Apple AirPods Max Review

Our expert tests found Apple's premium headphones impressive but high priced

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4.2

Apple AirPods Max

Apple AirPods Max

Lifewire / Jason Schneider

What We Like
  • Incredible build quality

  • Great sound and noise cancellation

  • Flashy features like spatial audio

  • Seamless integration with Apple products

What We Don't Like
  • Very expensive

  • A bit heavy on the head

  • Included case leaves a lot to be desired

These headphones are an investment, but if you want the best Apple has to offer, then they're for you.

4.2

Apple AirPods Max

Apple AirPods Max

Lifewire / Jason Schneider

We purchased the Apple AirPods Max so our reviewer could put them to the test. Keep reading for the full product review.

Apple AirPods Max are the tech giant’s first true foray into the premium (i.e expensive) headphones space. The in-ear AirPods are definitely premium earbuds in their own right, but if you’re serious about higher-quality audio, then over-ear headphones are the tool for the job. There were years of speculation about what Apple’s over-ear Bluetooth headphones would look like, and when the AirPods Max came out in late 2020, it was a little surprising.

First and foremost, these headphones are expensive, a good $200 more expensive than even the priciest mainstream Bluetooth headphones available now. This price point actually puts them in the same class as a mid-tier, high-resolution wired headphone.

The mostly metal build and feature-packed sensors in these headphones feels decidedly Apple, and most of the experience of actually listening to the AirPods Max is really great. But are they worth the price? I spent the better part of a week with my pair, and here’s where I come down on that question.

Design: Very specific and very Apple

By all accounts, the AirPods Max certainly look the part. If you look at all of Apple’s consumer products—from the original AirPods to Apple Watches—you’ll see some clear inspiration carried through to the build of the AirPods Max. The Digital Crown on the top of the right ear cup is a directly copied, oversized version of the crown found on Apple watches. The color options are the same offered for the latest iPad Air 4. Even the shape of each metal ear cup is similar to the shape of the Apple Watch enclosure.

Apple AirPods Max

Lifewire / Jason Schneider

Overall, I like the look of the AirPods. The machined, telescoping headband arms are pleasantly glossy and the mesh and silicone coating on the top feel very contoured to match. The earcups, on the other hand, are a little bit of an acquired taste. Most consumer headphones go for a more circular look, but Apple has chosen a rounded rectangle shape.

The ear cups are also objectively massive. This is helpful for larger ears (I’ll get into that in the Comfort section), but it does mean that it’s quite obvious when you’re wearing the AirPods Max. This might not be an issue—when the first AirPods came out, people scoffed at the dangling stem design that has now become synonymous with premium earbuds. Time will tell on whether the look of these headphones will become as ubiquitous, but there’s one thing for certain: These are very “Apple.”

Comfort: Nice materials, to a fault

It’s hard to talk about an Apple product without bringing up the build quality, and while I’ll go into more detail in the next section, it’s important to note that the attention to detail does a lot for making these headphones feel good on your head.

The soft-touch silicone that coats the headband as well as the delicate fabric mesh make for a nearly undetectable point of contact on the top of your head. The ear cups use a similar woven fabric as their covering.

At over 13 ounces, these headphones are basically the heaviest over-ears I’ve ever worn.

At first shake, this seems like a miss because it isn’t quite as supple as a softer touch, faux leather (found on most consumer headphones). But, the memory foam inside this covering is the perfect balance of bouncy and form fitting. And, because the ear cups are so big, even giant earlobes like mine will find a nice home without overheating too much.

But all of these choices—the reinforced headband, the oversized earcups, etc.— actually work against the comfort to some degree. At over 13 ounces, these headphones are basically the heaviest over-ears I’ve ever worn. That’s not an exaggeration; On the scale alone, you would be hard-pressed to find heavier consumer cans. So, if you are particularly sensitive to heavy headphones, I’d steer clear of these.

Apple AirPods Max

Lifewire / Jason Schneider

However, Apple has done something remarkable with how they distribute the weight on your head. Thanks to the ultra-strong headband and the dispersing mesh canopy that rests on your head, a lot of the weight is diverted to either ear. This means that the headphones don’t feel as heavy as the spec sheet would imply. However, they are noticeable after a couple hours. 

Durability and Build Quality: Premium, premium, premium

One of the biggest selling points for any Apple product is the strong build quality. The AirPods Max are no exception to this, with truly premium-feeling materials. The first thing you’ll notice when you take them out of the box is the ear cups. Each cup is built from a single piece of anodized aluminum which feels both high-quality and rigidly durable.

The points of the arms that connect to these cups are built of a high-polished stainless steel that’s reminiscent of the sides of Apple’s most recent iPhones. The weaker points (the woven ear pads and the canopy that rests on your head) only feel delicate. I’ve been impressed with how durable these actually seem under average stress.

And then there’s the experience of interacting with the headphones. Most headphones use a ratchet-style sizing system that clicks, but the AirPods Max use a telescoping, almost hydraulic mechanism to smoothly resize the headband. Even the way the ear cups pivot, turn, and bend outward feels like an intentional mechanism, rather than putting stress on delicate plastic points.

Each cup is built from a single piece of anodized aluminum which feels both high-quality and rigidly durable.

In fact, the only part of this whole package that feels unintentional is the case. I’ll get into more about this case and why it’s not great later, but because it doesn’t fully cover the whole headphones, I would recommend being careful with the product. At this price point, even if it feels like it will hold up, you’ll be disappointed if small cosmetic scuffs enter the picture.

Sound Quality and Noise Cancelling: Glossy and impressive

The truth about the sound quality question for these headphones: They sound flat-out great. Are they the best-sounding headphones I’ve ever used? No. But are they every bit as good as the rest of the Bluetooth headphones available on the market? Yes, for the most part.

In true Apple form, there are a lot of fancy terms thrown around on the website, like “the driver’s dual-neodymium ring magnet motor minimized total harmonic distortion,” for instance. What does that mean?

Apple AirPods Max

Lifewire / Jason Schneider

Well, most headphones in this class use similar speaker arrays, so the only concept you have to rely on is Apple’s digital signal processing. I can say that these headphones sound incredibly well-balanced for a pair of consumer cans.

They actually offer a good amount of bass, with particular oomph in the sub bass to provide enough support for even particularly thumpy mixes. The highs are a little softer than I’d like, and some of the mids get a little swallowed at low volumes. But what is most impressive is that you can turn these headphones up very loud and the sound still holds up well, without the distortion found at top volumes on other headphones.

Then there’s the active noise cancellation (ANC). Previously, I would have told you that Sony’s WH line sports the best ANC around. And that’s still true by many accounts. But what Apple seems to do well here is the adaptive part of the equation. There are six outwardly facing mics and two that face inward to help the headphones read your environment with an impressive degree of precision and blot out only the noise that is there.

I can say that these headphones sound incredibly well-balanced for a pair of consumer cans. They actually offer a good amount of bass, with particular oomph in the sub bass.

The “beamforming” qualities of the mics also help to isolate common sounds like voices and wind. I think Sony’s noise cancellation is a little more subtle, and to my ears it feels a little more natural, but if immersion is your goal, then these headphones will work impressively for you. There are, of course, a lot of other features like a small degree of EQ customization (I recommend activating the vocal-isolating setting in your iPhone menu), but for the most part, the sound Apple intended is what you get. 

Battery Life: Pretty reliable for the functionality

In a lot of ways, the AirPods Max can be considered an “aural augmentation accessory,” just as much as they are a pair of traditional headphones. I’ll get into the spatial audio and transparency modes that make these things so cool in a later section, but all of these extra functions have a lot of impact on battery life. So the fact that Apple promises up to 20 hours of use for most users, even taking advantage of a lot of this functionality, is great to see.

To be fair, options for Bose and Sony give you a few more hours on a single charge, so the AirPods Max are far from class-leading in this regard. But, in the five-or-so days I’ve spent using the headphones, I’ve been impressed with just how well they hold on. What’s more is that when you plug them in, you’ll get about an hour and a half of additional time with just five minutes on the charger.

Apple AirPods Max

Lifewire / Jason Schneider

Another important note is one of the oddest aspects of the AirPods Max: You can’t manually turn them off. The case that comes included with the AirPods Max has magnets in it which force the headphones into a deep low-power mode. Apple has claimed that the headphones will automatically enter this mode after a period of time, but if you really want to conserve battery life, you’ll have to bring the case along with you.

Connectivity: Seamless with the Apple ecosystem

As with any Apple product, you’ll find the most seamless integration if you are fully invested in Apple’s ecosystem. This means if you have an iPad, Mac, and an iPhone, you’ll be able to quickly shift from one source device to another. Plus, because there’s an H1 chip in each headphone, you should be prompted to automatically connect when using an Apple device (no need to fumble through Bluetooth menus).

Apple AirPods Max

Lifewire / Jason Schneider

The actual connection protocol is Bluetooth 5.0, and the codecs are SBC and AAC, depending on the device. This means all of the latency and sound quality is left to Apple’s signal processor software on board. You can, technically, connect the headphones to any Bluetooth device (Android included), but you won’t have the spatial audio or extra connectivity features.

On my iPhone and Mac, I found the latency to be virtually undetectable and the sound quality to be excellent. But when I went to connect to a non-Apple tablet, it was much more difficult—requiring me to disconnect from my Apple devices before forcing it into Bluetooth pairing mode. My general takeaway here is that these headphones are probably too expensive if you’re planning to use them with non-Apple products, but if you’re an Apple stalwart, there’s plenty of value to be gained.

Software and Extras: Plenty to like, but not much you need

Because Apple doesn’t give you a whole lot of control over the customization of these headphones’ feature sets, what you end up with is a bunch of flashy extras that may or may not be of value to you.

First up is Apple’s Spatial Audio. This feature is available in the AirPods Pro as well, but it really comes alive in the fully isolated sound of the AirPods Max. This software aims to emulate a surround sound system, but it also allows you to set up a reference point, so that the sound you’re hearing stays in the direction of your source device (like your phone or your laptop), even if you move your head. It’s a neat little trick and would be a great addition to a virtual reality experience.

Then there’s the transparency mode. While most headphones have this option, they’ll just pipe in a flat feed from the mics used for phone calls. Apple uses its impressive mic array to deliver a shockingly natural transparency mode that’s truly pleasant for carrying on conversations while keeping the headphones on. All of this is cool, but can be a little too niche for the average user, especially at the price point.

Apple AirPods Max

Lifewire / Jason Schneider

And then there’s the case. Probably the most written-about feature with the AirPods Max is the tiny, foldable case that covers only the bottom of the headphones, leaving the mesh headband canopy exposed. This is an odd choice; if one part of the headphones is going to succumb to wear and tear, it’s going to be the headband. So, the case really isn’t meant for travel, but rather just to prevent the metal enclosures from “clacking” together. It also puts the headphones into a deep, lower-power mode. Though the case feels physically nice, it just isn’t enough for this price point.

One final extra feature is the mechanism with which the ear pads are attached. These cleverly designed woven ear pads are affixed to the headphones with strong magnets. This makes them much easier to remove and reattach than most of the leather ear cups on the market. This also means that if you’re willing to shell out the $70 to buy replacement ear pads from Apple, you could conceivably mix and match colors (I’m thinking that Sky Blue and Pink would look pretty cool).

Price: Objectively too expensive

I don’t think anyone, including Apple, would argue that the price for these headphones is truly commensurate with the market. Apple has done this before—launching products at a huge up-charge to try to provide a fit and finish or ease of use that isn’t currently available, all for a serious premium.

While it is true that the substantial build quality and simple integration with Apple products isn’t rivaled, Bose and Sony offer pretty great headphones for about half the price. So, the question comes down to how important Apple’s brand is to you. History has taught us that Apple can command an entire segment of a market that would have otherwise been thought of as niche (true wireless earbuds and smartwatches are great examples of this phenomenon). But are these ultra-premium headphones an example of this? That’s really up to you.

Apple AirPods Max vs. Sony WH-1000XM4

At $549, there really aren’t any truly comparable headphones. Consumer Bluetooth ANC headphones top out at around $300, and all the headphones at $550+ are wired, DAC-focused, audiophile models.

The closest competitor here is my current favorite pair of premium Bluetooth headphones: the Sony WH-1000XM4s. These headphones provide incredible sound quality, great ANC, and excellent customizability. AirPods Max have a more substantial build quality, and the Apple-focused extras are found nowhere else. If what Apple offers here is important enough to you, it could be worth the added money, but my preference for the value offered still leans toward the XM4s.

Final Verdict

Incredible for a very specific listener

Looking at everything these headphones offer—incredible build quality, next-level features, and rich, balanced sound—it’s nearly impossible to give them poor marks. In fact it’s really only the price that drags them into questionable territory. For $350, I’d have forgiven the heaviness on my head and the abysmal awkwardness of the case. For $549, these are factors you really have to consider.

At the end of the day, I think these are awesome luxury headphones for day-to-day use, but for traveling, where a better case and a more affordable price tag are appreciated, this is a harder sell. But, Apple fans will certainly be happy with their purchase here, and we all know that Apple is a premium brand. So the final decision lies with what you can afford and how much you like the ecosystem.

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Specs

  • Product Name AirPods Max
  • Product Brand Apple
  • MPN MGYH3AM/A
  • Price $549
  • Release Date December 2020
  • Weight 13.6 oz.
  • Product Dimensions 7.4 x 6.6 x 3.3 in.
  • Color Green, Pink, Silver, Sky Blue, Space Gray
  • Battery Life Up to 20 hours, depending on usage
  • Wired/Wireless Wireless
  • Wireless Range 30 ft.
  • Warranty 1 year, limited
  • Bluetooth Spec Bluetooth 5
  • Audio Codecs SBC, AAC
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