Right from Apple’s $3 billion purchase of Beats in 2014, the company, alongside increasingly less amused Beats executives, has had to put up with repeated questions on when it was going to release some proper, serious Apple headphones. Then the success of AirPods only fuelled speculation that an over-ear set of cans had to be coming.
Finally, all guessing ended in September last year as Jon Prosser leaked images of the then unannounced AirPods Max headphones. By the time Apple unveiled AirPods Max in December, the only thing remaining a genuine surprise was the price: an exceedingly punchy £549.
Apple sent out review units that same month, and many instantly proclaimed the AirPods Max a hit. But considering these are a full £200 more than the competitor Sony, B&W or Bose headphones, we wanted to be sure the Maxes were worth the extra outlay. So we’ve been using them for a whole month, and this is the final verdict.
Who’s it for
The glib answer would be people with more money than sense. But it’s more complicated than that. AirPods Max are aimed squarely at Apple devotees – of which there are millions – who simply could not bear to be seen with a pair of Beats headphones, even though Beats are superb. No, these people want a grown-up pair of headphones, proper Apple-designed headphones. Well, here they are in all their glory. Yours for half a grand and change.
They are also not aimed at true audiophiles. Why? Because audiophiles are aware of models like Focal’s Stellia and HiFiMan Ananda Wireless or the third generation of Beyerdynamic’s T1, and are willing to pay another few hundred quid, or thousands more, for genuinely astonishing sound reproduction. They are not concerned one bit if the hardware was designed in California. In fact, they’d likely prefer it was designed in Germany.
So will AirPods Max significantly cut into the market share of other high-end noise-cancelling over-ears from the likes of Sony and Bose? I doubt it. Will they bother the genuinely high-end market? No. With AirPods Max, Apple also isn’t cannibalising its own AirPods and AirPods Pro models. There are times when buds are better than over-ear, and vice versa. I’d love to know the proportion of those wanting a pair of AirPods Max headphones also owning AirPods Pros. I’d wager you £549 it’s high.
No one can doubt the quality of materials used here. You have a stainless steel headband frame; ear cups hewn from a single piece of aluminium that is then machined, textured and anodised; magnetic removable memory foam cushions; telescoping arms that pull out with just the right amount of resistance; and a headband ‘open knit mesh canopy’ that is ingeniously designed to distribute weight (which it does).
Power is managed by Lightning cable, not USB-C. The Watch’s ‘digital crown’ has been given some steroids and plonked on the right ear cup alongside a noise cancellation button to give you an easy, familiar and physical means of play/pause, skipping tracks and taking calls. All very Apple.
Then it starts to not be very Apple. The look of the headphones is odd. If you were being unkind you might say they look like someone has stuck some previously-sucked oversized Werther’s Originals onto a headband and sprayed them in metallic paint. Being kind their featureless nature is sleek but makes it look like something is missing. The sheer size of the ear cups is accentuated by the fact there is nothing on the sides, just a clean expanse of aluminium.
There could be a reason for this. It’s been reported (by Prosser, again) that the AirPods Max may have been rushed to market. They weren’t quite ready. Supposedly there were meant to be touch controls built into those large side panels, but to move things along quicker the digital crown was brought in to save the day and allow Apple to get these out for the Christmas spending spree. If true, touch-control sides certainly make sense when you look at the design. That said, I like the physical buttons, even if it is a little too easy to knock the crown and jolt the volume up.
Lastly there is the Smart Case. Much fun has been had online at the expense of the design of the poor Max’s case, and you can see why. But I am not going to join in here. Shooting fish in a barrel is no sport. What is hard to forgive, however, is that it does a very poor job of actually protecting the headphones, surely a key function of any case.
Living with it
AirPods Max pair effortlessly to an iPhone and are about as intuitive to control as headphones get. The sound is superb – more of that below – and that quality build leaves you in no doubt whatsoever that Apple wants you to feel like these are an expensive bit of kit. The colour choices of silver, space grey, sky blue, pink or green are all tasteful.
The 20 hours or so of listening time on a single charge with noise cancellation on is sufficient (this is about the same as the Sony XM4s) and five minutes of charge gets an extra 1.5 hours of listening time. But note there’s no wireless charging, and, as they are never off (the headphones go into standby when taken off and into an “ultra-low-power state” in the Smart Case), you will notice the battery levels dropping between uses.
Making and taking calls is also a joy thanks to three microphones. One mic in the left ear cup works with two of the noise cancellation mics to enhance your voice during calls. The H1 chip is brought into play to discern your voice versus background noise, while one of the mics also suppresses wind noise.
Park all the good listed above, there are a number of issues, too. The first being weight. Remember that headband open-knit mesh canopy to distribute weight? Well, it is designed to reduce the pressure on the top of your head. It is very clever, and initially works well. But the key point here is why should it be needed at all? It’s needed because AirPods Max are heavy. They feel heavy, and wear heavy. Apple headphones come in at 384.8g. By comparison, the Sony XM4s weigh just 254g.
The mesh fools you just long enough to initially think you don’t mind the considerable heft of the Maxes. But walk around with these on for 30 minutes and you start to know you’re wearing them. This should not happen. And you cannot get lost in music or a podcast if you are constantly being reminded of the tech on your head. Perhaps worse still, on occasion the Maxes even started to get uncomfortable during longer sessions well past the hour mark.
Undoubtedly the sound reproduction. The AirPods Max are a feast for the ears. Apple has designed its own 40mm driver, and has done an exceptional piece of work here. I started to hear elements in familiar songs I had never noticed before. Not only are highs crisp and bass notes resonant, the whole soundstage, track after track, including the mid tones, is impressively balanced. Apple says the AirPods Max can maintain total harmonic distortion of less than one per cent across the entire audible range, even at maximum volume, and I believe it. You cannot make these headphones perform poorly, whatever you do to them.
What’s more, an adaptive EQ measures the sound signal being delivered and adjusts the low and mid frequencies in real time based on how AirPods Max fit and seal around your ears, even supposedly taking into account glasses, ear piercings and different hairstyles. I have no ear piercings, and it’s lockdown three so a haircut’s out of the question, but, yes, I couldn’t hear any difference in sound if I wore my glasses or not.
Now, this doesn’t mean that the sound quality of AirPods Max best the competition. Far from it. Sound is a subjective thing, and whether they are ever so slightly better or worse than the Sony or Bose or B&W competitors is for you to judge. Some days I felt one way, others another – and, a month in, still do. What I can tell you with assurance is that they are comparable. This is clearly not a win, however, for the AirPods Max. A £200 price premium demands that these headphones should be thrashing the sound reproduction of the MX4s – but they do not.
Why oh why…
Why anyone who is interested in sound would buy these ahead of the Sony WH-1000XM4 or B&W PX7 is hard to fathom. The AirPods Max are not just a bit more pricey than their sonically-as-good competitors, they’re at a level where you could get some XM4s and then treat yourself to some AirPods Pros for the same total spend.
I believe in a union of form and function, and Apple has dragged a reluctant tech world into realising this is key to success, and we are all benefitting from this. But, even for Apple, this feels a step too far. And we’ve been here before. The last time I felt this way was when Apple announced the price of its first HomePod. And look what happened there.
So, should I buy it?
No. Apple has been on such a good run recently with iPad Air, AirPods Pro, M1 Macs and the iPhone 12 that you’d be forgiven for thinking it can’t take a misstep. But like the first Apple Watch, the AirPods Max don’t feel quite ready. If Apple can reduce the weight, reduce the price and possibly instate, or reinstate, those touch controls, then these will be class-leading headphones to match the superb sound they already produce. So wait to see what happens with version two, and hope Apple doesn’t take as long to do a refresh as it did with HomePod.
Price: £549 | Apple
Jeremy White is WIRED’s executive editor. He tweets from @jeremywired
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