As an “” the AirPods Max intrigued me. They’re priced a bit high for a set of consumer headphones, and as most audiophiles know, active noise cancelation (ANC) degrades sound quality in one way or another. With this review, I set out to find out if the AirPods Max sound notably better than other popular ANC headphones on the market, most of which are much lower in price.
Here’s What We Like
- Class-leading ANC performance
- Great, almost-balanced sound
- Superb comfort and premium design
- Physical buttons for ANC and media control
- Near-infinite headband adjustment
And What We Don’t
- Lightning for charging and wired audio
- Worse battery life than other ANC headphones
- Smart Case offers almost zero protection
Many would think that the AirPods Max’s competitors would be headphones such as the Sony WH-1000XM4 or the Bose Noise Canceling 700. And that makes sense, as most consumers aren’t willing to pay a premium for headphones.
But the reality is that the AirPods Max are priced much too high to realistically compete with any of the aforementioned headphones. In reality, the AirPods Max’s one true competitor is, which are priced $250 more expensive than the AirPods Max at retail price. I’ve tried the H95, and honestly, when it comes to sound quality, it’s really close. At that point, you’re looking at which one is more comfortable for you or what features one has over the other.
But I’m going to be honest. When I first picked up the AirPods Max on launch day, I expected to test them, review them, and return them. I was thinking, “No way do the AirPods Max justify its price point.” And after two months with them, I’m pleasantly surprised. The AirPods Max exceeded my expectations not only when it comes to sound quality, but in almost every other category as well. Let me explain.
so many people have been seeing where the AirPods Max are draining even while in the case.
The one upside with the case is that it does help allow the headphones to stand up on their own. So, there’s that.
—the AirPods Max easily perform 20-25% better, at least according to my ears. The biggest differentiator between the two is the AirPods Max are able to block out inconsistent noise such as talking more effectively.
Where the AirPods Max completely blow every other set of headphones out of the water is in their transparency mode. You almost forget you have the headphones on your head. Combine that with a transparency mode that not only sounds very natural but three dimensional as well. It’s one of those things you’ll have to try for yourself.
For comparison, the AirPods Pro’s transparency mode is really good, but lacks any sort of depth. But with AirPods Max, there’s a sense of distance and soundstage. This is likely thanks to the nine microphones on board, eight of which are used for ANC and transparency (and three for voice; two of which are shared).
Not surprising though, as the AirPods Pro already had one of the best transparency modes out there. The AirPods Max simply cranks it up to 11.
For most consumers who’ve only had ANC headphones like the Sony XM4 or Bose QC35, tonality is likely what you care about. Frequency response (or tonality) represents how the headphones sound.
I’m happy to report that the AirPods Max are mostly balanced here. There’s a small sub-bass boost, giving the AirPods Max a bit of thump, rumble, and warmth. In terms of treble, there’s a dip somewhere in the lower treble region, making vocals sound a bit dull. But, it does pick back up in the later ranges and gives the AirPods Max quite a bit of detail in the treble overall. The AirPods Max seem to follow thepretty closely. This is especially true in the midrange, which appears to be balanced throughout the range.
The AirPods Max join a small group of ANC headphones out there that sound fairly balanced. But that’s not all that surprising. The AirPods Pro also follow the Harman curve pretty closely as well and make a few small adjustments to make the sound more enjoyable for the average consumer.
When it comes to equalization (EQ), the AirPods Max are pretty limited. You get a few accessibility options on your iPhone or iPad that let you set them to “Balanced Tone,” “Vocals,” or “Brightness.” It’s all generic and you don’t have access to a graphic or parametric EQ here. Though, you can always wire them into your computer and EQ them via a third-party app. Just note that the EQ doesn’t stick on the headphone end, so you’ll have to enable it on every device you connect to (which is only available on iPhone and iPad via the device’s accessibility settings).
In terms of technicalities, the AirPods Max are okay. Their soundstage is wide for a set of closed-back headphones. This is mostly due to the large and deep ear cups, allowing for a more spacious sound overall. The AirPods Max aren’t analytically detailed, but they are pretty good. Good enough for the average listener to pick up details they’ve never heard before, but not too detailed where they can be fatiguing to listen to after a period of time.
Imaging is a bit odd. Compared to various other headphones, the AirPods Max sound … off. Certain instruments aren’t being placed where I’d expect. More quiet sounds can get lost and blend into the rest of the mix if things get really busy, which is disappointing.
Technicalities aren’t as important for a set of ANC headphones, especially when you’re using it in a busy city street, loud plane, or in a coffee shop. The noise floor is too loud to pick up subtle details anyways.
. No, you can’t buy a third-party one on Amazon (yet) as you’ll need a cable with an Analog to Digital converter (ADC). Your $9 Lightning to 3.5mm adapter won’t work either because it only has a Digital to Analog converter (DAC).
In laymen’s terms, this means that your typical Lightning to 3.5mm adapter converts the digital signal from your phone to an analog signal something like a pair of speakers can understand. Apple’s special cable does that in addition to converting the analog signal coming from your computer’s audio jack back into a digital signal that the AirPods Max’s Lightning connector can understand (it’s bi-directional).
Stupid cabling and port decisions aside, the wire is worth it if you’re looking for the best sound possible and lower latency. It’s not zero latency as the onboard amplifier and DAC are still working and that adds some latency, but that isn’t noticeable. I wasn’t able to notice a delay while working with Logic Pro on my Mac mini.
The AirPods Max also sound notably better when wired, which is to be expected. I had a handful of people blind test wired versus Bluetooth, and they all noticed a difference in 9 out of 10 tracks I had them test. The source material was Qobuz running directly from a Mac mini.
What’s even more interesting is that when I plugged them into my desktop headphone amplifier/DAC and was able to get them to play much louder than they are capable of over Bluetooth or directly into the Mac mini without any distortion. I did manage to get them to distort when I turned them up louder than any human would ever want to reasonably listen to. With that said, outside of volume there was virtually no difference between using the amp versus my Mac mini’s internal headphone port.