does Apple’s headset live up to its price?

With the AirPods Max, Apple is entering the market for high-end headphones with active noise reduction. The Californian firm faces in particular the two leaders of the sector, Bose and Sony. Does Apple’s headset manage to do better than its rivals? To find out, we used AirPods Max for several days. Here is our opinion.

On December 8, 2020, Apple finally lifted the veil on the AirPods Max, its first active noise reduction headphones. With the AirPods Max, Apple is expanding its line of wireless headphones sold under its own brand. Sold for € 629, the headset joins the standard AirPods (from € 179) and AirPods Pro (€ 279). At Apple, Air means “wireless” while “Pods” refers to music. Finally, the name “Max” underlines the size of the machine compared to its little brothers. At the same time, the Californian giant continues to offer other more affordable headphones under the Beats brand (bought in 2014 for $ 3 billion).

The launch of the helmet is the culmination of almost three years of rumors and hallway noise. According to a former Apple engineer, the Cupertino company has been working on the high-end helmet for more than 4 years. The development of the project would have been chaotic, chaining obstacles and postponements. To deliver the AirPods Max, Apple would therefore have been forced to make compromises (and it shows). Despite these compromises, do the AirPods Max manage to compete with the most popular headphones on the market, the Bose 700 and the Sony WH-1000XM4? Answer below.

A high-end all-metal design

The AirPods Max opt for an over-ear design. Each headset pad therefore completely encompasses the user’s ears. It does not settle on the ears like an over-the-ear headphones. This construction offers relatively effective passive noise reduction and avoids compressing your horns. Apple leaves the choice between 5 colors inspired by iPhone 12: space gray, silver, sky blue, green and pink. We opted for the space gray color, which is somewhat reminiscent of the aluminum back of MacBooks.

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As always, Apple has paid particular attention to the design of its new creation. From the first start, AirPods Studio exude luxury. Unlike Bose and Sony, Apple doesn’t use plastic. Instead, the Cupertino company mainly relies on stainless steel and aluminum. Thus, the hoop is made of steel. The headphones are made of anodized aluminum. Unsurprisingly, the finishes are impeccable. The headphones are matte and very pleasant to the touch. Best of all, no fingerprints are left there. The headband is equipped with a telescopic device that lets users adjust the helmet according to the size of their skull. Easy to use, the telescopic bar stays in place no matter what. No need to adjust the headband every time. After several days, the headband has not budged an iota, despite several trips in a backpack.

Unfortunately, the ubiquity of metal has one major flaw: AirPods Max are heavy, very heavy. The helmet weighs 384.8 grams. For comparison, the Sony WH-1000XM4 weighs just 252 grams. For its part, the Bose 700 displays 250 grams on the scale. The new born Apple therefore displays more than 130 grams more than its direct competitors.

airpods max homepod mesh fabric
The mesh fabric of the AirPods Max compared to the one that covers the HomePod.

To compensate, Apple uses mesh fabric on top of the arch. Similar to the textile used on the HomePod or HomePod Mini, mesh fabric (also called mesh fabric or fishnet fabric) is distinguished by its large mesh. It is widely used in the sportswear and running shoe industry. Thanks to its large knits, the mesh fabric allows heat and perspiration to escape.

Thanks to the mesh fabric headband, Apple claims that AirPods Max do not weigh too much on the user’s head. The manufacturer claims to have designed the helmet in such a way as to distribute the weight and reduce the pressure exerted on the skull. Indeed, despite its heavy weight, the AirPods Max is easily forgotten. Even after several hours of listening, the 384.8 grams are never felt. We listened to music, watched movies and series for several hours without ever wanting to take off the headphones. The arch, which is mainly made of mesh fabric, has a lot to do with it.

airpods max pad
The right pad of AirPods Max.

The pads are cut from a memory foam very pleasant for the ears. They are held in place by a strong magnet. If you want to unhook the pads (to wash or change them for example), just pull on them lightly. In use, the pads are ultra comfortable. This is clearly one of the strengths of AirPods Max: they are very comfortable to use (even with glasses). Small flat, the helmet sometimes has a tendency to move during a brisk walk or with too much head movement. You will quickly get into the habit of placing it well above your ears from time to time. In view of the materials used and its design, we will rather reserve the AirPods Max for sedentary use. It’s hard to imagine running a marathon with a helmet on.

Apple Watch inspired controls

On the orders side, Apple plays the card of minimalism and is inspired by the Apple Watch. De facto, the case that encloses each earpiece looks a lot like that of the connected watch. There are therefore two physical buttons: a Digital Crown wheel and a flattened key. The dial is used to adjust the volume of the headphones, pause the sound, switch to the next song or answer a call. A long press directly summons Siri, Apple’s intelligent voice assistant.

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The AirPods Max wheel, similar to that of the Apple Watch

The second button allows you toactivate or deactivate active noise reduction. It is also thanks to this button that you can activate the pairing mode of the headset (to connect it to a device that is not part of the Apple ecosystem). Apple Watch users will quickly find their bearings. The controls are intuitive, easy to access and use. You will quickly get used to their location. However, on several occasions I have inadvertently lowered or increased the volume while reaching for the dial.

airpods max transparency mode
The flat button activates / deactivates noise reduction.

Note that the helmet is without ON / OFF button. It is therefore impossible to turn it off. When you’re not using it, Apple recommends that you slip AirPods Max into the protective cover, provided free of charge. We find the same logic as with AirPods headphones, accompanied by a charging case. The AirPods Max case engages an “ultra-low power” mode that is supposed to prevent the battery from draining. In fact, the battery life is getting shorter anyway. AirPods Max lose approximately 5% of battery power overnight. But without the cover, the headphones lose up to 5% per hour. Nevertheless, we expected more from a smart cover supposed to preserve autonomy (more on this later).

The magic of the Apple ecosystem

As with AirPods and AirPods Pro, pairing headphones to an iPhone is a cinch. Just place AirPods Max near your iPhone and a setup window appears on the Home screen. In a few clicks, the headset is connected to our iPhone 12 Pro Max. Same story for connecting AirPods Max to our MacBook Pro. The device is immediately listed in the Bluetooth settings.

airpods max settings
AirPods Max settings on iOS.

Likewise, multipoint connection has been shown to be very effective in our testing. Like AirPods, AirPods Max instantly switch from iPhone to Macbook, during a call, or if you decide to play music on your mobile. We don’t realize anything. It’s almost magic. Finally, like most competitive headphones, AirPods Max automatically mute the music if you take it out of your ears. This feature works every time with Apple Music (on iPhone or Macbook) but has some hiccups with other music streaming apps. For example, sometimes the headset continues to stream music with Tidal on iOS or MacOS.

The best noise reduction on the market?

We tested the headphones in several environments to test the limits of active noise reduction. Verdict: Apple offers one of the best noise reduction technologies on the marketor even the best. Once the pads are placed on the ears and the music is on, the surrounding noise evaporates. In a noisy room, with several people talking to each other, you can hardly hear the voices. By increasing the volume a little, you find yourself completely cut off from the outside world. Note that with the volume set almost to maximum, it is not impossible that those around you can clearly hear the music you are listening to. The ear cushions indeed allow some of the sound to filter out.

airpods max cover

We also tested the active noise reduction in a street where the traffic was rather heavy. In this context, the helmet does not completely cancel the noise of cars. However, we only perceive the sounds generated by vehicles a few meters away from us. Again, just push the volume a little further to find yourself cut off from the world. Finally, we also tested the AirPods Max for a long time at home (teleworking requires). The helmet creates a real bubble of tranquility promoting concentration. You can no longer hear the robot vacuum cleaner, the barking of dogs or the television. AirPods Max effectively cancel everyday noise.

In the field of active noise reduction, the AirPods Max do better than the Bose 700. With the Bose headphones on the ears, you can often hear the noise of the noise reduction operation when the music is paused. To cancel out environmental noise, the headset’s microphones pick up ambient sounds and send a reverse sound signal. In fact, you sometimes hear a blowing / hissing noise, which spoils the experience a bit. This is not the case with AirPods Max. Once the music is paused, we find ourselves in almost complete silence. In conclusion, Apple offers high-end noise reduction, similar to that of the Sony WH-1000XM4. On this ground, however, the AirPods Max seemed a little better to us than the XM4. The more versatile Apple headphones filter high-pitched noise slightly better. Both helmets are nevertheless in a pocket square.

airpods max transparency mode
Pressing this button activates / deactivates noise reduction.

Apple integrates a transparency mode to AirPods Max. A physical button on the top of the right box enables / disables active noise reduction. Once the transparency mode is activated, the user hears all the noise around. So you can listen to a podcast or music without cutting yourself off from your surroundings. Concretely, the microphones located on the headphones pick up the sounds and transmit them to the user. In fact, this mode is especially useful for answering someone without having to remove the headset. In this case, we sometimes have the impression that we can hear the voice of our interlocutor better with headphones than with bare ears. The transparency mode is highly effective by filtering out parasitic noise (music from neighbors, cars in the street, etc.) and by highlighting nearby voices. You can clearly see the work of Apple’s algorithms and the three dedicated microphones. It’s a very good surprise. Again, Apple seems slightly better than its rivals.

Top-notch audio quality

Apple does not bother to detail the codecs compatible with the AirPods Max. On its website, Apple is content to point out that the headset is compatible with Bluetooth 5.0. True to its minimalist philosophy, Apple does not include a 3.5 mm jack port. A shame for a Hi-Fi headset. As always, Apple definitely does nothing like the others. To listen to wired music, you will have to go back to the cash register and invest in a jack to Lightning adapter. Nonetheless, the AirPods Max were clearly designed for an exclusively wireless experience.

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So we tested the AirPods Max with several music streaming apps: Apple Music, Spotify and Tidal. We have chosen these three services for the speeds offered. While Apple Music and Spotify deliver lossy and compressed sound (AAC 256 kbps), Tidal offers some tracks in Hi-Res quality (MQA 96 kHz and 24 bits). It is ideal for testing the performance of a stamped helmet “High-fidelity”.

AirPods Max deliver balanced, clear and rich sound. Whatever type of music you listen to, you will be delighted with it. We tested the headphones with classical music, hip-hop, hard rock or electro. The machine does not demerit. The highs and lows are reproduced with precision, as are the mids. The bass is present, and will delight amateurs, but do not cover vocals. The separation of the instruments is very successful. The balance borders on perfection. On a song like Neon Lights by Kraftwerk, the sound reproduction of each note is excellent. Geared towards the general public, the AirPods Max offer an audio experience that will appeal to most ordinary users. Sound specialists, who love to change settings and codecs, will however be hungry for more. To improve the rendering of songs, you will have to trust Apple and its algorithms.

As promised by Apple, the sound does not saturate when the volume is pushed to the maximum. Even with the volume on full, you won’t experience any distortion. Here again, the firm’s algorithms are working to adapt audio performance in real time. It’s very effective. Note that the sound appears slightly less rich when active noise reduction is deactivated. The noise cancellation notably improves bass reproduction.

airpods max audio quality

Unsurprisingly, the sound delivered by the headphones is richer and warmer with uncompressed files, such as those offered by Tidal. De facto, Apple Music’s offering does not really take advantage of the high-end technologies embedded in AirPods Max. We would therefore have appreciated that Apple announced the arrival of a lossless Apple Music offer to accompany its headphones. In conclusion, the AirPods Max deliver sound as rich as that of the Bose 700 and Sony WH-1000XM4, helmets 200 euros cheaper.

Note that like the AirPods Pro, AirPods Max are compatible with the Space Audio function. This option allows the headphones to create a virtual spatialization when you watch a 5.1, 7.1 or Dolby Atmos compatible series or film. Concretely, Apple’s algorithms will simulate several sound sources around you. This technology really gives the impression that a character chatting at the end of the room in the movie is just a few steps away from you. We tested this option with several content available on Apple TV + and we were impressed. AirPods Max deliver a home theater experience. This is ideal if you often watch movies or series on your iPhone while on a train ride, for example. Apple suggests activating the Spatial Audio function when connecting AirPods Max to a compatible device (iPhone or iPad) for the first time.

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Call quality

Thanks to “Three microphones for voice detection”, AirPods Max allow you to spend clear and limpid calls. With noise canceling turned on, you will feel like the other person is sitting right next to you. Again, Apple’s algorithms isolate the vocals perfectly. On the other hand, the noises around you will often prevent the other person from understanding what you are saying. We tested audio calls with AirPods Max on the edge of a busy street. The passage of each car prevented our interlocutor from understanding my words.

Good autonomy

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Apple promises a theoretical autonomy of 20 hours. In practice, Apple’s promises hold true. After a full charge, the headset will last well for 20 hours of use. AirPods Max offer autonomy of around 3 days (with an average of 8 hours of listening per day) with a single charge and with noise reduction activated. Apple scores points with fast charging. As the brand promised, just plug in the headset through the Lightning port for 5 minutes to recover 1.5 hours of listening. During our test, we were able to fully charge the battery in less than 2 hours.

AirPods Max users have to make do with wired charging, while other products in the ecosystem (iPhone, Apple Watch, and even AirPods and AirPods Pro) have wireless charging. It’s surprising that Apple hasn’t thought about integrating Magsafe wireless charging technology into its high-end headphones. Inaugurated with the iPhone 12, this charging technology is inspired by the old MacBooks. Thanks to magnets located in the iPhone, the Magsafe charger can hold charging stands, card holders or protective cases in place. It would have been nice if Apple had slipped a magnet for MagSafe charging into one of the headset cases. Maybe for the second generation?

The Smart Case, the not-so-smart cover

airpods max smart case

Apple includes in the box a protective cover for AirPods Max, the Smart Case. This case, whose design has been mocked, serves both to protect the headset when traveling and to reduce the loss of battery life when not in use. A cutout in the cover allows the Lightning charging cable to pass through.

This accessory is strange in more than one way. First of all, it does not protect the entire helmet. Only the anodized aluminum earphones are protected from bumps and scratches. However, the arch remains at the mercy of the vagaries of everyday life. Obviously, the stainless steel part seems sturdy enough to do without, but the mesh fabric not. Plus, the Smart Case doesn’t preserve as much battery life as one might expect. Over the course of a night, the battery loses about 5%. This is all the more regrettable as the finish of the Smart Case is impeccable. Despite the quality of its finish, the case comes across as a sloppy and unworthy accessory of Apple.

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