM4 noise-cancelling headphones (which cost around €250 less).

The bottom line? From an audio and noise-cancelling perspective, they’re top of their field. Their use of spatial audio is almost unique among their peers, while their device-switching prowess is the smoothest and most frictionless I’ve ever experienced. They’re also beautifully constructed and somewhat future-proof, thanks to their removable earcups.

On the other hand, they’re far more expensive than what are assumed to be their rivals and their extra weight (and lack of IPX rating for water-resistance) means that they’re not really suited to exercise or outdoors use in a wet country like Ireland.

Here’s my full review.

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Apple’s AirPods Max in green. Photo: Adrian Weckler.

Apple’s AirPods Max in green. Photo: Adrian Weckler.

Apple’s AirPods Max in green. Photo: Adrian Weckler.

1. DESIGN AND COMFORT

As you’d expect from Apple, design is a central feature. They’re different from any other pair of noise-cancelling headphones on the market in a number of ways.

The actual over-ear cups themselves are housed in aluminium, eschewing the plastic that almost all of its rivals have. This has two effects: an impressive, premium aesthetic and extra weight.

The latter element creates a challenge for the overhead band — how can it avoid becoming slightly uncomfortable over long periods of time, if the earpieces are weighing more heavily on the band, creating a pinching effect? Apple has answered this with one of the quirkiest — but most practical — parts of this design; a mesh design between the spine of the band that distributes the weight across the top of the head. It works well.

The earcup cushions are made of memory foam and are quite comfortable. They’re designed to adjust to the shape of your ears, the better to seal gaps that might let external sound in.

Although there’s no IPX waterproof rating on the AirPods Max, the earcups feel fairly robust. Granted, I didn’t wear them outside in the rain, nor did I go running with them. (If you’re looking for fitness earphones, these won’t be top of your list.)

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Apple’s AirPods Max in green. Photo: Adrian Weckler.

Apple’s AirPods Max in green. Photo: Adrian Weckler.

Apple’s AirPods Max in green. Photo: Adrian Weckler.

2. AUDIO QUALITY

This is where a lot of headphones, despite whatever ingenuity or aesthetic they may otherwise possess, can shine or flail. And not unexpectedly, AirPods Max are at the top end of what you can buy in the market. A combination of custom-built 40mm drivers, computational audio and powerful Apple H1 chips in each individual headphone cup deliver mightily impressive audio quality. Overall, after lots of comparison testing, I’d say they’re slightly better than the Sony XM4 headphones, the market leader up to now (though also €250 cheaper).

Apple has resisted the temptation to lean heavily on bass tones for the sake of it, while still pulling off a deep, rich sound. Here again, I compared them against Sony’s XM4, which prefers to load up its earcups with buckets of bass. Overall, the Apple headphones have slightly better balance, with a little more detail. But to be clear, it’s quite close.

Maybe one of the most impressive elements is the relative lack of distortion at high volumes – I cranked it up to its 94-decibel maximum and cycled through a few tracks, ranging from pop, rock and classical to R&B. There was almost no falling off.

(I should say that this isn’t recommended by medical experts – 85 decibels is generally the level at which professionals say it’s safe to listen without risking damage to your hearing.)

Does this marginal audio superiority mean that they’re worth €250 more than the Sony? In pure audio terms, maybe not. But I’m not sure that most people will be deciding purely on audio grounds. If they were, I don’t think that Apple would have focused as much (and spent as much) on some of the other features.

On that point, it’s worth saying that AirPods Max are not hard core audiophile headphones. One giveaway is the lack of a 3.5mm headphone port. You can use the (Lightning) power port to connect to a wired music source if you have the right adapter (Apple doesn’t include one in the box), and this will connect you to slightly higher-resolution audio sources from the likes of Tidal or Amazon Music. But if you’re the kind of person who’s really into their bit rates, you’ll already know that these aren’t made specifically for you. They’re made for the 99pc of the rest of us who want relatively high quality audio without becoming nerdish about it – we settle for the sound equivalent of 4K HDR, rather than the 8K and gold cabling that dedicated enthusiasts like to argue about.

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Apple’s AirPods Max in green with Smart Case. Photo: Adrian Weckler.

Apple’s AirPods Max in green with Smart Case. Photo: Adrian Weckler.

Apple’s AirPods Max in green with Smart Case. Photo: Adrian Weckler.

3. NOISE CANCELLATION

On noise cancellation, AirPods Max are superb. They’re easily up there with the Sony XM4, which were the best on the market in this regard.

They have way more microphones than any rival headphones which are bent to this purpose – eight in total. (A ninth microphone caters exclusively for voice pick-up.)

The AirPods Max allow you to switch modes between noise-cancellation and ‘transparency’ – which uses the external microphones to let you hear what’s going on around you, in case you’re in a shop or need to be aware of your surroundings for some other reason.

4. CALL QUALITY

Another area where the AirPods Max just about beat other headphones I’ve tested is for microphone quality when making and taking calls. The audio signal that the other person gets from the microphone on your AirPods Max is a little clearer and better defined than that on my Sony (it’s about par with Microsoft Surface headphones).

Does this mean they’re the new perfect Zoom call companion? Personally, I think buds are a better fit here, although only for aesthetic reasons. (Headphones on a video call make you look a little like a gamer, engineer or call centre operator, though this is a personal view.)

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Apple’s AirPods Max in green with Smart Case. Photo: Adrian Weckler.

Apple’s AirPods Max in green with Smart Case. Photo: Adrian Weckler.

Apple’s AirPods Max in green with Smart Case. Photo: Adrian Weckler.

5. MUSIC AND CALL CONTROLS

There are no touch controls on the side of the ear cups. While this goes against the grain of most modern consumer noise cancelling headphones, it actually has some big advantages. By some distance, the feature that irritates me most about otherwise excellent headphones such as Sony’s XM4 is the mistaken miss-taps that interrupt the flow of my listening, either by forwarding a song or switching listening modes. It’s compounded by forcing users to swipe up or down to control volume. While this is clever in theory, touch controls on external headphone surfaces are nowhere near as accurate or reliable as on a smartphone – it’s too often a lottery whether your swipe will be acknowledged first time.

So overall, I love that the AirPods Max have avoided this altogether.

Instead, Apple has borrowed a piece of tech from one of its other anchor gadgets – the Watch. The AirPods Max have a clickable, rotating ‘crown’ dial on them that controls things like volume and calls. It’s a clever cross-fertilisation of Apple tech from one product to another and it works really well. You can even choose which direction you want the crown’s scrolling action to work in the controls section on your iPhone.

6. SMART SWITCHING (AND ANDROID)

One of the small features that will endear itself to users over time is the AirPods Max’s smart switching ability. If you use a Mac or iPad as well as your iPhone, your AirPods Max will recognise these devices and immediately switch to them if you want to play something on them. It works really well and is the kind of thing that is an irritant on other headphones, where you usually need to at least go into the device’s settings and manually pick the headphones to pair to.

Speaking of connections, the AirPods Max do pair with Android devices (just as regular AirPods do), although you won’t get the full array of smart features.

7. SMART CASE AND BATTERY LIFE

The headphones come with a carrying case, which Apple calls a Smart Case. It’s been getting a bit of slagging on social media for its looks. Its actual smart functionality is somewhat limited – it essentially turns the headphones off when it houses them, through magnetic detection.

The AirPods Max don’t have any on-off button, meaning they’re supposed to be put into the case to preserve power. At first, there was a suggestion that if you didn’t put them back in the Smart Case, they’d drain battery as if you were listening to them. Apple has since clarified that they actually go into a low power mode after five minutes of disuse, even if they’re not back inside the case. After a couple of hours, they then trigger the ultra-low power mode replicated in the Smart Case, which will see them hold battery life for months without a charge.

In my testing, the headphones don’t lose much battery life when left idly out of the case. I left them overnight in this state a couple of times and they decreased by no more than four or five percent – not much more than what I’d expect them to decrease by even if you could switch them off. (This does raise the question of whether you need the Smart Case at all: through the week, I started to use it less and less, once I realised that it's not crucial to preserve battery life.)

Overall, I’m averaging between 15 and 20 hours of use between charges. This is decent, though a little behind one or two rivals. I’m not sure whether that’s because the physical battery in the headphones is smaller than others (as is often the case in Apple products), or that there’s simply more componentry (like extra chips and microphones) to power.

By the way, these headphones don’t work in a passive mode from a laptop or phone as far as I can tell. In other words, when the battery is out, the headphones die and there’s no way to use them until you get some charge back in the unit.

8. SPATIAL AUDIO: A KILLER FEATURE

So far in this review, AirPods Max have equalled or edged rivals on some features while lagging on others (such as IPX rating). But do AirPods Max have one uncontested, standout advantage over rival headphones? Yes: so-called ‘spatial audio’ for watching movies and TV shows on platforms that support it, like Disney+.

Spatial audio is like listening to a personalised version of enhanced surround sound. When a gun fires from someone’s hand on the left side of the screen, the audio you hear matches the apparent positioning (on your left) perfectly. Left to right, top to bottom, even back to front. You feel like you’re immersed in the sound, rather than just listening to a stereo version of it.

Watch the first few minutes of the final episode of the Mandalorian to see what I mean – it’s visually and aurally operatic, with an enhanced introductory score and high-end audio effects from spaceships and blasters.

When I was testing AirPods Max against other popular high-end models (such Sony’s XM4 and Microsoft’s Surface headphones), this was the feature that returned the biggest distinction between them.

So now I understand what Apple has been going on about with its interest in spatial audio.

Yes, anyone with a pair of AirPods Pro will already be familiar with the notion. But I think that AirPods Max do a better job.

To be clear, this is only really a thing when you’re watching something on an iPad or an iPhone (Apple TV doesn’t yet support it). And it needs to be supported by the video source (Disney+ and Apple TV+ supports it, but neither Netflix nor Amazon Prime Video do just yet.)

But that’s quite a lot of watching scenarios for quite a lot of people. It’s easy to imagine a time in the (hopefully) not too distant future when we’re back on planes and trains. Many of us will be watching TV episodes on iPads or iPhones. This is where the AirPods Max absolutely shine.

9. EARCUP REMOVAL

Another interesting move is the ability to remove the (magnetically attached) ear cup cushions themselves. This is a feature that could substantially lengthen the life of the AirPods Max for a typical user, as it’s often the ear cushions that degrade quickest, forcing you to junk an otherwise decent, working pair of headphones.

(Naturally, Apple will sell you replacement ear cushions for €78 per pair. You can also mix and match colours.)

10. CONCLUSION: 'DO I NEED THESE?'

I want to take a minute to look at a question that a lot of non-technical people will ask. It’s this: do you need to get these headphones if you want to keep up with the modern standard in high-performing wireless, noise-cancelling headphones?

The answer is... no. But I want to address why this isn’t a stupid question, and why anyone who scoffs at you for asking it is a bit of an idiot themselves.

More often than not, Apple introduces products that go on to define the industry standard. The company has had a staggering amount of genre-defining hits over the last two decades – iPod, MacBook Air, iPhone, iPad, Watch and AirPods.

So a logical question that many ordinary people – as opposed to the cynics, smug technorati and Twitter know-it-alls – will have is whether the same dynamic is at play with AirPods Max.

Another way of putting it is, ‘will I probably end up getting a pair of these in time?’.

My answer to this, again, is that AirPods Max don’t quite set a new standard in the seismic way that the above-mentioned products did. They’re just really nice, really high-quality headphones.

But that is going to be enough for a lot of people. Because they are really nice and really high quality.

AirPods Max come in green, blue, pink, silver or space grey.


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