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AirPods Max review: Top-notch sound, noise canceling and a hefty price tag

They're big and expensive, but Apple's AirPods Max over-ear headphones impress with their sound quality and the same extra features found in the AirPods Pro.

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The AirPods Max fit a wide variety of head types.

David Carnoy/CNET

When Apple first revealed its new AirPods Max noise-canceling headphones, many people naturally balked at their $549 price tag (they're £549 in the UK and AU$899 in Australia) -- and their oddly shaped Smart Case. Personally, I wasn't surprised by their high price tag -- and yes, for most folks, it is high. That's because back in January I'd heard through a reliable source that over the years the engineers and designers working on Apple's long-running over-ear noise-canceling headphone project had produced some "spectacular looking" prototypes that were too expensive to manufacture without charging upwards of $1,000. So I kind of shrugged when I heard they were $549, figuring plenty of people would buy them anyway. And so they have: The first batch of AirPods Max sold out in all five color options, with online wait times stretching out to three months or more. (You may have more luck at individual Apple Stores, however.)

Read more: AirPods Max: 8 things new owners need to know

Like

  • Surprisingly comfortable for their weight
  • Impressive sound and build-quality
  • Adaptive noise canceling is top-notch and so is transparency mode
  • Good headset performance for calls
  • Spatial audio virtual surround for iPhones and iPads is a sweet bonus feature
  • Automatic switching between iOS devices on your iCloud account (multipoint Bluetooth)

Don't Like

  • Expensive, heavy and the smart case may be too smart for its own good
  • No cable included for wired use
  • Android users lose a couple of key features
  • People around you can hear what you're listening to if you have the volume up (they leak some sound)

Are they worth $549? Ultimately, that's going to be up to you to determine. All I can do is describe my experience using them and let you know that they're excellent (though not perfect) headphones, with top-notch sound, rock-solid wireless connectivity and noise canceling that's arguably a touch better than what you find on competing models at the high end. 

I can also give you my impressions about how they stack up against those same headphones, specifically the Sony WH-1000XM4 and Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, as well as some other high-end Bluetooth headphones. But in a world where Audeze, Grado and Focal (to name a few) have long had audiophile headphones priced well north of $1,500 -- and few people are outraged that the latest Adidas Yeezy sneakers go for $200 or more -- I don't think it's fair to get too worked up about the price of the AirPods Max. Based on what they're fetching on reseller sites like eBay and StockX, they too seem on their way to becoming status symbols. 

This review is based on several days with the headphones. I'm still evaluating battery life and wired audio performance (among other things), which may or may not alter the final rating.

Read more: AirPods Max: 14 tips to master Apple's latest wireless headphones

Full metal jacket

The first thing you notice when you open the box is that their build quality is like nothing that's out there in the $300 to $400 range. OK, there's some stuff that's close: The Bowers and Wilkins PX7 (down to $340 from its list price of $400) is sturdily built with an eye-catching design. I also like Sennheiser's Momentum 3 for its build quality (down to $280 from its list price of $400). Master & Dynamic's MW65, currently on sale for $400 (it lists for $500), is also unique-looking and made of premium materials. All those models feature strong sound quality but fall a little short on noise-canceling performance.   

The one thing people may have a problem with is the weight of the AirPods Max. These are definitely heavy headphones, weighing 385 grams (13.6 ounces). By comparison, the Sony WH-1000XM4 weigh 254 grams, while the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 weigh 249 grams. Big difference.

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On the street in New York City. 

David Carnoy/CNET

They've got a lot of metal -- a stainless steel frame and aluminum earcups that are reminiscent of Apple's MacBooks -- and metal weighs more than plastic. I didn't drop them because you avoid dropping $549 headphones, but it's quite possible they could come away with a dent if they fell onto pavement (they might do OK with a wood floor). Of course, you don't want to drop any headphones on pavement. 

For heavy headphones they're surprisingly comfortable, but I don't expect that they'll be super comfy for everyone, particularly those with neck problems. Personally, I thought It'd be nice if they were 20% lighter, but the way the headband is designed, with its mesh canopy, it takes a good amount of pressure off the top of your head, though I did find myself making small adjustments, moving the headband forward off the crown of my head. While they're big -- and some people just don't like to wear big headphones -- they seem to fit a good range of head types. 

Their almost gel-like memory-foam earpads also stand out. They adhere magnetically to cover Apple's 40mm custom drivers and have a fabric covering, which makes them more breathable than your typical leather or faux leather earpads like those found on the Sony WH-1000XM4. As a result, your ears steam up less in warmer environments. You'll be able to replace those earpads for $69 (yes, that's expensive, too) and the AirPods Max's battery should also be replaceable, although you'll have to have Apple do it.

Finally, I'd be remiss not to mention the swanky design touches like the telescoping arms and springy, pivoting hinges. There's no plastic creaking here. This is a well-oiled machine, minus the oil.

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The AirPods Max (left) next to the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 (center) and Sony WH-1000XM4.

David Carnoy/CNET

Are they as comfortable to wear as the Sony WH-1000MX4 or Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700? In a lot of ways, yes. Like any headphones, certain people might have a problem with the Sony's or Bose's fit, but most folks find them to be very comfortable. I could wear the AirPods Max as long as both those headphones -- an hour straight wasn't a problem. But you are aware you have a pair of substantial headphones on your head. On the plus side, I do think the fabric earpads really give the AirPods Max an advantage in preventing your ears from getting steamed up, and they also do just fine as earmuffs in colder weather, though the aluminum is quite cold to the touch. 

'High-end' sound

The AirPods Max do sound impressive, like high-end headphones, with tight bass, natural mids, crisp highs and a wide soundstage for a closed-back headphone. Apple does have EQ settings (under Music in Settings) -- for Apple Music anyway -- and you can make some slight customizations to the sound profile. But I mainly went with the default sound profile across multiple music services which suited my eclectic music tastes just fine. 

Apple's intention with the AirPods Max is to serve up a "high-end" audio experience or at least an approximation of one. The problem, of course, is serious audiophiles tend not to bother with wireless Bluetooth headphones or noise-canceling headphones. Bluetooth streaming has gotten better and better over the years and noise canceling doesn't impact the sound nearly as much as it once did. But to get the most accurate, pure sound, which is what high-end headphones are all ultimately about, wired headphones coupled with a properly amplified source that plays lossless audio is going to get you to the real promised land. 

The AirPods Max are missing some audiophile features. They currently stream only AAC and not aptX, aptX HD or Sony's LDAC codecs, which are compatible mostly with Android devices. It's possible that support for additional codecs -- and additional features -- could be added in the future with a firmware upgrade, but for now there's just AAC. That's just fine for owners of Apple's devices, which these headphones are optimized for, but although Android devices support AAC streaming, there's been reports that they don't handle it as well as iOS devices. These do work with Android phones and Bluetooth-enabled devices, but you lose some extra features -- more on that in a minute.

That said, plenty of $50 earbuds support aptX, and just listing it as a spec doesn't mean all that much. There are other factors that are far more important to producing good sound, but it would be nice if $549 headphones did support more codecs. As it stands, Apple has something called "Apple Digital Masters" in Apple Music that are supposed to offer the best audio quality. A lot of the top hits in Apple Music are created under the program. You may be able to recognize very subtle differences when listening to the same track (at the highest bit rate) in Spotify versus Apple Music, but most people can't, or the difference isn't enough to care too much about. 

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The mesh canopy.

David Carnoy/CNET

You can easily tell the difference between the sound of the AirPods Max and that of the Sony WH-1000XM4 and Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, both of which are excellent sounding wireless noise-canceling headphones. The Bose actually has more of an audiophile profile than the Sony. It's a little better balanced and has smooth, even-handed sound and a little tighter bass. There are times when I like it better than the Sony. But the Sony has a lot of energy in the bass and that kind of energy works better with certain tracks. 

What you get with the AirPods Max is just clearer, more refined sound and basically no distortion at higher volumes -- note that while they play loud, they don't play incredibly loud. I'm not ready to say that the sound measures up to what you get from a pair of high-end wired headphones, say something with a planar magnetic driver (one of Hifiman's cans, for instance, the best of which are open back and leak more sound than the AirPods Max, which do leak some sound at higher volumes). But it's certainly a level up in terms of clarity from the Sony and Bose. They are more revealing, articulate headphones. After switching back and forth, I sometimes felt like I was listening through a screen door with the Sony. The AirPods Max also is more open sounding -- by that I mean it has a wider soundstage.

Now, as I said, with certain tracks, you could very well prefer the sound of the Sony, which has all that energy in the bass, even if it lacks some definition, compared to the AirPods Max anyway. If you listen to a lot of hip hop, electronica and other pop hits, you just don't really need the AirPods Max. That's not to say that there isn't a lot of energy in the bass on the AirPods Max -- you can literally feel it at times in the form of vibration -- but if you're used to a little boomier bass and like the sound of a warmer headphone, the Sony is going to seem great.

The AirPods Max are more akin to the Beyerdynamic Amiron Wireless but have more bass. The Amiron Wireless also costs around $500, though it lacks noise canceling. The AirPods Max are a little richer sounding, but the Beyerdynamic has nice tonal balance and good clarity for Bluetooth. It's improved with some firmware upgrades but is a little too neutral sounding for some.  

You take a track like Kane Brown's Be Like That and you'll immediately notice that the bass on the Sony WH-1000XM4 dominates the track. It sounds comparatively boomy compared to the bass on the AirPods Max. Now, if you're into bass, that could be a good thing. But the track comes across as more balanced and detailed on the AirPods Max, with a little more openness and texture.

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The AirPods Max only has two buttons, neither of which is a power button, and no touch controls.

David Carnoy/CNET

Billie Eilish's track Bury a Friend features very deep bass. Again, lots of energy with Sony, but the bass feels a little loose compared to the AirPods Max. 

With higher-end headphones you find yourself visualizing fingers plucking guitar strings and you can distinctly hear each instrument. You get a little more of that with the AirPods Max, along with a more intimate sound, by which I mean you feel closer to the music. That may not be everybody's cup of tea, but you hear the difference on tracks like Bob Dylan's Man in the Long Black Coat, Marvin's Gaye's Inner City Blues and Stereolab's Metronomic Underground. I found the AirPods Max were the better headphones for rock: Rage Against the Machine's Take the Power Back and the Foo Fighters' Everlong come across cleaner and more textured.  

And no, the AirPods Pro, which sound just fine for most people -- they're good but not great -- just aren't in the same ballpark. But they're obviously a hell of a lot more discreet and fit in your pocket, even in a pair of tight jeans. 

Noise-canceling king?

I got a little grief on YouTube for calling the AirPods Max "the noise-canceling king" without putting a question mark after the headline. A lot of people simply won't believe that Max's noise canceling could be any better than the noise canceling on the Sony WH-1000XM4, which I also declared the king of noise canceling when it came out earlier this year (no one seemed to complain about that).

I'm going to stand by that assessment. The AirPods Max's noise canceling is arguably the best I've experienced, slightly edging out the noise canceling on both Sony's WH-1000XM4 and Bose's Noise Cancelling Headphones 700. To be clear, these are very subtle differences, and the majority of time people aren't sitting around with noise canceling on without listening to anything, which is how you have to test noise canceling.

Now playing: Watch this: AirPods Max hands-on: New noise-canceling king
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All three headphones are very close in terms of their noise-canceling performance. Where the AirPods Max have a slight advantage is with how much of a hiss they produce when canceling out noise. It's just a little bit cleaner sounding. There's a faint hiss usually associated with noise canceling and it's barely noticeable with the AirPods Max. I also thought the AirPods Max do a slightly better job with relieving the pressure sensation that some people get with noise canceling. The AirPods Pro do well with that -- they're vented to relieve pressure -- and so too are the AirPods Max. 

Another observation: The AirPods Max adaptive noise canceling seems better than Sony's adaptive noise canceling. With the Sony, I often switch to fixed noise-canceling in Sony's companion app because when the noise-canceling mode switches (adapts to your surroundings) the shift can be jarring and noticeable. The adaptive noise canceling of the AirPods Max just seems smoother and less intrusive.

I haven't used the headphones in a lot of environments due to the pandemic (I haven't been on a plane in a while), but I tested it on the streets of New York -- yes, there's still plenty of street noise -- and by a loud air-conditioning unit in my apartment, as well as near running water from a faucet. Again, the Sony's noise canceling is great overall, but from my testing, I'm giving the slight nod to the AirPods Max for reasons beyond their muffling powers.

If you're wondering how the noise canceling compares to the surprisingly good noise canceling on the AirPods Pro, it's not as big a difference as you might think, but it is a significant difference -- again, the nod goes to the AirPods Max -- and I do use foam tips with my AirPods Pro to try to get a tighter seal.

Only two buttons

The controls are really well implemented. There are only two buttons, both on the right earcup. The front button allows you to toggle between noise canceling and a transparency mode that lets sound in and makes you feel like you're not wearing headphones. It sounds natural, similar to the transparency mode on the AirPods Pro.

The second button is a bigger version of the digital crown that's on the Apple Watch. You use that to control volume and click it to pause your music, answer and end calls, and double-click to advance tracks. It's smooth and responsive and in cold weather, you don't have to worry about touch controls that don't always work, though, as I said, the aluminum on the earcups does feel quite cold to the touch. Apple doesn't list any water-resistance rating, but they survived just fine after I wore them in a snow shower for five minutes.

I'm not going to go into too much detail on the specs. You can read about all that on Apple's website. They have a total of nine microphones, two of which are inside the ear cups to assess how you're wearing them on your head, with glasses or not, for instance (the noise canceling adapts accordingly, a feature that's found on the Sony WH-1000XM4). The ninth microphone is a beam-forming mic dedicated to picking up your voice with two other microphones during calls.

They do work quite well as a headset for making calls and are particularly good at reducing wind noise (callers did notice some background noise when I was on the streets of New York but it wasn't too intrusive and they could hear my voice well). Also worth noting: When you're in headset mode, you can hear your voice in the headphones so you can modulate your voice and not end up shouting. They're similar in that regard to the AirPods Pro, though those smaller earphones may be a tad better for making calls, at least outdoors.

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The optical sensors inside the earcups.

David Carnoy/CNET

There are sensors that can tell when you have the headphones on your head, and automatically pause your audio when you take them off or put them around your neck. Plenty of other headphones have this feature, including those from Sony and Bose, but Apple's version seems pretty high-tech. Apple says the AirPods Max have optical sensors, position sensors, case-detect sensors and accelerometers in each ear cup, and a gyroscope in the left ear cup.

Like the AirPods Pro, these have Apple's H1 chip that allows for easy pairing and automatic switching with iOS devices you have on your iCloud account, as well as always-on Siri, so you can issue voice commands without touching any buttons. Apple says the H1 has lots of processing power for the on-board adaptive noise canceling and making your digital music sound better. These do pair with Android devices, but you lose some of the features, like always-on Siri and Apple's spatial-audio virtual surround feature with head tracking. 

Battery life is rated at 20 hours (at 50% volume) with noise canceling on, which is pretty good, though not superb (expect more like 16-17 hours if you play your music loud). And you get 90 minutes of playback from a 5-minute charge via the Lightning port. I kind of wish it charged via USB-C, but that's a small gripe. As with Apple's iPhones, you need to provide your own USB-C power adapter now -- there isn't one in the box.

My bigger gripe is that no cable is included for wired use. Like Apple did with the Beats Solo Pro, you have to buy a $35 Lightning-to-3.5mm cable if you want to go wired, say to use an in-flight entertainment system. I did play around with some cabled listening, plugging it into Sony NW-ZX100 Walkman and Sony NWZ-A17 Walkman with high-res audio on them. The audio does seem slightly more "pure" and uncolored (I mainly listened to Beatles and Talking Heads tracks for comparisons), but the headphones play louder in wireless mode and the Walkmans had a harder time driving the headphones than I thought they would.

The easiest way to listen to to high-res audio is to plug into a Mac or Windows PC and load up some FLAC files, which I did. Obviously, you can also listen to streaming services this way (and any other audio). The volume levels were plenty high on the MacBook Pro I was using and I did experience a subtle but noticeable bump up in audio quality going the wired route. The more I started plugging into devices, the more irritated I got that no cable was included. The fact is sometimes it's easier to plug into a device than pair with it wirelessly, particularly if you've got non-Apple devices that aren't on your iCloud account.  

Note, too, that the AirPods Max still needs battery power to deliver audio, even in wired mode; there's no "passive mode" available here. Also the cable does eliminate any latency, which might be a factor while gaming or with music production. I didn't experience any latency with video watching when streaming wirelessly. 

Like the AirPods Pro, these have Apple's spatial-audio virtual surround sound feature with head-tracking that creates a sensation of being in a theater (it's not a true surround experience but for faux surround, it's well done and fun to try). It's definitely an added bonus and differentiator from those aforementioned competitors from Sony and Bose. These have more kick than the AirPods Pro, so the virtual surround experience seems a little more visceral, but it's largely the same. Spatial audio remains impressive, but it's disappointing that it doesn't, at present, work with Apple TV -- only iPads and iPhones for now.

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The controversial case.

David Carnoy/CNET

Controversial case

I don't know quite what to say about the protective cover that comes with the headphones. The best part about it is that it's easy to get on and off the headphones, and adds almost no bulk to them -- so yes, the headphones take up a little less room in a bag compared to the Sony WH-1000XM4, which includes a traditional hard case. You can also charge the headphones when they're in the case, which is nice. And finally, the magnet inside the clasp puts the headphones into a deep sleep mode to save battery life, though there's some controversy about the headphones not having a power button that turns them off.

Some people have complained that the AirPods Max can't be manually turned off. However, as Apple notes, if you set your AirPods Max down and leave them stationary for 5 minutes, they go into a low power mode to preserve battery charge (they do this immediately if you put them in the case). Also, after 72 stationary hours out of the Smart Case or 18 hours in it, your AirPods Max go into a lower power mode that turns off Bluetooth and Find My to preserve battery charge further. Apple didn't do a good job clarifying all this at launch, but after I posted my initial review, I was pointed to a web page that has detailed info on "How to charge your AirPods Max and learn about battery life." This review has now been updated with that info. 

The case does make your high-end headphones look like a purse or futuristic bra -- you've probably seen the memes by now -- which is kind of bizarre, and if you're a stickler for protection, the mesh headband remains exposed. It's pretty sturdy mesh but you probably want to keep sharp objects away from it. I don't hate the case as much as some do -- remember, people made fun of how the AirPods looked when they first came out -- but it seems easier to lose than standard cases and I suspect we'll see plenty of alternative third-party cases.

Final thoughts

If you equate weight with value, which was once the case for audio products (speakers in particular), the AirPods Max certainly feel like they're worth more than the Sony or Bose. The AirPods Max's weight, however, may also be viewed as their biggest weakness, even if, as I said, they may be the most comfortable heavy headphones you'll try.

For most, the Sony WH-1000XM4 or Bose Noise Canceling Headphones 700 are the more practical choices and better values, particularly the Sony, which have dipped as low as $278. The Sony are warmer sounding headphones compared to the AirPods Max, but they still have great sound (as do the Bose), particularly for wireless noise-canceling headphones. It's lighter as well, and some people may find it more comfortable.

So, too, are the AirPods Pro. A lot lighter. And while they don't sound as good as the AirPods Max, lacking their overall clarity and bass energy (with better definition), for the majority of people, they're still the better bet. At least until Apple comes out with a more affordable over-ear noise-canceling AirPods model, which it inevitably will do, though it may take a while.

But if you are looking for a high-end experience, the AirPods Max deliver one. Say what you will about the price, at least they're different, and stand out in a very crowded field of wireless headphones. 

Editor's note, Dec. 15: This story updates the original hands-on impressions that posted here on Dec. 10 with more in-depth testing and a full rating.