The Apple AirPods Max active noise-cancelling headphones are the quintessential Apple product. It looks gorgeous, sounds amazing and costs plenty.
Of course, active noise-cancelling headphones aren’t new to Apple; it already sells the $399 AirPods Pro earbuds. These sit in your ears and are smaller, lighter and more comfortable. But the AirPods Max larger over-the-ear design means it naturally outguns the AirPods Pro when it comes to music quality and noise-cancelling performance.
Review: Apple AirPods Max active noise-cancelling headphones
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The Apple AirPods Max headphones are elegant and comfortable. Looking great and sounding fantastic – a worthy addition to Apple’s line up. It is exactly the kind of premium, polished product we’ve come to expect from Apple. It’s just a shame it is weighed down by a hefty Applesque $899 price tag.
The AirPods Max relies on Bluetooth 5.0, connecting seamlessly to iGadgets and can pair with non-Apple gear. It charges via a Lightning port and come with a Lightning-to-USB-C cable, delivering a 20-hour battery life.
Not surprisingly for Apple, there’s no audio cable in the box. Instead, Apple will sell you a $50 Lightning-to-3.5 mm cable.
The headphones feature nine built-in microphones, with eight supporting Active Noise Cancellation. Six outward-facing microphones listen to the world around you, while two inward-facing microphones measure what you’re hearing.
Meanwhile, three microphones listen to your voice when making calls or talking to Siri. Two of them are shared with Active Noise Cancellation, plus there is one additional microphone. Beamforming helps isolate your voice, even on a windy day.
Each headphone cup features Apple’s H1 computational audio chip. It powers adaptive Active Noise Cancellation and EQ balancing that’s adjusted 200 times per second. There are also Optical, Accelerometer, Position and Case-detect sensors in each cup, along with a Gyroscope in the left cup.
The cups feature 40 mm dynamic drivers with dual neodymium ring magnet motors. These improve sound quality and reduce total harmonic distortion.
Apple AirPods Max design
For headphones which would prove most valuable on an international flight, the design isn’t overly travel-friendly.
The 384 gm weight is perhaps forgivable, even if it’s around 100 gm heavier than its main over-the-ear Active Noise Cancellation rivals. That extra heft is likely attributable to the sturdy stainless steel frame, aluminium cups and decent battery life.
The bulk is more of an issue. The headphones are 187 mm tall and 168 mm across at their widest point. The cups can twist sideways so that the headphones can sit flat. Yet the band doesn’t fold up, so the AirPods Max take up a lot of precious room in your travel bag.
The supplied protective case only covers the cups and soft foam pads, leaving the band exposed to the rough and tumble of life on the road. Apple doesn’t even throw in a soft carry bag to stop them getting scuffed and grubby. The headphones come in a choice of five colours, and you’d be especially concerned about the Silver and Green models which feature a white band.
Despite the bulk, the AirPods Max are reasonably comfortable to wear for extended periods. When first-class noise-cancelling isn’t required, such as around the house or exercising outdoors, the AirPods Pro earbuds feel much less intrusive.
The AirPods Max’s mesh headband sits comfortably on top of your head. Getting a good fit is helped by telescopic arms with spring-loaded hinges that angle the cups to suit the shape of your head. Meanwhile, the memory foam pads mould themselves around your head and the arms of your glasses.
Unlike many closed-back, over-the-ear headphones, the AirPods Max don’t get warm and claustrophobic after a while. The pads’ use of breathable mesh helps. The aluminium cups and internal ventilation also dissipates heat and pressure.
The band’s clasping pressure on your head isn’t too strong, but it’s not as gentle and comfortable or extended periods as some of the main rival over-the-ear Active Noise Cancellation headphones with lighter designs. After an hour, Apple’s headphones can start to feel a little grabby.
Aggressive over-the-ear noise-cancelling also has a tendency to irritate sensitive eardrums after a while and the Apple AirPods Max are no exception.
The headphones put Siri at your beck and call. Alternatively, you can hold down the Digital Crown on the right cup to grab her attention.
The Digital Crown also lets you easily adjust the volume, which is incredibly handy when your phone is in your pocket. It can also play/pause/skip tracks as well as answer calls.
Next to it is the Transparency button, which lets in sound from the outside world without pausing the audio. If you pull a cup away from your head to hear the world more clearly, it automatically pauses the music.
When watching a movie on an iPad, the Apple AirPods Max decodes and downmixes 5.1, 7.1 and Dolby Atmos soundtracks to the two speakers. It also supports spatial audio with dynamic head tracking, so the sound shifts as you turn your head.
The AirPods Max’s noise-cancelling is first-class. It stands toe-to-toe with the most respected Active Noise Cancellation headphones while producing amazingly low background hiss.
While air travel is off the menu at the moment, the headphones do an excellent job of cancelling out the various frequencies from recordings of aircraft cabin noise at 90 decibels. That’s loud enough to disturb the entire household. Likewise, stand next to the roar of a kitchen range hood exhaust fan and it’s dulled to a whisper.
The headphones also perform admirably on the go, such as riding public transport or sitting in noisy public spaces.
When it comes to music quality, the Apple AirPods Max are also first-rate. It delivers rich, full-bodied sound with plenty of low-end and no compromises elsewhere. The bass never gets murky, while the mid and high are never overwhelmed.
As with other Apple audio gear, it produces a well-balanced sound that reveals amazing detail. It’s not clinical sound but there’s an adjustment period if you favour the warmer sound of some other brands.
The balanced sound, and the ventilated design, helps the AirPods Max sound a little more open and airy than your typical closed-back over-the-ears headphones. This strength really shines through listening to more nuanced music like jazz, where that incredibly low background hiss is also appreciated.
While the Apple AirPods Max performs admirably and won’t disappoint the Apple faithful, it’s hard to justify that $899 price tag when the Apple AirPods Max’s rivals sound just as good at half the price. Its rivals are also more comfortable when worn for hours.
The AirPods Max would not be my first choice for active noise-cancelling headphones on the long-haul flight to LA. For $899, you could shop more wisely and still have enough left over to buy a pair of AirPods Pro.
Of course international travel is likely off the menu for quite some time. The AirPods Max would suit well-heeled regular commuters who’d only wear them for an hour or so at time. Or for those who occasionally need to escape the ruckus of a noise workspace for a while.
There are so many first-class choices at business-class prices. Here are a few of our picks
Sony WH-1000xM4 (9.8/10) or even the previous model WH-1000XM3 (9.8/10) offer altitude-aware noise-cancelling for frequent flyers.
Sennheiser Momentum (10/10) is the classy choice with generous-sized ear cups, terrific noise cancelling and one of the best near-audiophile grade sounds.
Sennheiser PXC-550 Mark II (9.8/10) is the traveller’s friend and is among the lightest of the premium class. Like the Momentum, these have one thing that others don’t – a USB DAC (digital analogue converter) that allows you to listen to music and charge at the same time over USB. This is particularly useful for long-haul where you use a playback device with USB.
Bose was the noise-cancelling category leader and the Bose 700 (9.6/10) is extremely good. The avant-garde design does not suit everyone but you can always fall back to the QC 35 II (9.2/10).
Let’s not forget the excellent Jabra Elite 85h (9/10) that is worthy of your shopping list.
Would I buy it?
No, not unless I was a cashed up iGadget lover wedded to everything Apple.
Apple AirPods Max headphones
While they perform admirably and won't disappoint the Apple faithful, it's hard to justify the Apple AirPods Max's price tag whenrivals sound just as good at half the price.
Value for money
Ease of use
Works seamlessly with other Apple gear
First-class active noise-cancelling and sound quality
Great built-in controls
Can get a bit uncomfortable after an hour
Terrible carry case