Such has been the ubiquity of the Apple AirPods and Apple AirPods Pro over the past few years, we were starting to wonder whether we'd ever see anything other than those droopy white buds sitting in, or on, people's lugholes. Of course, there are plenty of other, equally-excellent options for those wishing to listen to their music in private, but few brands can compete with the Cupertino lot when it comes to delivering that most coveted of benefits: street cred.
As it turns out, it's Apple themselves who've challenged the AirPods' dominance in December 2020 by launching their first set of over-ear headphones. According to the tech giant, the wireless, active noise cancelling AirPods Max provide “the ultimate personal listening experience” whether you're looking to play your favourite playlist on one of the plethora of music streaming services, or watching the latest blockbuster or show on one of the many TV and film streaming sites.
And that statement has been backed up by both customers and experts, with the headphones scoring an impressive 4.6 out of five based on more than 600 Amazon ratings, and earning a place on our list of the best over-ear headphones.
But what makes these pioneering head-speakers so hot? Read on to find out more about the AirPods Max, from their design and features, to how they sound.
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Apple AirPods Max review: Design
Being an Apple product, the AirPods Max aren't exactly the most rock'n'roll-looking headphones you can buy. For us, they're more middle of the road than Highway To Hell. But they're still pleasing to the eye, looking every bit as sleek and contemporary as you'd expect from the Cupertino tech giant. Available in a choice of five colours – Silver, Space Grey, Sky Blue, Pink or Green – they're built upon a durable stainless steel frame that's wrapped in a soft-to-the-touch material you'll never get bored of, well, touching.
Seeing as the AirPods Max are meant for wearing rather than touching, though, you'll be pleased to know that the frame isn't the only thing that's soft with these headphones. The ear cushions are made from a sumptuous, acoustically engineered memory foam that's not only super-squishy, it allows for a secure fit that makes the listening experience more immersive. Couple this with a breathable mesh canopy that's designed to distribute weight to reduce on-head pressure, and you have a pair of headphones that are ideal for long listening sessions. Luckily, they have the battery life to match – more about that in a second.
Flexibility is always a bonus when it comes to headphones, and the Apple AirPods Max have it in spades. Adjusting the size to fit your head is easily achievable thanks to the telescopic arms. But you should only have to do it once anyway, as the headphones are designed to stay in position, ready for the next time you want to use them. Another pretty cool feature with the AirPods Max is that the anodised aluminium cups rotate independently, meaning you can tweak and turn them to your heart's – and your ears' – content.
Finally, a quick word about the controls. In a design move that's got Apple's name written all over it, the AirPods Max feature something called a digital crown on the right ear cup - similar to the one on the Apple Watch. This small, rotating knob can be used to adjust the volume, skip tracks, take calls and activate Siri. It's all very smooth and, once you've got past the initial learning curve, you'll love using it. Joining the digital crown on the right ear cup is the button for switching between active noise cancelling and transparency modes – that's another thing we'll discuss in the next section.
Apple AirPods Max review: Features
We mentioned earlier that the AirPods Max are blessed with great battery life, and we weren't lying. From a full charge, you can get up to 20 hours' usage whether you're listening to music (with active noise cancelling or transparency enabled), watching movies (with spatial audio switched on) or nattering away on the phone. That's around four times as much as the previous AirPods iterations offer – though you can get up to 24 hours' usage with those if they're paired with their respective charging cases.
The AirPods Max carry sleeve doesn't offer charging, but it does allow the headphones to drift into an “ultra-low power state” when they're not being used, helping to save valuable minutes. By the way, if you need some emergency battery power for that last-minute train journey, you'll be pleased to know that just five minutes of charge will get you around 90 minutes of listening.
On to the audio smarts, and while the AirPods Max contain some of the same features as the AirPods Pro and the AirPods (3rd Generation) – including Adaptive EQ, in which playback is tuned according to how the listener's ears fit inside the cups, these over-ears pack larger, custom-designed 40mm drivers. Also present is a dual neodymium ring magnet motor that allows for much lower distortion across the entire audible range – even at high volumes.
Love movies? With gyroscopes and accelerometers built in, the AirPods Max will follow the movement of your head as you watch a film, and adapt their soundstage accordingly. This means you're guaranteed an immersive, three-dimensional audio experience whether you're looking at your popcorn, your phone or – crazy idea though it is – the screen that you're watching the actual movie on.
The Apple AirPods Max also manage to squeeze in no fewer than nine microphones. This, along with the aforementioned stainless steel, might explain why the headphones are so heavy at 386 grams. Eight of these work together to provide the active noise cancelling, while three of them are used for voice pick-up, allowing for crystal-clear calls.
Apple AirPods Max review: Sound
To find out how the Apple AirPods Max sound when streaming a bit of old-fashioned, hair-swinging metal, we enclosed them around our ears, switched on active noise cancelling and lined up Iron Maiden's Bring Your Daughter To The Slaughter.
No sooner had we requested the song than the opening chords came crashing through the cups, full of verve and precision. These were quickly followed by the bass, and the feeling of satisfaction as those bottom notes plunged into our earholes was instant. Rich and rounded like a fat millionaire, they gave this rock classic a whole new lease of life. Even when we inevitably turned up the volume, the bass didn't buckle, sticking to its task with heroic vigour. Neither did the mids and highs, and even in Bruce Dickinson's shriekier moments, any deterioration in quality was minimal.
It helped that the active noise cancelling was so impressive; not only did it manage to snuff out the vast majority of unwelcome sounds, it also emphasised the finer textures in Iron Maiden's music. And that, friends, can only be a good thing.
Apple AirPods Max review: The alternatives
If you're a fan of Apple's products but prefer in-ears to over-ears, then why not consider a pair of Apple AirPods Pro (opens in new tab)? These classy buds offer great sound, active noise cancelling and transparency modes, spatial audio with dynamic head tracking, Siri voice support, plus more than 24 hours of battery life when used with their charging case. And they come in considerably cheaper than the Apple AirPods Max.
Not an Apple fan? For a great alternative, check out the Sony WH-1000XM4 (opens in new tab). They sit comfortably at the no.1 spot in our guide to the best over-ear headphones, and these foldable headphones combine superb sound quality and best-in-class active noise cancelling with 30 hours of battery life for an overall listening experience that'll have you chomping at the bit to put them on again.