Love it or hate it, you can’t help but pay attention to what Apple is up to. More often than not, the Cupertino, California-based company will make your jaw drop with its products and prices, and you can’t help but wonder what life would be like with the latest iPhone, iPad, MacBook, and AirPods. While not all of Apple’s products are equally significant, the M1-powered MacBook and Mac range, and its most recent hardware launch, the AirPods Max, have grabbed a lot of attention.
Priced at Rs. 59,900 in India, the Apple AirPods Max promises to be the gold standard of wireless audio and active noise cancellation. However, at this price, the company has a lot of convincing to do, especially in the face of competition that offers much the same capabilities at about half the price. Do Apple’s famed ecosystem benefits make the AirPods Max worth the significant premium? Find out in our review.
Airpods Max: The Rolls Royce of headphones?
Most Apple products give you a feeling of great build quality straight out of the box, but the company has gone further than usual with the AirPods Max. These headphones scream ‘premium’ the minute you touch them; the anodised aluminium ear cups, soft foam ear pads, polyurethane-covered stainless steel and knit-mesh headband, and the button and crown dial all exude a kind of luxury that I haven’t experienced on a pair of headphones before.
While I have reviewed more expensive headphones before, none have been considered mainstream options for the everyday consumer. That’s where the Apple AirPods Max differentiates itself; this is meant to be an everyday pair of headphones that sets itself apart with its unique styling and attention to detail.
All of this makes the AirPods Max feel like what would happen if Rolls Royce decided to make wireless headphones. The AirPods Max is available in five colours: Space Grey, Silver, Green, Sky Blue, and Pink. Apple sent me a Pink unit, and while I was initially a bit concerned about it being a bit too flashy, I grew to like the colour over time.
The size and choice of materials on the AirPods Max means that these headphones weigh considerably more than other premium options. At around 385g, the AirPods Max is around 50 percent heavier than the Sony WH-1000XM4 and Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700. Many users have complained online that these headphones are too heavy for everyday use, but I found that the premium materials and design in the ear padding and headband made the AirPods Max quite comfortable over long listening sessions. Even with spectacles, the headset fit well, with no real effect on the noise isolating seal.
Although I could definitely feel the weight on my head, it was never unpleasant. The ear cups rotate a fair amount, while the headband has a telescoping mechanism. All of this ensures that you can get as comfortable a fit as you want, without the AirPods Max putting unreasonable amounts of pressure on your ears and head. The replaceable magnetic ear pads come off and snap back into place with a little effort. While some users have reported condensation issues with the AirPods Max, this was fortunately something I didn’t face during my time with the headphones.
The Apple AirPods Max comes with a USB Type-C-to-Lightning charging cable, and what the company calls a Smart Case. I’m not going to mince words here; this case looks absolutely ridiculous, and barely wraps around the ear cups, let alone protecting the rest of the headset. However, magnets in the case interact with sensors on the headphones to put the AirPods Max into a low-power mode that is effectively the closest it comes to ever being switched off.
Indeed, there is no power button on the AirPods Max. As long as there is some power in the battery, the earphones are always on, albeit in a low-power mode when stored in the charging case. This state of being perpetually on lets the headphones connect immediately to your paired source device when taken out of the case with no action needed from the user, and it actually works very well. Sensors detect when the headphones have been worn or taken off, which further controls the state of the connection and power.
There is a button to cycle through active noise cancellation and transparency modes, and a digital crown which doubles up as a button, and controls playback, volume, and access to Siri. There is a small LED just next to the Lightning port that indicates various things such as the battery and charge status, connection status, and more. The headphones are also able to always listen for the ‘Hey Siri’ wake word when in use. All these controls worked perfectly for me, with the crown feeling particularly nice to use for volume and playback controls.
The AirPods Max expectedly work best with Apple devices
Apple’s highly regarded interoperability between products is evident on the Apple AirPods Max, thanks to the H1 chip in each ear cup. Although many believe that Apple has priced the AirPods Max a bit high, I’m of the opinion that this experience is a major factor that offers at least some justification for paying so much. Of course, all of this only makes a difference if you have a range of Apple products to use the AirPods Max with.
You will, of course, need an iOS device to properly set up the headphones the first time you use them, and adjust some settings including the direction of the crown’s rotation for adjustments, the noise cancellation modes for the button to cycle between, automatic head detection, and Spatial Audio. This also links the headphones to your Apple account, and automatically sets them up on any other Apple smartphones, tablets, and computers you might own.
Like on the AirPods Pro, the H1 chip enables the finest connectivity I’ve experienced on any pair of headphones, and does offer a significant reason to consider the AirPods Max over competing high-end headphones. The headset connects immediately, and usually managed to link with the right device among my iPhone, iPad, and MacBook, depending on what I was using. While manual switching was sometimes needed, connecting was quick in all cases. Part of this speed can be credited to the fact that the headphones don’t ever fully power down, and are always ready to connect.
You can also use the AirPods Max with other Bluetooth-enabled source devices such as Android smartphones. Pressing and holding the noise cancellation control button puts the headset into pairing mode (signified by a flashing white light), and you can follow the traditional Bluetooth pairing method. While this is of course appreciated and does allow for some flexibility, it doesn’t quite match up to the seamless connectivity experience you get with Apple devices.
The Spatial Audio feature, first implemented on the AirPods Pro with the update to iOS 14, is also present on the AirPods Max. It worked as expected for me, but currently only works with select content on the Apple TV streaming service. It therefore doesn’t have much utility for now, although other streaming services could enable it in the coming months.
The Apple AirPods Max uses custom Apple-designed dynamic drivers. It features active noise cancellation, Transparency mode for hearing ambient sound through the headphones, and an adaptive equaliser based on the content being played. There are nine microphones on the headset; seven on the outside and two inside the ear cups. Eight of these are used for active noise cancellation, and three are for your voice (of which two are hybrid and also work for ANC, while one is only for voice capture).
There are multiple sensors on the AirPods Max, including a gyroscope in the left ear cup plus an optical sensor, position sensor, case detect sensor, and accelerometer in each ear cup. The headphones use Bluetooth 5 for connectivity, with support for the SBC and AAC codecs.
There’s no cable for wired connectivity in the box, but you can pick up the Rs. 3,500 Lightning-to-3.5mm cable if you want to connect the AirPods Max to a source device with a headphone jack. For wired airplane use, you’d need to also pick up an aftermarket 3.5mm-to-airplane adapter, so all non-wireless use cases will add to the price of the AirPods Max.
Battery life on the AirPods Max is a problem
Battery life was often a pain point for me during my time with the AirPods Max, largely due to the fact that the headphones can’t be powered down. Some overnight drain even in low-power mode was to be expected, with the battery level dropping by about 5 percent each night when left in the Smart Case.
With normal use, the battery level would often fall rapidly, perhaps due to being left in proximity to other devices not allowing the low-power mode to be activated. When using the same adapter and cable I use for my iPhone, I was able to fully charge the AirPods Max in just about two hours.
My testing suggests that the headphones will last for about 13-14 hours of continuous use with ANC on and the volume set to around 80 percent. However, this constant battery drain meant that actual usage was closer to 9-10 hours per charge for me, and I needed to recharge the headphones at least once every 2-3 days even with moderate use.
Great sound, excellent active noise cancellation on the Apple AirPods Max
The Apple AirPods Max is, no doubt, a technically impressive and feature-filled pair of headphones. There’s a lot on offer here, particularly if you’re using an iPhone as your primary source device. However, all of this would mean nought without good sound quality, and fortunately, the AirPods Max sounds very good. Performance with its key feature, active noise cancellation, is also largely on point.
With Bluetooth headphones and sound quality, a lot depends on the codecs supported. While options such as the Sony WH-1000XM4 and Shure Aonic 50 support advanced codecs including LDAC and aptX, the AirPods Max sticks to Apple’s preferred AAC Bluetooth codec.
Now for most people who use streaming services such as Spotify or Apple Music, this isn’t really a problem at all, and considering that iOS devices also only support the AAC codec, it won’t even matter to a typical Apple user. However, in an objective comparison with the competition (when listening to high-resolution audio using an advanced codec), the Apple AirPods Max don’t quite match up to options from Sony and Shure.
That isn’t to say there’s a huge difference here; the AirPods Max can make the most of every bit of data being received thanks to good tuning of the custom dynamic drivers and a connection bridge that goes beyond the basic capabilities of Bluetooth. While the headphones are most at home with Apple Music or Spotify on an iPhone, Tidal Masters on an Android smartphone didn’t give the AirPods Max any trouble at all. However, features such as automatic head detection and battery levels weren’t available when using the Android phone.
The large ear cups and 40mm drivers made for what has to be the most impressive soundstage I’ve heard on any pair of wireless headphones. Listening to Lifafa’s Jaago on Spotify was a sublime experience for many reasons, including clear, crisp vocals, detailed instruments that sounded nuanced and beautiful even in the background, and a sonic signature that comes across as flexible and adaptable on the fly.
As the track switched from the slow introduction to punchy electronic beats, the AirPods Max impressively adapted to every element of the track with clinical efficiency, all while maintaining a luxurious and spacious soundstage that barely made me feel as though I was using a pair of headphones. The adaptable equaliser allowed the sonic signature to change on the fly, giving every part of the frequency range its time to shine. Apple has replicated the approach it took with the AirPods Pro with remarkable coherence, but using larger drivers to add an element of spaciousness that I haven’t experienced before.
The AirPods Max is incredibly detailed across volumes, regardless of whether you have active noise cancellation or the transparency mode active or not. Whether I was paying attention to the bass, mid-range, or highs, I was able to focus on individual aspects of the track with clear attention; nothing seemed to overpower anything else. The bass was tight, the highs sparkled, and the mid-range shone through beautifully, making for a capable level of coherence.
Active noise cancellation on the Apple AirPods Max is among the best I’ve heard on any headphones, offering a level of silence that matches what top competing options offer. It worked well for me both indoors and outdoors, and even managed to tone down sounds that aren’t ordinarily affected by ANC, such as voices, car horns, and doorbells.
This naturally made for the most focused listening experience, and the capability of the ANC even with music playing at moderate volume levels on the AirPods Max meant that all I could hear was the music. Transparency mode didn’t take anything away from the quality of the sound. If anything, it made it feel as though I was using a stereo speaker setup rather than a pair of headphones, as I could hear and focus on the music as well as my surroundings with ease.
The transparency mode is easily the best I’ve heard on a pair of headphones or earphones, sounding nearly as natural as simply not having the headphones on at all. Where other companies’ implementations of a transparency mode fall short is in the ability to hear your own voice, which still sounds muffled; the AirPods Max had no trouble here, with completely natural output despite the very real fact that I had a very large pair of headphones on my head.
However, where Apple’s ANC falls short is in its lack of customisability and adjustment; it’s either on at its full intensity, or off, with no middle ground. This made for an occasionally claustrophobic feeling that was unnerving for me, and it’s why I sometimes prefer the much more customisable ANC on options from Sony and Bose.
The use of three microphones for voice and active noise cancellation, the transparency mode, and the stable connectivity with my iPhone 12 mini (Review) meant that the AirPods Max was also excellent as a hands-free headset, with clear sound on both ends of the call. The ability to hear my own voice clearly as I spoke was great. I increasingly found myself preferring the AirPods Max to using the phone itself even for short calls.
The Apple AirPods Max headphones are expensive; there’s no doubt about it. Many argue that they are too expensive, especially in the face of competition that costs significantly less while seemingly matching up in almost every way. Indeed, if you aren’t rooted to the Apple ecosystem, the AirPods Max would be a pretty indulgence but would barely justify its own price tag. So if you have an Android smartphone, are particular about your music sources and audio assets, or simply cannot fathom paying Rs. 60,000 for headphones, look elsewhere.
On the other hand, if you use an iPhone and maybe even have a MacBook or iPad, the AirPods Max does have some benefits that justify the higher price. Looking beyond Spatial Audio, the real clincher here is the seamlessness of the H1 chip; it’s incredible how easy and comfortable it is to use these headphones. Apart from the looks and premium materials that have gone into the AirPods Max, this is, in my opinion, definitely worth paying a bit more for as well.
Whether all of this is worth paying Rs. 60,000 for is entirely subjective, but I’d go so far as to suggest that the AirPods Max isn’t as overpriced as many might think. This is a pair of headphones that gets most things right, provided you’re matching it with the equipment it works best with. So if you recently indulged yourself with an iPhone 12 Pro Max (Review), this might be entirely worth your while – and money.
iPhone 12 Pro Series Is Amazing, but Why Is It So Expensive in India? We discussed this on Orbital, our weekly technology podcast, which you can subscribe to via Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or RSS, download the episode, or just hit the play button below.