The AirPods Max were a surprise announcement from Apple as 2020 drew to an end.
Especially when the iPhone-maker revealed each set would cost a princely £549.
When you look at Apple’s offering on paper, it’s a difficult proposition.
Competition like the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 and Sony WH-1000XM4 Wireless Headphones are cheaper (both cost £350), lighter and still offer immersive sound and noise-cancelling technology.
However, neither Bose nor Sony (nor any other headphone brand) offers the same level of integrated smart features across other Apple products. Like the regular AirPods, the AirPods Max offer a single-touch pairing across all Apple devices thanks to the built-in H1 chip.
There’s also Automatic Switching which will seamlessly swap from iPhone to iPad and back again and the impressive spatial audio that follows your head movements when you’re listening to content on an iPhone or iPad.
Like the AirPods Pro, there’s also the option to switch between active noise cancellation and ‘Transparency Mode’ via the flick of a switch that lets a certain amount of noise filter through the spongy earcups.
These features are great, but let’s face it – you need more from Apple for £549.
Unsurprisingly, the build quality and the audio performance are both incredible.
The AirPods Max are constructed from metal (no cheap, bendy plastic here) and as a result they feel extremely premium. You get a choice of several different colours: Space Grey, Silver, Green, Sky Blue and Pink.
The anodized aluminium earcups are cold to the touch when you take them out of the box and the headband is made from stainless steel with telescoping arms that smoothly glide to the correct measurement for your head.
When you’re holding the AirPods Max, they are noticeably heavier than plastic equivalents at 384g, but it vanishes when you put them on. The knit mesh fabric on the headband serves to evenly distribute weight around your head.
The real test for any pair of over-ear headbands is the length of time they stay comfortable and I had the headphones on for several hours at a time without any discomfort.
Just like with the HomePod products, Apple has made sure the AirPods Max sound absolutely fantastic. Inside are custom-designed 40mm drivers that are backed by ‘dual-neodymium ring magnet motors’ inspired by floor-standing speakers. It means the high-fidelity audio is extremely well balanced and you can really pick out detail in whatever music you’re listening to. Also, the AirPods Max don’t distort – even when you crank the volume up to the max with the Apple Watch-inspired Digital Crown that serves as volume control. The addition of physical controls for volume and play/pause/skipping tracks is also much more pleasant than trying to use touchpads on the sides of the headphones.
There aren’t any tools to adjust the equalization – Apple handles that all automatically. The AirPods Max use a process called ‘Adaptive EQ’ to tune the headphones to the exact fit and seal of the ear cushions on your head. Coupled with the noise cancellation that actively filters out environmental noise and you’ve got a rich audio experience to enjoy.
For me, the most impressive feature is the spatial audio that I’ve also experienced on the AirPods Pro. In a nutshell, the headphones use head-tracking technology to deliver sounds across space.
It works on content recorded in 5.1, 7.1, and Dolby Atmos and relies on a gyroscope and accelerometer in AirPods Max and iPhone or iPad to work. At the moment, you can’t use it on a MacBook, Apple TV or (obviously) any non-Apple device. It means that when you move your head the audio stays anchored on the device and is a pretty immersive feeling.
Apple states the battery lasts 20 hours with all the features (like noise cancelling) turned on. This is what I experienced while testing them and I was pleased to see that the battery barely dropped overnight.
That’s also a good thing because the AirPods Max don’t feature any kind of power button. Instead, they detect when they’re off your head (you put them down or around your neck, for example) and they’ll automatically go into a sleep mode. If you put them into the accompanying smart case, they’ll go into an even deeper form of hibernation mode which is what I left mine in overnight.
The case itself is a bit odd. All the memes aside, it’s obviously luxurious and is the feels like the same kind of soft-touch rubber that the iPad Magic Keyboard uses. But it doesn’t appear to offer much protection as the headband is left exposed. The AirPods Max don’t fold down or become any more compact, which could be a problem for frequent travellers.
My main bugbear with the AirPods Max is the lack of a 3.5mm headphone jack. The headphones charge via Lightning and all you get in the box is a Lightning-to-USB cable. Yes, the wireless experience is excellent but, more than once, I found myself wishing I could just quickly plug them into a laptop.
Ultimately though, the AirPods Max are a very impressive and very desirable piece of modern gadgetry. They aren’t for everyone and if you’re not an Apple user you’ll want to look somewhere else because the best features really come to the fore when you’re using other Apple products.
The price is a stumbling block but, then again, there are other headphones (e.g. high-end Sennheiser and Focal products) that are far more expensive. And who knows – we may get ‘AirPods Air’ or ‘AirPods SE’ that offer a similar experience at a lower price.
For now though, if you want the ultimate audio accompaniment to watching movies on an iPad, listening to music on an iPhone then this is it.