Apple AirPods Max headphones: are they worth the money?


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Erin Lawrence

Apple airpods max, review, how to, worth it

Are they the most expensive headphones ever. Technically I don’t think so. But the Apple AirPods Max are definitely pricey. So, do they sound like a month’s rent, and are they worth it? I’m a big Apple user but I will tell you right off the bat that I am skeptical they will live up to the hype and the price tag.

Apple AirPods max headphones: are they worth the money?

In my hands-on review, I’ll take a look at some of their features, the sound quality and whether I recommend them for you.

What are AirPods Max?

So what are you getting with Apple AirPods Max? In short, these are meant to be super high fidelity, aka great sounding and finely tuned over-ear wireless headphones. Since they’re from Apple, they’re designed to work seamlessly with all your Apple Devices, meaning they connect right away and you can manage them on your iPhone.

You can use the AirPods Max as wired headphones, but that requires a separate Lightning-to-Aux cable. Each ear cup, by the way is magnetically attached to the headphones, so you can yank it off for more compact transport or cleaning.

Apple AirPods Max Key Features

The two main features of these headphones are Active Noise Cancellation and Transparency Mode. Yes, these are features that are available on most higher-end headphones.

Active Noise Cancellation blocks outside noise or unwanted sounds whether you’re working from home or on the move; from a chattery child, to machinery, to the sounds of an urban commute.

In tandem with Active Noise Cancellation, Apple AirPods Max offer Transparency Mode which allows you to let some sound in. Just tap the rectangular noise control button on top of the right ear cup to switch to Transparency Mode, which lets outside sound in so you can interact with people or hear what’s going on when you need to.

Apple airpods max, review, how to, worth itRather shockingly, you can’t dial in or adjust this transparency feature as you can on some other, far less expensive headphones. I don’t generally like to compare in a review, but this is important, I think: Jabra for instance allows you to increase or decrease the amount of noise you can let in for a truly custom setting. I’m a bit surprised you really only get all the way on or all the way off with the AirPods Max.

Set up: easy on your iPhone, a couple extra steps for your MacBook

As with most Apple products, setting up the AirPods Max is easy. Bring them close to your phone and a little window will open up prompting set up and pairing. I was ready to listen in seconds.

For pairing to a non-Apple device or a MacBook, you’ll use a basic Bluetooth set up connection: put the headphones in pairing mode by holding in the noise control button until the light on the bottom starts flashing white then open the Bluetooth settings on the device you want to pair them with, choose AirPods Max and tap to connect.

You’re supposed to put the AirPods Max in the smart case to instantly put them to sleep. If you don’t, they’ll eventually go to sleep on their own, but it’s not clear how long that takes.

I left mine out of the case overnight and woke up with still 70% battery. I left them out for a couple of nights and still had 50% battery, so they seem very effective at sleeping to preserve battery life.

Apple airpods max, review, how to, worth it

What does Digital Crown do on AirPods max?

Apple has brought its signature Digital Crown to the AirPods Max. You’ve seen this on the Apple Watch, where you can push, turn and otherwise use it to navigate around your watch. Here it lets you control volume by turning it, skip tracks with a push, answer phone calls, and activate Siri. It’s actually quite a relief to have a simple dial to adjust volume right on the ear cup.

What’s the sound quality like on Apple AirPods Max?

You’re damn skippy Apple AirPods Max better sound great. I am fully expecting to hear the voice of God in my ear when I put them on.

Instead, I felt kinda … meh.

Don’t get me wrong, these headphones do sound great. But having reviewed a lot of headphones, and even premium headphones, great sound is pretty easy to get. Are the AirPods Max that much better than other similar headphones? Four words: not in my opinion.

I listened to a variety of music on the AirPods Max (you can try my test playlist on Spotify here).

These headphones are very clear, and well balanced. You’ll get a lot of detail in the music, and the bass is nicely resonant, not bone jarring. The sound definitley has a nice richness and overall they’re a pleasure to listen to. So, great sound, check!

Where the ‘meh’ comes in for me is with the price. Like I said, there’s a lot of great options out there for premium headphones and they can be had for hundreds of dollars less.

Apple airpods max, review, how to, worth it

Features of Apple AirPods Max: Adaptive EQ

One of the things Apple touts is Apple Apple Adaptive EQ which is designed to tailor sound to you in a couple of ways, according to Apple.

For starters you can use some of Apple Preset sound modes on your iPhone (found in Settings> Music) to adjust the sound quality. Now, this is not new technology; plenty of other manufacturers offer this same app feature, including Jabra, which I’m reviewing now. But Apple goes a step further.

Adaptive EQ also apparently also senses what’s going on inside the ear cups, monitoring the adjustable fit and seal created by the ear cushions, while inward-facing microphones listen to what you’re hearing, then the AirPods Max adjust the frequencies of your music.

Features of Apple AirPods Max: Spatial Audio

Going further, Apple has Spatial Audio as part of these headphones. You can also get this feature in the AirPods Pro by the way.

With spatial audio and dynamic head tracking you’re supposed to feel like you’re getting a more theatre‑like experience when using AirPods Max to watch movies and shows, with sound that seems to come from all around you.

There’s still more… With on-board gyroscopes and accelerometers, AirPods Max (combined with your iPhone or iPad) can even track the motion of your head, anchoring sounds to your device, so it seems like the audio is coming right from the screen to your ears.

Apple airpods max, review, how to, worth it

You may need to turn this feature on, and you can see how to do that in my video here on the channel.

So what does Spatial audio sound like? It absolutely adds another dimension to the sound. It makes it seem like the sound is coming directly from more places in 3D space; that may be from the screen of your iPhone or from elsewhere in the space around you. It means the sound is not just lasering into your ears from beside your head. It’s a more realistic and natural way of supplying sound. When you watch TV, for example, you can hear the sound coming directly from the set or your sound bar. Spatial audio mimics this sensation even though you’re wearing headphones and it adds the ability to create sound all around you, in much the same way a surround sound system can envelop you in sound.

But… you need content that’s been made to support spatial audio and right now there’s not a lot, and you need to be using supported Apple devices like the iPhone 7 or later or a 6th gen iPad or later.

If you want to test Spatial Audio of get a demo of how it sounds and compared to stereo, a demo lives on your iPhone. I’ve got instructions on this video on my YouTube channel.

Fit & feel: Apple AirPods Max

Apple airpods max, review, how to, worth itFrom ear cushion to headband, Apple says AirPods Max are designed for the most comfortable fit that creates the optimal acoustic seal for al kinds of head shapes. That I can attest to: these are easy to wear, comfy and feel well balanced on my head.

Let’s take a closer look… The build quality is definitely high end; metal ball hinges, aluminum cups, and the canopy that makes up the headband is made from a breathable knit mesh, which Apple markets as better distributing weight to reduce on‑head pressure. Despite the fact there’s no padding on the headband (it’s just the metal rods) the mesh panel seems to do a good job of supporting the weight so you’re not branding yourself with the dual bands.

The earcups are soft, and super plush and fit all the way around my ears without pushing on any part of them.

Auto Play/Auto pause

Handily if you take the headphones off, the Auto Pause feature will automatically stop whatever you’re listening to, then resume it once you’re back in the audio cocoon. This feature worked very well in my testing and I like it a lot.

Apple airpods max, review, how to, worth it

Automatic Switching: doesn’t work for me

Apple touts its new Automatic Switching feature that is supposed to connect to the device you’re using at the time. For me that feature only worked about 10% of the time.

I constantly switch between my MacBook, work iPhone and my personal phone and the AirPods Max couldn’t keep up. When they did switch, it was usually only after a delay of about 30 seconds. More often than not I had to manually switch in my Bluetooth settings. For me this feature is a complete failure.


Over ear headphones have never struck me as particularly portable, certainly not as compared to something like AirPods Pro. I feel like these are for at-home or in-office use; somewhere you can hang them up at the end of the day and not try to carry them around. Even so, they do come with a silly looking case for transport.

Apple airpods max, review, how to, worth it

Apple AirPods Max Case: cringeworthy

The AirPods Max case looks like a clutch purse or evening bag. It feels like cheap, flimsy silicone-backed plastic.

The key feature of the case seems to be that when your AirPods Max go in it, they get immediately put to sleep. Sort of.

If you set your AirPods Max down and leave them untouched for 5 minutes, they go into a low power mode to preserve battery. After 72 stationary hours out of the Smart Case, your AirPods Max go into a lower power mode that turns off Bluetooth and Find My to preserve battery charge further.

If you put your AirPods Max in the Smart Case when you’re not using them, they go into a low power mode immediately to preserve battery charge. After 18 hours in the Smart Case, your AirPods Max go into an ultralow power mode that turns off Bluetooth and Find My and maximizes battery life.

Battery life & charging on Apple AirPods Max

Apple claims the battery life should run to about 20 hours, which is about standard for wireless over-ear headphones, though it is possible to find some out there with double that.

If you charge your AirPods Max for 5 minutes, you get around 1.5 hours of listening time.

Overall review: Apple AirPods Max

Apple airpods max, review, how to, worth it

Overall, I’m breaking up with my AirPods Pro and sending them back because I’m just not as wowed by them as I feel I should be for this price. At $779CAD or $549USD these are a significant financial commitment.

Leaving aside price, on their own merits, they are very well built headphones that sound very good, but overall they have enough flaws for me to still say I’d take a pass on them.

One of my biggest knocks on these headphones is that you can’t connect to more than one device at a time. With some other headphones you can be simultaneously connected to two smart devices, which is brilliant and a feature I use all the time. With AirPods Max it’s one and done. I also didn’t find the automatic switching feature to the device you’re actually using worked well or was very responsive.

I think they’re missing adjustable Transparency Mode, and they also can’t be used wired since they have no dedicated aux jack, and a cable that will adapt that to work costs you even more.

The battery life is just average and the included smart case laughable.

On the pro side, the auto pause feature works well, as does transparency mode, and noise cancellation is strong and effective and yes they sound good and are comfortable.

If you’re a die hard apple fan and you’ve got pandemic savings to burn you will love these headphones. For the rest of us, I think you can safely take a pass and have no fear of missing out.

*A note about Affiliate Links: Occasionally I will include affiliate links in my reviews. I do this partly for convenience of the reader (since I’ll almost always include a link to the company website or similar anyway) in case you want to read more or purchase but I also may get a small commission from the click, which helps me keep the blog running. If you chose to use this link I thank you greatly for supporting the blog. There’s no obligation or cost to you for using this link.

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