I’ve been using AirPods Max day-in, day-out since they arrived in January, and it’s taken me a long time to find the answer to the most important question they pose.
But I think I’ve worked it out, and I think my initial impressions were actually pretty wide of the mark.
A change of perspective
The title of this article isn’t an attempt at clickbait. Nor is it driven by hours of SEO research; I think it’s simply the question on most people’s lips if they have even a passing interest in Apple’s over-the-ear cans.
If you’re not interested in them or think they’re just outright stupid, the question changes. It becomes, “why would you buy AirPods Max?”.
Those people have a point. On the face of it, these headphones are stupidly, disproportionately expensive. They come with a stupid case that looks like a piece of underwear and which doesn’t protect the headphones at all. They use lightning to charge rather than USB-C. They resolutely use their own DAC and EQ without any option to fine-tune the nitty-gritty details. There even appears to be an issue with the build-up of condensation behind the ear cups.
Oh, and if you want an auxiliary cable, it’ll set you back $35.
If you’re asking why anyone would buy the AirPods Max, they’re really not for you. And Apple knows that.
When they were first announced, I scoffed, too. I was firmly on Team Why. Then, I got my hands on them, and my perspective completely changed.
There’s an audience for these headphones. That audience wants them – often needlessly (a bit like the fourth cup of coffee I wanted yesterday) – but the price forces them to ask the question I started this blog post with.
Today, I’m going to help you answer it.
Firstly: it’s ok to want AirPods Max
We’ll start here, because, as always when Apple launches a premium product, there’s an awful lot of sniggering, finger-pointing and general nastiness directed towards anyone who decides to spend their hard-earned on AirPods Max.
That isn’t fair. AirPods Max aren’t designed to save the world, and, contrary to popular belief, they don’t think they’re a pair of audiophile headphones.
They’re designed to make users enjoy audio content and feel happy. Owners of MacBook Pros will know this approach to products all too well. Sure, you could grab a similarly capable laptop that runs Windows or Chrome OS, but it wouldn’t make you feel like the MacBook does.
It’s ok to want AirPods Max. Let’s make that ultra-clear.
But I know they’re expensive, so let’s look at why you might part with $549.
The design is stunning
This is entirely subjective, I know, but for me, AirPods Max are finally a pair of headphones which look good on my head.
If, like me, you don’t have lashings of hair, you’ll know that over-the-ear headphones often look a bit daft. Unless the band is drawn tightly against either side of your head, the lack of hair to cushion the gap leaves you with a half oval-shaped device protruding from your skull.
Not so, with AirPods Max. They sit almost flush on my head and the limited depth of the cans themselves means the overall package barely protrudes at all. They simply become part of you.
Beyond that, the construction of these things is typical Apple. They are absolutely beautiful in every way. The cold touch of the aluminium ear cups, the delightfully smooth-yet-resistive operation of the telescoping arms and the intricately woven mesh on the canopy are top-notch.
It’s a work of tech art. Way, way over-engineered, but in a “we don’t give a shit” kinda way.
The same goes for the controls. AirPods Max share the same ‘Digital Crown’ design as the Apple Watch. This little dial is used to start and stop playback, skip tracks and adjust the volume. It’s a delight to use, with just enough tactile feedback. Indeed, whenever I use a different pair of headphones, I now intrinsically reach to my right ear cup to adjust the volume in the same way and lament the fact the crown isn’t there.
Yes, they’re an expensive pair of headphones, but they feel expensive. People have complained about the weight, but for me, AirPods Max are reassuringly weighty.
As far as design goes, I’ve got my money’s worth.
They’re damn comfortable
Headphone manufacturers have always battled with the requirements of different head shapes and ear sizes. Creating a fit that’s great for all is a near-impossible job.
The AirPods Max, I feel, will have the same problem, but possibly to a lesser extent. For some people, they’ll be too heavy (there have been reports of them slipping from bowed heads), but I believe Apple has struck a pretty smart balance.
It’s all about that fabric mesh they’ve used for the ‘canopy’. It’s so comfortable. Combined with the soft fabric of the ear pads, these are a seriously comfortable pair of headphones which you can wear for hours without experiencing an ounce of fatigue.
If you’re not an audiophile, the sound will knock you sideways
Before my AirPods Max arrived, I was ready to be completely underwhelmed by their sound.
This wasn’t because I thought it would be overhyped – I simply thought they’d perform as well as my beloved Sony WH-1000XM4s.
Don’t get me wrong – the XM4s sound superb. But that’s why I was ready to be underwhelmed by AirPods Max; if they simply sounded as good as the XM4s, what is there to get excited about?
As it turns out, quite a lot.
You can catch a glimpse of my initial reaction to the sound in the video below.
Since then, I’ve spent many hours listening to AirPods Max, and I’ve really put them through their paces. My eclectic taste in music means they’ve been dealt everything from classical to hip-hop, and, for me, they nail it every single time.
They sound objectively better than the Sony XM4s. There, I said it.
I’m acutely aware that audio is a hugely subjective thing. If you’re an audiophile, you may be underwhelmed by AirPods Max. Which is fine. But if you’re a regular consumer who has never spent more than $100 on a pair of headphones, they will knock you sideways.
If you’re not the sort of person who understands the Harman Curve, or who listens analytically to musical content (there’s nothing wrong with that crowd, just to be clear – I’m actually pretty jealous of their attention to detail) AirPods Max will be the best pair of headphones you’ve ever heard.
That’s important. Because they are expensive. However, combine the aforementioned build quality and design with a sound which is truly stunning, and you’d be hard-pressed to feel short-changed.
The battery life is great
I’ve often said that once you go beyond 20 hours of claimed battery life on a pair of headphones, you’re golden. For me, that’s enough.
This is Apple’s claim for AirPods Max. They can also be juiced-up with 1.5 hours of listening time after a quick five-minute charge.
It’s plentiful. And for as stupid as that case may look and feel (and it really is stupid), after a while, you become pretty used to placing AirPods Max in their little pouch to preserve battery life.
I do wish you could turn them off and press a button to find out how much battery is left, but come on, guys – this is Apple.
Noise-cancelling is great (and they’re great for phone calls)
A quick note on noise-cancelling: it’s great.
I can’t get too excited about noise cancelling. It plays a massive role in my ability to get lots of work done, but having tested several cans which feature noise cancelling, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s such a thing as ‘enough’ noise cancelling.
I don’t think AirPods Max are any better than the Sony WH1000-XM4s when it comes to noise-cancelling – they’re simply on a par with what I think is the best available today.
Where AirPods Max edge ahead is the brilliant transparency mode. If you’ve got a pair of AirPods Pro, you’ll know what this is, but it’s a far better implementation on AirPods Max.
Transparency mode is called into action when you press the button next to the Digital Crown on the right ear cup. It turns off active noise cancelling and filters in the ambient noise from the outside world. That sound comes in via a microphone, and therefore sounds amplified.
The result is that you can hear both those around you and yourself in crystal clear perfection. And this really shines during telephone calls, because it means you don’t have to slide back one ear cup to hear yourself speak as you do with so many other over-the-ear headphones.
AirPods Max are by far the best headphones I own for voice calls. Which is pretty important these days.
If you read each of the sections above with a smile or nodded as I noted design elements, sound characteristics or ownership benefits which matter to you, AirPods Max are a great buy.
If you have some disposable income and want a pair of headphones which will last you an awfully long time, buy them. And promise me you won’t feel bad about it.