AirPods Max hands-on: We tested Apple’s new $ 549 earbuds and are impressed

The AirPods Max come in five different colors. I have the money.

David Carnoy / CNET

When Apple first revealed its new AirPods Max noise-canceling headphones, many people naturally resisted its price of $ 549 (they cost £ 549 in the UK and AU $ 899 in Australia), and their Smart Case weirdly. But lo and behold, the initial batch of AirPods Max, which pre-sold on December 8 and shipped on December 15, has already sold out on all five color options. The blue, green and pink were pending in a matter of hours. We now see that they cost over $ 775 on reseller sites like eBay and StockX. So maybe Apple isn’t even charging enough for them.

I got a silver unit and spent several hours using it. While demand has outpaced the limited supply of AirPods Max in the wild, I’m still going to try to answer whether they are really worth their high price, and yes, for most people, it is high. Please note that these are simply my first impression after a day of use; I will follow up with a more detailed review.

The first thing you notice when you open their box is that their build quality is unlike anything in the $ 300 to $ 400 range. And when you first listen to them, they sound impressive, like high-end headphones, with bass. Tight, natural mids, crisp highs, and a wide soundstage – for a closed headphone anyway.

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On the street of New York City.

David Carnoy / CNET

On top of that, its noise cancellation is arguably the best I’ve ever experienced, slightly beating noise cancellation on both Sony’s WH-1000XM4 and Bose’s 700 noise-canceling headphones (I haven’t compared them closely to Bose’s QuietComfort headphones, which offer the best noise cancellation for truly wireless headphones). They don’t completely silence the world around you, but I was on the streets of New York, and they did a great job of muffling the noise. I could barely hear the traffic around me. Finally, they work quite well as headphones for making calls and are particularly good at reducing wind noise. It’s also worth noting: when you’re in headphone mode, you can hear your voice in the headphones so you can modulate your voice and not end up yelling. They are similar in that regard to the AirPods Pro.

The only thing people can have trouble with is the weight of the AirPods Max. These are definitely heavy headphones, weighing in at 385 grams (13.6 ounces). In comparison, the Sony WH-1000XM4 weighs 254 grams, while the Bose 700 noise-canceling headphones weigh 249 grams. Big difference.

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The AirPods Max (left) alongside the noise-canceling headphones Bose 700 (center) and Sony WH-1000XM4.

David Carnoy / CNET

Like I said, the AirPods Max’s build quality is impressive. They have a lot of metal, a stainless steel frame, and aluminum ear cups reminiscent of Apple MacBooks, and metal weighs more than plastic. And then there are the flashy design touches like the telescopic arms and pivoting hinges. I also liked how its almost gel-like memory foam ear cushions magnetically stick to cover Apple’s custom 40mm drivers. They have a fabric lining, which makes them more breathable than typical leather or faux fur ear pads. As a result, your ears get less humid in warmer environments. Apparently you’ll be able to replace those ear cushions for $ 69 and the AirPods Max’s battery should be replaceable too, though you’ll have to make Apple do it.

For heavy headphones, they are comfortable, but not necessarily super comfortable. It would be nice if they were 20% lighter, but the way the headband is designed, with its mesh canopy, takes a good amount of pressure off the top of your head. They may look and feel a bit large for people with smaller heads, but they seem to fit a good variety of head types.

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Mesh canopy.

David Carnoy / CNET

I found myself making small adjustments, sliding the headband forward on my head a bit to get a more comfortable and secure fit. If it is placed right on the crown of your head, or at least the crown of my head, it can be a bit uncomfortable.

The controls are really well implemented. There are only two buttons, both on the right earbud. The front button lets you toggle between noise cancellation 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 larger version of the digital crown found on the Apple Watch. You use it to control the 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, although the aluminum on the earbuds does feel pretty cool to the touch. Apple doesn’t list any water resistance ratings, but they survived very well after I used them in a snow shower for two minutes.

I’m not going to go into too much detail about the specs. You can read about all of that on Apple’s website. They have a total of nine microphones, two of which are inside the headphones to assess how you wear them on your head, with glasses or not, for example. The ninth microphone is a beamforming microphone dedicated to picking up your voice with two other microphones during calls.

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The optical sensors inside the headphones.

David Carnoy / CNET

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

Like the AirPods Pro, these have Apple’s H1 chip that allows easy pairing with iOS devices and Siri always-on, so you can issue voice commands without touching any buttons. Apple says the H1 has plenty of processing power for built-in adaptive noise cancellation and making your digital music sound better. These pair with Android devices, but you lose some of the features, like Siri always-on and Apple spatial audio virtual surround sound function with head tracking.


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Battery life is 20 hours with noise cancellation turned on, which is pretty good, though not great. And you get 90 minutes of playback on a 10-minute charge through the Lightning port. I’d like it to charge via USB-C, but that’s a slight complaint.

My biggest complaint is that no cable is included for corded use. Just like Apple did with the Beats Solo Pro, you need to buy a $ 35 3.5mm Lightning cable if you want to connect, for example to use an inflight entertainment system. The headphones should sound the same for wired listening, Apple says, but the cable eliminates any latency, which could be a factor when gaming, but I didn’t experience any latency when watching videos.

I just spent a little time watching movies. Like the AirPods Pro, these have Apple’s aforementioned head-tracking spatial audio virtual surround sound feature. It is definitely an added bonus and differentiator from Sony and Bose competitors. These have more power than the AirPods Pro, so the virtual surround sound experience seems a bit more visceral, but largely the same.

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The controversial case.

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I’m not sure what to say about the protective case that comes with the headphones. The best part about this is that the headphones are easy to put on and take off, and add almost no volume to them, so yes, the headphones take up a bit less space in a bag compared to the Sony WH-1000XM4, which includes a case. traditional rigid. Plus, the magnet inside the clasp puts the headphones into deep sleep mode to save battery life. The case makes your high-end headphones look like a futuristic purse or bra. You’ve probably already seen the memes – which is a bit strange, but someone might appreciate that vibe. I suspect we will see a lot of alternative third party cases.

I spent some time comparing them to Sony’s WH-1000XM4 and Bose’s 700 noise-canceling headphones, which aren’t cheap but cost a lot less than the AirPods Max. Like I said, the AirPods Max offer better sound and noise cancellation. They are simply more articulate headphones than Sony and Bose, with a more refined and rich sound. It’s not a big difference, but they generally work better.

That said, Sony is still the best over-ear value when you consider that it often sells for under $ 300 and has dropped as low as $ 278. It’s a warmer sounding headphone compared to AirPods Max, but still has great sound (just like the Bose), particularly for wireless noise-canceling headphones. It is also lighter and some people may find it more comfortable.

So are the AirPods Pro. Much lighter. And while they don’t sound as good as the AirPods Max, lacking overall clarity and bass power (with better definition), for most people, they’re still the best option.

But if you’re looking for a high-end experience, the AirPods Max offers one. Just don’t spend $ 850 on them. Or even $ 600. $ 549 is enough.

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