Tuesday, December 8, 2020

AirPods Max

Apple (Hacker News, MacRumors):

Apple today announced AirPods Max, innovative wireless headphones that bring the magic of AirPods to an over-ear design with high-fidelity sound. AirPods Max combine a custom acoustic design, H1 chips, and advanced software to power computational audio for a breakthrough listening experience with Adaptive EQ, Active Noise Cancellation, Transparency mode, and spatial audio. AirPods Max come in five gorgeous colors, including space gray, silver, sky blue, green, and pink, and are available to order starting today, with availability beginning Tuesday, December 15.


AirPods Max are available to order starting today for $549 (US) from apple.com and in the Apple Store app in the US and more than 25 other countries and regions. AirPods Max will begin shipping on Tuesday, December 15.

AirPods Max require Apple devices running iOS 14.3 or later, iPadOS 14.3 or later, macOS Big Sur 11.1 or later, watchOS 7.2 or later, or tvOS 14.3 or later.

I guess this means macOS 11.1 is shipping soon.

Dan Moren:

The ear cups are designed with memory foam to help seal in sound, and feature a mechanism to distribute ear cup pressure to fit one’s head. Inside each ear cup is a 40mm dynamic driver, with a “unique dual neodymium ring magnet” that Apple says helps maintain a distortion-free listening experience, even at high volumes. (Though no doubt audiophiles will make their own judgments when they arrive.)

Ah, but how will you control such a device? Well, look no further than the Apple Watch. The AirPods Max feature, yes, a Digital Crown, which you can use to control volume, as well as play/pause audio, skip tracks, answer and end phone calls, or, of course, activate Siri. There’s also a noise control button that can toggle between the ANC and Transparency modes.

AirPods Max looks great, although I really have no need for it at that price.

It charges via Lightning (no Qi, even in the Smart Case) and supports an optional 3.5mm cable.

Tim Hardwick:

Apple’s new AirPods Max over-ear headphones weigh 13.6 ounces (384 grams), which might not sound like much, but that’s relatively heavy compared to many premium over-ear headphones on the market.

Tim Hardwick:

After the one-year warranty on AirPods Max has expired or the up to two-year AppleCare+ coverage has come to an end, Apple will charge a $79 fee for battery servicing.

Hopefully the batteries will last longer than the two years or so for regular AirPods.

Hartley Charlton:

The ear cushions for AirPods Max attach magnetically and replacement cushions are available on the Apple Store in a variety of colors.

A pair of replacement cushions retails for $69.

Hartley Charlton:

Earlier in the year, a report from Bloomberg said that AirPods Max , thought at the time to be called “AirPods Studio,” had suffered several development challenges leading to multiple delays and scaling back of functionality. The product failed to appear at any of the most recent three Apple events despite a plethora of rumors about the product.


It was believed that AirPods Max would offer unique customizability with interchangeable headbands and earcups, repeating the concept behind Apple Watch bands. Amid these delays and frustrations, Bloomberg correctly predicted that Apple would drop the concept of a replaceable headband to accelerate production.

In addition, it was believed that AirPods Max would have touch pads for controls on the sides of the headphones. This appears to have been replaced by the Digital Crown from the Apple Watch in the final product.

Update (2020-12-10): Nilay Patel:

I have no idea what’s going on with the AirPods Max case, which is a goofy one-piece contraption that’s folded and glued over on itself to form a case. It looks very much like a purse when wrapped around the headphones, which is at once fun and clever and also not the point of a headphones case that needs to survive in a backpack. It does not appear very protective, feels like it will get dirty fast, and generally does not hold a candle to the nice hard cases that come with almost every other set of premium headphones.


Sound-wise, I’ve had fun listening to the AirPods Max for a few hours — they’re crisp and bright, with a pleasingly wider soundstage than my Sony headphones, and no distortion at all, even at max volume. We’ll have a full review of these soon, including tests of spatial audio and Apple’s claim of Atmos surround sound support, so stay tuned for that. But for now, rest assured the AirPods Max sound more than good enough to compete with other high-end headphones.


Whether Apple has actually done enough here to justify the staggering premium over the competition is an open question that it’ll take us a little more time reviewing to answer.

See also: Joe Rossignol’s roundup, David Heinemeier Hansson, Marques Brownlee.

Update (2020-12-16): Matthew Panzarino:

The lack of real folding options on these, the material in the netting and the pretty definitive ‘one way’ these are meant to articulate means that I do not see these being a regular travel companion for me, on initial pass. Oh, and the case is just as ridiculous as it looks. Sorry. The construction here is just as dodgy as the MagSafe Duo. It feels cheap, and like it will dirty easily, not exactly what you want from a ‘travel case’. And it looks like a butt.

John Gruber (Hacker News):

AirPods Max are quite heavy: 385 grams. My Bose QuietComfort 35 II wireless headphones weigh 235 grams. Other noise-canceling wireless headphones are even lighter. You can definitely feel the difference in weight. The AirPods Max headband does seem to distribute the weight as comfortably as it can, but the weight is all in the ear cups, and heavy ear cups are, well, heavy. When you remain motionless, you can forget they’re there. But when you move around, the AirPods Max have inertia.


AirPods Max are very much metal. Aluminum ear cups, and a stainless steel headband. They are very sturdy, and very nice to the touch. It’s like when Apple started making laptops out of unibody aluminum — the plastic ones we had long accepted as the norm suddenly seemed cheapjack in comparison.


AirPods Max, as travel headphones, go the other way. They’re heavier and twice the price of the QuietComforts ($550 vs. $270), but they sound so much better. And while the AirPods Max headphones themselves seem, I repeat, quite sturdy, the included “Smart Case” is less of a case than it is a pouch. The fact that it’s not a hard case helps narrow the weight gap — the AirPods Max in the Smart Case weigh 520 grams; the Bose QC35’s in their case weigh 410 grams — but it makes them something you might need to be a little careful with when packing, and because they don’t fold up (the ear cups do rotate to fold flat, though), they take up a bit more space:

Joe Cieplinski:

Been wearing Air Pods Max for about 6 hrs now, and ready to declare yes, they are heavy. But no, they are not uncomfortable for long-term wearing. At least not to me. The ear cups are so well padded, and the mesh head bar is so comfortable, it easily makes up for the weight.

ataraxia_ (via Dave):

So to start, these aren’t completely neutral. There’s a bit of fun to them, but it’s nothing like the XM4s that had that fairly huge boost to anything below 120Hz. Sound-stage wise, these are some of the most impressive closed-backs I’ve tried. They’re pretty equivalent to the Fostex in sound signature: A little bump in the bass but nothing silly. There’s a bit of sparkle in the cymbals but nothing ear-piercing. They sound better than the Momentum 2s, and I actually prefer them to the Fostex. I like them about as much as the 6XX, which is saying a lot. They sound a lot faster than the 6XX too, although not as quite as fast as the Fostex.

If I were to sit and listen to a full album in my arm chair just for the album, I’d pick the LCD-2s over these pretty handily, but those are decidedly non-portable.

Fit and finish wise, they blow all of the above out of the water. They feel significantly more premium than any of the above, and are more comfortable than any of the above headphones.

ANC wise they easily best the Momentums. They’re pretty equivalent with how I remember the XM4s. They’re definitely no slouch. Transparency mode on these is also just 100x better than it was with the XM4s -- everything sounds a lot more “natural” in transparency mode. Better than the AirPods Pro, too, so if transparency mode is your jam, these things are top tier.

Update (2021-01-04): Juli Clover:

So while the AirPods Max do need the case to go into a low power mode that’s the equivalent of a sleep mode, leaving them out and connected to your devices isn’t the biggest hit on battery if you don’t want the hassle of putting them into the case and taking them out. If you want maximum battery life, though, you need to put them in the case.

John Gruber:

Brownlee suggests that the battery drains when the AirPods Max are not in use but outside their pouch (err, “case”) at about the same rate as when they’re in use. I haven’t found that to be close to true. They do drain when unused but idle outside the case, but slowly. Maybe like at a rate of about 10 percent in 24 hours?

Apple (via John Gruber, Tim Hardwick):

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. After 72 stationary hours out of the Smart Case, your AirPods Max go into a lower power mode that turns off Bluetooth and Find My to preserve battery charge further.

Marques Brownlee:

Apple made some pretty great headphones with a pretty dumb case.

Dave Mark:

Chris Welch detailed AirPods Max comparison with Sony WH-1000XM4, other popular noise cancelling headphones

Quinn Nelson:

Anybody who says the XM4 are better than AirPods Max are wrong, IMO. They’re not. And frankly, it’s not that close. WITH THAT SAID, performance is not amazing relative to “classic” headphones. A $150-200 wired pair of cans (e.g. DT770) would outperform these handily, IMO.

Quinn Nelson:

Apple designer Eugene Wang talks to Japanese magazine Casa BRUTUS about designing the AirPods Max case. Unfortunately, I think he missed on this one.

Update (2021-01-26): Matt Farrugia:

The noise cancellation had issues; they didn’t isolate my voice from event noise; wireless calls on the Mac were 8kHz and I couldn’t use a cable to fix any of this.

Update (2021-02-05): Marius Masalar (via Hacker News):

I threw my most demanding tracks at them, including some of my own music. After all, judging headphones by the way other people’s music sounds is inherently subjective; I might prefer one rendition over another, but I have no insight into which best represents the artist’s intent. When I am the artist though, I can make objective assessments. And my assessment is simple: given the choice, I’d rather have someone listen to my work on the AirPods Max than the H9i.

This was not supposed to happen.


If the end result is that the AirPods Max sound better than any other headphone in their category that I’ve tried, does it matter that they achieve that partially through software? I’ll further threaten my audiophile credentials here and say: nope. I don’t think it matters!


Whatever the case, those people should be aware that the AirPods Max represent terrible value if your main goal is to get an intelligent balance between comfort, sound, longevity, ANC, and style. They’re too heavy to be comfortable, they don’t fold or have a reasonable case to protect them when you’re travelling, and a lot of their sonic advantages are going to be lost on you if you’re mostly using them on the go.

9 Comments RSS · Twitter

Kevin Schumacher

So now we're saying that Bloomberg "correctly predicted" the removal of a feature that was never announced and nobody outside of Apple knows if it ever actually existed?

JFC that's almost worse than their asinine Chinese motherboard hacking story.

Even by Apple standards, $550 for headphones is insane (I thought $300 for a HomePod was crazy...). This is solely for people who want to brag that they have the most expensive thing, not the best thing. Many studio/audiophile grade phones don't cost this much.

Old Unix Geek

I correctly predict Apple has yet to design a beautiful white automated garbage can which takes your trash out to the garbage collectors early in the morning for the low low price of $1499. Do I get a prize?

I really wonder what planet Apple lives on. My 9.5 year "old" RS180 wireless Sennheisers still work perfectly... Only needed to change the rechargeable AAA battery once. They cost less than $240. I doubt these new Airpodi Maxi will do as well.

Ben G: It's not crazy at all. In Wirecutter's recent list of Best Over-Ear Headphones, their noise-cancelling choice is $380, and that pair is objectively worse than Apple's new offering. It uses fewer microphones for ANC, and almost certainly has less processing power available to do so. It also doesn't have gyroscopes and accelerometers for spatial audio at all.

If you want headphones with these features, I don't see any other company offering something comparable, at any price. If you don't care about these features, then you'll think it's expensive, but that just means you're not in the target audience.

And $550 isn't even close to "the most expensive" when it comes to headphones. Wirecutter considers $1,000 the cutoff point for "everyday audiophile" (and $100 is "cheap"). Remember, this is an audio product which has a computer, not a computer which has a speaker. It's true there are some great audiophile-grade headphones cheaper than this, but not with these features.

it seems that Apple has not really worked out what to do with the case.
I hope that future updates will make it a more complete product, and it will survive long enough to see that updated version.

@Old Unix Geek: "I really wonder what planet Apple lives on."

The same planet where people will pre-order this product without any independent review.

@Sam: "It uses fewer microphones for ANC, and almost certainly has less processing power available to do so. It also doesn't have gyroscopes and accelerometers for spatial audio at all."

Again, AFAIK, nobody outside Apple has validated yet that having all of this technology in a headphone produces in a better experience.

This is a deliberately over-priced market anchoring bauble intended for fashionista audiophiles with excess disposable cash.

In about a year, Apple will release a similar set which is physically a bit smaller, and several hundred dollars cheaper. A more general audience will flock to by them, now feeling that what was originally the cream-of-cream is now accessible to them.

Meanwhile, sensible people who lack a penchant for public masturbation will continue to buy much cheaper and well-performing headphones made by reputable vendors.

I guess I don't understand Spatial Audio as far as the "movement tracking" goes. It seems like something that really would only be relevant in the context of a VR game where I am part of the content, not a viewer of it on a 2D screen. Why would anyone want spatial audio while watching a movie? All you need is some psychoacoustics to think you're sitting in the center "sweet spot" of a movie theater with a 7.1 surround sound setup. There seems to be zero point to tracking the gyroscope and accelerometer, because this would be akin to walking around a movie theater while watching a movie -- nobody does that.

My theory is that Airpods Max is a test release for a VR platform -- Apple Reality Max? -- that will arrive in the next 12-18 months. The release of Max helps Apple gather data about how people use Spatial Audio, get feedback about the weight of the product, how sensitive the market is to high prices for A/V gear, work out some manufacturing kinks? Otherwise I don't see why they'd bother chasing such a niche part of the headphones market *and* make it Apple-branded and not Beats.

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