Anton D. Nagy contributed to this contribution.
I don’t even know how to say this politely so I’ll just start over. Apple’s AirPods Max is the most frustrating piece of hardware I’ve ever almost wanted to love … that’s where I got it off my chest.
Let me explain: I travel a lot, 150,000 miles a year pretty much. It’s been the story of my life since I was 3 years old and for the past 20 years it’s kind of a requirement that I made before I took a job. I’ve always been like that George Clooney character in Up In The Air, where I only buy toiletries in small packages. I spend an insane amount of money on certain types of luggage just because they’re easier to haul, and I use Peak Design bags and tripods almost entirely for the amount of thought put into making them compact.
The point is, I value ergonomics, practicality, and thoughtfulness before I buy a product and I am willing to spend more on it. Of course we all had to take a break from traveling in this pandemic, but it was the main reason I felt the only way to properly complete the review of these Max was to wait until I could fly with them again. Sound should be one of the top reasons you buy headphones, but it doesn’t stop there for anyone willing to spend this big buck.
Thoughtfulness as a noun is taking into account the needs of other people. Let’s face it, Apple wasn’t always famous for this. Do you remember the excessive obsession with thin and light at the expense of battery life? Keep in mind that only two USB ports are so next to each other that one was next to useless on the old MacBooks. Or, well, just one USB-C port for everything on the MacBook? Sure, this is the company that put a thousand songs in your pocket, but they also destroyed the headphone jack against user feedback.
So, AirPods Max, let me start with a basic disclaimer. This is not an audiophile review and I am sure the internet is full of it. I’m even struggling with the idea of such an analysis for wireless headphones. Right now, Bluetooth hasn’t really achieved what most would consider high-fidelity territory, even if Apple denies it in its marketing. They choose either the convenience of a wireless connection at the expense of quality or vice versa at the expense of money because yes it can cost thousands of dollars more.
Disclaimer of liability
However, for Bluetooth, the AirPods Max is NOT affordable. At this price point, * any * headphone should sound amazing, and these are only for me. Before you get the impression that this is a bashing piece, let me start with the things I like. What we have here is a different approach through computer audio where the H1 chip detects everything from the music you are listening to the fit in your ears to dynamically balance the EQ, and I can tell. I actually appreciate the aluminum design, but for reasons that are contrary to the purpose.
I seriously think Apple chose the materials more to enhance the audio experience than the build quality. Probably what I like best about these headphones is that I’ve never heard a wider soundstage from bluetooth headphones. I’m talking about 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 causing any kind of distortion. The aluminum actually seems to help create that type of rumble that I can’t say I have experienced before.
Well, disclaimer number 2. I have no scientific way to prove this, but I’ve only experienced this sound stage on Apple Music. Yes, I know that this is exactly the AAC codec that Spotify uses and that I also download in maximum quality. For some reason that should be seriously obvious, the instrument separation and audio quality is good on Spotify, but I think it’s better on Apple Music.
I’m saying obviously because this is a very Apple thing. If you want to make the most of the capabilities of these headphones, you need to be in their ecosystem. Pair them with one and then they’ll be smart enough to switch between the other Apple devices. Depending on the supporting content, there are spatial audio functions. All you have to do is say Hey Siri so they can 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 Cancellation
You see, the noise cancellation on these headphones is not only great, but different too. The biggest problem with most of the other offerings is the type of suction they create, which can make anyone feel uncomfortable for long periods of time. In contrast, the choice of hardware and materials helps to even out the feeling so well that you will find that the sound dissipates with no additional discomfort.
What I like the most about these AirPods Max is the ambient mode. As with AirPods Pro, these headphones do so well at balancing out internal and external noise that you can barely tell you are covering your ears, which comes in handy in cold New York winters, even if it scares people off because they put you off think she can’t hear. Combine this with a pretty good set of mics and yes I can easily recommend them for phone calls.
I also appreciate the mesh used in the ear cups that won’t make your head sweat much better than the faux leather on other offerings. The fact that they are easily interchangeable guarantees that they will look their best for longer.
That’s not that good
So yeah, they sound great, they block out noise or they invite you in better than most of the others. So what’s wrong? Well, I wish that the same amount of thought that was put into their audio experience carried over to the practicality of their design. This is the company that has forced every competitor to make smaller cases for their earbuds, and yet it somehow failed here.
Firstly, they’re big, which is fine if you wear 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 a frustrating exercise. People make fun of the case, not me as it hardly adds to the footprint. The problem is you turn the sleeves sideways which only makes them less compact which then leads to the problem that if they don’t fit in your pocket you do what I do and carry them on your side . This is more of a problem because they are neither waterproof nor protected by the housing. Figure out how to get them fit or just don’t take them off or just don’t travel with the damn things at all.
Second, do not carry it in this extended position or drop it without the case. As it is, the aluminum finish collides with itself, meaning you’ll scratch it faster than you think, which is more noticeable on any color except silver.
The third is if you have a big head like me, you won’t enjoy wearing it for long periods of time. They’re heavier than average, and the lightweight canopy at the top just seems to serve to tie them together as the stainless steel rod mechanism really clamps them to your head. As a result, that continuous power you get can make wearing everything else on your face uncomfortable, regardless of how thick they are, whether they’re glasses, but I even feel like face masks are. And then you’d think the solution to this is to take them off every now and then and wear them around your neck, but since the stems aren’t long, the force of this clamping mechanism on your neck is uncomfortable too. I know! It’s like your head won’t get a break if you don’t take it off completely, and we already know wearing it is a nightmare.
Last but not least, there is Lightning. What year is it? This is a cable that Apple is phasing out. I charge my Mac and iPad with USB-C and my iPhone and AirPods Pro through MagSafe. Now I have to take an additional cable with me, because there is also the problem that without the housing there is no way to turn it off. The 20 hour battery life is pretty accurate when you consider that at least a little power is drawn from them all the time, which means you might need to charge them once or twice for a week’s drive. But then my other problem is the need for Apple’s expensive lightning-to-headphone cable when editing a video. Unfortunately, despite all the advances made on this Max, you’re going to run into the potential latency issues with Final Cut Pro that every other headphone brings unless you’re using a cable. So yes, two cables to carry and a carry case that doesn’t fit them.
AirPods Max: conclusion
In conclusion, I think you know where I am going with this review. Apple’s AirPods Max are the best sounding Bluetooth headphones I’ve ever used while using Apple Music or when listening to spatial audio of content that supports it, only on an iPhone or iPad. As long as I don’t have to carry it anywhere.
That makes sense and doesn’t make sense. At this price point, we want amazing audio without compromising the basics of how to carry it around. That just reminds me of how much I hated the first AirPods, but for opposite reasons. These were great for calls and effortless to wear, but the fit was so poor that the audio quality was memorable. We needed AirPods Pro to fix the fit issue so the entire experience with them was worth the money.
Same problem here. The AirPods Max is clearly a fantastic idea that suffers from the curse of a first generation product. If your bag doesn’t have enough space, I can only recommend it to a frequent traveler or who would like to have it 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 rather call these a good pair of headphones for the couch, which belies the purpose of their wireless connection or longevity.
If you are looking for amazing sound quality with bluetooth headphones and price is not an issue, then consider getting the AirPods Max. But you know what you feel like doing. If you want to use these to replace the convenience of, for example, a pair of Bose QC35 or 700, the Sony Mark Fours or the Jabra Elite 85H, which are my favorites, you should wait for the 2nd generation – they sound great, cost a lot less and can become something smaller when you’re done. You know, logical things can only be achieved when thoughtful design takes into account that audio is only part of the experience.
Jaime has been a fan of technology since he got his first computer when he was 12 and has followed the evolution of mobile technology from the PDA to everything we see today. As our multimedia manager, he was responsible for developing our YouTube hobby into one of the largest video channels in the industry. When he’s not making one of our videos or filming our Pocketnow Daily, he’s in his second greatest passion, running and fitness. Read more about Jaime Rivera!