Apple AirPods Max review: The ultimate expression of AirPods
Introduction, design, and accessories
Note: This article was first published on 21 Dec 2020.
The AirPods Max is a collection of numbers: 4 years in the making, 40mm drivers, 9 microphones, 9 sensors of all sorts, and 2 H1 chips. But the biggest number of them all is the price – S$849. As someone who spends his nights pondering his next DAC upgrade and what headphone I should get to replace my ageing LCD-3, I am well aware that wireless headphones with active noise cancellation and good sound don’t come cheap, but even I did a double-take when I saw the price.
It’s irrefutably expensive but Apple isn’t the first to charge such prices for wireless headphones – Beoplay H95 anyone? However, Apple’s standing in the industry surely means it will be the most scrutinised. Regardless, the brand’s approach to high-end should mean the AirPods Max will be beautifully built and meticulously tuned. And the fact that the AirPods Max is already sold out for months even before it has hit retail is incontrovertible proof that there is a market out there.
But not everyone is comfortable buying S$800-plus headphones unseen so let’s take a closer look at the AirPods Max and see if it lives up to its lofty expectations.
Distinctive is probably the best word to describe the way the AirPods Max looks. The earcups are anodised aluminium and their curved edges certainly make them look pod-like. They are connected to the headband by polished stainless steel telescoping arms that slide in and out smoothly but firmly so they stand in place once you’ve sized them to fit. The arms also have spring-loaded hinges that let the earcups rock back and forth so that they fit better. The cups swivel so that the headphone folds flat.
The headband is most interesting. The structure is stainless steel and it’s covered in soft-touch rubber. Round the top is a “breathable mesh knit canopy” which is a clever design that mimics the effect of suspension-style headbands but with fewer components. The headband is stiff and doesn’t fold, so the entire headphone only folds flat and not up like some of its rivals do. The earpads are memory foam covered by a mesh fabric and are truly soft. They attach via magnets and can be easily replaced in the future when they wear out. However, replacements earpads are just as expensive as the headphones themselves at S$95 pair.
An unfortunate consequence of using quality materials is that the AirPods Max are heavy. At 384g, they are considerably heavier than the competition – even if the competition uses mostly plastic. This is something readers new to high-end headphones will have to get used to. Luckily, the headband, as unusual as it looks, is effective in distributing weight across your head and the plush earpads certainly help. The clamping force is well-judged so I didn’t find the AirPods Max to be uncomfortable and could wear them for hours with little issue. I think most people will feel the same.
As comfortable as they may be, these aren’t headphones for exercising. They’ll slide off your head if you move too vigorously and I doubt you’ll want to get sweat on those fabric earpads and the mesh headband. It isn’t water-resistant either – but then I can’t think of any over-ear wireless headphones that are. For exercising, you’ll want to stick to true wireless earbuds like the AirPods Pro.
Interestingly, these are the first AirPods to come in different colours. The safe options are obviously space grey and silver, while more adventurous folks can opt for green, sky blue, and pink. The headband and earpads are colour-matched. My unit is sky blue and while I’m not overly fond of the colour (I think I will like space grey), I will concede that it is unique.
You don’t get many accessories. There’s a Lightning to USB-C cable for charging. Yes, the AirPods Max charges via Lightning, not USB-C. I could rant about Apple’s port problems but I’m not going to. And while I’m not sure Lightning is the best option, the obvious upside is that it’s more convenient for iPhone owners.
There’s also the controversial carrying case. The outer section is a soft-touch rubbery material and the insides are lined with a velvet-like material that prevents it from scratching your expensive headphone. On its own, it looks faintly ridiculous. The construction is also odd – a mishmash of bends and folds. And it looks like the rubbery outside material might get dirty easily. One thing that I do like about it is how it has separate sections for each earcup so they don’t bang against and scratch each other up when they are stowed away.
If a case is judged by its ability to offer protection, then this case fails. It only wraps around the earcups and even then not thoroughly, so much of the headphone is exposed. I’m not sure how many people will feel safe putting their S$800-plus headphones into bags like this. It’s only redeeming feature is that it automatically puts the headphone into a low-power state when they are stored away. I suspect there is going to be a booming industry for third-party AirPods Max cases.
At this point, you are probably wondering, what happens when travelling resumes and I want to plug these into a plane’s inflight entertainment system? Since there’s only a Lightning port, you’ll need a Lightning to 3.5mm audio cable. You won’t find this in the box because it is sold separately for S$49. Ouch.