High-quality noise-cancelling headphones that feel like they were built for the masses and priced for the few.
Apple AirPods Max Review
My absolute favourite part of reviewing the latest tech and gadgets is the pure joy I see on my friends and family’s faces when I show them something they’ve never experienced before. Watching someone’s legs go limp the first time they tried the PlayStation VR or the wide-eyed wonder of experiencing Sony noise-cancelling for the first time. These moments of child-like awe are few and far between but Apple’s first over-ear headphones have elicited two jaw-dropping moments from the people I’ve shown. First, with the spatial audio that simulates the placement of a cinematic surround sound setup by locking the audio to your device’s position. It’s not a new feature, but it’s particularly impressive with the over-ear Apple AirPods Max. The second jaw-dropper in the AirPods Max’s one-two punch was the price: $899, surely I’d made a mistake?
The best features of the AirPods Max remind us of what makes Apple great. It takes existing technology (noise-cancelling, spatial audio etc.) and polishes it until it’s the best possible version it can be. But the Cupertino company’s first wireless headphones also exemplify the worst in Apple. Like charging an arm and a leg and expecting you to pay even more for the conveniences it strips away (like a 3.5mm headphone jack or a functional headphones case). In short, the AirPods Max are a seriously impressive pair of headphones with a downright outrageous asking price.
- World-class noise cancelling
- Finally, some decent ambient audio
- Premium build
- User-friendly EQ customisation
- Spatial audio is astonishing
- No 3.5mm cable or port
- Heavy rig
- $899. Eight-hundred and ninety-nine dollars.
Apple AirPods Max Price
$899? Yep. You read that right. For comparison, the current front-runner in the wireless noise-cancelling headphone game is Sony’s WH-1000XM4 headphones which sell for over half that price, around $370 - $399 depending on where you pick them up.
As is custom with Apple products, you won’t find any significant discounts on the AirPods Max. At the time of writing, Amazon has the Apple AirPods Max for $899 plus shipping, while Kogan has them for $879 plus shipping. Mobileciti has generously knocked a whole dollar off the Apple AirPods Max, effectively offering a 0.1% discount off the costly cans.
Here’s how much you will pay for the AirPods Max at major Australian retailers.
But are they worth the price?
I hate to bang on about the price. Yes, the Apple AirPods Max are expensive. Yes, this is just like Apple, right? We can make jokes all day about Apple’s premium perversion, but the cost of the AirPods Max is especially brazen when you start to think about what most people need from a headset they’ve spent that much money on.
Take, for example, the missing 3.5mm headphone jack. Removing the headphone jack from iPhones was controversial, sure, but excluding it from an actual pair of headphones is utter madness.
Even though I have several gaming headsets spread out across my house, I tend to use the Sony XM4s if I’m jumping in for a few quick rounds of Apex Legends. Mostly because they’re usually the closest pair of headphones to me but also because I can simply plug them into the bottom of the PlayStation 5 DualSense controller and be on my way. They sound great, and I haven’t had a single complaint about the quality of the mic.
If I’m spending $899 on a pair of Apple AirPods Max, I’ve got two options: buy an additional gaming headset, or fork out $55 for a Lighting to 3.5mm Audio adapter. Either way, forking out for the AirPods Max inevitably leads to spending even more money if you want to make the most out of them.
Apple AirPods Max vs Sony WH-1000XM4
Let me be clear, the Apple AirPods Max are a phenomenal pair of headphones (I’m getting to that part) but if you had to choose, the Sony WH-1000XM4s are still the front-runner by a long shot. It’d be a closer bout if we were discussing a $100 margin, but the AirPods Max are over double the price and as I’ve touched on above, spending the extra dough with Apple comes with setbacks.
For one, there’s comfort. Everything that Apple manufacturers has to have a premium feel, above all else. You can question the overall aesthetic of the Apple AirPods Max but there’s no denying their top-quality feel in the hand.
A lot of this is thanks to the heft of the anodised aluminium casing on the cups but that extra weight (384.8g) can also get a little irritating after extended sessions.
I wouldn’t say uncomfortable, the AirPods Max are a delight to wear. The banana-holster bungie-mesh headband might look strange but it’s a great design that offers great support over long sessions and the detachable fabric ear cups manage to be breathable without compromising the noise cancellation. Still, the sheer weight of the ear cups is heavy enough to drag the headphones down and it’s a relief to take them off at the end of a long day. I’ve never really had that with Sony’s 254g XM4s.
The AirPods Max also offer AAC codec support exclusively, whereas the Sony XM4s offer SBC, AAC and LDAC support. That’s fine for Apple users (who are clearly the primary audience) but not so great for anyone using the AirPods Max with non-Apple devices.
Most of the other technical specs are pretty on-par across both headsets. They both use 40mm drivers, neodymium magnets and get roughly the same battery life. In our tests, the Apple AirPods Max lasted a little longer, roughly 21 hours, while the XM4s lasted just about 19.5 hours. The Apple AirPods Max also charged to 100% capacity quicker than the XM4s did in our tests.
Aluminium coated LCP
Lightning to USB C
In-flight plug adaptor, 1.2m headphone cable, 20cm USB-C charging cable
Digital crown, noise-cancellation/pairing button
Custom button, touch controls
Ambient sound mode
SBC, AAC, LDAC
Real-world battery life
Battery charge time
Included carry case
AirPods Max sound quality
If you’ve been patient enough to sit through my Sony comparisons and ramblings on price ($899!) you’ll be happy to know that Apple’s first attempt at over-ear wireless headphones is a crowd-pleaser. Out of the box, they offer the most balanced audio profile I’ve heard in a pair of wireless cans.
So far, I’ve been most impressed by the AirPods Max’s delivery of live performances. I don’t think I’ve ever felt closer to front-stage than I did listening to Ben Folds Live for the first time with AirPods Max. During One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces, Ben effortlessly transitions from the thundering solo arrangement to the rumbling bridge (‘You’ll be sorry one day, yes you will, yes you will’), egged on by the crowd’s arrhythmic clapping and cheers, each forceful thump of the keys more aggressive than the last. It felt like everyone in the audience is accounted for, and Ben’s comedic vocal flourishes (like a quiet, breathless quip) feel more intimate than ever.
I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a recorded live performance with the same level of clarity (at least from the comfort of my office chair).
I had a similar experience with the studio version of Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes. There’s no mess or loss of clarity when the driving bass riff meets the heartbeat of the drums, both have enough space to breathe. Things aren’t quite as clean when the crash cymbal and electric guitar collide right before the chorus and the drums are just slightly washed out by the wailing guitar solo at the two-minute mark. Still, the bass is punchy where it needs to be while taking a backseat at the crescendo.
The Sony WH-1000XM4s deliver more overwhelming lows in default settings. I prefer the boosted bass but it’s not for everyone. That said, Sony WH-1000XM4 users have a greater level of control over their EQ settings thanks to Sony's headphones app. AirPods Max EQ settings do exist, and they are incredibly user-friendly, but they're buried deep in your iPhone's audio settings.
The overall sound quality of the AirPods Max is also elevated by their outstanding noise-cancelling. How the Active Noise Cancellation compares with the Sony WH-1000XM4s will surely be a question asked by anyone tossing up between the two models and to my surprise, Apple has taken Sony’s ANC crown. It’s a close bout, but for general use, the AirPods Max are just slightly better at filtering out the hum of office chatter. I’d love to see how they stack up in a more demanding environment, against the roar of a plane engine, but opportunities to fly have been almost non-existent this year. The closest I’ve come is walking down a busy highway during construction and there, again, the Apple AirPods Max were just slightly better at cancelling out the high-pitched beeps of reversing trucks and other clunks and clangs of construction work.
The difference isn’t night and day. And if the focus of this article wasn’t Apple AirPods Max, the story would be that Sony’s $399 noise-cancelling headphones go toe-to-toe with Apple’s pricey cans. Still, Apple’s H1 processing chips (one in each cup) is proving their worth.
Another display of the H1 chip’s power is the Ambient Sound feature of the Apple AirPods Max. Every headphone manufacturer has had a crack at ambient sound, a feature that activates the external pick-up mics with the press of a button, allowing you to have a quick chat without removing your headphones. And most have failed. While I still maintain that ambient sound is an inherently anti-social gimmick, you’ve got to hand it to Apple for nailing the technology.
Past attempts at ambient sound have, at best, simulated an underwater effect on voices. At worst, it delivers a garbled cacophony of voices and environmental sounds. The ambient sound on the Apple AirPods Max feels far more natural. Some noises are given too much of a spotlight, like the clatter of a mechanical keyboard but you’ll typically have noise-cancelling switched on if you're typing anyway.
Spatial audio for movies and TV shows
Spatial audio isn’t exclusive to the AirPods Max, AirPods Pro users have had the pleasure for some time now, and other Dolby Atmos-compatible headphones recreate a similar 360-degree soundscape but the cinematic feature truly astounds with the AirPods Max.
What separates Apple’s technology from the herd is the way it locks the source of dialogue to the device you’re watching on. If you turn your head right, voices will play through the left speaker and vice versa. It doesn’t sound that impressive on paper but it is a one of a kind experience in practice.
Spatial audio is available across a variety of Dolby Atmos compatible streaming services. Here in Australia, your options are pretty much Apple TV Plus, Disney Plus and, oddly enough, Foxtel Go. At the moment, it doesn’t seem like Netflix and Prime Video are coming to the party, despite offering Dolby Atmos support.
For the sake of this review, we tested it with the Apple TV Plus exclusive Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet (MQ) and what a feast for the eyes and ears it was. There was something almost too personal about feeling like you’re in the room in a scripted comedy but it also helped MQ’s more poignant episodes (such as A Dark Quiet Death) feel more unfiltered and raw.
Apple AirPods Max battery life and charging
For day-to-day use, the Apple AirPods Max lasted roughly 21 hours in our tests with noise-cancelling on and regular use of spatial audio. That was a few days of work and roughly half a season of Mythic Quest before needing a charge. That’s all gravy but one of the biggest issues with the AirPods Max is that there’s no way to fully power them down, which feels like an odd choice only Apple would make. Apple claims the AirPods Max switch to a power-saving mode when not in use, and a super-low power mode when returned to the infamous Smart Case.
Smart Case, dumb idea
The issue with relying on the Smart Case to preserve your battery is that you don’t make a habit out of putting your headphones back in their case when you’re at home. Maybe I was travelling into an office five days per week (what a concept!), I’d get more out of the Smart Case’s battery-saving features but I don’t make a habit of tucking my headphones in at night when I’m at home.
As a result, the Apple AirPods Max continue to drain battery when they’re not in use. Not a lot of battery, mind you, but enough that on a few occasions, I’ve sat down at my desk and put the headphones on only to hear the battery depleted alert ring through my ears.
The design of the Smart Case has received a fair thrashing already but not only does it look silly, it also does a poor job of protecting your $899 headphones. The thin mesh headband is left exposed, leaving it vulnerable to tears and spills and I’ve found the magnetic clasp to be unreliable. Typically, if you didn’t like the case your headphones came with, you simply wouldn’t use it, but the Apple AirPods Max battery-saving features make it a necessity.
There are much more protective aftermarket cases available, but again, the last thing you want is to spend an extra $40 to $60 on top of the $899 forked out for the headphones.
Are the Apple AirPods Max worth $899?
Granted, the Apple AirPods Max work hard for their $899 price tag but it doesn’t excuse the fact that you could purchase a pair of Sony WH-1000XM4s (or Bose 700 noise-cancelling headphones if that’s more your jam) and a gaming headset with change to spare for less than the $899 cost.
I hate that I love the AirPods Max as much as I do. They’re an impressive bit of kit and the technology packed into each earcup feels seriously polished. Noise-cancelling, spatial audio and ambient sound features are nothing new, but Apple’s execution is world-class. The sound is balanced incredibly well out of the box and you won’t be scrambling for the EQ settings.
It’s like they were built for everyone but priced for a few which is a disappointing turn after Apple was praised for releasing a somewhat affordable iPhone SE and momentarily yielding on smartphone cost increases with the iPhone 12 range.
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