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Apple AirPods Max review

The AirPods Max are the noise-cancelling headphones Apple fans have been waiting for, and they don’t disappoint despite the high price

Apple AirPods Max review
Editor's Choice
(Image: © Future)

Our Verdict

The AirPods Max are exceptional noise-cancelling headphones with a luxurious design, sophisticated soundstage and clever computational features. But the $549 price and unconventional case are difficult to overlook.

For

  • Luxurious design and feel
  • Easy-to-use controls
  • Crisp and balanced sound
  • Spatial audio is a game-changer
  • Fantastic noise cancellation

Against

  • Expensive
  • No on/off switch
  • Smart case provides no protection

Tom's Guide Verdict

The AirPods Max are exceptional noise-cancelling headphones with a luxurious design, sophisticated soundstage and clever computational features. But the $549 price and unconventional case are difficult to overlook.

Pros

  • + Luxurious design and feel
  • + Easy-to-use controls
  • + Crisp and balanced sound
  • + Spatial audio is a game-changer
  • + Fantastic noise cancellation

Cons

  • - Expensive
  • - No on/off switch
  • - Smart case provides no protection

Are the Apple AirPods Max worth $549? It might seem unlikely given most of the best over-ear headphones are a lot cheaper. And, despite being both Apple’s most premium pair of headphones yet and capable of using a wired connection, the AirPods Max isn't even be compatible with Apple Music lossless.

Apple AirPods Max specs:

Price: $549
Colors: Space gray, silver, sky blue, green, pink
Size: 7.4 x 6.6 x 3.3 inches
Weight: 13.6 ounces
Battery life: 20 hours
Speakers: 40mm dynamic drivers
Features: ANC, spatial audio, audio sharing, Siri

And yet, our answer is yes: the AirPods Max are worth $549. In fact you could fairly count them among the best noise-cancelling headphones and even the best headphones overall. Yes, there are cheaper AirPods Max alternatives, but the design, sound quality and features on offer make the real thing very tempting indeed.

That said, it's certainly no impulse buy. So I’ll summarize this Apple AirPods Max review specifically for those wondering whether they should splurge: They look great, they sound better, and they have enough bonus features that even $549 can be worth paying. With Apple’s newest headphones you really do get what you pay for.

One last note: the AirPods Max has won big in the Tom's Guide Awards 2021 Audio categories. In addition to winning our Best headphones design award overall, Apple's headphones also earned a Highly Recommended nod for the Most innovative headphones award. You can check out the main Tom's Guide Awards 2021 Awards hub for more awards and winners.

AirPods Max review: Price and availability 

The AirPods Max cost $549 and come in five colors: Space gray, silver, sky blue, green and pink. The ear cushions are magnetic and swappable, with replacement pairs costing $69.

Along with the headphones, in the box you’ll get a carrying Smart Case and Lightning-to-USB-C cable, but no power adapter. The AirPods Max also skip on the Lightning-to-3.5mm audio cable, which you’ll need to pick up for $35 if you want a non-Bluetooth listening option.

In other words, the AirPods Max is cheaper than true audiophile headphones like the Focal Clear, but will still cost you a pretty penny.

AirPods Max review: Design 

Unlike the Apple AirPods, which are sheathed in an iconic white plastic, the AirPods Max come in a fun color range that lends itself well to a retro aesthetic. The pink ones I tested remind me of candy, but not in a childish way. The headband and case embody Pantone’s infamous Living Coral hue, while the cans drip rose gold.

Apple AirPods Max review

(Image credit: Future)

Those pivoting ear cups are covered by oval pillows of memory foam that aren’t as pulpy as those of the Sony WH-1000XM4, but still create a spongy, secure seal around my ears.

Apple AirPods Max review

(Image credit: Future)

They’re connected by a 7.4 x 6.6 x 3.3 inch, stainless steel frame with slim, telescoping arms that expand at the top for a mesh headband. I sense the pressure relieved by the breathable canopy is what makes the 13.6 ounces feel lighter than they are. That said, the AirPods Max are noticeably heftier than the Sony WH-1000XM4 and Bose 700 headphones, which both weigh just 8.96 ounces.

Apple AirPods Max review

(Image credit: Future)

Apple made a clever move to borrow and enlarge the Apple Watch’s Digital Crown for the AirPods Max. Similar to how the crown provides navigation for Apple's smartwatch, on the AirPods Max the crown is used for volume control, skipping tracks and playing or pausing audio. It's also a means of summoning Siri and answering or ending phone calls. I’ll admit there’s something satisfying about swivelling the dial, although I did swipe the volume while fussing with my hair more than once.

Apple AirPods Max review

(Image credit: Future)


The other button on the right earcup is a switch for noise cancellation and transparency mode. So where is the AirPods Max power button, you might ask? There isn’t one, which is odd no matter how you frame it. Although they kick into low-power mode when they’re stationary for several minutes or in the magnetic smart case, I still think Apple should’ve included a way to completely power down the AirPods Max.

AirPods Max review: Audio performance

The AirPods Max’s sound starts with a custom-built, 40mm dynamic driver in each cup, which are designed to deliver deep bass, accurate mid-range sounds and clean high-frequencies. There’s also a dual neodymium ring magnet motor that limits harmonic distortion to less than 1%, even at max volume. When I turned the AirPods Max all the way up, music sounded balanced as ever, although my Apple Health noise notifications increased.

Apple AirPods Max review

(Image credit: Future)

Apple leverages an H1 chip in each ear, a custom acoustic design, and advanced software to achieve computational audio performance that’s akin to the computational photography prowess of the iPhone 12. Each of the chips have 10 audio cores that can perform 9 billion operations per second, supporting Adaptive EQ for tailored listening and adjusting sound appropriately on the fly. 

Now, enough with the technical specs. As wireless headphones, the AirPods Max likely aren’t the choice for true audiophiles or audio professionals who require lossless playback. Apple’s headphones still sound high-end, perhaps not as high-end as wired recording equipment, but offer more complexities than most popular headphones models.

Apple AirPods Max review

(Image credit: Future)

The steady bassline in Kendrick’s Lamar’s “Humble” rang deep, and I could hear the rapper enunciating his words with a crispness I never noticed in the song before. While the WH-1000XM4 are similarly clear, they don’t provide the same degree of definition. Likewise, Alicia Keys sounded more smooth, yet precise in the opening run of “You Don’t Know My Name,” through the AirPods Max. With both these songs, it felt like I listened from a studio.

For more of a concert experience, I turned to Aerosmith's "Sweet Emotion." Tom Hamilton's bass guitar vibrated through my ears, while Joe Perry's acoustics were intentional and Steven Tyler's sharp vocals transported me back to my first live Aerosmith show at an outdoor Long Island amphitheater. Metallica's "Enter Sandman" supplied a similar outcome; the bass drum boomed through the song's signature rumble.

Apple AirPods Max review

(Image credit: Future)

I found something to appreciate about the AirPods Max’s soundstage across all my favorite musical genres, but my favorite aspect of testing didn’t come from music. Spatial audio, which Apple introduced with the AirPods Pro and helped put them among the best wireless earbuds, is a game-changing listening feature.

Spatial audio is basically surround sound but for a headset. It supports 5.1, 7.1 and Dolby Atmos video content, and uses built-in head tracking means to make sound relative to what you’re seeing on screen while watching video on your iPhone or iPad. For example, as ships zoomed from the left side of the screen towards the right and down towards a planet in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, their buzzes and hums followed with precision from my left ear to my ear one. Spatial audio also recalibrated when I moved my head, which never failed to impress me. 

AirPods Max review: Noise cancellation and transparency mode

Just a few months ago, I picked up the AirPods Pro to drown out the sounds of screaming babies, noisy appliances and traffic in or around my apartment. They’ve been a huge help for focusing on work, but boy, the AirPods Max will make it difficult to go back to earbuds.

Although there’s only one level of noise cancellation, it’s excellent. If you prefer acute tuning for this feature, the Bose 700 is probably a more rational fit for you with its 11 levels of noise cancellation. Conversely the AirPods Max offer only one level of transparency, while the Sony WH-1000XM4 have several settings for ambient sound. 

Apple AirPods Max review

(Image credit: Future)

The common theme for AirPods Max is that more options isn’t necessarily better. In side-by-side testing Apple’s headphones are neck-and-neck with the two best noise-cancelling headphones in the game. I’d hesitate to call AirPods the new ANC king. I don’t leave my apartment much these days, so YouTube supplied me with New York City ambience sounds that recreate my rush-hour commuting soundscape. The AirPods Max did a better job than the Bose 700 at eliminating the low-frequencies of wind and the hum of busy streets, but Bose’s headphones excelled with mid- and high-frequency sounds like honking car horns and squeaking tires.

And again, if you’re keen on customizing your sound (or lack thereof) then the AirPods Max might not be your ideal headset. But if you’re okay giving up control to Apple’s computational performance powers, you won’t be disappointed.

AirPods Max review: Setup, Siri and phone call quality

It’s no surprise that those who own other Apple devices will be able to make the most of their AirPods Max experience. When you pull these headphones out of the case, the H1 chip initiates instantaneous pairing with your iPhone, and soon you can control your AirPods Max from your Apple Watch or handoff playback between your iPad or HomePod mini

Apple AirPods Max review

(Image credit: Future)

You’ll also get Siri, which isn’t my preferred voice butler but nonetheless helpful for sending texts and answering calls. You can use Apple’s AI assistant to control the best HomeKit devices via the AirPods Max, too.

I found the AirPods Max are better than other AirPods models when it comes to phone call quality, eliminating most background noise per those I called for testing. I noticed I could hear myself speaking, that way I wouldn’t end up yelling by accident. In fact, in transparency mode the AirPods Max even boost the volume of my own voice in my ears. 

AirPods Max review: Smart case

I normally wouldn’t dedicate an entire section of a review to a device’s holster, but the AirPods Max Smart Case has been ridiculed and memed to no end. I’ll be honest, I don’t hate it, even if it looks like an ostentatious leather purse. I’m not opposed to using the headband as a carrying handle, plus the supple case takes up minimal space when it's not in use.

Apple AirPods Max review

(Image credit: Future)

I do have two concerns, though: First, an exposed headband seems like a germ-magnet. I’m a hygienic human being, but should I pick up the AirPods Max with any kind of grime or crumb on my hand... just, ew. Second, the Smart Case doesn’t provide any sense of protection. I wouldn’t toss the AirPods Max in my backpack with the rest of my crap like I would other headphones, including my AirPods Pro.

AirPods Max review: Battery life

In my testing, I found the AirPods Max live up to Apple's claimed 20 hours of battery life, no matter how much time I spent listening, talking or quieting the world around me. Over the course of two days — including 3 hours of phone calls, 10 hours of music or TV and several hours of simple silence in between — my AirPods Max still had about 10% of juice left. And overnight, stored in their case, the battery barely drained. 

Apple planned out this no-power-button move pretty well. The low power modes are effective enough that most people should get several days of battery life out of AirPods Max with normal use. But if a long lasting battery is important to you, know you’ll get another 10 hours out of the Sony’s WH-1000XM4. 

Another thing to note is if you do opt for the lightning to 3.5mm accessory, you still need to charge the AirPods Max. The cable simply adds a wired listening option and eliminates the possibility of audio latency, but can’t be used to charge the cans

AirPods Max review: Verdict

The AirPods Max are the best Apple headphones, so it’s a shame they’re not in a more palatable price range. But these headphones round out Apple’s ecosystem in a way I didn’t think I cared about, and now that they’re here, I’m having a hard time desiring any other over-ear headphones right now. The combination of cushy comfort, pristine audio quality and killer features like spatial audio is hard to beat.

Besides the fact that they’re more compatible for Android users, the Bose 700 and Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones both cost hundreds of dollars less and offer comparable noise cancellation. Plus, both come with practical cases, a headphone jack and an off switch. 

If you can look past these caveats and have the dough to spend, the AirPods Max are your ticket to listening luxury. You might feel pressured to hop on the train with Apple’s legion of loyal customers, and I’m here to tell you that’s okay. The AirPods Max aren’t frivolous — they’re exceptional.

Kate Kozuch

Kate Kozuch is a senior writer at Tom’s Guide covering wearables, TVs and everything smart-home related. When she’s not in cyborg mode, you can find her on an exercise bike or channeling her inner celebrity chef. She and her robot army will rule the world one day, but until then, reach her at kate.kozuch@futurenet.com.