Apple AirPods Max initial review

(Pocket-lint) – The Apple AirPods Max is the company’s latest headphone offering. But rather than the in-ear solution that we’ve seen before, this is an over-ear experience complete with noise cancelling and many of the same technologies found on the AirPods Pro.

But given a super competitive market in the over-ear headphone space from companies like Sony and Bose, can Apple achieve the same success already enjoyed by the AirPods range?

We’ve just got our review pair and wanted to share our first impressions before diving into a fuller, longer review in good time.

Design

  • Stainless steel 
  • Five colours: space grey, silver, sky blue, green, and pink
  • 384 grams
  • No 3.5mm headphone connection

The AirPods and AirPods Pro were all about those white plastic teardrops in your ears, but that’s definitely not the case here. There is no white plastic, or any plastic for that matter, here: the material has been banished from the design. In its place are two stainless steel ear cup compartments, that house drivers and all the technology, and a silicone-coated stainless steel headband.

The AirPods Max are available in five different colours: space grey, silver, sky blue, green, and pink. Like the iPad Air, the metal takes a subtle hue from the colour you’ve picked, while the silicone covering on the headband and fabric mesh delivers the real colour punch. The detachable soft fabric ear cups are also colour matching with “L” and “R” woven into the fabric inside.

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We’ve been sent the sky blue and it’s nice, premium, and certainly not in any way cheap looking. That colour is also echoed in the accompanying carry case. The headphones are designed to fit all sizes of head and hair, and within the headband is a retractable rod that is stiff enough to hold in place when extended without the need for ratchets or grooves.

Buttons are kept to a minimum and emulate the Apple Watch – there’s a Noise Control button to switch between noise cancelling mode (on, off or transparent/ambient), and a larger version of the digital crown to control volume and give you play/pause functions. We’ve already found ourselves pressing that Noise Control button when positioning the headphones on our head. That could be annoying over time. If buttons aren’t your thing you can also talk to Siri.

While there aren’t many buttons there are plenty of holes in the metal shell, and this is to allow the eight microphones to hear what’s going on and cancel the noise accordingly, as part of the active noise cancellation system. It’s worth noting though that none of those holes is a 3.5mm headphone socket – there’s only a Lightning connection on these headphones. If you’re looking to connect this to a plane’s infotainment system, you’ll have to buy a Lightning to headphone adapter, otherwise you’re looking at using Bluetooth.

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At 384.8 grams they are heavier than most, and we’ve certainly noticed the weight. It’s not heavy enough to ruin everything, but you might notice it coming from a pair that uses plastic predominately. We’ve also not had these headphones long enough to see how much they’ll heat up your ears over time – something we’ll be commenting on in our full review once we’ve spent more time with them.

It’s going to be interesting seeing how the metal finish survives over time and whether it will be prone to scratching. We do like the ability to detach the ear cup for cleaning, and the larger rectangular design certainly fits our ears nicely, something that can’t always be said for other designs like Apple’s own Beats Studio 3 range for example.

The carry case is light weight, but we suspect many frequent travellers will want to look at something more robust, because it only really covers the ear cups rather than the whole assembly, meaning the headband will still be prone to catching on things in your bag.

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Sound

  • Spaitial audio support
  • Active noise cancellation
  • 40mm drivers

It’s early days so we’re going to hold out on offering a full assessment of the sound quality for the moment. That said, what we have listened to so far sounds really great, as you would expect for what the AirPods Max promises – and costs.

There’s no distortion at high levels, and like the AirPods Pro headphones (which we use daily) the active noise cancelling is fantastic. You really won’t be able to hear what’s going on around you when you’re blasting out hit after hit.

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Like the AirPods Pro, there are plenty of virtualisation tricks going on including, spatial audio with dynamic head tracking (when available), which will mean that you can move your head without the sound field moving, designed to give you a more realisitic listening experience theatre-like experience; the Max has two of Apple’s H1 processors on board to handle all the computational audio going on. Of course, there’s the simple connection across your Apple devices that other AirPods are famed for.

So far, we’ve got through our usual testing playlist which includes tracks like Adele’s Lovesong, Nirvana’s Come As You Are, Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here and then some Chemical Brothers, Dua Lipa, and Taylor Swift for good measure.

So far trebles, mid-tones, and bass are all nicely delivered, and unlike Apple’s Beat’s brand that veers towards a more bass heavy sound, Apple appears to have gone for a more natural feel to the experience, more akin to the approach taken with its HomePod range of speakers. There doesn’t appear to be any way to adapt or customise the sound output – but have a lot more listening to do.

Battery life

  • 20 hours battery life
  • 1.5 hours battery life after 5 minutes of charge

It’s too early to tell at the moment, but Apple promises 20 hours of listening (with active noise cancellation), with the ability to get 1.5 hours from a 5-minute charge. Charging is via a Lightning to USB-C cable (included in the box) but like other Apple devices you don’t get a plug in the box.

Price

This is going to be the big sticking point for many people. The AirPods Max at time of writing cost $549/£549. That’s almost same price as a PlayStation 5, and means Apple is expecting customers to pay a premium compared to other headphone offerings already on the market from the likes of Sony, Bose and others.

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Apple of course justify the price of the Max headphones by saying there is stacks of tech, a premium design, and of course the “magic” of Apple.

It’s fair to say that you are somewhat paying the famous Apple Tax here, but we suspect that won’t stop people buying, or lusting, after a pair once those who sit at the front of the airplane are regularly spotted wearing them.

First Impressions

The good news from what we’ve heard so far is that these premium headphones deliver a premium experience, albeit all for that premium price. Pull them out of the box, press the connect button, and start listening, it really is that easy.

There are still questions to be answered, which we plan to investigate as we use them more – like just how do they sound over a wide range of tracks, how resilient are they to knocks and bumps, and of course is that carry case completely useless?

For now, we’re enjoying them very much indeed, so the first impressions are great.

Writing by Stuart Miles.





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