Apple AirPods Max: first impressions
After more than a week I am in love with the AirPods Max audio, but there are some niggling issues that detract from the experience.
While a review of the AirPods Max would be great, a week with them just isn’t quite enough time to put a score on a pair of headphones like these given the 2020 of it all.
It’s not like I can casually test them on a long-haul flight, and I don’t yet have access to spare ear cups to customise them. So, instead, here are some of my impressions of Apple’s new $900 headphones after a week of use.
I love headphones. I know it’s a weird genre of technology to fall in love with, but that feeling of having the right headphones for the right activity so they’re so comfortable that they just make the outside world melt away and you can pretend whatever you’re listening to is the only thing that matters is wonderful.
I collect them, I use them a lot, and frankly $900 for the right pair of headphones with the right features doesn’t seem unreasonable to me. It’s certainly out of my budget, but the AirPods Max are not the only headphones to bump the $1,000 mark.
However, I have a little trouble seeing how this particular pair of headphones justifies the price tag. There doesn’t seem to be one killer thing that makes them really special. They’re truly excellent headphones, and at $700 I’d say they’d be a must have for all who could afford them, but $900 feels like a bit of a stretch here.
Let’s start with the good
The sound quality is excellent. This is the most important thing. I have a lot of test tracks that I use to compare headphones, and these score extremely high across all genres, which is unusual and impressive.
January Rain by Pvris is a song that relies on an undercurrent of deep bass notes, while still needing lots of space for the tiny, delicate hi-hat strikes to stand out, and the AirPods Max reproduction of that sound is the best I’ve heard on sub-$1,000 headphones. The bass doesn’t get muddy, none of the notes get overwhelmed, and Lynn Gunn’s vocals shine and are clear.
Another song that relies on the spaces between notes and the quiet angst at the start of the piece is Chasing Twisters by Delta Rae. A lot of headphones, particularly with noise cancelling on, have trouble with silence and space, because there can be a fuzz or pressure. But the AirPods Max doesn’t have that issue. There’s none of that weird, pressurised feeling, and you get those crisp silences that build up the tension and emotion in a good piece of music. This is one of those songs that tells a really emotional story, and by god do you feel ever vocal tear, every drop of rage, passion and grief that comes through in this.
Conquer Divide songs are perfect for testing out headphones because the songs have so much organised chaos between the distorted guitars, the typically frenetic metal-style drums, Janel Duarte’s screaming and Kiarely Castillo’s clean and delicate vocals. On the song Nightmares I can pick out all the separate notes and drum strokes and really get that full experience.
On the other end of the scale, Georgiana by Dario Marianelli sounds bright and hopeful and crisp. It’s impossible to not conduct an invisible orchestra while listening. All instruments are reproduced well.
I didn’t find any style of music that doesn’t sound great on these. There is perhaps a touch more bass than you’d want from pure reproduction headphones. But a hint of extra bass is pretty standard for headphones in the Australian and North American markets, so this isn’t exactly unexpected.
The Transparency mode is great. The headphones really utilise all the microphones on the outside to make sure I’m listening to all my music in great quality while also being aware of any buses or other dangers on the footpath.
It’s the best noise cancelling I’ve ever experienced.
Turning noise cancelling on just turns off the world. There’s no pressure change, or weird hum: Suddenly you can’t hear anything outside the headphones, which is just wild. It’s the best noise cancelling I’ve ever experienced. Part of that is down to the extra microphones on the inside of the ear cups which are there to account for any issues with the seal of the ear cups, which can be caused by wearing glasses, earrings or masks.
I wear super chunky glasses, still have something like 9 earrings in and am always wearing a mask when I’m out of the house, and have been very impressed by both the comfort and seal (though, after about three hours I do find my chunky glasses start getting crushed into my skull, which isn’t an issue with glasses with thinner arms).
The battery life is amazing. I’ve been using them quite a lot over the past week and have only charged them once out of habit – I don’t think they even needed it. Though it is weird and annoying there isn’t any way to turn them off. Putting them in their little booty shorts is good for putting them in low power mode, but sometimes you just want to turn something off and then on again.
They look cool. They remind me of Yeezy sneakers and Off-White branded clothing, and those brands and styles are cool even if they’re not my taste. The other day a woman in a shop asked if she could touch them, which I’ve never had a stranger do before. They’re going to be a status symbol amongst the young and rich.
The accessibility features are revolutionary. Pairing them with something like People Detection on the iPhone 12 Pro is going to be huge for the blind community, and Live Listen is incredible for the hard of hearing community. You can do those same things with a pair of AirPods Pro, but not everyone can or wants to wear in-ear true wireless headphones.
I also really love the on-device controls. Using the Digital Crown and button from the Watch sounded really weird before I got hands on, but they just make sense.
I don't normally bother with switching between noise cancelling and transparency modes on most of my headphones because it's too fiddly or unpleasant, and I've reverted to just using the music controls on my watch instead of on headphones. But the buttons on the AirPods Max don't require too much force, which can be uncomfortable and sometimes create weird sounds in noise cancelling. You can't press them by accident, but if you press them deliberately they work first time, every time.
Repairability is another feature that’s hard to look past. The standard AirPods are notorious for being future landfill because they’re impossible to repair or recycle. The AirPods Max appear to have been specifically designed to combat that – every part is repairable, which means they should last users years and years and years, depending on how long Apple supports them for (which is a whole other matter).
On the negative front...
The case is weird. It’s a minor complaint, but since the case is necessary to put the headphones in low power mode, I can’t just banish it to a drawer like I do with all my other headphone cases.
They’re not protective of the mesh on the top of the headphones, they don’t stop bits of stuff from the bottom of your bag getting in, and they look like the world’s saddest pair of booty shorts. It is an example of terrible design and I hate it.
My wife tells me I sound like I’m in a wind tunnel if I take a call outside with even the slightest breeze
Also, call quality isn’t great. There are so many microphones on the outside and inside of these headphones and not one of them is dedicated to making the user sound crisp and clear. My wife tells me I sound like I’m in a wind tunnel if I take a call outside with even the slightest breeze, and inside I sound like I’m either next to a giant fan or on a poor-quality speaker phone.
It’s deeply disappointing given how many people are going to want to use these for conference calls and what not.
Another disappointing thing is device switching, which is just bad. I can forgive the $200 AirPods for being bad at automatic device switching, but for $900 I should be able to keep talking on a video call on my iMac, even if I’ve had to open Twitter on my phone to refer to something.
Right now, as I write this, every time a new song comes onto my iPhone, I get a notification on my iMac that it’s moved the audio to iPhone. It moved nothing, and yet... Hopefully this gets fixed, but since it still hasn’t been fixed on any of the other AirPods, I won’t hold my breath.
I’ve also experienced a bunch of interference. For three hours yesterday they had connection issues with my iPhone with the audio coming in and out, dropping for a split second so I’d miss half of every 5th word on a video. It went away eventually, but I had to disconnect and reconnect more than a dozen times before I decided to just live with it. That’s not ok, particularly when I can’t restart the headphones.
So, overall, the AirPods Max sound amazing, have excellent noise cancelling, and have a bunch of really annoying niggling issues that hold them back from being a perfect overall package.
Other headphones this expensive put all their eggs in one basket of being the best at that one thing. In trying to master everything the AirPods Max set up users for disappointment in several key areas.
That said, if you’re just wanting good noise cancelling, good audio, and a cool-looking status symbol, and you have $900 burning a hole in your wallet, then the AirPods Max are a great choice.