Should you buy … Apple's AirPods Max?
After the success of its AirPods in-ear headphones range, it felt inevitable that Apple would eventually branch out into bigger, over-ear headphones.
The result is the AirPods Max, Apple’s first own-brand, high-end, noise-cancelling headphones, which have been designed to take on the market leaders Bose and Sony in the premium sector of the market.
So how does Apple’s offering compare?
Unsurprisingly, the AirPods Max certainly look the part. They are clearly premium headphones from the moment you see them and pick them up.
The metal ear cups are softened by interchangeable ear-cushions which use an acoustically engineered memory foam to create a seal around the ear to aid sound output.
The stainless steel headband is covered in a soft material, while the canopy is not solid but instead consists of a breathable, knitted mesh, which Apple says reduces pressure on the top of the head by fitting around the shape of the wearer’s head.
The result is a comfortable, snug fit which seals tightly around the ear – which bodes well for high-quality noise cancelling.
On the right-hand ear cup are the two buttons used to control audio. The long thin button is the noise control button, which enables the wearer to switch between the main noise-cancelling listening mode and what Apple calls Transparency mode, which lets in some ambient sound so the user can also hear some of the world around them if they so wish.
The second is the familiar Digital Crown, brought over from the Apple Watch to serve as the volume control and can also be pressed to play and pause audio.
It’s an interesting design choice and certainly one which helps the Max stand out, but it doesn’t feel the most practical or easiest way to control your audio, especially compared to the touch controls that other high-end headphones use.
The other design choice which catches the eye – and not for good reason – is the case Apple has created for the AirPods Max and which comes in the box.
The soft plastic is designed to slip over the headphones and place them in an ultra-low-power mode when not in use. The headband of the Max then becomes a handle to carry them with.
But in practice, the case offers little or no protection and looks frankly odd to carry around with you.
It seems clear Apple was keen to provide a case solution in the box but without adding much bulk or weight to the packaging as a result. However this case choice does little to justify the ultra-high price or smart design often found in the company’s products.
The true test of the AirPods Max comes when you put them on, and it is not an experience which disappoints.
While it is fair to expect as much given the price of the Max, the headphones still impress in both the audio quality they provide and the noise cancelling in place to block out ambient sound.
Music sounds great while wearing the Max; it is bold and clear, with the ability to make an impressive number of audio layers sound crisp. You can even hear elements of tracks you may have not noticed before with previous headphones.
This is aided by how good the noise cancelling is, with background sounds completely cut out when you’re listening to audio. Even without audio – very little outside sound makes it into your ears.
But should you want or need to hear some of what is going on around you, Transparency Mode offers a good middle ground, using the AirPods Max’s built-in microphones to let in some ambient noise without the need to remove the headphones.
Apple has also made an effort to improve listening to video playback while wearing the Max, with a special Spatial Audio mode reserved for compatible video content, which uses the microphones in the headphones to broadcast sound all around the wearer – think of it as personal surround sound.
In general, using the AirPods Max with an iPhone is effortless, like other AirPods the headphones connect automatically and are smart enough to jump between devices as the user does.
Via the volume settings on an iPhone, users can also quickly change between active noise cancelling and the Transparency mode too.
In a step forward for the AirPods range, the Max are also now more simple to pair with Android devices and will appear in the Bluetooth device list for pairing when removed from the carry case.
Android users don’t have the same access to the mode controls on their phone, but apart from that – the experience is the same.
One aspect of the AirPods Max experience which does take a little getting used to is the absence of a power button on the headphones, meaning you can’t actually turn the Max off at any point.
Instead, the headphones enter an ultra-low power mode when placed into the case, which Apple says uses such a minimal amount of battery life that the headphones will last for weeks or even months without a charge while in this state.
Although it is a similar approach to other AirPods – the in-ear headphones slot back into their carry cases and also don’t have power buttons – it feels slightly strange at first to follow this routine with a larger set of over-ear headphones.
Elsewhere, general comfort while wearing the Max for extended periods is also good, even for those who wear glasses who can sometimes suffer as the arms are pressed into the side of your head by the ear cups.
Here, the memory foam softness of the Max means this is less of an issue compared to other over-ear headphones.
The AirPods Max are a superb pair of headphones, offering some of the best audio quality you can find in a pair of headphones this year.
But the high price of £550, well above its closest rivals in this category, means that perfection is required in order to fully justify a purchase.
There is no escaping that the AirPods Max are amazing headphones that bring new sound depth and clarity to both music and video playback, while remaining comfortable to wear throughout.
But the bizarre case and lack of an audio jack cable – which requires an extra purchase – are tough issues to overcome.
It is hard to recommend the AirPods Max to non-Apple users, but those who are comfortable with splashing out on a pair of luxury headphones to complete their Apple line-up will find that these headphones do deliver.