One of the things I started to neglect during the lockdown is listening to music.
When I still had to drive to work every day, I listened to a lot of music during my commute and in our noisy office. But now that there’s no need for commuting, and my desk is usually silent, it just doesn’t happen anymore.
On my bike and during meetings, I use the AirPods Pro with great pleasure. But to listen to music for a long time, they are just not good enough. And the sound is excellent for earbuds, but not the same as a decent headphone.
So I went in search of some decent headphones.
I knew I needed to spend some money on a good pair of headphones. The usual suspects, such as the Sony WH-1000XM4 and the Bose Quietcomfort, were possible options. But then, of course, there was that beast by Apple.
When Apple announced the AirPods Max back in December, I had a good laugh. More than six hundred euros for headphones is too much. Even for Apple.
But then I started thinking about how much I love my AirPods Pro and how good the user experience is. Thanks to Apple owning the entire ecosystem, thus providing an experience the competition can only dream about. They are automatically pairing with the device you’re currently using. They support spatial Dolby Atmos audio (more on this later). They integrate flawlessly into iOS and macOS. These are all minor details, but they make for frustration-free products that work.
The most important thing: how do they sound?
I’m not an audiophile. With the best effort in the world, I can’t hear the difference between lossy and lossless audio. But I have owned many headphones in my life, and I know what sounds good and what sounds crap.
The first time I put on my AirPods Max and heard some music, I was blown away. This experience was a true revelation, like going to arena shows my whole life and finally enjoying the better PA of an excellent music venue.
This past week I listened to a lot of music just out of curiosity about how certain songs and albums sound. And really everything sounds fantastic. I have heard instruments that I had never heard before on albums I know by heart. No matter what genre* you throw at the AirPods Max, it always sounds fantastic.
This outstanding sound quality is due to the good speakers in the AirPods and the algorithms Apple uses on the audio signal. Two audio processors with ten audio cores constantly analyze the position of your head and adjust the sound accordingly. That may sound like marketing blabla, but no matter how you put the AiPpods on your head, the sound will always sound the same.
I can write a lot about the beautiful bass and the sublime stereo image here. But this real audiophile can explain it better:
The noise cancelation
In addition to sublime sound, the AirPods Max also keeps unwanted sound out very well. With its six outward-facing microphones and properly sealed earcups, they even do this a lot better than the AirPods Pro.
Even more impressive: the transparency mode. This setting where the outside sound is amplified is on every headphone nowadays. But because of the many microphones, you have a clear sense of direction with the AirPods Max. It may sound like a detail, but it makes it all much more natural than the Airpods Pro.
The design & comfort
Tastes differ, of course, but I think the design is solid. It has something of a ’70s headphones vibe, but without looking hopelessly dated. I have the blue one, and it looks even better in real life than in pictures.
All parts of the headphones are made of stainless steel. That makes them also quite heavy: almost 400 grams. Partly thanks to the fabric band, you hardly feel this. You know you’re wearing chunky headphones, but it’s no problem to leave them on for hours at a time. They also stay firmly on your head, but I wouldn’t go sporting with them.
And the ear pads … they’re heavenly. They are made of soft fabric, with memory foam underneath, and you can easily tolerate them for hours. The inside of the cup is also large enough to hold even the most oversized ears.
On the right cup, there are two buttons. One is a big Digital Crown like on the Apple Watch, which allows you to control volume, pause and skip tracks. The other is a button to switch between noise cancelation and transparency. They both work smoothly.
Is there anything bad to say about the AirPods Max?
Of course, there is.
First of all, that idiot protective cover from the Jonny Ive era. I can imagine that some find this fashionable. Still, a protective cover that does not protect the most vulnerable of your headphones (the fabric band) is useless. Worst of all, you’ll need this case to put AirPods Max into sleep mode because there’s no power button on the headphones. The battery lasts up to 20 hours, so if you think about charging it in time, you can lose that protective case.
Then there’s also the charging. Apple still sticks with that lightning cable. Maybe they should wash their windows in Cupertino and see that the rest of the world uses USB-C.
Speaking of cables: for 620 euros, a 3.5mm audio cable should be included. It costs another 40 euros separately.
AirPods Pro and Max also support virtual surround, thanks to Dolby Atmos. I’ve always been reasonably skeptical about virtual surround. There is no way that 2-channel audio can sound like an actual physical Atmos setup with at least eight speakers.
Well, I’ll be damned. The demos in the Dolby Summit app are insane. You hear sound in front, behind, atop, and below you. Combined with the excellent sound of the AirPods, this gives a surround image that is equivalent to that of the movie theater. There’s a nice additional gimmick: when you move your head, the direction of the sound changes. This gives you the feeling the sound is coming out of your device.
Disadvantage: Spatial Audio is only supported for iPod and iPad content. So watching a movie with surround on your AppleTV isn’t going to happen. Hopefully, something they fix in tvOS 15.
In June, Apple Music will receive support for lossless audio as well as support for spatial audio. I am very curious about this.
The AirPods Max are very expensive, but they sound perfect and are also great to wear. Suppose you’re invested in the Apple ecosystem, looking for the very best wireless headphones, and want to spend the money. In that case, I think it’s a no-brainer.
Maybe just wait until you can score them cheaper than the recommended purchase price of 620 euros.
(* except for jazz of course)