I've only had my hands on the AirPods Max, Apple's new over-ear headphones, for about 24, but there are a few things about them that stand out fresh out of the box. Yes, they sound awesome; they deliver a rich and deep soundstage. But at $549 and with so much competition from the likes of Sony and Bose, the AirPods Max still have a lot to live up to.
Here are some initial thoughts I've had after a day with the AirPods Max.
They definitely feel premium.
A lot has been made about the price of the AirPods Max and part of it is justified. At $549, the AirPods Max are substantially more expensive than their main competition, the Bose Headphones 700 and Sony WH-1000XM4, both of which you can buy for around $300 if you hunt for not-infrequent deals. And while the AirPods Max certainlly are excellent at first blush, I can't say that the sound quality and noise canceling is better — especially $250 better — than the Bose and Sony alternatives.
Of course the AirPods Max are not necessarily attempting to compete purely in terms of dollar-to-performance. And there are a lot of wireless headphones by the likes of Sennheiser and Bowers & Wilkins that cost just as much (and more) than the Apple's new headphones. And like its more luxurious counterparts, AirPods Max definitely feel and look nicer than $300 headphones.
That premium build may come with its drawbacks though. The earcups are made entirely of stainless steel — not plastic — so they can get pretty cold if outside. It was well-below freezing yesterday in New Jersey and these headphones were startlingly cold out of the box. It's going to be interesting to see if wearing these outside in the cold actually work like earmuffs or the opposite.
They work just like AirPods Pro, almost.
The AirPods Max are integrated with the same H1 chip that Apple uses with its AirPods Pro, so the two work basically the same way. Both have noise-canceling and transparency modes, and a mode where you can turn both modes off and get the optimal sound of the headphones. They also support spatial audio and Dolby Atmos, just like the AirPods Pro.
The biggest difference between the AirPods Max and AirPods Pro, other than form factor, is that the AirPods Pro come with a charging case, which is how you turn them off. The AirPods Max do have carry case, but you don't really need to use it.
There's no power button, which is weird!
The AirPods Max don't have a dedicated power button, meaning you don't have complete control of when the headphones actually turn off. Instead, the AirPods Max can detect when they're not on your head and automatically go to sleep. They then automatically wake up when you put them on your head, just like how AirPods automatically turn on when you put them in your ears. Theoretically it means you don't have to worry about it, but the lack of control does bug me, at least as I'm getting used to it.
One sure-fire way to get the AirPods Max to turn off — which is technically a "low-power mode" because they still have to be awake enough to know when you put them on — is to put the headphones in the nifty carrying case that Apple provides. Generally, I almost never use the carrying case that comes with most headphones, I'm not sure how often I'll be doing that.
You can customize the direction of the Digital Crown.
The AirPods Max don't have any capacitive touch controls on the earcups like many of popular noise-canceling headphones, such the Bose Headphones 700 and Sony WH-1000XM4. This means they depend on the Digital Crown dial, which is basically a larger version of the Apple Watch's Digital Crown, that's located on top of the right earcup for things like volume control, play/pause and skipping tracks.
I was initially a little disappointed in the fact that, by default, you have to turn the Digital Crown clockwise to turn the volume up — I'd prefer counter-clockwise — but it turns out that you can change that. You can just go into Bluetooth Settings on your iPhone, select the "i" icon next to your AirPods Max, and scroll down to a "Digital Crown" menu. It then allows you to choose which direction you want to turn the Digital Crown to increase or decrease the volume. It's a nice bit of customization to help these cans feel just right.
The missing 3.5mm compatibility is irritating.
Despite the high price, the AirPods Max lack two things out of the box that most headphones normally come with: a wall adapter and a 3.5mm headphone cable.
The first one is acceptable, or at least no surprise. Apple has made a big deal of not including wall adapters for new iPhones and the Apple Watches, ostensibly to be more environmentally friendly (though it certainly also helps the company's bottom line). This is also true with the AirPods Max. The box includes a USB-C to Lightning charging cable but no wall adapter — you'll have to use/buy your own.
But the lack of a 3.5mm headphone cable is a little more baffling. Apple sells a Lightning to 3.5mm audio cable for $35, which you'll have to fork over if you want to use the AirPods Max on an in-flight entertainment system or with your Nintendo Switch. (An alternative is a Bluetooth adapter like Twelve South's AirFly.) If you're buying the AirPods Max, an extra $35 probably isn't going to break the bank, sure. But having to get get one is a hassle, and leaves these otherwise extremely premium headphones feeling weirdly stingy out of the box.