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Apple AirPods Max vs AirPods Pro: What should you buy?

AirPods Max vs AirPods Pro
(Image credit: Apple )

An AirPods Max vs AirPods Pro comparison is just what you need if you're trying to decide which Apple headphones to buy.

According to our Apple AirPods Max review, has its sights set on being the best wireless headphones around, like the Bose 700 and Sony WH-1000XM4. But what if you’re a dedicated Apple fan weighing whether to splurge the AirPods Max, or go for something more affordable? As we said in our AirPods Pro review, Apple’s in-ear offerings are the ultimate wireless earbuds.

These are two very different pairs of headphones, to be sure. Yet they’ve also got a surprising amount in common, including their Adaptive EQ tech and active noise cancellation (ANC) capabilities. In this AirPods Max vs AirPods Pro face-off, we’ll take a closer look and see how these premium headphones shape up — beyond the obvious size and price differences.

AirPods Max vs. AirPods Pro: Price

AirPods Max vs AirPods Pro

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There’s no softening the blow of this: the AirPods Max cost $549. That sounds like madness when its main over-ear competition is routinely available for under $300, The AirPods Pro seem a lot more reasonably priced. These launched at $249 and have since dropped as low as $199.

In fairness, both sets of headphones promise premium features as well as high audio quality, though the AirPods Max’s special qualities arguably need to do a lot more heavy lifting to justify their premium. 

AirPods Max vs. AirPods Pro: Design

AirPods Max vs AirPods Pro

(Image credit: Apple)

Apple’s clean, crisp design aesthetic is clearly on show with both these headphones, even if they are completely different styles. The AirPods Max combine clean-looking, stainless steel earcups with a curvy mesh headband, and while they do look a bit chunkier than most over-ear designs these days, they’re still thoroughly modern.

The AirPods Pro are plastic instead of metal, but have a significant design advantage over the AirPods Max: they’re water-resistant to the IPX4 standard, meaning they’ll survive splashes of rain or sweat during a heavy workout. The AirPods Pro have also improved on the slightly silly look of their predecessors by cutting the length of the stem and introducing silicon eartips.

AirPods Max vs AirPods Pro

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Thanks to their true wireless design and water resistance, the AirPods Pro are clearly a better use for regular exercise or just simple portability, though for listening at home or on the commute, the AirPods Max look like the better option. The ear padding looks particularly generous, so these could well end up being the more comfortable option for long periods of use.

AirPods Max vs. AirPods Pro: Controls

AirPods Max vs AirPods Pro

(Image credit: Brian Coule/Tom's Guide)

One of the most unique features of the AirPods Max is its digital crown. Borrowed from the Apple Watch 6 and other Apple Watches, this allows for precise volume control, track skipping, Siri activation and call response all in a single little nub.

The AirPods Pro rely on touch controls, which can be problematic on true wireless buds as it’s all too easy to accidentally register a tap when merely adjusting or removing them. However, the AirPods Pro get around this by positioning its Force Sensor in the steam, so you can tap to play, pause, skip or toggle ANC while reducing the risk of a misfired press.

AirPods Max vs AirPods Pro

(Image credit: Apple)

Without extended time using the digital crown it’s hard to say whether one control scheme is better than the other, though it’s perhaps telling that Apple chose to implement this all-in-one button rather than stick with touch controls for the AirPods Max. It’s true that a lot of people find physical buttons more tactile and easy to use, and a spinning mechanism bodes well for tweaking the volume to that perfect level instead of making staccato tap gestures.

AirPods Max vs. AirPods Pro: Noise cancelling

AirPods Max vs AirPods Pro

(Image credit: Apple )

ANC is far from a standard feature on in-ear headphones, and the AirPods Pro make especially good use of it, effectively cutting out background noise while minimizing the hissing sound that lesser noice-cancelling earbuds can produce when the effect is engaged.

Still, it’s hard to see how the AirPods Pro can match the AirPods Pro when it comes to shutting out distractions. This is partly a result of their contrasting designs, as over-ear cups naturally create a better seal than in-ear headphones. But the AirPods Max also feature eight mics for noise cancelling, compared to just two for the AirPods Pro. 

In addition, each AirPods Max earcup has its own Apple H1 chip, which dynamically adjusts the level of noise cancelling by analyzing the headphone’s fit and even your head movements.

AirPods Max vs. AirPods Pro: Audio quality

AirPods Max vs AirPods Pro

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Tom's Guide)

Again, we’d need to spend some time with the AirPods Max to judge their overall audio quality, whereas the AirPods Pro are a known quantity — and they sound superb. Music is clean and balanced, with the occasional exception of some rather mild low-end, though this also prevents bass-heavy songs from becoming so boomy.

Naturally, the AirPods Max will need to sound even better to make their high price worth it, though it bears repeating that it’s packing some relatively clever tools. One of these is Spatial Audio, which combines the computational power of the dual H1 chips with an integrated gyroscope and accelerometer to produce a surround sound effect. Basically, by tracking your head movements, the AirPods Max can “anchor” the sound output so it seemingly originates from a consistent source point even as you look around.

AirPods Max vs AirPods Pro

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It’s important to note that the AirPods Pro also support Spatial Audio, though with the larger 1.57-inch drivers of the AirPods Max, we wouldn’t be surprised if it worked more convincingly on the latter.

The same could go for Adaptive EQ, another feature shared by both sets of headphones, albeit in slightly different flavours. On the AirPods Pro, Adaptive EQ adjusts sound frequencies to fit the shape of your ear; on the AirPods Max, it uses the fit and seal of the ear cushions instead. It will be interesting to see to what extent this difference determines the intensity of the effect.

AirPods Max vs. AirPods Pro: Battery life and charging

AirPods Max vs AirPods Pro

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Tom's Guide)

One disappointment of the AirPods Max announcement was its battery life, which comes rated at a humdrum 20 hours of listening time. More positive news came in the form of recharging time: 1.5 hours of listening from 5 minutes of charging, which is pretty good.

By comparison, the 4.5 hours listening time of a fully-charged set of the AirPods Pro sounds poor, though short battery life is common on true wireless headphones. More importantly, the AirPods Pro's charging case can be juiced up enough to provide more than 24 hours total before the case itself runs dry. With one hour of listening time from a 5-minute charge, the AirPods Pro aren’t far behind on recharge efficiency either.

AirPods Max vs AirPods Pro

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Which headphones suit you better will depend largely on how you use them: for only occasional use, you’ll get more playback hours total by popping the AirPods Pro in and out of the case. For much longer listening sessions, like when on a long flight, it’s better to have the AirPods Max, which don’t need to top up every few hours.

AirPods Max vs. AirPods Pro: Accessories

AirPods Max vs AirPods Pro

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The charging case forms part of a fairly simple accessory pack that comes within the box of the AirPods Pro. The only other goodies you get are a Lightning-to USB-C cable and three sizes of replacement ear tips.

Other than the headphones and documentation, the only items included are the same Lightning-to USB-C cable and Apple’s questionably-designed “Smart Case”, which instead of compacting the headphones folds them into a counterintuitively splayed-out position. The styling is also a rare misstep: with the exposed headband, the whole package looks like a cross between a purse and a child’s crayon drawing of a car.

AirPods Max vs. AirPods Pro: Outlook

The AirPods Pro are the best Apple headphones for those who want noise cancelling on a budget. The AirPods Pro are also a better choice for exercise because of its sweat resistance. However, the AirPods Max looks like they could be worth the splurge for those who place a premium on pristine audio quality, superior noise cancelling and overall comfort. Stay tuned for our full review.