Today, I’m bringing a piece to you that I never thought I would be. This is my AirPods Max review.
If you’ve been reading my posts for any length of time, you’ve probably heard me rag on the standard AirPods before. I think they’re laughably overpriced (by at least 40%) considering how short the lifespan and average the sound quality are. I’ve even written articles promoting AirPods alternatives.
So what caused me to give AirPods Max a shot?
A renewed interest in music.
My wired EarPods were chewed up by a pet a few months ago, and I realized recently that since that happened, I haven’t listened to an album from beginning to end. So I spent an hour or so searching through reviews before finally ordering a pair of AirPods Max from eBay.
In this post, I’m going to cover my detailed thoughts on these things from the past two weeks.
Without further ado, let’s get into it!
- AirPods Max Review: The basics
- The albums I used for this AirPods Max review
- AirPods Max Review: Are they worth it?
- AirPods Max Review: Who should buy these headphones?
- AirPods Max Review: Everything you need to know
- How do they sound?
- Active Noise Cancellation consistently gets “Whoa”s
- Spatial Audio adds a lot to the soundstage of AirPods Max
- AirPods Max are surprisingly comfortable
- My AirPods Max have a longer battery life than any of my music-playing devices
- The Smart Case for AirPods Max is garbage
- They don’t look slick, but they aren’t drab, either
- The Digital Crown takes a while to get used to
- These headphones feel “durable enough”
- AirPods Max Review: The odd bits and ends of AirPods Max
- AirPods Max Review: An excellent set of headphones at a disappointing price
AirPods Max Review: The basics
Before I get too deep into this review, I wanted to have a short section at the beginning for those who aren’t interested in reading my long-form AirPods Max review. If you’re in a hurry, this section is for you!
The sound quality of AirPods Max is great. Better than AirPods and EarPods by an incomparable degree, and reminiscent of a solid pair of Bose in-ear buds I had back in 2014. At a low volume, they don’t sound that much better than other expensive headphones. Around 70% to 80%, however, the audio starts to sound layered, staged, and crisp in a way that shows the price.
They’re pretty comfortable! Lots of people say they’re heavy, and while they are, I never really notice until I’ve been wearing them for more than four hours. But I imagine anyone wearing headphones for more than four hours is going to start to feel uncomfortable, regardless of the brand.
Active Noise Cancellation is so good that I show this to people before showing them music. It blows minds and always gets a wide-eyed reaction. You’ll love it.
Transparency Mode is less exciting. It blends environmental noise into your music in a way that makes it hard to pick out what people are saying. So it’s just distracting while listening to music, but helpful when music is paused. I’d like to see an option to have Transparency Mode automatically enable once you pause your music – that would make it more worthwhile.
AirPods Max are overpriced. But you probably already knew that. I would wager that they would be better put at a $350-$400 price point. With the Apple-specific features (like automatic device switching) they reach $450 in value. My advice – buy used!
If you’re a serious music fan who also loves Apple products, then you’ll love these things. If you don’t own an Apple device, look for agnostic brands like Sony. And if you don’t consider yourself a serious music fan and just want some high-quality headphones, grab a pair of Beats or even stick with the AirPods Pro. You’ll save a lot of money and still get a great, head-turning product.
Alright, that’s my fast review. Now on to the rest!
The albums I used for this AirPods Max review
I thought it might be interesting to include the exact albums I listened to while preparing for my AirPods Max review. That way, you can get an idea of what might’ve influenced my review of these headphones.
Of course, I have listened to more albums than just these over the last two weeks. But these were the albums where I dedicated my attention to the quality and experience of AirPods Max:
- Trench by twenty one pilots
- We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service by A Tribe Called Quest
- To Pimp A Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar
- Plastic Beach by Gorillaz
- Pure Comedy by Father John Misty
- Daddy’s Home by Saint Vincent
- Room 25 by Noname
I recommend all of these (especially the first three) if you want to test these headphones, as they all have unique and exaggerated production.
AirPods Max Review: Are they worth it?
The first question I wanted to answer in this AirPods Max review is one that I’m sure is on everyone’s mind: Are the AirPods Max worth it?
On Apple’s website, AirPods Max are $550. After tax, that price becomes $600. So the specific question is, are AirPods Max worth $600?
No, they aren’t. And that’s confirmed by nearly everyone who has reviewed these things. These headphones are certainly high-quality; they’re nowhere near the rip-off that the standards AirPods are.
But you can get headphones with similar or better audio quality in the same price range or lower as AirPods Max.
SoundGuys has a whole article covering AirPods Max alternatives that are just as good or better than AirPods for the same price or lower. Check it out!
AirPods Max Review: Who should buy these headphones?
Of course, the fact that AirPods Max are overpriced doesn’t mean that no one should buy them. If I believed that, I wouldn’t have purchased them.
AirPods Max falls into the same product niche as several other Apple products. Sure, they’re a bit overpriced, but the simplicity, integration with Apple hardware, and accessibility of AirPods Max makes up the price a bit.
After owning these for two weeks, I’d say that these headphones are worth around $400 to dedicated Apple users. If you’re an Android user, then these are probably closer to $350.
If you are a serious music fan who enjoys listening to albums and you own an iPhone, then I would recommend AirPods Max. I would advise you to look at the alternatives in the SoundGuys article linked above, but I don’t think it would be a mistake to buy these headphones.
If you do decide to buy AirPods Max, I recommend grabbing them from eBay. I grabbed mine from there and had no problems finding a pair for under $400. With shipping and taxes, it put it at $450, which saved me $150. As long as the canvas at the top of the headphones isn’t torn, you won’t regret the purchase. And if you do get a broken pair from a scammer, eBay should refund you.
On the other hand, if you’re a casual music listener who just wants high-quality headphones, or if you don’t own any Apple products, then I think it would be a mistake to buy AirPods Max. In both cases, you’ll miss out on what makes AirPods Max special. I would instead grab AirPods Pro or one of the other headphones in the SoundGuys article.
AirPods Max Review: Everything you need to know
Alright, I think that’s all of the basic stuff that most of you are looking for in this AirPods Max review. Now, I’m going to get into the nitty-gritty.
In the sections below, I’m going to cover everything that has stood out to me over the last two weeks. This will be everything you ever wanted to know about AirPods Max and more.
How do they sound?
I am happy to report that AirPods Max sound really good! Not so good that it blows my mind, but consistently good at all volumes and in all environments. Active Noise Cancellation has a lot to do with that, but I’ll explore that in the next section.
As always, I would like to make it clear that I am not an audiophile. So I turned to some resources from audiophiles to get a better idea of the performance of these things.
According to SoundGuys, AirPods Max won’t be used as reference studio monitors. However, they are still very accurate and boost the low-end of audio to make certain genres kick more than they otherwise would. You can feel the cups of these headphones vibrate from the bass in certain songs without that bass drowning out the other instruments.
As a music fan who doesn’t know much about audio, two aspects of the AirPods Max experience stand out:
The seal on these headphones is great
So great that sometimes they actually “pop” when I take them off my ears. That helps isolate what you’re listening to, so you’re getting a very true experience.
The instruments sound separate and layered
It doesn’t sound like all of the sounds are being sent to your ears through a single channel. I can pick out the drums from the strings from the vocals from the synths.
The soundstage of AirPods Max helps, but I think it really comes down to production. Some albums from smaller artists (or just plain bad artists) still sound like they’re coming from a single channel. But when you turn the volume up to 70% on a well-produced album, the mix of instruments becomes complex and nuanced in an exciting way.
It’s the difference between eating a meal with no discernible flavors and one that has layers of ingredients that are distinct and in harmony. AirPods Max aren’t necessarily unique among over-ear headphones in this respect. But they are among the best consumer-grade options out there.
Active Noise Cancellation consistently gets “Whoa”s
Before ordering AirPods Max, I figured Active Noise Cancellation would just be a neat feature. But after two weeks, I can say that it’s a big part of what makes these headphones so great.
To start, it’s excellent. Active Noise Cancellation on the AirPods Max is so good that it feels like magic. The other night I was writing outside, listening to the deafening sound of cicadas. When I put AirPods Max on and pressed the noise cancellation button, it was like turning the volume of the cicadas down to zero. It just faded away in an instant.
My friends and roommates have enjoyed trying this feature more than listening to music on my headphones. I’ve even started using these headphones when I’m not listening to music just for some quiet, like when I’m reading.
Not only is this convenient, but it enhances the music listening experience on AirPods Max. It allows you to immerse yourself in an album at any time and in any place.
This is my first experience with noise cancellation, but from what I’ve read online, it is objectively better than nearly all of its competitors. So this AirPods Max review confidently claims that this is the best noise cancellation out there.
What about Transparency Mode?
Transparency Mode is alright. For those that don’t know, this mode uses the mics to play sounds from your environment intermingled with your music.
If you aren’t playing music, Transparency Mode is fine. I do have a complaint, and that’s that quiet sounds end up amplified in Transparency Mode. For instance, if I’m wearing track pants, the shhishh sound they make when I walk is amplified to an absurd degree. The same goes for typing and any other rustling and tapping sounds.
Another issue I have with Transparency Mode is that it doesn’t truly allow you to hear what’s going around you when you have music playing. You can hear that something is happening, but it ends up muddied with the music, if not completely overshadowed.
By that, I mean that if I have my music above 50% and someone tries to talk to me, I won’t be able to make out what they’re saying. I’ll know that they’re speaking, but that’s about it.
Apple doesn’t necessarily advertise this feature differently, but I do think it makes it a little useless at times. Instead, I would rather it mixed the environmental audio with the music in such a way that you could make out each, rather than just playing them over one another.
Spatial Audio adds a lot to the soundstage of AirPods Max
Next up on this AirPods Max review is a feature that I was completely blindsided by – in a good way.
For those that don’t know, spatial audio refers to audio that sounds like it exists in a 3D space. This is opposed to the standard stereo audio, which only comes from left and right channels.
While spatial audio is generally associated with movies (it offers a surround sound experience on your head) I’ve found it to be excellent with music.
When listening to a well-produced album, spatial audio helps create a realistic and complex soundstage. I can hear where each instrument is coming from, and typically, the vocals will sound like they’re centered in my head. This makes listening to music immersive, almost as if you’re watching a movie.
But this feature gets even better on intricately produced music. I’m thinking specifically of the song Chlorine by twenty one pilots. In the first few seconds of this song, you hear a woosh sound that turns into a pulse, which then turns into the drums.
With AirPods Max, it sounds like the woosh comes from behind the right side of your head, lands in front of you to the left, pulses for a moment, and then becomes the drums. And the drums stay in that spot for the whole song.
I have been listening to that song for years, and this completely changed the way I heard it. It’s such a cool moment that I found myself wishing for this kind of production on every album I’ve listened to since.
Another song that created a similar effect on AirPods Max was Birdie by Father John Misty. At the 2:15 mark of this song, the lyrics cut out and you hear a buzzing moving towards the center of your head, water trickling, and a violin-esque instrument that sounds like it’s coming from a cave, all at the same time.
It’s an experience that would be seriously hampered on headphones with a less defined soundstage.
What about Head Tracking?
I also wanted to mention Head Tracking briefly here. This is another feature that’s pretty unique to AirPods Max. It uses accelerometers in the headphones to detect the position of your head to your device.
From what I can tell, this is used exclusively to make spatial audio sound better. That’s great if you want to watch movies with these (I’m not a big movie guy). But true spatial audio mixing is still pretty rare in music right now, so I don’t know how much use this feature will get.
That said, it does work well! Odio is an app you can use to create 3D soundscapes on your iPhone. While wearing AirPods Max, I can see this app react with precision to the movement of my head. So this feature works, there just aren’t many musicians working with this kind of mixing yet.
AirPods Max are surprisingly comfortable
The aspect of AirPods Max I expected to dislike the most ended up being great for me. I’m happy to report in this AirPods Max review that these are perfectly comfortable.
This will vary from one person to the next, of course. But for me, I can wear these things for upwards of four hours without being bothered by them. I can even go as far as six hours and still tolerate them. Much more than that, though, and my ears start to feel tired.
To be clear, it’s my ears that get worn out, not my head. I never feel any pressure or discomfort on the top of my head. The canvas does its job. Instead, my ears start to feel claustrophobic, hot and worn out from listening to sounds for so long.
The cushions have plenty of room for your ears, so they don’t put any pressure directly on them.
My one complaint is that you can’t lay on your side or lean your head on anything while wearing these. But that isn’t specific to AirPods Max; any headphones will be like that.
Regardless, it means you either have to sit up straight or lay on your back. And if you’re listening to an album longer than 45 minutes, you’ll start to want to fidget and change positions. But I guess that’s an unavoidable drawback with headphones like this!
My AirPods Max have a longer battery life than any of my music-playing devices
There isn’t much else to say about that. The battery life of the AirPods Max is crazy. Apple claims they get 20 hours of playback time, and I would say that’s pretty accurate.
I don’t own anything that can play music for that long without needing to be connected to a charger. It’s overkill in the best way.
I would also wager that this gives AirPods Max a longer lifespan than most of Apple’s AirPods lineup. The huge battery means that even when it degrades and gets “bad”, it’ll still offer around five hours of use. That’s my guess, anyway, compared to how iPhone and AirPods batteries perform after two to three years of consistent use.
And if the battery on your AirPods Max does wear out, you can have Apple replace it for $79.
The Smart Case for AirPods Max is garbage
If you’ve come across any other reviews for AirPods Max, then you already know that the included Smart Case is garbage.
For those not in the know, the case that AirPods Max come with is just a thin, soft piece of pleather. It only covers the muffs on your AirPods Max, not the headband. And it’s the only way to turn AirPods Max off; they enter a low-power mode when you put them in the case. Otherwise, the battery will drain as usual.
Not only is the off-switch debacle a crummy decision by Apple, but the case itself is essentially useless. It only protects the part of your AirPods Max that are the least likely to break. The mesh headband, on the other hand, which feels delicate, is left completely exposed.
Fortunately, you can easily replace the Smart Case with other options from Amazon. There are tons of great options ranging from $15 to $30. They include a little NFC chip that will turn your AirPods Max off when you place them inside. So you don’t miss anything by grabbing a third-party option. And you’ll have a case that allows you to toss your headphones in your bag.
They don’t look slick, but they aren’t drab, either
In my opinion, the most “meh” aspect of AirPods Max is its appearance. They’re just fine.
It’s easy to recognize these things as an Apple product. The design is minimal, the colors are understated, and they don’t have the same tackiness that a lot of other tech products suffer from. Plus, the metal design helps AirPods Max look and feel premium.
Unfortunately, there isn’t any “wow” or “pop” factor. Even AirPods Pro have a pretty slick look to them while still coming across as minimal and Apple-y. I would’ve preferred a more eye-catching look for AirPods Max, like the current iPad Air and Pro or the new iMac.
The most underwhelming aspect of the design is the color. All of the color options are boring and look like they were borrowed from six years ago. I want something vibrant, or pastel, or dark, or anything. But dull, washed-out colors don’t make any kind of impression.
I wouldn’t care so much about this if headphones weren’t partially a fashion statement. But they are. People buy AirPods for their status, and others carry Beats around their neck all day because it’s an iconic design.
Hopefully, a future generation of AirPods Max will have a more defining look.
The Digital Crown takes a while to get used to
According to other reviews, the Digital Crown is a plus. But this AirPods Max review is a bit less convinced.
I own an Apple Watch, so seeing the Digital Crown transferred to the AirPods Max was initially exciting. But in use, I find it to be less convenient than buttons. I had a hard time adjusting to the spinning dial, and even after I did adjust, I couldn’t help wishing that buttons had been used instead.
Buttons not only give you haptic feedback, but they allow you to set the volume precisely. You can count the volume in your head if you want.
The dial is out of your range of view, so you don’t get any useful feedback. There’s no click of a button, and the dial, while more fine-tuned than a button, makes it hard to tell what your volume is set to without looking.
To be fair, there is an artificial clicking sound that plays while you spin the dial. However, it only tells you that the dial is spinning. It doesn’t help you determine how loud the music is.
Another benefit of the Digital Crown is that it makes it easy to distinguish the volume controls from the Active Noise Cancellation button.
I think I would feel happier about the addition of the dial if it had more of a click or ratcheting effect while you turned it. But as it is now it feels kind of spacey and vague.
These headphones feel “durable enough”
The last major point I want to touch on in this AirPods Max review is the durability of these headphones.
I’m not going to bang my $600 headphones into the ground to see how durable they are. But from feel alone, I’d say they’re pretty good. The muffs being made from steel means they’ll never crack. They’ll probably protect the speakers pretty well, too, in case you do drop these headphones.
The cushions are easily replaceable (though it’ll cost you $69). That is generally the component of headphones that breaks first, so while the price is steep, it’s good to know you won’t lose your AirPods Max when these give out.
The plastic headband is surprisingly robust. You can lightly twist AirPods Max forward and back without the headband feeling like it’s going to snap. You can also stretch it left to right a bit to pull it over your head, though I wouldn’t push it too far in that direction.
By far the aspect of AirPods Max that feels the least secure is the mesh canvas in the headband. It feels like it’ll rip if it catches on anything, even a zipper.
And if it does break, I think it would seriously ruin the experience of listening to AirPods Max. The weight of the headphones would pull the parallel plastic bars of the headband against your head the entire time you wear them.
The Smart Case AirPods Max comes with doesn’t protect the headband. So again, I urge you to grab a third-party case off of Amazon to hold these headphones. Otherwise, I wouldn’t recommend tossing them in a backpack or purse.
AirPods Max Review: The odd bits and ends of AirPods Max
And that’s it! That’s everything I think you need to know before buying a pair of AirPods Max.
Before closing out my AirPods Max review, though, I did want to include a section gathering up the lesser bits and bobs that I think you might want to know. None of these things is as make-or-break as what’s already been covered. However, these are things that I feel are worth mentioning.
Let’s rush through it!
The “automatic device switching” is iffy
It’s unfortunate because I was excited to try this feature out. It’s a feature that was added after I had already gotten rid of my first pair of AirPods, so this was my first experience with it.
Automatic device switching has been iffy, to say the least. When I first started using my AirPods Max, this feature didn’t work at all. I had to manually connect it to each of my devices.
Even then, it didn’t work. I would connect my AirPods Max to one device, wait a minute, then start playing something on another device while waiting for them to connect. Nothing would happen.
I ended up needing to disconnect my AirPods Max from each device and disabling this feature, then reenabling, to get it to work.
As of now, it works pretty well. It’ll usually switch devices after a few seconds (you can see it trying to switch in the Music app on Mac if you look at the lower-left corner of the app).
Even still, it’s not very consistent. Sometimes it’ll connect to a device, but the volume controls won’t work right. Or it’ll be connected, but the device won’t show that it’s connected. Little bugs like this pervade.
I wouldn’t call this a dealbreaker because it’s kind of a novelty feature. And Apple can polish it up in future updates, so it’s minor.
How long will a pair of AirPods Max last?
Anytime you’re dropping more than $100 on something, you want to know how long it’s going to last. I consider this to be an extremely important factor when purchasing tech. It’s nearly the entire reason I rag on AirPods so hard (aside from the generic sound quality).
From what I can tell, AirPods Max has several factors going for them that should keep them working for many years. Those factors are:
- The battery life. As mentioned before, AirPods Max can easily give you 20 hours of playback. That gives me hope that years down the road, after the battery has degraded, I’ll still get at least 4-5 hours of playback, which is plenty.
- The battery is replaceable. This was one of my biggest complaints with AirPods for a long time. You can now replace a standard pair of AirPods batteries for $49, but that’s nearly a third the price of AirPods. The $79 to replace the AirPods Max battery, however, doesn’t feel nearly as painful, considering it’s just 14% the price of buying a new pair of AirPods Max. That means you can replace the battery seven times for the same price of buying a new set of AirPods Max.
- You can use AirPods Max with a cable. I’m about to cover this in more detail below, but yes, you can use AirPods Max with a cable. That means that even if the battery does completely fail you in three years, you can keep using them long after that with a $30 cable.
- The cushions are replaceable. This is usually the first component to wear out on a pair of headphones. And from what I can tell, Apple is fairly unique in making them so easily replaceable. This might be the best design choice of AirPods Max, so full kudos to them.
- The build quality is solid. AirPods Max don’t feel like they’re going to break anytime soon.
The one aspect of AirPods Max that feels flimsy, which I covered earlier in this review, is the mesh headband. I can see it easily being ruined by a pet, zipper, etc. For the third time, buy a third-party case on Amazon!
Can you use AirPods Max with a cable?
Yes, you can. You can use a cable to plug AirPods Max into your devices so that you can listen to music without Bluetooth.
Now, there are some caveats here that I need to mention in this AirPods Max review.
First, there is no auxiliary port on AirPods Max. Just a Lightning port for charging them. So to plug them into an aux port, you need a Lightning to aux cable. You can buy this from Apple, but it’ll cost you $35.
Second, since AirPods Max doesn’t come with a true aux cable, you can’t listen to full lossless audio. The lossless audio will be converted to digital before it reaches your headphones, so you’ll lose a bit of quality.
So to answer the question, yes, you can use AirPods Max with a cable. However, it doesn’t come with the cable you need and won’t improve your audio quality noticeably.
The one benefit to using AirPods Max with a cable is that you can use AirPods Max without them dying as quickly. However, you can also listen to them while they’re charging, so you don’t need to buy an aux-to-Lightning cable to get this benefit.
They aren’t waterproof
In the eyes of this AirPods Max review, this isn’t a drawback at all. It’s not commonplace for over-ear headphones to be waterproof or even water-resistant. And considering that there is a lot of canvas material on these things, I doubt Apple will ever attempt to make a pair of waterproof over-ear headphones.
The reason I bring this up is so that you know AirPods Max aren’t waterproof. They don’t even claim to be sweat-resistant. So I highly advise you to not wear them in the rain, while working out, or to bring them near any source of water.
The AirPods Max have excellent Bluetooth range
No surprise here. The entire AirPods lineup has an excellent Bluetooth range, and AirPods Max are no exception.
I can go into every room in my apartment without losing connection, walk around outside my apartment, and even go up and downstairs while leaving my iPhone in my bedroom. The connection doesn’t falter until about 30 feet of distance and multiple walls between me and my device.
The microphones on AirPods Max are ok
Finally, the last talking point of my AirPods Max review is the microphones. Sadly, the microphones on AirPods Max are kind of lame.
From what I can tell, the audio recorded on them doesn’t sound that much better than the audio your iPhone can record. And despite all of the microphones attached to these things, there aren’t any cool processing features. They just single out your voice a bit and transmit it.
It gets the job done, just don’t expect to use this as a high-quality headset. It’s for listening to music, not recording audio.
AirPods Max Review: An excellent set of headphones at a disappointing price
And that’s it! That brings us to the end of my AirPods Max review. This is my longest review to date, but that’s because this is one of the most interesting Apple products I’ve picked up in a long time.
Overall, I’d say I’m happy with the purchase. I don’t think I would’ve been as happy, though, if I’d paid the full retail price. I’m very pleased with my decision to buy secondhand.
It’s gotten me back into listening to albums, has changed the way certain songs sound, has made it easier to get in the zone while working and doesn’t have any glaring flaws that ruin the experience. Just buy a third-party case and enjoy the experience.
Thanks for reading! Be sure to check out the rest of the AppleToolBox blog for more reviews, news, and all things Apple.
See you next time!