AirPods Max Review: Saved By A Firmware Update

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It makes a lot of sense for Apple to brand its premium over-ear headphones as the AirPods Max (rather than Studio, as the punditocracy expected). They really are max in every sense: big, powerful, and extravagantly expensive.

But do they offer max quality? In our AirPods Max review we put them to the test and help you decide if they’re worth that eye-watering price tag.

Setup

We tested the AirPods Max with an iPhone 12 Pro and various iPads and, thanks to the H1 chips and as you would expect with an all-Apple stable of products, setup and inter-compatibility were smooth and seamless.

(Perhaps too seamless at times, as I wrestled with the AirPods range’s tendency to auto-connect to devices on the same Apple ID account – when, for example, your child starts watching Netflix on their iPad and complains that the audio has auto-diverted to your headphones. We have a separate article offering advice on how to stop AirPods connecting to other iPhones & iPads, but the problem seems to get worse with each set of AirPods I add to my portfolio.)

Bringing an unpaired set of AirPods Max close to an iPhone triggers the usual setup animation, and you’re up and running with a single tap. Depending on how you arrange the settings and whether or not you have people sharing your Apple ID to worry about, you can have the AirPods automatically connect to whichever device you’re using when you put them on, and stop and start the music when you take them off and put them back on again.

Using AirPods Max with an Android is less optimal, unfortunately. They do work with Android phones and other non-Apple devices as normal Bluetooth headphones, but you lose Siri and setup is slightly more of a hassle: you have to press and hold the noise control button until the light starts flashing, then detect and select the correct option in your phone’s settings.

Design

Apple loves to do things differently. The company’s designers take a ‘clean sheet of paper’ approach to objects that already have a traditional form; at its best this leads to innovation and fresh perspectives, but at its worst gives the impression that they’re drawing an animal they’ve never seen. The design of the AirPods Max is a mixture of the two.

Overall these are striking-looking headphones, but they’re sufficiently different from the average over-ear design that your brain can’t help finding them slightly strange. There’s more than a hint of ‘metal hamburger’ about the design.

They have two large padded cups that sit fully over your ears, with a pleasing contrast between the mesh fabric of the padding and the brushed-metal finish on the outer section; this is all aided, aesthetically speaking, by the attractive range of colour options. The overall quantity of metal in the headphones’ construction is unusual, and while this means they are robust and good-looking it adds to the weight.

AirPods Max review: Design

Apple has stitched a capital L on the inside of the left cup and an R on the right one, which is a nicely subtle touch.

The right earpiece carries the controls (which might be a small irritation to left-handed people, but appears to be the standard approach). There’s a little dial behind the headband stem which, as on the Apple Watch, is called the Digital Crown, and a longer Noise Control button in front. This cup also has the Lightning port at the bottom, which can be used for charging or wired playback, on planes and in similarly constrained situations.

AirPods Max review: Buttons

Apple is normally very good at buttons and physical controls of all kinds – which is strange, given how keen the company is on getting rid of them – and these ones generally work very well. They are placed and sized in such a way that your fingers can find them easily without looking, and both have a satisfying and accurate action. It’s particularly nice having a physical volume control on a set of wireless headphones, in this case accessed by rotating the Digital Control.

One small complaint I would make about the controls is that pressing the Digital Crown is less user-friendly than rotating it. You have to press it down properly one or more times to trigger the pause/fast-forward/rewind command, and the earpiece will tend to move downwards on your head in response; you have to get some purchase on the cup, with your palm or thumb, to achieve a full press action. It might be easier if it was a tap action rather than a full press.

The left earpiece is free of controls and just has speaker apertures around its rim, and an oddly asymmetric line along the bottom of the cup, crossing the place where the Lightning port is on the other earpiece – that’s the antenna.

AirPods Max review: Ports

Comfort and fit

We mentioned weight briefly in the previous section. And it’s worth dwelling on this a little more, if only to say that I’ve worn a few different pairs of over-ears and these are probably the worst for giving me a tired neck. Not to a horrendous extent, I should stress: just slight tiredness after multiple hours of uninterrupted wear.

You feel it specifically in your neck rather than on the top of your head (where the weight is well distributed by the band) or on your ears, which are well cushioned – although, as with all over-ears, they do get a bit red and uncomfortable after prolonged use.

I found the fit good for excluding ambient sounds, although the fact you’re getting active noise cancellation makes this less of a priority. But it’s always good to find that the ear cushions fit neatly over your ears, with little by way of pinch or wiggle. Your mileage may vary, of course, if you have very small or large ears.

AirPods Max review: Fit and comfort

A final warning note on comfort. I started testing the AirPods Max with one set of glasses, which were and are fine, then bought some new glasses with slightly wider arms and suddenly found the experience painful because the cups started to press those arms against the side of my head.

Glasses wearers should therefore be cautious about the way the AirPods will interact with their eyewear and try before they buy if at all possible. Due to COVID and the general hygiene standards of wearable tech I suppose it probably won’t be – but since these issues will be largely universal, you should be able to try them with another set of over-ears and see how you get on.

Case for the prosecution

The AirPods Max come with a case, and unfortunately it is not good.

This is a shame, because the cases you get with the AirPods and AirPods Pro are among their best and most convenient features. They look smart, with the classic Apple aesthetic; they protect the earbuds and make them harder to lose; they give them access to a larger battery capacity away from the mains; and they are still super-portable, fitting neatly into a pocket and leaving room for a phone or wallet.

The AirPods Max were never going to have a case as good as that, because for one thing they are so big that of course no pocketable case could hold them. But the case Apple has come up with is a parcel of compromises and hare-brained decisions that won’t please anybody. Let’s go through the positive features of the little AirPods case and see if any apply here.

Firstly, the Max case is not smart; it’s ugly. I don’t agree with the meme jokers who say it looks like a handbag, or a bra. It’s worse: it doesn’t look like anything. (Which brings us back to the animal-you’ve-never-seen analogy.)

AirPods Max review: Case

It also feels cheap – which is very odd for such an expensive product. It has that CDT project vibe, where the designer is very pleased with the way they’ve used a certain number of pieces of material in a clever way, but it doesn’t look nice and isn’t nice to use. And Apple hasn’t even fallen back on its usual attention to detail, because the little cut-out for the Lightning port, on my sample at least, doesn’t line up correctly with the actual port, and the magnet that closes the flap isn’t quite powerful enough, engaging only when it’s very close to the main body.

The case provides some protection for the robust metal earpieces – although not very much, because of all the cut-outs and slits – and none at all for the mesh headband, which is the flimsiest part of the entire device. A designer somewhere at Apple HQ was clearly very pleased with themselves for coming up with the idea that the headband can serve as the handle – such elegant minimalism! What an excellent drawing of a rhino! – without considering that a handle so used will become grimy and may tear.

AirPods Max review: Case

The case doesn’t charge the AirPods Max, but it is relevant to the battery question, for a very strange reason. Apple has decided not to put a power button on the headphones, which means you can’t manually turn them off. Instead you have to wait for them to automatically engage low-power or ultra-low-power mode of their own accord, a process which is accelerated if you put them in the case.

Sound quality

The design may be a mixed bag, but you get your money’s worth when it comes to the sheer audio chocolate that the AirPods Max pour into your ears. They are difficult to fault when it comes to sound quality.

If we do the usual genre roundup, jazz is smokily atmospheric, classical has sweeping oomph and pop is detailed and clear. But there are two factors uniting these various recordings: a sense of 3D space (you can hear the orchestra all around you), and a lack of weakness or dominance at any point in the audio spectrum.

AirPods Max review: Sound quality

The AirPods have plenty of bass heft, for example – Bullet In The Head by Rage Against The Machine has a percussive punch that gets you right in the brainstem – but they aren’t dominated by it as you often get with Beats headphones. They can cope equally well with the delicate treble of the quieter numbers on the Frozen 2 soundtrack, or the gentle cadence of spoken-word recordings.

They have enormous power, too. You can push the volume to and slightly beyond the limits of human tolerance without detecting any kind of distortion. This is not recommended, of course, but it gives an idea of how easily they can handle audio at more conventional volumes.

Features

As you’d expect given the price tag, the AirPods Max boast a decent array of features.

They have head detection, which means that by default they will pause the music when you take them off and start it up again when you put them back on. (Provided you only take them off for a moment. I found they would start again automatically after 10 seconds, but not after 20.)

The AirPods Max also have Siri. You can press and hold the Digital Crown and make your command – “What’s the weather?”, “How big is a blue whale?” and so on. Alternatively you can say “Hey Siri!” to trigger the feature, and if you’re wearing the headphones the system will know that you’re talking to them and not to nearby iPhones, HomePods etc.

(In general I find Apple products bafflingly clever at knowing which device you’re talking to, by context, the direction you speak in and so on. But this use case is hardly a challenge.)

AirPods Max review: Features

In terms of audio features, you can use the Noise Control button to cycle between various modes. What I use – and is the default – is a simple toggle between noise cancellation and Transparency (the useful mode that actively channels ambient audio into your ears so you can listen out for the door, traffic, your children’s cries for help etc). But you can deactivate either of those options and add an off setting to the cycle, where the headphones are neither actively helping nor actively hindering you from hearing surrounding sounds.

There’s also Spatial Audio, which the system will demonstrate for you during setup. (You can test it out at any time by going back into Settings; it’ll demo audio with and without the feature.) This replicates a surround-sound effect when watching movies by adjusting output based on the position of your head and the source device, and while some way short of a full home-cinema experience it’s impressive for a set of headphones and more effective than the equivalent on the AirPods Pro.

Spatial Audio can easily be toggled on and off by long-pressing volume in your iPhone’s Control Centre. When listening to AirPods, Noise Control and Spatial Audio toggles will appear in the expanded volume control.

AirPods Max review: Volume controls

Battery life

Apple says the AirPods Max are good for around 20 hours of playback with noise cancellation, Transparency or Spatial Audio enabled, and that was borne out in testing. In real-world terms you can comfortably expect two days of fairly heavy use before you have to charge them again: my samples tended to end the first day on around 60% charge and were still going strong at the close of the second day.

Two days, that is, provided you remember to put them back in their case. A major concern with the AirPods Max is that they have a tendency to bleed battery charge if left idle but not switched into low- or ideally ultra-low-power mode.

As discussed in the case section, there is no power button, so you can’t enter these power-saving modes manually; instead, you wait five minutes/72 hours respectively for each to kick in automatically if the headphones are out of their case, or zero minutes/30 minutes if they’re in it. In other words, put them in the case.

At this point we must thank heaven for the 3C39 firmware update rolled out in March 2021, which cut the in-case ultra-low time from 18 hours to 30 minutes. Before this, owners would regularly wake up to find the batteries of even encased AirPods Max had dwindled to almost nothing during the night, most or all of which would have been spent in low- rather than ultra-low-power mode. I left an almost fully charged pair alone for a couple of days and came back to find them on 37%; my colleague Lewis Painter’s pair died after an idle weekend.

Thankfully, that’s no longer the case. The first time I came back to the headphones after the firmware update rolled out, they were on a barely believable 100%, despite having spent a night away from the mains. (My suspicion is that they must have entered ultra-low-power mode while still plugged in.) Another time they lost just 6% during a night’s break – and because of the way the modes escalate, most of that would have happened during the first 30 minutes, and you could keep them idle for multiple days more without much more loss.

To sum up, then: it’s really silly that you can’t trigger the low-power modes manually; but it’s really sensible that the auto-triggering of these modes has been drastically sped up. Battery life is no longer a worry with the AirPods Max.

AirPods review: Battery life

Price & availability

The AirPods Max cost £549 / US$549 / A$899. They’re seriously premium headphones.

They’re available to buy right now, having gone on sale on 15 December 2020. You can buy direct from Apple, but we’d recommend that you visit our article on where to buy the AirPods Max for the best deals across the web.

Verdict

A proper mixture, this.

The design of the headphones themselves is idiosyncratic but mostly admirable; the design of the case is an absolute dog’s dinner. Audio quality is superb, and the noise cancellation and Transparency modes highly effective; Siri is decent as ever but not as smart as some rival offerings. Battery life is now solid, since the much-needed arrival of a firmware update that appears to fix the overnight power leakage issue.

The priorities when you’re considering a set of over-ear headphones are comfort of fit and audio quality, and (aside from a slightly tired neck caused by their weight) the AirPods Max pass both tests with flying colours. But at this price, you may be looking for a product that ticks all the boxes, rather than just the main two.

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