When I purchased the AirPods Max at launch, I was unsure if I would hang onto them past Apple’s Holiday season return window. While the feature set was impressive and I had a feeling the sound quality would impress, the price tag was still quite hard to swallow.
However, after using them heavily since their arrival December 15th, I have put that question to rest, at least in my own case. The sound quality was even better than I expected, especially considering that the Max still rely on a wireless Bluetooth connection that is not lossless. I already have a set of AirPods Pro and the Beats Solo Pro headphones, and both of them deliver what I found to be very good audio quality for the price. When they first arrived, I wasn’t sure that the AirPods Max would mop the floor with these other wireless headphones.
However, that debate was put to rest quickly. The AirPods Max deliver much better sound quality than either of Apple’s own competitors with H1 chips can muster. The sound is balanced and there is a clarity, especially in the mid range and in the background, that you just don’t get with the AirPods Pros or Solo Pros. I found myself hearing little details with the Max that I couldn’t pick up with the Pros and Solo Pros.
My theory is that the addition of a second H1 chip in the AirPods Max allows these headphones to make greater use of Apple’s Computational Audio machine learning enhancement. We know that the AirPods Pro, Beats Solo Pro and AirPods Max all make use of this technology, among others, to boost sound quality. This is simply the audio equivalent of Apple’s computational photography features that enhance pictures taken with physically limited smartphone lenses.
We also know that all of these Apple audio devices depend on Bluetooth, the Pros and Solo Pros completely and the Max primarily without an add-on accessory. The Max’s superiority is a result of how well it can enhance that lossy wireless stream and rebuild it into something very impressive.
Beyond Computational Audio, you also have the equally impressive Spatial Audio. The Max’s superior Noise Cancellation makes Spatial Audio even more impressive than what you get with the AirPods Pro (the Solo Pros are not compatible with this feature, unfortunately). All of these features combine to make the AirPods Max a uniquely impressive product…for the right person. Someone like me, who is deeply ingrained in the Apple ecosystem. I wouldn’t be as quick to recommend the AirPods Max for someone who isn’t a big Apple user as I would the AirPods Pro. With the later, you still get most of the benefits and good sound quality for the price. Any price justification goes out the window for the Max if you can’t take advantage of all the features, and you can’t if you aren’t an Apple device and services user.
While I have been very impressed with these headphones, it’s always valuable to get feedback from others to balance your own. I was able to do that on Christmas Day when a few family members came over to my parents’ house for lunch. I mentioned that I had bought the AirPods Max and they were all pretty surprised when I dropped the $549. price tag. With AppleCare+ and tax, that’s over $660. My brother-in-law said flat-out that there’s no way they are worth that price. I pointed out that they do cost a little more than some other high-end wireless noise cancelling headphones, but that there were other products that sole for much higher prices. High-end audio is a different world.
After this little discussion, I invited them all to give the Max a try and tell me what they thought. As a demo, I got out my iPad Air, opened up Disney+ and queued up the final battle scene from The Rise of Skywalker. I used this scene and others to demo Spatial Audio and came away very impressed with the way it can immerse you into a movie. I didn’t really think about this being a primary use case for me when I bought the AirPods Max, but it has definitely become one.
Anyway, three of my family members took a listen to this clip and a couple of them listened to a little music as well. All of them were very impressed. The Max sounded better than any of them expected and they all noted how immersive the combo of Spatial Audio and Active Noise Cancellation are. It really is as close to a theater as you can get sound-wise during a pandemic.
Most notable was the reaction of my brother-in-law. While he didn’t retract his previous statement about the Max justifying their price tag, he did say he was absolutely blown away by how good they sounded. However, all of that said, none of them are going to buy these headphones. The AirPods or AirPods Pro are good enough for all of them, and I think most Apple users will say the same. The AirPods Max aren’t going to sell in high numbers, but that’s ok. They aren’t designed or priced to sell to a mass audience, even if they do legitimately sound a lot better.
As for me, I can justify the expense because I get paid a little bit to review Apple products. The Max put a sizeable dent in that pay, but I kept them because they have been worth it so far. I love listening to music with these headphones, especially music like classical, jazz and soundtracks. The sound quality really shines with musical styles that have a lot of dynamic range and nuance.
I have also been doing a lot of movie watching with them, as well. When I go on the road, I hardly ever turn the TV on in my room now. Unless I’m watching live sports, it’s my iPad Pro and AirPods Max that I’m using for entertainment.
This is an edge case that won’t apply to most people, but I have been driving 2-4 hours for several jobs over the last month and I drive a full-size van for work, at least for now. This van is new enough that it’s not as bad as it could be, but it is still oppressively loud at or above the speed limit on the expressway. The noise cancellation of the AirPods Max really gives my ears a break during a longer drive. I can still hear loud outside noises, but even with Transparency Mode enabled, the Max really cut down on the noise pollution in the cab. My ears no longer ring when I get out of the van from having to listen to music or podcasts so loud to hear them clearly above the road noise. I still just use my AirPods Pro driving in town, but the Max are now my go-to for long drives.
All of these things work together to make the AirPods Pro worth it for me. I know that won’t be the case for many of you, and that’s just fine. It’s great that Apple offers three different products that have some or all of these features for those who don’t feel justified in spending on $549 on headphiones. I also hope we will eventually see a “sport” model of the Max at a lower price point in the near future.
I’ll be back in a few days to talk about some of the issues I’ve had with the AirPods Max, but I can already tell you that they don’t outweigh the positives for me after a month of heavy use.