AirPods Max Review
No Magic Here
I'll admit that I went in hopeful. The AirPods Pro more than impressed me. They're my "every day headphone", which hurts to say as an audiophile, but also speaks to their quality.
These things, however. These are getting returned.
That's not to say they're all bad or anything. I can see a really good Version Two in the future. But I did not purchase a Version Two. Sadly, what we have right now in the AirPods Max is a disappointment, and I cannot recommend them.
Some parts of the AirPods Max are best in class. The pad material is fantastic. The all-metal framing and body makes my HD800's feel cheap.
I think the top band is really nice. Apparently that's controversial? idk. I like the mesh a lot. I'm concerned it is not replaceable, which is scary at this price, but it is showing no wear and should last.
The cups pivot "out", preventing them from sitting around your neck while flat. These are meant to be on or on a table, not "around".
Volume knob is fine. Surprised the copy-paste from the Watch went so well (seriously these wheels feel identical). Not much to note here.
The "cable" port (lightning, for charge + audio passthrough) is on the right. Let me emphasize this. THE RIGHT SIDE. The ENTIRE AUDIO INDUSTRY has standardized putting ports on the left for DECADES. I'm more pissed about this than the headphone jack removal tbh.
I only have two gripes with the build of the headphones themselves, both small. The cups touch when the headphone is sitting "flat", which is scary metal-on-metal contact. No scratches thusfar 🤞
The other issue is the button on the top right (noise cancellation toggle). It's placed exactly where I touch to adjust their position on my head, causing a lot of accidental presses. Easy enough to fix, but I've only managed to trigger it accidentally.
I did not expect something this heavy to feel so good on my head. These are very wearable. I tend to complain a lot about headphone wearability, so I'm surprised that I had no issues wearing these for 4+ hours at a time.
This deserves it's own section. I am truly floored at how awful this thing is.
Firstly is how it looks. The thing is a crap magnet. It hasn't left my desk and it's still managed to pick up a ton of cat hair, fingerprints, and various gunk. Even when clean, it looks awful.
Using the case is, at best, unpleasant and inconvenient. At worst it's truly aggravating. I've yet to find a motion to elegantly remove the Max from the case without both cups violently slamming each other. The top magnet flap thing is hilariously flimsy.
The charge port cut-out is so bad it's memeworthy. The alignment shifts based on band size. I honestly don't know how this passed Apple QA.
Seriously, this case is a joke, and Apple should apologize and ship all early adopters a better case. If these headphones were good, I would struggle to notice because of how much this awful case colored my impressions. Do better, Apple.
Okay, time for the important part.
Due to...surprising changes in sound characteristics when switching between modes (noise cancellation on/off, transparency mode, and wired vs wireless), I chose to review the sound exclusively in the "default" mode (noise cancelling on, wireless). As this is their intended use case, I think it is a fair representation of what they have to offer. If you intend to regularly use transparency mode or wired connectivity, I, uh....wish you luck with that.
All testing was done using Tidal, master quality where available. I used a lot of different headphones as "reference", but relied most on my AirPods Pro, modded HD800's, Ether C, and SHP9500.
Clear, surprisingly deep, quick, bloated in sub range. Apple pulled a lot of sub bass out of these. Impressive in some songs, unintentionally overpowering in others.
The flaws in the bass aren't as simple as the Sony XM1000's EQ nightmare. There's something deeper in here, pulling really low bass into an audible range it shouldn't be part of. I noted In Degrees by Foals and Good News by Mac Miller as examples of songs where the sub takes way more space than it should
I don't want to be all negative. The sub bass presence is fantastic on a lot of stuff, such as bass-y electronic music (Feelin by DJ Rashad stood out to me.)
My frustration with the bass is in how much it hurts the versatility of the headphones. It can come out of seemingly nowhere and take up way too much "space". Thankfully, as we will get into next, it doesn't seem to interfere with vocal or treble much
Vocals are, imo, the shining point of these headphones. I struggled to find tracks that covered the vocals whatsoever. Regardless of "how much sound" was going on, these always managed to maintain a clear, centered vocal image.
The only catch is a quirk in the treble, which I will get into next
Treble detail is impressive, but at the cost of sharpness. There's a wide range in the treble that's way, way too sharp for a pleasant experience. They remind me of my HD800's before I modded them, but even sharper at times.
There are a number of tracks that hit this sharp range. Corn Maze by Aesop Rock & Tobacco was genuinely unpleasant to listen to for this reason. Peach, Plum, Pear by Joanna Newsom sounds great until the "chorus" at 1:38, where a bit of static on the recording hits like a dagger.
I want to emphasize that this is a thing you're gonna have to deal with. There's no genre or style of music that avoids this sharp range entirely. Thankfully, of all the flaws in the headphones, this feels the most like a "bug", and I think it can be addressed with software.
Imaging and Sound Stage
The imaging of these things is so, so, so strange. On tracks meant to be wide, it's shockingly immersive. I did not try any of the "spatial audio" stuff, but I'm sure this works great for that.
That said, these are closed back headphones. Narrow ones at that. There's only so much that can be done to make a "wide" sound, and these pull out all the tricks. Hard stereo cut. Boosted sub bass. Some weird dynamic range and stereo "compression" that's hard to put into words.
These achieve a wide space, and they don't lose vocals in the process, but man, they do some weird shit to achieve it.
The quirks this causes are painful on some tracks, such as Love Letters by Metronomy. The intro is a chill piano + horns ballad, which transitions into a louder, more dynamic, wider "full band" around a minute in. No headphone in my collection handles this transition worse. The effect of the band coming in is lost entirely, the "space" feels no more full. This isn't because the band doesn't sound overwhelmingly large - I promise it still does - more that the quieter intro was WAY TOO DAMN WIDE.
Sorry, I'm a little salty these headphones made even Metronomy sound bad.
There are good things here. There are good sounds here. There's too many overwhelming flaws for a headphone in this price range.
I'm of the belief that something in this price point has to justify the cost with versatility or unique ability, and the AirPods Max offer neither. There are songs with impressive range, quality bass, and well tuned vocals. There are just as many songs that have their "space" destroyed, that live in the sharp treble range, or get blown out by the over-present sub bass.
Unless you exclusively listen to EDM with trimmed up highs, these are not versatile enough to be your primary headphone. At $550, the lack of flexibility is insulting, especially when compared to a headphone as forgiving as the AirPods Pro.
The only "party trick" these have that my other headphones don't is a bit more width (for a closed back) and a lot more sub bass. Although cool at times, neither of these qualities come close to justifying the cost, much less a spot in my collection.
So...yeah. Don't bother with the AirPods Max. Next revision has a lot of potential.
If you want a good portable bluetooth headphone, AirPods Pro are still the best on the market.
If you really want wireless over ears, grab some refurbished Sony XM1000's for under $200. These have qualities I vastly prefer to the Sony's, but not for a $350 price increase.
If you just want some good over ear headphones for your desk and don't mind a cable, the Phillips SHP9500 is still my favorite headphone. Surprisingly neutral, incredibly comfy, easy recommendation.