Review: Apple's $549 AirPods Max headphones offer big sound and bugs
The AirPods Max headphones sound terrific. For almost the price of an iPhone 11, anything less would be a major letdown.
Apple Inc.’s entry into the rapidly expanding category of over-ear noise-cancelling headphones was inevitable, and the end result lives up to the company’s usual high standards. Tested in the U.S. and Japan, across a wide variety of music genres, use cases and connected devices, the AirPods Max showed themselves a tier above the typical $300 pair of headphones in this class. But they didn’t quite justify their $549 price due to some bugs and imperfections.
If you’re an iPhone or iPad user, you’ll find pairing seamless. But once Macs and devices from outside the Apple ecosystem enter the fray, things can become frustrating. In our tests, use with a Mac sometimes led to issues with phone calls and distorted audio. For users in the Windows PC and Android ecosystems, switching between devices requires manual input each time.
Apple keeps pace with the noise-cancelling leaders like Sony Corp.’s $280 1000X-M4 without threatening to upstage them. Where the company is clearly in front is with its transparency mode, which delivers mostly natural sound for occasions when you want to hear the world around you without taking off the headphones.
The AirPods Max, built around a sturdy steel frame and aluminum ear cups, are some of the heaviest headphones in their category, but their weight distribution makes that a non-issue in our tests. The mesh headband helps avoid the buildup of any pressure at the top of the head over long periods of use — though it’s also a point of durability concern, as it appears susceptible to picking up dirt or tearing and is not user-replaceable like the magnetic ear pads. Apple’s decision to not provide a case that protects more than just the ear cups compounds this.
As a wireless, battery-powered headphone, this pricey gadget will only last as long as its sealed battery system does — an issue that has plagued owners of regular AirPods. Thus, even while Apple may tout these as audiophile headphones for a new age of wireless music, it cannot promise the same long lifespan as wired alternatives from the likes of Audeze, Sennheiser or Grado Labs.
The companies that Apple is most directly challenging with its AirPods Max are the likes of Bowers & Wilkins, Bang & Olufsen A/S and Master & Dynamic, brands that blend fashion and luxury with their technological offerings.
That’s where the AirPods Max are already a winner, in part because of Apple’s brand cachet, their distinctive design and the exclusivity that comes with a high price and early scarcity. Being seen in these will be a fashion statement, one that’s likely to attract more than a few influencers to do Apple’s promo work for free.
But the company that pioneered several innovations with the iPhone and iPad seems to be lacking a true differentiating feature with these new headphones. Apple isn’t doing anything profoundly unique on this occasion, relying more on superior quality and software features like Spatial Audio (home theater-like surround sound) and snappy pairing that have helped popularize the in-ear AirPods.
The AirPods Max do indeed deliver sound quality that makes them a pleasing listen irrespective of the type of music. They’re well ahead of any other Apple personal-audio product. And only a select few in their category, like Shure Inc.’s noise-cancelling $349 Aonic 50, can come close to matching their sound.
That sound quality was addled, however, by a series of intermittent bugs when used with a latest-generation Intel-based Mac. The AirPods Max would sometimes distort sounds and fail to adjust the volume via the headset’s built-in controls. Audio would also not come through sometimes when making and receiving calls from the Mac, with the sound flowing to the laptop’s speakers instead. These issues require rebooting the Mac or tinkering with settings to fix.
Apple doesn’t put a power button on these headphones, asking users to trust it to automatically handle power management. It also has an auto-detect function that switches off playback when the headphones are taken off. But when playing from the Mac’s built-in Music app, that auto-pause feature would sometimes fail when removing the headphones. The issue doesn’t occur with an iPhone nor iPad. It’s a problem that could impact battery life as music could be streaming from a Mac without a user being aware. Apple said it is looking into these issues.
For those outside of the Apple ecosystem, rivals like Jabra Corp.’s $449 Evolve2 85 can maintain constant connections to more than one device and make for a more streamlined, Apple-like experience. But to be fair, all of Apple’s audio products follow the same playbook: they work best when paired with iPhones and iPads.
The case that comes with the AirPods Max is flimsy and lacks real protection. This is disappointing when even the most basic AirPods come in protective hard-shell cases and cheaper rival headphones have more reassuring covers. Apple has argued the minimal design make the headphones easy to hold and store — which is true, but does nothing to safeguard the headband.
Apple says the case has a “smart” element (triggered by magnets) that puts the headphones in an ultra-low-power mode when not in use, but we found the headphones use little battery when not playing music and left on a table on their own. At least one third-party accessory maker, Waterfield Designs, has promised to recreate that function with a sturdier AirPods Max case, but it’s unclear if Apple will open up that feature to third parties.
Battery life, whether streaming sound from Apple gear or Android and Windows devices, has been sufficient to get through a full day and more of music, calls, movies and video games. It’s notable that Apple’s headphones have practically no latency in their playback over Bluetooth 5, making them viable for gaming. Apple quotes 20 hours between charges, in line with other top-end headphones, and it provides a Lightning charging connector — which makes sense as most users likely have iPhones, though it will be a nuisance for other consumers.
Since the first AirPods launched in 2016, users have complained that the earbuds’ batteries typically only last up to two years before needing to be replaced. Given the sealed design of the AirPods Max, that is likely to be a problem down the road as well. Apple says it can replace the AirPods Max battery for $79 or at no additional cost if you take the $59 AppleCare option at purchase.
To control the headphones, Apple is relying on three main methods: software on connected devices, Siri voice control, and a minimal set of adjustments with its digital crown. Siri on the AirPods Max is the same experience you’ll find on any other Apple device and the microphones generally do a good job helping the virtual assistant understand your commands. Microphone performance from the AirPods Max is good without distinguishing itself.
The AirPods Max aren’t the first headphones to offer swappable ear pads, but — like Apple’s other products of late — the magnet system is intuitive and the pads will be easy to swap for about $70 when the included pair eventually wears out.
The AirPods Max follow a familiar Apple playbook. They start with a distinctive design and performance beating out rivals, but with a higher price tag. In audio, that’s a formula that failed with the original HomePod, a home speaker that sounded better than the competition at launch but lacked a major differentiator.
With the iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch, unique advantages like the company’s own processors have helped Apple’s devices stand out. The original AirPods also became a hit based on their ease of use, discreet case and fully wireless design. But with the AirPods Max, Apple is missing a major differentiator beyond its brand cachet.
The high price is to be expected from a company unafraid to let customers spec iMac desktops to $5,000 and beyond, and early demand suggests it’s not proving to be a deterrent to holiday shoppers and Apple’s loyal user base.
Apple is already wrestling with weeks-long delays on fulfilling fresh orders for the AirPods Max and all indications are that it will keep selling every pair it makes for a while. The question, after the initial thrill of novelty wears off, will be how quickly the company iterates to iron out the software issues and how willing it will be to lower the price to broaden the AirPods Max market.
By Mark Gurman and Vlad Savov