Apple AirPods Max review: Ecosystem-only excellence

aa2020 recommended

The Apple AirPods Max are a great pair of headphones with amazing active noise-canceling (ANC) and a good sound signature, even if they have some annoying quirks that earmark them as obviously an Apple product. If you’re already in the Apple ecosystem, love your AirPods Pro, and don’t mind spending a lot of money, you’ll love these.

Ever since Apple acquired Beats in 2014, it’s been obvious Apple wants to get more into the consumer audio space. The original AirPods were a hit despite being awful, but the AirPods Pro are among the best true wireless earbuds you can get. So naturally, we were excited yet skeptical when the AirPods Max were announced.

Is this just another overpriced Apple product, or are they actually good?

This Apple AirPods Max review comes from the audio experts at our sister site SoundGuys. Check out their in-depth take on the Apple AirPods Max.

Who are the Apple AirPods Max for?

  • People in the Apple ecosystem will love the AirPods Max.
  • Those who love the AirPods Pro but want a pair of over-ears will enjoy many of the same software perks, but in a more comfortable form factor.
  • Anyone who wants amazing noise-canceling should consider the AirPods Max, since they outperform both the Sony WH-1000XM4 and the Bose Noise Canceling Headphones 700.

What are the Apple AirPods Max like?

Apple AirPods Max 23 scaled 1

This AirPods Max are a mixed bag. Sometimes they’re fantastic, but when you want to use them in a way Apple doesn’t intend, they’re weird. Even just using them wired requires jumping through hoops, but more on that later.

The AirPods Max have a luxurious build quality but the lack of an off switch and flimsy case are weird.

The AirPods Max have great noise-canceling and a transparency mode to let you hear your environment, which is useful when you’re out on a walk or need to stay aware of your surroundings. Volume and playback controls are on the digital crown on the top of the right ear cup, which ended up being so smooth that it’s easy to accidentally raise or lower the volume when adjusting the headphones. Sensors in the ear cups auto-pause playback when you take off the headphones, and resume once they’re back on.

Apple AirPods Max 03

Adam Molina / Android Authority

There’s no power button to turn off the headset, instead, it goes into low power mode inside the case. The weird case (pictured at the top of this section) pretty much only functions as an off switch, since it doesn’t really protect the headphones from much. When the AirPods Max aren’t in the case, they remain on for a few hours before going to sleep, draining the battery in the process.

See also: Best AirPods Max cases

The build quality is luxurious, with a stainless steel headband and aluminum ear cups that feel sturdy, and plush padding and light fabric all around the metal interior. The ear cups feel amazingly comfortable, and the padding is replaceable too. The ear cups are deep, which means isolating noise is a lot easier for more people.

The AirPods Max aren’t water-resistant at all, so even though these are portable, it might be risky to take them outside. This is definitely a miss on Apple’s part.

How do you connect to your Apple AirPods Max?

A man wears the Apple AirPods Max and uses the onboard headphone controls.

Adam Molina / Android Authority

The AirPods Max have a really solid connection (on Apple devices), and this is due to the H1 chip. A colleague at SoundGuys reported occasional glitches when listening to Spotify from an iPhone SE (2020), and podcast audio not being routed to the AirPods Max despite being connected, but that seems to be an isolated issue.

Like the AirPods Pro, these use Bluetooth 5.0 with the AAC and SBC Bluetooth codecs. AAC is ideal for iPhones, but not so much for Android phones, since sound quality can vary wildly among devices using AAC.

The AirPods Max don’t have a 3.5mm headphone jack, so if you want to use anything other than a Bluetooth device, you have to buy a $ 35 Lightning-to-3.5mm audio cable from Apple. If your device doesn’t have a headphone jack (like a newer iPhone), you will need another $ 9 dongle.

Apple AirPods Max 16

Adam Molina / Android Authority

Connecting AirPods Max to an iOS device is super easy, holding the headset about two inches away from your device will prompt a card icon to connect the headset, and then will automatically connect to all devices on your iCloud account.

You can also connect your AirPods Max to Android devices. Simply remove the headphones from the case, hold down the noise-canceling button at the top of the right ear cup until the LED at the bottom of the ear cup blinks white, and connect to the AirPods Max in the Bluetooth settings of your device. Just be warned that you’ll be missing a lot of features when using these with Android devices.

What is Apple Spatial Audio?

Apple AirPods Max 15

Adam Molina / Android Authority

Spatial Audio is Apple’s surround sound technology, using gyroscopes and accelerometers in the headset with the ones in your iPhone or iPad. This detects which direction your head is moving relative to the device and adjusts the sound accordingly, so you get an immersive audio experience. This feature does not work on Android devices at all, only iOS.

How is the battery in the AirPods Max?

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Adam Molina / Android Authority

Apple claims the AirPods Max will last you around 20 hours of constant playback with active noise-canceling turns on. When testing the headphones over at SoundGuys, the battery lasted close to 21 hours at a consistent output of 75dB (SPL), and just over 21 hours with ANC off. This battery life at least makes up for the fact that you can’t turn them off, but it’s still bad that they lose battery when not in use, considering that more frequent charging is bad for the longevity of the battery. You can’t easily replace the batteries in the AirPods Max, so take good care of them.

How is the active noise-canceling?

AirPods Max noise-canceling chart.

Sam Smart / Android Authority

The active noise-canceling on the AirPods Max is fantastic. This is important, since the better you can prevent outside noise from reaching your ears, the better your headphones will sound as good as they can.

The AirPods Max will cancel out the hiss of a radiator, and sounds like music from roommates and typing on the keyboard are significantly quieter. The one annoying thing is you can only turn off noise-canceling if you have an iOS device. By default, the button on the headphones toggles between transparency mode and active noise-canceling.

Check out: Headphone buying guide

Apple AirPods Max 20

Adam Molina / Android Authority

The AirPods Max block noise better than the Sony WH-1000XM4, which is a top performer in noise-canceling already. Noise reduction in the WH-1000XM4 slops off in the bass range below the 150Hz mark, and the AirPods Max holds steady.

The AirPods Max also outperform the Bose Noise Canceling Headphones 700, which fall a bit short when it comes to sounds below 100Hz. The AirPods Max block out more sound in this range, which are really low-frequency sounds that you’ll want to have blocked. Check out our deeper comparison of the AirPods Max and Bose Headphones 700 for more.

How do the Apple AirPods Max sound?

Apple AirPods Max frequency response chart.

Sam Smart / Android Authority

The AirPods Max sound really good, and have a pleasing sound profile that’ll appeal to most people. The frequency response (cyan line) closely matches the SoundGuys target curve (pink line) for the most part, with a bit of a kick in the sub-bass region. There’s a slight dip in the mids, but vocals are still very clear. The higher frequency range also sounds good, and you probably won’t feel the need to mess with any EQ settings.

The AirPods Max sound really good, and have a pleasing sound profile that’ll appeal to most people.

You won’t get lossless audio with these since they’re Bluetooth headphones, but using a Lightning dongle will get you pretty close, though you will be converting the signal from digital to analog, back to digital, and finally to analog again, which is not ideal. But if you’re listening over Bluetooth, you’re not getting lossless audio. Apple’s AAC implementation is great, but you’re still listening to a compressed signal when you use Bluetooth, so feel free to drop your audio quality settings when you’re streaming music to save energy and data.

How is the microphone on the Apple AirPods Max?

The microphone quality on the Apple AirPods Max is really dependent on what device you’re connected to. The sound quality loss of the microphone is largely dependent on how your device handles wireless communication, and it’s not always clear which devices will handle it poorly. The best results are found on a flagship Android or Apple device. Below is an example of the microphone in ideal conditions.

Apple AirPods Max microphone demo (Ideal):

Apple AirPods Max review: The verdict

Apple AirPods Max 09

Adam Molina / Android Authority

Whether or not you should spend around $ 549 on a pair of headphones is your call. Objectively, the AirPods Max are a spectacular pair of headphones, with great features like auto-pause and transparency, phenomenal noise-canceling, and a great build. But this only really applies if you’re committed to the Apple ecosystem, and if you’re not sure this is for you, it probably isn’t. Additionally, the lack of wired connectivity is frustrating, and the meager slip case is severely lacking. To answer the initial question, yes, the AirPods Max are an overpriced pair of headphones, but they’re also great.

AirPods Max in black on a white background.

Apple AirPods Max

Grade-A noise-canceling headphones with a sleek design.

Apple’s debut noise-canceling headset rocks the H1 chip in each headphone, and has best-in-class ANC. This powerful headset is for niche consumers, and works well within the Apple ecosystem.

Apple AirPods Max alternatives

Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones next to magazines on a wood bench

Zak Khan / Android Authority

If you want the best noise-canceling around but don’t want to spend an arm and a leg for the AirPods Max, the Bose Quietcomfort 45 ($ 329) might suit you well. They have their issues, like a loud treble response, and an inability to listen without ANC or transparency mode, but these could be non-issues for the right person – plus Bose has added an EQ function to its app, so you can change how the headphones sound. They compare well against the AirPods Max and Sony WH-1000XM4. We also recommend the years-old Bose Quietcomfort 35 II ($ 249) for the price, ANC, and sound profile.

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