There aren’t many products I review each year that demand to be regularly revisited.
There’s the MacBook Air, which remains Apple’s most sought-after laptop. Similarly, it’s as easy to spark up a mass conversation about the iPhone 13 mini as it is to use Apple’s tiny smartphone one-handed.
Then, there are headphones. If you want to initiate debate, weed out the Apple ultra fans, and give something for those of the opposite persuasion to poke fun at, you need only turn to the AirPods Max.
Apple’s expensive and frustratingly compromised over-ear noise-cancelling cans are incredibly divisive. But they’re also nearly two years old.
So, when are we going to see their successor, and what on earth is Apple going to do with them?
The reception for AirPods Max
It’s easy to forget that the AirPods Max were never given any stage time by Apple.
That wasn’t the original plan if you believe the gossip. Originally intended to be unveiled alongside the iPhone 12 in October 2020, “complications” in the manufacturing process supposedly led to the headphones appearing as nothing more than a press release and new landing page on Apple’s website two months later.
I picked up a pair immediately. It was early days for Mark Ellis Reviews but I’d already discovered a very engaged niche in the headphone space. Having spent the previous months reviewing noise-cancelling headphones from the likes of Sony and a few budget manufacturers, I wanted to see what Apple could offer.
It didn’t feel like an easy purchase. At £550, AirPods Max were the most expensive consumer headphones I’d ever bought, and that set the tone for my experience with them. Asking that much money for a product and not fully delivering in key areas has always been the AirPods Max Achilles heel.
My audience clearly feels the same. There are those who, like me, admire the build quality, comfort, sound profile, and calling capabilities of AirPods Max. But, just like me, they are frustrated by Apple’s obnoxious decisions surrounding the case, the choice of Lightning for charging, and the inability to turn the damn things off.
The first generation AirPods Max are a ‘nearly’ product. Apple could easily have justified the price tag by fixing those daft errors in judgement during the design. Instead, they’ve given us a pair of headphones that can never be recommended over the competition, no matter how much of an Apple fan you are.
What I’d like
We’re entering an interesting era for noise-cancelling headphones. The latest to hit the market deliver astronomical battery life (up to 60 hours in some cases) and thanks to the continued presence and toppling pricing of previous generation headphones, manufacturers are having to fight hard to make sales of their latest and greatest.
More importantly, the quality of the audio and noise-cancelling on most of the new headphones entering the market is pretty great across the board. You’ve got to drop your budget significantly to find the crap.
This is wonderful news for consumers. It means we no longer have to spend north of £300 to get a decent pair of noise-cancelling headphones. My recent review of the soundcore Space Q45 confirms this.
So, firstly, Apple, we need a lower price for AirPods Max 2. Shave off £100 and you’re sitting within a far more realistic pricing bracket, given the admirable build quality and design.
But at that price, you still need to do more.
We need a proper case. I’ve laughed and joked about the AirPods Max slipcase thing (I don’t even know how to describe it) but enough is enough. These expensive headphones need protecting properly – not cladding with something your design team thinks is capable of denting the headphone universe. Because it isn’t. It is just utterly stupid.
Then, we need USB-C charging. Lightning is a relic, and the AirPods Max are the only pair of headphones in my studio for which I have to hunt for a cable when they need some juice.
This brings me to the next irritation that needs fixing – the lack of an off button. I cannot fathom why Apple doesn’t want us to turn off the AirPods Max. A bit like their penchant for Lightning, this means my AirPods Max are the only headphones in my studio that run out of battery within days, as opposed to months. It is stupid, inconvenient, and means I rarely use them.
Throw in a new codec for lossless audio transmission, and we’re good. And I don’t think this is asking for much; I simply want the same headphones, but with the annoyances removed and the addition of high-res audio.
Sure, tweak the design. Give the noise-cancelling and transparency mode a fettle if you must. Add even more smarts to the way they fit into the Apple ecosystem – knock yourself out.
Let’s just get the basics right, ok?
What Apple will probably do
Before I get too carried away, let’s remember that this is Apple. They are the masters of understatement and gently letting you down when it comes to new products.
They’re also frustratingly good at pointing behind you, shouting “SQUIRREL”, and removing your attention from the feature everyone wanted them to include but is nowhere to be seen.
It therefore wouldn’t surprise me at all if we eventually receive AirPods Max 2 still containing a Lightning port and complete with a moderately redesigned stupid slipcase thing and still with no way to turn them off.
Apple is far more likely to concentrate on improvements to Spatial Audio, Dolby Atmos, and the aforementioned audio codec. After all, the former two features were clearly the focus of the development for AirPods Pro 2. I can’t fathom why, either – Spatial Audio and Dolby Atmos are superb in the current form on Apple gear; Apple just seems to be obsessed with them.
The price probably won’t drop, either, and I’m not convinced AirPods Max 2 will look any different. There’ll just be new seasonal colours to distract us (remember – “SQUIRREL!”).
What if we NEVER see them?
There’s always the chance that AirPods Max suffer the same fate as the original HomePod. What if the version we have now is the first and only?
That would make AirPods Max quite a collector’s item, but it would certainly disappoint anyone who’s been waiting for Apple to make improvements on what is so nearly an industry-leading pair of consumer headphones.
It’s a possibility, though. I’ve mentioned numerous times that I rarely see AirPods Max in the wild. Sony, Bose, JBL, soundcore, and Beats are everywhere, but I’ve probably seen five pairs of AirPods Max in public over the last two years.
Apple won’t think twice about killing a product if it isn’t delivering a return, and if AirPods Max is sitting at the bottom of Tim’s spreadsheet, maybe this is all we’re getting.
So, the big question is: if AirPods Max 2 are going to be released soon, when can we expect to get our hands on them?
My guess is next year, I’m afraid. As 2022 draws to a close, we’re going to be treated to a Mac fest, as Apple completes its full transition to its own silicon. Regardless of their deep resources, Tim and co. will want all the focus to be on the new Macs that’ll hit the market within the next couple of months.
At least that gives Apple time to get AirPods Max right next time around. Or, at worst, consign the current version to the ‘we thought it was a good idea’ bin.