I’ve lost track of the number of times people predicted Apple would finally announce its long-rumored AirPods Max at one of its many 2020 events. And when it didn’t happen, I figured we’d all continue to speculate about their release for another couple of years.
Clearly, I was wrong.
But even though the company dropped the announcement without much fanfare via a press release, Apple’s first pair of non-Beats-branded over-ear headphones have made a loud entrance.
Their super unique design alone is enough to make you do a double-take, with bulbous ear cups, eye-catching colors, and a weird Smart Case accessory. Tack on that exorbitant $550 price tag, and you’re right to question whether these are actually a real Apple product or an elaborate fan joke.
Yes, the internet was quick to criticize Apple for both the obnoxious look and extremely high price of its AirPods Max shortly after their unveiling. But for that amount of money, it’s only fair that people would expect the highest quality all around, especially with steep competition like the Sony WH-1000XM4 or Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700. Despite the internet’s penchant for shared outrage, however, it appears those fears were mostly unfounded.
The AirPods Max was inevitable if you consider Apple’s headphones trajectory. After all, the company acquired Beats by Dre back in 2014, inheriting a plethora of data in the process, encompassing everything from design to features.
In 2016, Apple built upon its success with Beats by launching its very own wireless earbuds, the original AirPods, followed by a second-generation version just a few years later. To further add to the lineup, it then also released the higher-end AirPods Pro in 2019, which feature noise cancellation, a more comfortable fit, and better sound quality.
The new AirPods Max essentially represents a culmination of all the technology and features that have made Apple’s line of earbuds so successful. These over-ear headphones come equipped with noise cancellation, a transparency mode, and spatial audio.
Based on the immediate social media response (or rather, outcry) on launch day, however, it’s clear that Apple’s brand name alone can’t carry the AirPods Max to success. Just because the company has proven its ability to produce some damn good earbuds, that doesn’t automatically mean it can do the same for headphones — even if they were sold out in just one day.
So, are the AirPods Max really worth $550? The answer is yes, but only if you have a big head and don’t wear glasses.
One size (does not) fit all
Even after scrolling through all the memes and mean tweets about Apple’s new headphones, I was still unwavering in my enthusiasm. All I could think about was rockin’ these bad boys on the subway to and from work (in a non-pandemic world, anyway). I felt like the AirPods Max was the statement piece I was missing for my collection of cute outfits.
That all changed once I had them in my possession.
Aesthetically, the AirPods Max is mesmerizing. Between the unique knit mesh canopy headband and the smooth aluminum ear cups — which come in green, sky blue, pink, silver, and space gray — it’s clear Apple didn’t play it safe with these, especially compared to the very simplistic AirPods and AirPods Pro.
Deep down, however, I knew these headphones probably wouldn’t work for my small head and, sadly, I was right. The minute I unboxed the AirPods Max, put them on, and looked in the mirror, I started laughing. The ear cups swallow my entire head whole and also feel so heavy that it’s almost like I’m giving my skull a workout. Wearing these with glasses felt super painful too, causing me slight headaches and throbbing in my ears throughout the day.
I wish I had nice professional photos of myself wearing the headphones, but we’re in a pandemic and it’s winter, so socially distanced outdoor photoshoots are no longer as easy as they used to be. Still, I want to show you how ridiculous they look on my small head (and potentially yours), so here’s an impromptu video I took of myself instead.
Having cycled through many pairs of over-ear headphones throughout the years, I’m used to all these issues. But since Apple emphasized that these headphones were designed for comfort —even for those with glasses — I was upset to have experienced the opposite.
Beauty is pain
The AirPods Max featuress a knit mesh canopy that’s meant to distribute the weight of the headphones and reduce pressure on your head. Attached to that is a silicone-coated stainless steel headband with telescoping arms that you can pull in and out to adjust for the right fit. Then there are the aluminum ear cups with memory foam cushions — both of which are removable, so you can replace them for an extra $69 if they wear out over time.
Over the right ear cup are the controls (which I’ll get to in detail later) including a digital crown and a noise-control button. The bottom right is home to a lightning port to charge the headphones. Ironically, there’s no headphone jack to be found on the AirPods Max. So, yes, you have no choice but to use these wirelessly and keep them charged.
The headphones also feature a total of eight microphones: Both ear cups have three mics on the outside and one on the inside. If you’re the type who is constantly on calls throughout the day, you should know the mic’s sound quality isn’t great — it makes my voice sound echoey and flat.
On paper, Apple’s AirPods Max design gives the impression of comfort, but it’s the complete opposite in practice. I couldn’t wear the headphones for more than two to three hours at a time before my ears would start to throb from the pressure. I also had to constantly readjust the canopy and put it back in place because it had a tendency to inch backward little by little.
The pressure that comes with wearing over-ear headphones is usually caused by the headband. But with the AirPods Max, it’s actually the ear cups — they’re too big for my ears.
The only solution that slightly worked was to wear my hair down, which acted as somewhat of a buffer between my ears and the ear cups. It’s an easy fix (if you’ve got the locks), but for a pair of headphones that cost almost $600, I shouldn’t have to go out of my way to find a workaround for a comfortable fit.
If anything, Apple should’ve offered these in multiple sizes. Similar to the way the AirPods Pro come with a variety of silicone tips for the right fit, perhaps Apple could’ve offered the option to choose between different-sized ear cups to fit heads big and small.
I have one question about the Smart Case: Why?
This deserves its own section particularly because it has to be said: The Smart Case is possibly the dumbest thing Apple has ever designed.
Since the AirPods Max isn’t collapsible (another disappointing factor), you have no other choice than to store them as is in the Smart Case. It has a built-in magnet within each ear-cups (over-the-shoulder boulder) holder that detects when the headphones are placed inside, automatically switching them into ultra-low-power mode to save battery.
Now, you might be asking: “Why can’t you turn them off?” Well, reader, that’s because the AirPods Max doesn’t have a power button. Nope. The headphones are always on even when you’re not wearing them.
They mimic the same behavior as the standard AirPods: Much like how you place Apple’s AirPods into the case whenever you’re done using them, the AirPods Max is supposed to be placed in their Smart Case. And that’d make sense if the case also doubled as a charger… but it doesn’t.
At $550, the AirPods Max is the most expensive handbag I’ve ever owned.
It’s exhausting to take them in and out of the case numerous times a day, and it also looks and feels ridiculous. The case is not compact enough to fit into my crossbody bag either, and carrying them like a “purse” outside is annoying. It’s also really anxiety-inducing to carry these in public out of fear that someone is going to easily swipe them from my hands.
As for battery life, Apple claims the AirPods Max get up to 20 hours on a single charge across the board. So that means talk time, listening time with active noise cancellation or transparency mode turned on, and movie playback with spatial audio. There’s also an LED status indicator that glows green when battery life is above 15 percent and then switches to amber if it’s below that.
While I can’t say I’ve worn these for 20 hours straight, I have yet to reach a low battery. On a busier day of use, I had the AirPods Max on intermittently (putting them down on my desk every once in a while) and was at about 80 percent after three hours. So I can easily say you’ll get a full day’s use out of these headphones, especially if you commit to placing them in the smart case.
Seamless connectivity and intuitive controls
If there’s one thing I’ve always appreciated about Apple, it’s the no-hassle connectivity to its ecosystem of devices. The minute I unboxed the AirPods Max, a pop-up appeared on my iPhone 12 mini notifying me the headphones were automatically connected. From there, they would swap back and forth between my MacBook and iPhone, depending on which one I was using for audio.
As for the physical controls on the headphones, there isn’t much to them.
With the Digital Crown you can:
- Rotate to raise or lower the volume
- Press once to play, pause, or answer a call
- Press twice to skip playback forward on audio and three times to skip back
- Press and hold for Siri (additionally, you can also trigger the voice assistant by saying “Hey, Siri” out loud)
Then, there’s the noise control button which allows you to toggle between noise cancellation and transparency mode with a single press. And rather than having to manually pause your music, you can simply lift up an ear cup or take the headphones off, and the AirPods will recognize the movement and stop the audio.
Since I’m constantly connected to all of my devices in quarantine, I barely used the physical controls. Instead, I opted for the control center on my MacBook or haptic touch on my iPhone to adjust volume or swap between noise modes. If I were commuting or traveling a lot more — with my iPhone usually tucked away in my bag or pocket — I’d certainly rely on the on-device controls a lot more.
Audio quality receives a seal of approval
I’m no audiophile, but I was still impressed with the AirPods Max, especially coming from the second-generation AirPods. Both music and podcasts sound a lot fuller and richer than they do with the earbuds. If the AirPods Max weren’t so uncomfortable to wear for longer periods of time, I’d prefer them to the standard AirPods. And that’s a lot coming from me because I love Apple’s precious buds.
Noise cancellation worked super well for me, too. It did a good job of drowning out the very loud radiator in my room and the traffic outside my window. At one point, my roommate tried to talk to me from the entryway of my room and thought I was ignoring her because I couldn’t hear a thing.
Transparency mode was useful for when I was walking outside and wanted to make sure I could hear cars passing by, and also for those times at home when I was waiting on the buzzer to ring for food deliveries or packages.
The AirPods Max also comes with a spatial audio feature that tracks which way you move your head to deliver a more “immersive theater-like sound.” It’s not all that revolutionary compared to simply listening to the audio on standard mode, but it’s certainly a nice touch for those who consume a lot of Netflix on a daily basis.
For an expert opinion on these headphones, however, I handed them over to Mashable’s resident audio reviewer, Alex Perry, to test out. His thoughts are below:
Though I only had a limited time to test the AirPods Max, I came away pretty happy with the audio output. The best over-ear headphones make you feel like you’re immersed within whatever you’re listening to — almost as if you’re in the recording studio with the musicians. And that’s what you get here. Subtle instruments at the back of the audio mix don’t get flattened out even at high volume, the bass is appropriately thumpy, and the noise cancellation does its job. If price wasn’t an issue, I would gladly use them over the excellent Bose NC700s that I wear every day.
To cap off his thoughts, Perry said: “They get my not-a-real-audiophile-but-still-appreciates-good-audio seal of approval.” And as someone who falls under that exact category, I’d say we’re both on the same page about how these sound.
If the headphones fit … wear ’em
When it comes down to it, the AirPods Max checks off almost all the boxes for what makes an excellent pair of headphones: great sound quality, ideal battery life, easy controls, and a stylish design (sans Smart Case).
The only boxes left unchecked are the ones dealing with comfort because, again, these headphones are way too big — for me at least. I can’t help but think that had Apple simply offered a smaller size, it could’ve delivered a home run for those of us with small heads and eyeglasses.
And there’s also the ridiculous price.
At $550, the AirPods Max is the most expensive handbag I’ve ever owned. As I sit here and think about all the things I could purchase with that much money, it almost pains me to recommend these — no matter how good they are.
But if you’ve been holding out for a pair of over-ear headphones from Apple specifically for the seamless connectivity to the rest of your devices, and they fit you comfortably, then you can’t go wrong.
As for me, my tiny head will stick to the standard AirPods for that lightweight, pain-free listening experience. That is until Apple decides to release some smaller ear cups.