Review: Airpods Max

Superb noise cancellation and beautiful sound

Apple's first headphones Airpods Max are expensive, but amazingly good. On everything. Almost.

Karakter
We think
Perhaps the best noise reduction in the class. Large, rich, dynamic and open sound image with crystal clear reproduction. Comfortable despite the weight. The quality.
Neither splashproof nor waterproof. Half the case - and the price.
Specifications

Type: Around the ear, closed, wireless
Connection: Bluetooth 5.0, AAC
Element: 40 mm
Frequency range: N / A
Active noise reduction: Yes
Voice control: Siri
Battery: Up to 20 hours
Charging cable: Lightning to USB-C
Weight: 385 grams
Color: Gray, silver, blue, green or pink
Web: apple.com

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They cost twice what market leader Sony should have for a pair of excellent WH-1000XM4s , which have been the reference for noise reduction. Apple’s first headphones, the AirPods Max, are actually so expensive that they can be safely compared to high-end headphones. Or can they?

If the price is in the high-end layer, the sound is not quite there. This is because they are wireless, and with Bluetooth you do not get the very best sound quality. Like that. There it was cleared up.

But have to compare with what is available of wireless headphones with noise reduction, and they all use Bluetooth – with or without aptX HD which gives a little better sound. And then, the AirPods Max is clearly among the very best wireless in sound quality.

They shudder the Sony headphones on sound, and park the Bose NCH 700 completely. They are actually so good, that if you have tried a pair of AirPods Max for a few minutes, it is impossible to go back to the Sony headphones. Which sounds dry as sandpaper, and devoid of dynamism, compared to Apple’s new – and first – headphones.

The only ones that are in the same class in terms of sound quality are Bang & Olufsen’s Beoplay H95, and they are even more expensive than the Apple headphones.

To understand why a pair of AirPods Max costs so much, one must look at what one cannot see. Apple has not reinvented the gunpowder, it is not a completely new and revolutionary noise reduction or exotic membrane materials here.

There is not even atpX HD or Sony’s lossless LDAC audio codec on board. Apple uses standard Bluetooth 5.0, with AAC instead. As they do on the AirPods Pro earbuds, and Apple’s implementation of Bluetooth AAC is perhaps the most successful in terms of sound quality.

But that’s not all. Apple has developed the membrane used in AirPods Max, and uses two annular neodymium magnets behind the membrane, which sit in closed earbuds of molded aluminum.

A self-developed H1 processor with 10 sound cores, controls the noise reduction, the equalizer that adapts to the shape of the head and ears, and the directional sound.

AirPods Max also has microphones on the inside, which measure the acoustics when you wear them.
Photo: Lasse Svendsen

Fit and ease of use

The headphones are much larger than the Sony and B&O headphones, and weigh close to 400 grams. There is a considerable weight for a pair of headphones intended for portable use. The weight is not much higher than the H95’s 323 grams, but the carrying comfort is better.

Despite the weight, Apple’s headphones are very comfortable. The curved fabric of the wide headband is stretched over the head when you step on them, and the oval pillows in fine-mesh fabric, adapt to the shape of the head and it does not get as hot and clammy as artificial leather becomes after a while.

Yes, they are heavy, but the carrying comfort is very good.
Photo: Lasse Svendsen

Where many headphones have ‘invisible’ touchpads that you touch to answer calls, start and stop music, and adjust the volume with, AirPods Max has buttons. A push button to turn the noise reduction on and off, and turn on the microphones to let in sound from outside, and the same digital crown that we know from the Apple Watch.

It works as a volume control, but can also be used as a phone button, voice control with Siri, and control the music with. It is far preferable to the front touch.

The same digital crown we know from the Apple Watch.
Photo: Lasse Svendsen

The first time you pair them with an Apple device, iPhone or iPad, they appear on the screen just like a pair of AirPods do, and then you pair them ‘forever’ with a touch of the screen.

If you put them down, just lift them up, then they are connected again, and if you have several Apple devices, the headphones switch seamlessly between them. If you put down your mobile and lift up an iPad, they immediately connect to it.

Android users can also use AirPods Max, but they miss out on a lot of functionality. Like voice control. Siri only works on Apple devices, and with an iPhone in your pocket and a pair of AirPods Max on your head, you can read messages, and ask to be a guide to the nearest restaurant, ask about the weather, and everything else you can use voice control to.

Closed earbuds with adaptive eq and directional sound.
Photo: Lasse Svendsen

Adaptive eq and directional sound

Like the adaptive eq. It uses microphones inside the earbuds, which listen to the acoustic conditions and adjust the balance of the sound accordingly. Spectacle wearers, for example, may find that the bass becomes slimmer with headphones that are pushed slightly out of the head by the spectacle bars. It does not happen here. The many ear pads ‘swallow’ the spectacle rods, and even if the earbuds are pressed in one direction or another, there is always a very good balance in the sound.

The directional sound – Spatial Sound – does not work on an Android mobile, which is a shame. Because it’s really cool on film. Gyroscopes and accelerometers on the inside work together to find the direction of the sound source based on the position of the earbuds. If you turn your head, you also turn the sound, so that you always experience that the sound comes from the screen. Fiffig.

Steel bar with soft pull provides good wearing comfort.
Photo: Lasse Svendsen

Noise-canceling headphones do not behave the same. Some attenuate low-frequency noise best, such as car traffic- Other attenuators sound higher in frequency better. Like rushing from in an airplane cabin, or a train compartment. The Sony WH-1000M4 dampens everything just as well, and I dare say that the AirPods Max is at least as good, if not better.

Low-frequency noise is frighteningly attenuated effectively. You don’t even hear the hum of a diesel car until it gets really close, and laughter and loud conversation in an office landscape are pleasantly muffled effectively. At the same time, the sound quality is not damaged by the noise reduction.

Everything inside an AirPods Max. Photo: Apple

Sound quality

One thing was clear early on after Apple released the news of AirPods Max, at that price they should be fantastic. Not only on noise reduction, but also on sound quality.

They do not disappoint.

A pair of Hifiman Sundara on a good headphone amplifier sounds better, but it is irrelevant here, where we talk about Bluetooth and noise reduction in the first place.

Of course we measured AirPods Max. Photo: Lasse Svendsen

It does not take many beats in the litmus test with Keith Jarret’s Cologne Concert, streamed from Tidal, before one quickly reveals a pair of headphones – or for that matter, speakers – shortcomings. Many people succumb when Jarrett hammers loose on the piano, especially when playing loud, because then the piano tones can be sharpened and hardened so that they not only sound unnatural, but become uncomfortable to listen to. On AirPods Max, I can play as loud as I want, without distortion or unpleasant sounds.

Compared to B&O H95, the sound is warmer, there is more fullness in the notes and the piano has a better bottom sound. But on the other hand, the H95 is more open in the treble, and lets go of the overtones to a slightly greater extent. They are better focused in the treble than AirPods Max.

The measurement of the Apple Airpods Max EQ ANC on, shows very little difference between the left and right channel. The black line shows the section. Measurement: Geir Gråbein Nordby

On James Blake’s new album, When The Party’s Over, a large, spacious and sonorous soundscape is created on the H95, but on the Apple headphones, the soundscape becomes wider and warmer.

The same thing happens with classical music, such as Ramirez Navidad Nuestra with Bryn Terfel and Rolando Villazón. With H95, the focus is primarily on the vocals, while the orchestra is a bit withdrawn. On AirPods Max, the orchestral sound is better expressed in the soundscape, and you get the feeling of sitting in a larger concert hall, than with the H95.
None of them can play so loud that you bleed from your ears, thankfully. But loud enough that there is sufficient dynamics for concert recordings to sound realistic with the headphones on.

Measurement of the frequency response of AirPods Max at the top, H95 and WH-1000M4. Notice how similar AirPods Max and H95 measure up to 5k, and how fast the WH-1000M4 rolls off in bass below 40 Hz.
Measurement: Geir Gråbein Nordby

When playing loud, or at max, it is not possible to hear distortion on AirPods Max, they play crystal clear at max (pun intended), and never sound uncomfortable or sharp.

Here, the Shure Aonic 50 is also included in the comparison.
Measurement: Geir Gråbein Nordby

Quality of speech

The speech quality is top notch and among the best I have heard. Conversations both ways sound clear and distinct, completely noise-free, with some emphasis on the upper midrange that clarifies speech even more. In order to hear yourself during the conversation, you must press the button and activate listening, otherwise the noise reduction is so effective that you can barely hear what you are saying.

Competitors

The aforementioned headphones from Sony and Bose are not really direct competitors to a pair of AirPods Max. Although the noise reduction in both of them is very good, the sound quality is not close to what you get from Apple headphones. Nor than the Beoplay H95, which are the only ones with the Beyerdynamic Amiron Wireless (without noise reduction though), which is in the same class as the AirPods Max in terms of sound quality.

Battery life, case and charging

But at one point, the AirPods Max must look beaten. The battery life of the H95 and WH-1000M4 is much better. Apple states a maximum of 20 hours – which is more than enough – just over half of the H95, but a five-minute charge is enough for an hour and a half of music.

The case here shown in the box the headphones come in. Photo: Lasse Svendsen

AirPods Max does not come with a charger, only a Lightning to USB-C cable, and they do not come with a standard case either. The bra as it has already been dubbed on social media is only half a case. It is admittedly very elaborately made, with magnetic closure and space for a charging plug, and it comes in the same color as the headphones, but it does not protect as well as a case you put the headphone inside.

Lightning charging cable, but no charger. Photo: Lasse Svendsen

If you put the headphones in the supplied case, they will turn off immediately and go to sleep. For weeks and months.

Conclusion

Even though you are used to Apple products costing more, the high price raises expectations to a sky-high level, when you unpack a pair of AirPods Max. Part of the reason for the high price, becomes immediately visible when you look and feel them. The silky matte earrings that keep fingerprints away, the soft comfort of the fabric pillows, and the solid hoop, are all trustworthy made. But they are when you put them on, that you understand why the price is high. The carrying comfort is impeccable, despite the high weight. The sound is crystal clear and dynamic with lots of life and details, and it is neither exaggerated with bass nor treble here. The active noise reduction is as good as it can get, and the only thing we have to complain about the AirPods Max is the funny case and that they are nowhere near being splashproof.

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