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

AirPods Max vs AirPods Pro
(Image credit: Apple )

This AirPods Max vs AirPods Pro comparison shows how two completely different pairs of headphones can simultaneously have a lot in common. But which pair of Apple headphones is the one you should buy?

As our AirPods Max review said, Apple’s first over-ear cans are a big success, able to challenge the Bose 700 and Sony WH-1000XM4 in a battle of the best wireless headphones. But the in-ear AirPods Pro is a lot more affordable, while offering several of the same Apple features: including spatial audio and Adaptive EQ.  Both headphones also feature active noise cancellation (ANC) to keep your music uninterrupted by outside nose.

We've tested both pairs extensively, so let's see how the AirPods Max stands up to the AirPods Pro on pricing, performance and features.

AirPods Max vs. AirPods Pro: Specs compared

Apple AirPods MaxApple AirPods Pro
Price$549$249
Size7.4 x 6.6 x 3.3 inches1.2 x 0.9 x 0.9 inches (per bud)
Weight13.6 ounces0.2 ounces (per bud)
Battery life20 hours (ANC on)4.5 hours (ANC on); 24 hours with charging case
Companion appYesYes
Special featuresActive noise cancellation, transparency mode, automatic EQ adjustment, 3D audio, smart controls, Siri supportActive noise cancellation, transparency mode, automatic EQ adjustment, spatial audio, smart controls, Siri support, IPX4 water resistance

AirPods Max vs. AirPods Pro: Price

AirPods Max review

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

There’s no softening the blow of this: the AirPods Max costs $549. That sounds like madness when its main over-ear competition is routinely available for under $300. The AirPods Pro is also priced at a premium, but costs much less. It launched at $249 and is often available for around $199 on sale.

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 the premium. 

Winner: AirPods Pro

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 combines clean-looking, stainless steel earcups with a curvy mesh headband, and while it does look a bit chunkier than most over-ear designs these days, it's still thoroughly modern.

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

AirPods Max vs AirPods Pro

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Thanks to the true wireless design and water resistance, the AirPods Pro is clearly a better pick 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 ensures it stays comfortable for long listening sessions.

Winner: Tie

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 relies 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 gets around this by positioning its Force Sensor in the stem, 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: Future)

It’s hard to say whether one control scheme is better than the other, though it’s perhaps telling that Apple chose to implement a physical button rather than stick with touch controls for the AirPods Max. A lot of people find physical controls more tactile and easy to use, and a spinning mechanism makes it easier to tweak the volume to that perfect level instead of making staccato tap gestures.

Winner: AirPods Max

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 makes 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.

The AirPods Pro can't match the AirPods Max 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 features eight mics for noise cancelling, compared to just two on the AirPods Pro. 

In addition, the AirPods Max's Apple H1 chips can dynamically adjust the level of noise cancelling by analyzing the fit and even your head movements.

Winner: AirPods Max

AirPods Max vs. AirPods Pro: Audio quality

AirPods Max vs AirPods Pro

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

The AirPods Pro 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.

The AirPods Max, however, provides both greater definition and a wider soundstage than the more intimate-sounding AirPods Pro. There's no bass shortage here either: low-frequency sounds are delivered with a rich rumble. The AirPods Max is not an audiophile-grade pair of studio headphones, but of these two Apple models it's the one you should choose if you value sound quality above all else.

Notably, both models support spatial audio. This works well on both, too, adding a remarkably compelling surround sound effect to compatible video content.

AirPods Max vs AirPods Pro

(Image credit: Apple)

Both also support Apple's Adaptive EQ, 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. The results are similarly impressive, though; we wouldn't say one approach is drastically better than the other.

Winner: AirPods Max

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 isn't far behind on recharge efficiency either.

AirPods Max vs AirPods Pro

(Image credit: Apple)

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.

Winner: Tie

AirPods Max vs. AirPods Pro: Accessories

AirPods Max vs AirPods Pro

(Image credit: Future)

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.

Winner: Tie

AirPods Max vs. AirPods Pro: Outlook

The AirPods Pro is the best Apple headphones for those who want noise cancelling on a budget. It's also more portable pair of headphones, and a better choice for exercise because of its sweat resistance. 

However, if you can afford the AirPods Max, you'll be rewarded with better overall sound quality, more effective ANC and longer-lasting comfort. In fairness, a lot of these advantages come down to inherent design differences that the AirPods Pro can't help, and a bulkier set of over-ear cans won't suit everything. But we'd still argue that in this case, spending more really does get you a better pair of headphones.

Winner: AirPods Max