CNET logo Why You Can Trust CNET

Our expert, award-winning staff selects the products we cover and rigorously researches and tests our top picks. If you buy through our links, we may get a commission. Reviews ethics statement

AirPods Pro vs. AirPods Max: Should you buy earbuds or headphones?

Here's how to choose between Apple's high-end AirPods.

Lexy Savvides Principal Video Producer
Lexy is an on-air presenter and award-winning producer who covers consumer tech, including the latest smartphones, wearables and emerging trends like assistive robotics. She's won two Gold Telly Awards for her video series Beta Test. Prior to her career at CNET, she was a magazine editor, radio announcer and DJ. Lexy is based in San Francisco.
Expertise Wearables, smartwatches, mobile phones, photography, health tech, assistive robotics Credentials
  • Webby Award honoree, 2x Gold Telly Award winner
Lexy Savvides
5 min read

Apple has three AirPods to choose from and if you're deciding between the higher-end options, the $249 (£249, AU$399) AirPods Pro and $549 (£549, AU$899) AirPods Max, there's more to consider just price alone. For starters, one is a pair of in-ear wireless earbuds while the other is an over-ear, also wireless, closed-back headphone. 

But despite their obvious physical differences, they have more in common than you might think. Both have active noise cancelation, a transparency mode to let in sound from the outside world, plus spatial audio. I've been using both sets of AirPods for several months to help you decide which is the better buy for you.

Angela Lang/CNET

Apple's AirPods Pro are the jack-of-all-trades of wireless earbuds: They're good for listening to music or podcasts and making calls and they're comfortable to wear throughout the day. You can also use one earbud independently, while the other one charges in the case. They're the only AirPods that have an IP rating so they'll withstand splashes or sweat.

Read the AirPods Pro review.

David Carnoy/CNET
Battery Life Rated up to 20 hoursNoise Canceling Yes (ANC)Multipoint NoHeadphone Type Over-ear wireless headphonesWater-Resistant No IP rating

These are the best-sounding AirPods, hands down. You get everything found on the AirPods Pro, including noise cancelation and spatial audio, plus a long-lasting battery. They also look good thanks to a stainless steel and aluminum finish. But they might be too heavy for some wearers.

Read the AirPods Max review.

The first decision: Earbuds vs. headphones

The AirPods Pro are much smaller and lighter than the AirPods Max seeing as they're in-ear wireless earbuds. The AirPods Pro comes with interchangeable tips so you can customize how the buds fit in your ear. I find them comfortable to wear throughout the day, although I've swapped out the default silicone tips for third-party foam tips as these tend to stay in my ears better when I'm moving around or working out.

The AirPods Max have telescopic arms that expand and contract to accommodate your head shape, as well as cups that pivot to provide a comfortable fit around your ears. There's foam padding around each of the cups that provides some sound insulation, plus a mesh headband to help distribute the weight across your head. But the AirPods Max are much heavier than many other noise canceling headphones I've used at 13.6 ounces (384 grams), thanks in part to their aluminum and stainless steel construction. I found I could only wear them for an hour or two at a time before I needed to give my head a break.

Lexy Savvides/CNET

You'll also be able to wear the AirPods Pro in all sorts of weather conditions or while working out as they're IPX4 rated, which means they'll be able to withstand sweat or light splashes from rain. The AirPods Max don't have an IP rating, so I would avoid using them in any situation where you might get them wet.

Each of the AirPods models comes with a case, either a hard plastic case for the AirPods Pro that holds additional charge, or a soft case for the AirPods Max. Unfortunately the AirPods Max case doesn't hold any additional charge, nor does it provide much added protection for the headphones. Both recharge via Lightning, or you can wirelessly charge the AirPods Pro case.

Watch this: Apple AirPods compared: AirPods Max or AirPods Pro

Sound quality and noise canceling is a clear win for AirPods Max

It's no surprise the AirPods Max sound better than the AirPods Pro. I've listened to a variety of different genres of music across different apps and keep coming back to the AirPods Max for listening to music. They have a stronger bass response and excellent definition across all frequencies. The best way I've found to describe the sound is that it's clean. Even at higher volumes I've never noticed any muddiness or distortion.

The AirPods Pro also sounds good, but it's less dynamic and exciting to listen to than the AirPods Max. This actually works to its advantage if you're jumping between different tasks such as listening to music, taking calls or tuning into a podcast. Both AirPods have an adaptive equalizer that changes the sound dynamically, although you can change the equalizer independently in different music apps, from Spotify to Apple Music .

Lexy Savvides/CNET

Noise canceling is also obviously superior on the AirPods Max. I set up a loud, overhead fan and tested both the Max and Pro, with the headphones almost completely drowning out the white noise. That said, the AirPods Pro has excellent noise-canceling features and is the only pair I've used on a plane (before the pandemic), but it's not at the same level as the AirPods Max. 

Apple's transparency mode is excellent on both and provides a natural listening experience when you want to let in some external sound to be aware of your surroundings.

You can hear microphone samples from both AirPods models in the video on this page.

Both share similar features and controls

Apart from noise cancelation and transparency mode, both of the AirPods also have spatial audio. This means supported TV shows and movies in certain apps can deliver a virtual surround sound experience when listening on either pair of AirPods.

The AirPods Pro have clickable stem controls to change tracks, activate noise cancelation or to answer calls, while the AirPods Max have a digital crown and side button. If you have an Apple Watch , these controls will be familiar: Use the crown to change volume, switch tracks or take calls, while the button switches between noise canceling and transparency modes. Both sets of AirPods support Hey Siri , so they can listen for your voice prompts and can also read text messages aloud in your ears.

Angela Lang/CNET

Both also share the same H1 chip for fast connectivity to the iPhone and you can also quickly switch between devices if you're signed into the same Apple ID. As they're Bluetooth headphones, you can use both the AirPods Pro or AirPods Max on Android, or a Windows PC, but you miss out on iOS-specific things like spatial audio or being able to customize the controls.

AirPods Max have better battery life for all-day listening

AirPods Pro have around 4.5 hours of listening time with noise canceling active, even though you can sometimes edge closer to 5 hours. The case holds additional charge, so all up you get 24 hours of listening time. As mentioned earlier, the AirPods Max case doesn't hold any additional charge, but the headphones themselves last for just over 20 hours straight at normal volume.

AirPods Max or AirPods Pro?

After almost three months of using both the headphones in my daily workflow, I gravitate towards the AirPods Pro more thanks to their flexibility and comfort. If I'm jumping between calls and listening to music at work, to taking a walk after hours, they're the most flexible set of AirPods for my use. But when I want to listen to music with the best sound quality, I switch to the AirPods Max. I also expect to use the AirPods Max more once travel restrictions ease, as they have the most effective noise canceling.

AirPods Max vs. AirPods Pro spec comparison

AirPods MaxAirPods Pro
Weight 13.6 oz (384.8g)0.19 oz (5.4g) each earbud
Weight (case) 4.74 oz (124.5g)1.61 oz (45.6g)
Water resistant NoIPX4
Active Noise Cancelation YesYes
Transparency mode YesYes
Sensors Optical sensor in each cup, position sensor, case-detect sensor, accelerometer, gyroscopeDual optical sensors, motion-detecting accelerometer. speech-detecting accelerometer, force sensor
Microphones 8 microphones for Active Noise Cancellation, 3 microphones for voice pickup (2 shared with Active Noise Cancellation and 1 additional microphone)Dual beamforming microphones, inward-facing microphone
Chip H1 (each cup)H1
Conectivity Bluetooth 5.0Bluetooth 5.0
Battery Up to 20 hoursUp to 4.5 hours (ANC on) or 5 hours (ANC off), plus 24 hours total charge in case
Price $549, £549, AU$899$249, £249, AU$399