If you’d told me three months ago that I’d be comparing the AirPods Pro with the AirPods Max, I’d have laughed you out of the building.
A £249 pair of earbuds versus a £549 pair of over-ear noise-cancelling headphones? Crazy stuff! Why on earth would anyone in their right mind be considering that buying decision?
However, people are asking this question. Whether they’re genuinely seeking buying guidance for a purchase that has left them stumped, or just curious as to whether or not the new AirPods Pro really can beat their big brother, I don’t know.
Regardless, it’s a question I’m going to answer today.
A note on pricing
The price difference between these two Apple products is comical. You could buy two pairs of AirPods Pro before you come anywhere close to the price of the AirPods Max. In fact, you’d have enough change remaining to take your loved one out for a relatively expensive lunch.
That does make this entire Apple product battle questionable. As noted earlier, I suspect that the reason many people are asking for this comparison is simply that they’re curious. After all, the second-generation AirPods Pro have been met with universal praise from reviewers, including yours truly.
I wasn’t going to review them. I made the assumption that it was just another dull, marginally iterative release from Apple. But I was wrong – big time; these new AirPods Pro are a huge upgrade over the first generation. As I’ve pointed out on a couple of occasions, the noticeable improvement in noise-cancelling is giving me more of a reason to choose Apple’s earbuds over a pair of over-ears during my early morning writing sessions.
So, pricing aside, this is a fascinating comparison, isn’t it? Has Apple inadvertently cannibalised its first entry into the over-ear headphone market with an unexpectedly brilliant pair of earbuds?
I’m going to keep this ultra simple by looking at three key points of differentiation: sound, noise cancelling, and convenience.
Round 1: Sound
I recently pitched the AirPods Max against the hugely expensive Focal Barthys. For the uninitiated, Focal is best known for its dominance in the pro audio field. The Barthys are their first foray into the over-ear noise-cancelling consumer headphone arena.
It’s quite an entrance, too, because the Barthys are the best-sounding consumer headphones I’ve ever heard. Which they should be, for $799. They also walk all over the AirPods Max in terms of sound (and far more besides). Which, again, they should do, given the price and heritage of the brand behind them.
This has made me question the quality of the AirPods Max sound, though. I’ve previously described it as “expensive” for a pair of consumer cans, but when pitched against a pair of headphones that really know what they’re doing, Apple’s effort pales by comparison.
The second-generation AirPods Pro are something else, though. While the first generation were sonically adequate, the new version sound noticeably better and can happily rub shoulders with far more expensive earbuds. They sound great.
More importantly, the new AirPods Pro sound good enough to make the £300 ‘upgrade’ to the AirPods Max for sound alone, laughable.
Winner: AirPods Pro 2
Round 2: Noise-cancelling
One of the biggest improvements Apple has made to its latest version of AirPods Pro is the noise cancelling and transparency mode. The former is, just like the sound, noticeably better.
If you A/B test the second generation AirPods Pro against their forefather, you realise that the latter feels far more oppressive; there’s an audible background rumble on the first generation that is entirely absent on the new pair. The world gets noticeably quieter when noise-cancelling is engaged on the second generation, too.
When you’re sitting in a coffee shop or at home, there’s little to separate the second-generation AirPods Pro from the AirPods Max when it comes to noise cancelling.
However, step outside, and the ability of the AirPods Max to deal more definitively with wind noise and particularly loud environments becomes clear. This isn’t a failing of the AirPods Pro, but it’s the most obvious example of where the increased mass and physical dimensions of over-ear headphones offer significantly improved noise cancelling over earbuds.
Transparency mode? Apple remains the king of this barely contested area, but the improvements made to the latest AirPods Pro put them on level-pegging with AirPods Max. There’s genuinely nothing separating them in this regard anymore.
Winner: AirPods Max (but it’s not really a fair battle)
Round 3: Convenience
A great-sounding pair of headphones with the best noise cancelling you’ve ever experienced can be utterly ruined by poor convenience.
For me, convenience consists of the following areas:
- battery life
- charging method
Starting with the last item on that list, I get some stick for this on YouTube, but I stand firm on my stance that the case remains one of the most important elements of headphone ownership. Apple got this biblically wrong with AirPods Max. I needn’t go into it in detail today, because we all know how stupid the ‘case’ is, but it borders on insulting.
Both the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max get the controls right. AirPods Max shun touch controls for a beautifully tactile Digital Crown, and while AirPods Pro do feature touch controls, they’re the best and most sensible I’ve used (thanks to audible ‘clicks’ which give the impression of interacting with physical buttons). The second generation even features touch-sensitive stems for volume adjustment, which feels natural and accurate.
When it comes to the battery, they both serve the user well. AirPods Max are rated at 20 hours of battery life, and while that is quickly being surpassed by most new entrants to the market (by at least an additional 10 hours), it’s perfectly fine for most users. The second-generation AirPods Pro will last for six hours on a single charge, but max out at 30 hours when you take the charging case into consideration. That is, quite simply, brilliant.
Unfortunately, whether you pick the AirPods Pro or the AirPods Max, you’ll be saddled with Lightning as the charging method. Apple is the only headphone manufacturer that hasn’t switched to USB-C, and we’re now on Planet Farcical in that regard. Thankfully, the second-generation AirPods Pro redeem themselves with a superb charging case that can be topped up wirelessly.
The AirPods Max? It just gets worse, and worse, I’m afraid.
You can only charge the AirPods Max via Lightning – there’s no form of wireless charging on offer. This is annoying enough, but the fact you can’t turn them off at all remains the most irritating facet of these headphones. Sure, place them in their stupid case, and they go into some kind of ultra-low power mode, but that’s still not good enough. As someone who uses countless battery-powered headphones every week, I can tell you categorically that the AirPods Max are the only pair that run out of battery consistently. The others last for months because they can be turned off.
I shouldn’t even be writing these words. It is such a dim-witted decision by Apple.
For a £549 pair of headphones, Apple’s choices around charging and power management are unforgivable.
Winner: AirPods Pro 2
I’ve always wanted to love the AirPods Max but Apple has made it so hard for me to find any meaningful connection with them.
I have no problem paying a lot of money for headphones if they deliver in every conceivable area. Apple’s cans, unfortunately, fall at nearly every hurdle, but the biggest problem is the convenience factor. Which is totally non-existent.
The second-generation AirPods Pro, on the other hand, are an absolute masterpiece. They’re one of those rare products with which you establish a deep connection almost immediately. I love mine and I can confirm that they don’t only compete with their over-ear big brother – they absolutely smash it when it comes to what you get for your money.
Go on – save yourself £300 and buy Apple’s best-ever noise-cancellers. Thank me later.