Apple’s latest expansion of the AirPods brand is a set of large over-the-ear wireless headphones. The AirPods Max look great, sound great, and are quite comfortable despite their heavy weight. They’re also $549, a difficult price to justify when the competition (primarily the Sony WH-1000XM4 [go.macworld.com/1xm4] and the Bose 700 [go.macworld.com/ b700]) are around $200 to $250 less.
In some ways, the AirPod Max give you what you pay for. Build quality is unmatched at any price, and there are some clever design flourishes. But there are also a few compromises worth noting, like a “Smart Case” that is anything but.
For those embedded in the Apple ecosystem, the AirPods Max will be worth considering when they’re on sale for $449 or less, but it’s otherwise hard to justify the price tag, and those who regularly dip outside Apple’s product ecosystem should probably look at alternatives.
DESIGN AND COMFORT
It comes as no surprise that Apple designed a set of headphones that looks fantastic and is made from premium materials. But Apple doesn’t always knock it out of the park with ergonomics. (I’m looking at you, Apple TV remote.) Fortunately, the AirPods Max are both great-looking and a delight to use.
Apple’s new headphones just plain look better than any other you’ve used. Credit the smooth matte finish on the aluminum closed-back earpieces, the stainless steel rods in the band, the fine mesh of the ear pads and “canopy” headband—it all works together to create a sleek and minimalist look that puts nearly all other headphones to shame, even those that cost a lot more.
People will notice you’re wearing AirPods Max, even though they oddly don’t have an Apple logo anywhere.
All that metal makes them a lot heavier than similar headphones, as much as 50 percent heavier at 384 grams (the Sony XM4s and Bose 700s both weigh just over 250 grams). Apple has done such a good job of maximizing comfort with the soft, deep, breathable ear pads and the mesh canopy headband that the weight doesn’t bother you at all. There’s a bit more clamping force than I’ve experienced on most other consumer wireless headphones, but that too is mitigated by the fantastic ear pads.
Try to run or work out with these on, or just turn your head quickly, and you’ll suddenly feel all that weight. No matter, as these are not at all sweat or water resistant, so you shouldn’t be doing anything more active than a brisk walk in them anyway.
The controls are great, too. Apple avoided touch controls (everyone with a hoodie, rejoice!), opting instead for a digital crown like that on the Apple Watch along with a single button, both on the top of the right earpiece. The crown is thankfully much larger than that on the watch and controls volume and playback: click it once to play/pause, twice to skip forward, three times to skip back, and press and hold to invoke Siri. You can even reverse the direction of the wheel if you find yourself turning the volume up every time you want to turn it down. The button toggles between noise-canceling and transparency mode, or turns noise canceling off if you enable that option in Bluetooth settings. The controls are simple, intuitive, unobtrusive, and attractive; everything you want in a pair of headphones.
Despite the excessive weight, AirPods Max look great, feel great, and have excellent controls. I wore them for hours without discomfort, with and without glasses, which is more than I can say for other consumer wireless headphones.
If there’s a downside, it’s the fact that these headphones charge only with a Lightning connector and have no 3.5mm headphone jack input (as with many products, Apple does not include a power adapter in the box, only a USB-C–to-Lightning cable). If you want to use these to listen to an in-flight movie or to lossless audio from your computer or a headphone amp, or you’re editing video and you want to eliminate the latency of Bluetooth, you’ll have to buy a separate and grossly overpriced $35 Lightning-to-3.5mm cable (go.macworld.com/35lt). For the price, the AirPods Max should absolutely include this.
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