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Apple AirPods Max Headphones review

Apple finally releases their own over-ear headphones, but how do they perform, and are they worth the bite out of your budget?

first look apple airpods max
CHOICE staff
CHOICE staff
Last updated: 18 February 2021

CHOICE verdict

It's taken a while for Apple to make its own over-ear headphones, but the result is a dynamic sound packed in a bold design. The catch? A big price tag.

Price: $899
Contact: apple.com/au/shop/buy-airpods/airpods-max/space-grey

For Apple devotees, AirPods Max headphones probably hit the right balance between 'must-have' gadgetry and dependable quality and performance. Noise-cancelling, transparency mode and audio quality are all very good. But for a modern, wearable device, they are surprisingly heavy – heavier than most premium noise-cancelling headphones. This makes them uncomfortable to wear for more than a couple of hours at a time.

The first thing to note is that AirPods Max are aimed squarely at existing Apple users. If you're in the Apple ecosystem with a suite of Apple products, AirPods Max will seamlessly integrate and enhance your existing user experience.  

But, as heavy and large over-ear headphones, they are lacking in the discreet elegance of in-ear AirPods, and at a hefty 384g – a weight bordering on cumbersome – they're a bit at odds with the handsfree-but-connected life of portable convenience that Apple likes to promote.

Sound quality

Overall, the sound of the AirPodsMax is full, natural and even, without an exaggerated top end. The bass is rich too, if perhaps a touch too subby for headphones. 

There is something lacking, and that's a lightness or airiness in the audio balance

But there is something lacking, and that's a lightness or airiness in the audio balance, an ambience that lets you forget you are wearing headphones. You are, instead, very aware that you have a pair of speakers clamped to your ears.

Music

The sound is very impressive for listening to contemporary music genres – making things like modern dance, hip hop and big mainstream pop production sound even bigger, fatter and more cutting edge. But more delicate music such as acoustic folk and classical doesn't seem to get the same aural facelift.

Podcasts and movies

Podcasts come alive with rich vocal tones, and movies are especially enjoyable – enhanced by the effort that's gone into Spatial Audio, which calibrates to maintain a surround-sound cinema effect within the headphones. 

Also, the highly engineered responsive design includes Adaptive EQ that adjusts on the fly to the fit and contours of your ear. This saves you from having to fiddle with the equaliser if you'd prefer not to.

Overall, the Apple AirPods Max are very decent-sounding headphones with outstanding performance. But the weight and price tag might make you press pause on your purchase or wait for future iterations of this product.

Airpods Max side shot

Under shot of Apple Airpods Max

Noise cancellation and controls

The controls sit on top of the right ear muff and it's easy to bump them when you reach to adjust the fit. With the weight and clamp-like action of the springy frame, you might find yourself adjusting the comfort quite often. But other headphones in a similar class, such as the Bose 700, have touch controls that are also prone to being bumped. So, while frustrating, this issue isn't unique to Apple.

Counterintuitively, the crown turns clockwise for volume down and anti-clockwise for up

The controls mimic those of the Apple Watch, with a larger digital crown and button. Counterintuitively, the crown turns clockwise for volume down and anti-clockwise for up. Press the crown once to pause, play, take a call; twice go back or three times to skip forward; while the button turns noise cancelling and transparency on and off, or you can hold to access Siri. 

The headphones conveniently and intuitively pause the movie or video you're watching when you take them off or put them around your neck.

Battery life

As with your phone, you'll probably need to get into the habit of remembering to charge your headphones. Apple claims a 90-minute charge lasts for "up to" 20 hours with both ANC and spatial audio in use.

Connectivity

Although bluetooth connectivity is now the accepted norm for headphones, true audiophiles would probably prefer the option of a hard-wired connection that didn't rely on the processing needed to transmit over bluetooth. 

For an extra $55, you can buy a Lightning to 3.5mm audio cable. But it would be nice if this were included in the box, given the already hefty price tag.

Side on Apple Airpods Max shot

Side-on shot of the Apple Airpods Max

Design and comfort

The cushions and anodised aluminium ear cups come in five colours and are fully customisable, so you can mix and match.

The mesh trapeze that rests on the top of your head to take the weight off the frame seems susceptible to damage or early degradation – especially as the headband also doubles as the handle to carry your phones, which pack up like a dainty purse in a wraparound carry case (aftermarket alternatives could do well here).

The mesh goes some way to keeping the headphones hefty weight from pressing on your skull, but the springy frame still presses rather firmly on the sides of your head

The mesh goes some way to keeping the headphones' hefty weight from pressing on your skull, but the springy frame still presses rather firmly on the sides of your head. This doesn't take long to become at best noticeable and at worst uncomfortable, so you might not be wearing them all day at your desk job.

If you are just looking for the best high-end headphones for your money, you might want to look at others on offer. But if you already use other late-gen Apple devices, you'll appreciate the sound quality and enhanced experience these headphones add – along with an extra dose of Apple status and luxury.

Apple Air pods Max mugshot

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