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AirPods Max doesn't need Smart Case to save battery — what you need to know

AirPods Max charging
(Image credit: Apple)

Apple has addressed confusion over how the AirPods Max drain their battery in various low power modes.

A post on Apple’s support site, besides explaining why the noise-cancelling headphones lack a power button, lists no fewer than four different low-power modes that automatically activate under certain conditions. The issue was first raised by MacRumors, which tested the AirPods Max to find they only drained about 2% slower outside the bundled Smart Case than when stowed in the case and using its “ultralow” power mode.

MacRumors’ test found that the AirPods Max used up 3% of the battery over a 4-hour period when left idle and outside of the case. By comparison, Apple's over-ear headphones lost 1% over the same 4 hours while inside the case. That’s really not much of a practical difference at all — it’s equivalent to less than half an hour of listening time, with noise cancellation and Spatial Audio both switched on.

What’s more, outside of the case, the AirPods Max were constantly maintaining an active Bluetooth connection to an iPhone. When placed inside the Smart Case, the resulting entry into low power mode switches off the connection. While re-pairing with an iPhone shouldn’t take long — fast reconnects are why the AirPods Max only enter low power mode instead of turning off entirely in the first place — it does show how you can leave everything switched on and barely see a greater impact on battery life from doing so.

The reason for all this, it turns out, is that the AirPods Max do indeed enter a low power mode when left stationary — and outside the case — for 5 minutes. What’s more, after 72 hours in this state the headphones will go into a “lower” power mode that actually does switch off Bluetooth, as well as the Find My location feature. This didn’t factor in to the MacRumors test, but does appear to be the closest thing to the AirPods Max being turned off.

Apple AirPods Max Smart Case

(Image credit: Apple)

The support post also explains that there are two distinct low power modes when using the Smart Case, not just one as originally thought. The AirPods Max will immediately go into the first low power mode — the one used in MacRumors’ test — but after being left for 18 hours, the headphones will enter the ultralow power mode, which again disables Bluetooth and Find My.

This does clear up the issue somewhat, though the main conclusion of MacRumor’s research — that you can leave the AirPods Max outside the Smart Case with minimal impact on battery life — remains unchanged.

If this all sounds too complicated and you’d rather just have a pair of noise-cancelling headphones with a power button, and without the AirPods Max’s $549 price tag, check out our list of the best wireless headphones.

James Archer

James joined Tom’s Guide in 2020, bringing years of experience in consumer tech and product testing. As Audio Editor, James covers headphones, speakers, soundbars and anything else that intentionally makes noise. A PC enthusiast, he also covers the occasional spot of computing and gaming news, usually relating to how hard it is to find graphics card stock.