Spatial Audio and superb noise cancelling are standouts for Apple’s AirPods Max - a great pair of headphones for Apple users
- Good sound quality
- Awesome noise cancelling
- Spatial Audio is stunning
- Fit isn’t 100% secure
- Case only partially protects headphones
The Apple AirPods Max launched at the back end of 2020 to a predictable reception. Many of the headlines focused on the price and only the price. With £300 to £350 becoming the going rate for premium over-ear noise-cancelling headphones such as the Sony WH-1000XM4 and the Bose Series 700, why would anyone spend £200 extra on the AirPods Max?
For me, it was, and remains, a fairly easy question to answer. If the AirPods Max sound better then of course I’d recommend you spend more – and if the noise cancelling is superior and they’re more comfortable then so much the better.
Indeed, there are plenty of folks who’d think nothing of dropping £549 on the amplifier to drive their exotic open-back Hi-Fi headphones. So I’d reverse the question: if they’re good enough, and you care about your audio, why wouldn’t you spend this much on a pair of headphones?
Apple AirPods Max review: What you need to know
Aside from the high price, the main thing you need to know about the AirPods Max is that they’re not AirPods in the way you’ve come to expect. Despite sharing the same name as the AirPods and AirPods Pro, they’re over-ear headphones – Apple’s first, if you don’t count Beats headphones – and come with active noise cancelling just like the Sony WH-1000XM4, Bose NC 700 and the Bowers & Wilkins PX7.
Are they as good? The short answer is yes. Overall sound quality is superb and noise cancellation is right up there with the very best we’ve listened to. The AirPods Max are built supremely well, too, and look great with anodised aluminium earcups, replaceable earpads and a mesh headband that takes the strain off the top of your head. They also come with a case, although this only protects the earcups, not the headband.
As with Apple’s other audio products, the AirPods Max are not geared towards owners of non-Apple hardware. Although you can pair them with Windows 10 laptops and Android phones over Bluetooth, you won’t be able to take advantage of the AirPods Max’s quick pairing and switching facilities, use Siri or benefit from the AirPods Max’s amazing 360-degree “Spatial Audio” features.
It’s also worth noting that, just as the firm’s iPhones eschew the venerable 3.5mm jack, so do the Apple AirPods Max, so you won’t be able to listen to them when the battery runs dry unless you connect them to a power source.
Apple AirPods Max review: Price and competition
At £549 per pair, the Apple AirPods Max are considerably more expensive than their main rivals but they’re not quite so expensive that they begin to edge into proper audiophile headphone territory.
Our favourite premium headphones at the moment are the Sony WH-1000XM4, which deliver a fantastic balance of comfort, sound quality and noise-cancelling effectiveness. The Bose Series 700 and the Bowers & Wilkins PX7 aren’t far behind them.
None of these can match the AirPods Max’s convenience features when used with Apple devices nor the overall fit comfort and finish but they all have equally good noise cancellation and sound quality is great as well.
Apple AirPods Max review: Design, comfort and features
Possibly the most attractive thing about the Apple AirPods Max is their design and, in typical Apple fashion, nothing about the way they have been put together has been left to chance.
The headphones have aluminium ear cups with an anodised finish (available in silver, pink, “Space Gray”, “Sky Blue” and green) that feels silky smooth and cool beneath your fingers and the controls are minimalist, effective and have a wonderfully tactile feel to them.
Mercifully, Apple has avoided implementing touch-sensitive controls, instead opting for all physical controls, with a small, clickable knob – similar to the digital crown found on the firm’s Apple Watch – and a single button mounted on the right earcup’s top edge.
A quick spin of the crown is all that’s needed to adjust volume, a quick click pauses and plays tracks and you only have to hold it down for a moment to activate Siri. The button next to it is for switching between noise cancelling and the headphones’ ambient sound mode.
Everything feels perfectly thought out and is incredibly easy to use and that level of attention to detail continues throughout. The earcups are connected to the headband with a chrome steel joint, polished to a high shine, that springs each way, the aim being to keep even pressure on the side of your head without feeling overly tight.
The headband emerging from these joints is made from stainless, spring-tempered steel and has a tough, rubberised coating that’s colour-matched to the earcups. Unusually, this headband splits in the centre and the resulting gap has a thin, stretchy mesh material suspended between the two sides that provides cushioning and breathability.
The headphones look and feel stunning and they’re super comfortable to wear for long periods. Although they’re heavy, the mesh material, which Apple calls the “canopy”, keeps the pressure light on the top of your head and evenly distributed. The material on the ear cushions feels more breathable than most and the earcups even feel comfortable worn over the top of glasses.
I found the fit wasn’t quite up to the same standards, however. The overall weight of the earcups mean they have a tendency to shift position on the ears whenever you tilt your head forward or backward and if you bend down to pick something off the floor, or go to tie up your shoelaces, they feel as if they might fall off. Your mileage may vary, though – those with larger heads than mine may not experience this.
The included case isn’t all that impressive, either. It’s well made and, when you slip in the headphones, they automatically power off, saving battery life. Weirdly, though, the case is only made to protect the ear cup part of the headphones, leaving the headband and the rather fragile-feeling stretchy mesh completely exposed. If I’d spent £550 on these I’d be purchasing a protective bag straight away.
The headphones’ other features are more impressive and include everything you’d expect from a pair of modern noise cancellation headphones from Apple. Optical sensors pause and automatically resume music when you remove the headphones from your ears and put them back on.
Pairing and switching between devices is incredibly easy (as long as you’re doing this between your own Apple devices, naturally) and the headphones have the longest range I’ve ever experienced on any wireless headphones I’ve used. I was able to leave my phone in my office and wander all around the house – upstairs to my kids’ bedrooms to remind them to do their online schoolwork, downstairs to the kitchen to rustle up a coffee – without a single break in the signal. I was even able to take out the bins and wander 30 metres down the street before the signal disappeared completely.
Apple AirPods Max review: Noise-cancelling performance
Apple makes much of the fact that the AirPods Max house an Apple H1 chip in each cup. This, the company says, makes for unrivalled noise-cancelling performance when combined with six external microphones and two internal mics to monitor the fit and seal of the ear cushions.
It’s certainly impressive on first listen. In back-to-back tests against the older, but still incredibly impressive Bose QC35 II, the AirPods Max performed admirably, cutting out more noise overall and making it easier to listen to music in all types of noisy environments. I tested them against a background of airplane and London Tube noise and found that, although the Bose created a slightly deader, flatter background, the AirPods Max more effectively attenuated higher frequency noises such as the clack of wheels on track or the whine of a coffee grinder.
However, I found that, no matter how I adjusted them, the heavy square earcups and low clamping force of the headband meant the seal with the side of my head would break regularly, with an immediate and negative impact on the effectiveness of the noise cancelling. The ANC technology is clearly very impressive but the fit issues I had with the headphones meant I wasn’t able to make the most of it all the time.
The AirPods Max’s Transparency mode is equally if not more effective. Press the noise-cancelling button on the top of the right ear cup and the external microphones mix in audio from around you so you can hear your surroundings clearly, from nearby conversations to road traffic as you’re walking down the street.
The microphones seem to be tuned perfectly, presenting audio at the same volume level as real life and sounding only slightly sharper. The only problem I have with it is that pressing the button to activate Transparency mode doesn’t reduce the volume of the music at the same time. Instead, if you want to talk to people while leaving the headphones on your head you’ll have to turn down the volume or pause your music manually.
Finally, a word about the noise-cancelling, beamforming microphones which are also pretty good at keeping background noise at bay while making phone calls. Sound quality isn’t quite as good, though, with the microphones producing clear but rather thin audio, with voices lacking in body.
Apple AirPods Max review: Sound quality
Again the AirPods Max provide a mixture of performance levels here. Alas, I don’t have the Sony WH-1000XM4 here to compare them with but I do have a pair of Bowers & Wilkins P9 Signature hooked up to an iDSD Black Label amplifier as a control and a pair of Bose QuietComfort II, which are cheaper but still have very good sound quality to my mind.
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Unsurprisingly, the AirPods Max sit somewhere between the two. In terms of the overall sound profile, you’re getting more emphasis on the sub-bass than the other two pairs of headphones I’m comparing with and slightly less crisp top-end detail than the pricier Bowers & Wilkins. The AirPods Max also deliver music with less attack and muscularity than I’d like from a pair of headphones costing this much; in fact, their presentation is fairly laid back overall.
In general, though, they’re a joy to listen to. They won’t convince fans of open-back audiophile headphones like the Sennheiser HD 800S but they’re right up there with the best in their own category. The sound stage is nice and wide and there’s plenty of separation between instruments and the slight roll-off in the very top-end frequencies mean they’re not fatiguing to listen to at all. You can keep on wearing these headphones for hours and hours and hours.
Something that’s a little harder to judge is how effective the AirPods Max’s automatic adaptive EQ is. This technology uses the headphones’ internal microphones to detect the particular fit and seal provided by the ear cushions and adapt the EQ curve accordingly. I tested this by listening to some bass-heavy music while wearing some rather bulky sunglasses and then removing them. I’d expect this to produce some fall off in bass compared with regular headphones but with the AirPods Max there was barely any difference in the overall bass reproduction.
It’s not all about straight stereo quality with the AirPods Max, though, and in many ways it’s the 360-degree “Spatial Audio” that’s their most impressive feature. Spatial Audio is Apple vernacular for head-tracking surround sound. And it works.
While watching movies and TV shows that support the technology, it delivers a convincing surround sound audio experience that significantly enhances immersion. But that’s not all.
By using accelerometers and gyroscopic sensors in both the headphones and your iOS device, Spatial Audio can track your head movements in relation to the screen and “move” the sound around accordingly.
The effect is highly convincing. I fired up the first episode of See on Apple TV+ and started moving my head left and right in relation to the screen; sure enough, Jason Momoa’s dulcet tones stayed locked solidly to the screen of the iPhone I was watching on. The general sense of spaciousness is terrifically convincing, too, with sound effects seeming to come from all around you as you watch and dialogue anchored in the centre. Match the AirPods Max with an iPad Pro and you may never want to go back to your TV and soundbar again; the experience is astonishingly immersive.
At the time of writing this review, unfortunately, support for Spatial Audio is limited. You can only make use of it on recent iOS devices while streaming from Apple TV+ or Disney+ in the UK – neither Prime Video nor Netflix supports the technology yet. If the technology is as easy for developers to switch on as Apple says it is, though, it can only be a matter of time before we see support for Spatial Audio adopted by the streaming giants and perhaps also by developers of the big mobile games franchises.
Apple AirPods Max review: Verdict
Spatial Audio, like many aspects of the Apple AirPods Max, is seriously impressive. It’s wonderfully convincing and, coupled with the headphones’ all-round audio quality, impressive noise cancellation and transparency mode, contributes to a super all-round experience.
Added to which, the AirPods Max are the most luxurious, attractive, well-made headphones I’ve come across, with a headband that takes the weight off the top of your head, making them comfortable for long listening sessions.
But there are weak spots, too. The case isn’t protective enough, Spatial Audio support is currently limited and, most importantly, the loose fit of the ear cups and clamping force of the headband on the side of your head mean the noise-cancelling seal can be easy to break for those with narrower faces and more angular jawlines.
Ultimately, if you can justify the price to yourself you’ll almost certainly not be disappointed with the Apple AirPods Max. They’re undoubtedly a mighty fine pair of headphones with a raft of fantastic features and capabilities. However, if you purchase a pair of Sony WH-1000XM4, Bose Series 700 or Bowers & Wilkins PX7, you’ll be getting headphones that are very nearly as good for at least £200 less.