Last week, Apple made its final product announcement of the year when the company announced the new AirPods Max headphones. If you were quick enough to grab a pair of these $550 wireless over-the-ear headphones, they started arriving this week. I'm not going to do a full in-depth review of this product because I think there will be a ton of nitty-gritty analysis done by competing publications (such as CNET's excellent deep dive) and my Jason Squared co-host Jason Cipriani. But I've spent now two days using this very controversial piece of Apple hardware, and I felt it was important that we separate the facts from all the hype and rage generated by this product.
Boy, do people get peeved about a pair of headphones
When you tell people you've bought a pair of these things, most of them think you've lost your mind. I'll admit that spending $587 with taxes for a pair of headphones made by a consumer electronics company for recreational use -- not by a professional audio company for some kind of productive workflow use -- sounds completely insane. (Particularly when we're in the middle of a pandemic and a lot of people can't pay their bills.) I get that. But part of our jobs as reviewers and tech journalists is to determine whether this sort of gear is all hype or if there's meat to it.
Nobody loses their mind when you mention buying high-end voice conferencing headphones from a brand like Jabra or Plantronics. That's work equipment, and we expect it will be expensive. But spend that kind of money at Apple, and people go ballistic. Double standard, anyone?.
So is there meat and muscle to these costly headphones? In short: a full packer brisket worth.
Build quality is astonishingly good
I've bought other headphones in the same price range from Sennheiser and Sony in years past, and none of them have this kind of build quality. So much of this thing is made out of metal, so naturally, it's heavier than plastic stuff.
This is not to say that these are uncomfortable to wear. I'd say they are more comfortable than other headphones I have used because of the breathable fabric used (think of the stuff that lines the back of $1,600 Herman Miller Aeron chairs) on the earmuffs and the headband wrapping. You don't get sticky and sweaty using them for long periods, and the weight has an almost comforting feel to it, like one of those weighted blankets used for anxiety and insomnia.
As points of comparison, I bought the Microsoft Surface headphones a few years ago when they were $350; the current generation ones have gone down in price a bit, to $249. So roughly half the price of AirPods Max, and those are entirely made of plastic and feel downright cheap by comparison. The Sony WH-1000MX4, at $350 list (currently $278 which is a very good buy) are considered some of the best noise-canceling headphones, which built for recreational purposes like the AirPods Max, are also plastic construction.
My Jabra Evolve2 85 are $449 list (you might be able to find them for $336 on Amazon for the Microsoft Teams optimized version). These are high-end noise isolation headphones for office work, conferencing, music, and movies -- our mobile columnist Matthew Miller rated them "Spectacular" -- and they are also constructed like junk compared to AirPods Max.
Sound quality is impressive and Spatial Audio is no joke
In a word, they sound fantastic. When I compare these to the other high-end headphones I own right now, these are vastly superior in terms of overall sound reproduction when you listen to them on a device that is optimized for them, such as an iPad or the iPhone.
I tested these with several movies with many deep low-frequency effects, such as the three most recent Star Wars films, and boy, when you watch them do you get a serious subwoofer bass effect; this thing will rattle your brain if you crank them up really high.
For example, my wife and I took turns on my iPad Pro watching The Rise Of Skywalker on Disney+, particularly the opening chapter where Kylo Ren meets Emperor Palpatine. This scene is notable for the thunderous rumbling of Palpatine's voice and the lightning effects, and you really feel it on AirPods Max. My wife wondered if the headphones had a force/haptic feedback feature in them -- but no this was just the low-frequency sound reproduction capabilities of the speaker drivers themselves creating the vibrations.
Spatial Audio, a way of virtualizing surround sound 3D theater audio using headphones, and processed using the wirelessly connected iPhone and iPad system's unique software capabilities, is astounding. Effects come from all directions around your head. If you move your head, the sound positioning changes. This feature is possible from using an integrated gyroscope and an accelerometer built into the device and certainly adds to the build costs.
The dynamic range and the 3D audio effect reproduction of these things are flat-out incredible; I never want to go into a movie theater ever again.
Music also sounds really good, as good as any high-end headphones I have ever owned, both on the iPhone/iPad and the Mac. The AirPods Max produces very crisp highs and excellent mid-range reproduction, with the Classic Rock, R&B, Jazz, Classic, and Vocals I sampled from Apple Music.
Equalization (EQ) is a mixed bag. If you are using the AirPods Max on a Mac, and specifically using Apple Music, you can adjust EQ with a fine-tune for pre-amp, individual frequency response ranges, as well as with genre presets for things like Classic Rock (for those of us that want to hear the analog background studio hiss and twangy electric guitar highs of the 1960s). On iOS, you can set music genre equalization profiles only, within Settings > Apple Music. For Video content, the headsets use Apple's Dynamic EQ feature, which is what is used system-wide by default for all apps on iOS and macOS.
Would I like this to be a system-wide manual EQ on both iOS and Mac so you can do this with other music services? Sure, but I suspect if you're buying these things, you've also spent money on Apple One and are listening to Apple Music as your primary music content provider.
Also: What is Apple One, how to subscribe, and how much is it?
The mics are decent but don't ditch your pro microphone
The AirPods Max is not designed to be used for heavy voice conferencing like the Jabra or Plantronics stuff. They have no dedicated boom mics. The integrated microphones are intended primarily for use with Active Noise Cancellation and Transparency. That being said, as you'll be able to see in the video, which Jason Cipriani and I both recorded using Zoom and also Audacity, as well as in my own separate audio tests, that microphone quality should be more than good enough for the corporate user. However, if I had to do broadcast-quality podcasting regularly, I would still opt for a dedicated mic and use the AirPods as monitors because they are undoubtedly excellent for that.
Also: Best home video studio equipment in 2020: Rode lavalier mic, Logitech webcam, and more
Spatial Audio, ANC, Transparency, and Dynamic EQ is phenomenal if you have the right supported hardware
So this is where things get tricky in deciding whether they are worth owning in their first version or at this juncture. Spatial audio, the ANC, and the Transparency, and Dynamic EQ when it is working… and you have the right content playing, is pretty damn impressive. But for all of these things to work, you need an iOS 14.3 or iPadOS 14.3 compatible device.
On a Mac, you can only get the ANC and the Transparency to turn on, there's no Spatial Audio support currently available, and that's even though the MacOS 11.1 release notes say that it is supposed to work. I think someone at Apple documentation simply transposed iOS 14.3 release notes for AirPods Max by accident, or it isn't ready, period.
How well do ANC and Transparency work? You turn ANC on, and it's like the Cone of Silence. I would rate the ANC as good as the Jabra Evolve2 85, which is best in class for workplace noise reduction and isolation as it has ten built-in microphones, including the boom. The AirPods Max has nine with no boom. Still, the AirPods Max may work better for my use because I have larger ears, and the AirPods Max fully encloses them with generous room to spare, and the Jabra is a tighter fit.
Transparency is like "Bionic Ears". They amplify the sound around you. Again, I'd rate this function's performance about the same as the Jabra -- which also is $449 and considered to be top of the class as a work isolation headset.
Also: Jabra Evolve2 85 business headset review: Extensive Microsoft Teams integration, 10 mics, and 37 hours battery
Battery performance so far has been decent -- the 20 hours advertised seems to be correct, and charge time is quite fast; I can get it full in about an hour but I wasn't really paying attention. This is roughly half the Jabra Evolve2 85's talk and playback time of 37 hours, but again, that's a workhorse device, and these feel like much more powerful speaker drivers for entertainment use.
As with other AirPods devices, the AirPods Max can switch between iPhone, iPad, and MacOS automatically. It's a cool feature that takes some getting used to, especially if you've never owned AirPods devices before.
The Mac is a second class player, and third-party Bluetooth sound quality is awful
As impressive as the AirPods Max sound on both iOS and MacOS, the Mac currently does not currently take advantage of all of the features of these very expensive headphones, and that is going to rub a lot of folks the wrong way.
Dynamic EQ on a Mac I am pretty sure works, but that's an automatic feature on iOS as well; no button exists in the Control Center that turns Spatial Audio on (like on an iPhone or iPad). Unfortunately, the Spatial Audio surround sound feature -- that makes the price of admission worth it -- isn't supported on a Mac. I'm not sure why this is the case. It may be because the digital signal processing that needs to be done doesn't exist in MacOS yet, or it is a hardware limitation of x86 chips.
I hope at least the M1 Macs get this Spatial Audio feature sometime in the future, but really, this should also be doable for Intel in software even if it is implemented at the hardware level on A-series chips. Also, Apple TV is currently no dice for Spatial Audio, and I think that's a limitation of what the current Apple TV hardware, which is A10X-based, can now do. That's a big letdown for Apple TV 4K users, but hopefully, we will see some hardware improvements with a new model whenever the heck it comes out.
Also: M1 MacBook Air review: Impressive, but doesn't beat my Intel MacBook Pro
If you use AirPods Max with a non-Apple device, like with a streaming product that has Bluetooth, such as Chromecast with Google TV, or the Amazon Fire Sticks, etc., none of this stuff is going to work; it will only work as a basic headset. So that's a bummer as well.
But not only that, my experience in using AirPods Max as a headset with Chromecast with Google TV has been less than ideal -- while the product implements Bluetooth 5.0 using the H1 communications chip, it connects to the streaming device using Bluetooth 4.2 because that's what Chromecast supports.
The product's 3rd-party Bluetooth support (which arguably, the company does not advertise, and makes no performance or sound quality claims about) has way less fidelity than the proprietary Apple sideband communications protocols the AirPods Max uses when it talks to a native iOS/iPadOS and MacOS device. This is evident in not just the data rate of what goes across, but also the much higher distance you can go from the host device when it is communicating natively using its own protocols versus Bluetooth audio. This is nothing new; the entire AirPods line has been like this since Day 1, the protocols are proprietary and largely undocumented, and is part of Apple's unique IP value play.
From 10 feet away from my TV set where the Chromecast was connected, there were glaringly obvious connectivity and sound distortion issues. Compared to my Gen1 Microsoft Surface Headphones, my Jabra Evolv2 85, and my 5-year-old Plantronics headset, the audio sounded clipped and jittery. Again, Apple didn't design this product to talk to anything other than their own stuff.
Well, again, holy crap, are these things expensive. But based on the build quality and the audio quality I've experienced with various movies and music I've been listening to, I think they are worth it. I certainly want to see Spatial Audio on Mac and also on Apple TV. But it's not a reason to send them back.
For those that say that Apple is all marketing and no meat behind their products, I question whether or not another manufacturer, providing they are using a similar bill of materials, can make them that much cheaper, or sound nearly as good, because Apple controls the platform and can do so much more vertical integration with their proprietary component designs.
Does Sony and Sennheiser or even Samsung know how to make speaker drivers using rare earth metals, sure. But do they have the software development expertise to deeply integrate with iOS or even Android and provide a full surround sound theater experience like this? I don't know. Maybe Sony can make an SDDS spatial audio headphone system for Android or Chromecast, but it won't be cheap. And because companies like that have to make accessories that connect to a much wider array of hardware, they won't be fully optimized for what Apple has done for their limited list of target devices.
What do you think of AirPods Max? Hype, overpriced, or the best entertainment headphones the technology industry has ever produced? Talk Back and Let Me Know.