Apple’s $549 AirPods Max sound incredible, but most buyers will be better off saving money on cheaper headphones from Sony or Bose

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AirPods Max being worn
  • The AirPods Max offer excellent audio and noise cancellation packaged in a classy, premium design that's leagues ahead of cheaper rivals.
  • They offer crisp audio that sounds clearer and more open than competing wireless headphones in the $300-$400 price range.
  • But, there isn't enough that separates them from less expensive headphones from Sony, Bose, and others to justify their high price.
  • The AirPods Max are worth it if you're an Apple fan looking for high-end audio quality, but most people will do just fine with a cheaper model.

Apple's AirPods have grown up, evolving from white, Q-tip-shaped earbuds that people once mocked to full-blown, over-ear headphones. 

Apple released its much-anticipated AirPods Max in December after years of speculation that the iPhone giant had broader ambitions for its audio lineup. The AirPods Max, as the name suggests, offer many of the features that have made AirPods so popular, like quick pairing with Apple devices, the ability to tell when you're wearing them to play or pause music accordingly, and hands-free access to Siri. 

And of course, Apple is also making some pretty big claims about the headphones' audio quality, highlighting features like a custom-designed driver for delivering rich bass and Adaptive EQ, which optimizes sound depending on how the headphones fit.  

But the AirPods Max come at a sky-high price of $549, making them leagues more expensive than well-received rivals from companies like Sony, Bose, and Sennheiser

Apple had a hit on its hands with the standard AirPods and AirPods Pro, which have become the most popular wireless earbuds in the world. But can Apple make a similar impact on the market for wireless noise-cancelling headphones?

I'm not convinced just yet. The AirPods Max offer superb audio quality, a comfortable and elegant design that outclasses their less expensive rivals, and useful features for iPhone owners. But, their $549 price is still too much to ask for most people. That's especially true considering cheaper headphones, like the Sony WH-1000XM4, deliver excellent audio quality and noise cancellation for significantly less. 

All told, the AirPods Max are the definition of luxury headphones. They're top-notch when it comes to noise cancellation, comfort, and sound quality, but you don't need to spend $549 to get a great experience elsewhere. 

Table of Contents: Masthead Sticky

Apple AirPods Max specifications

  • Dimensions: 6.64 inches x 3.28 inches x 7.37 inches 
  • Weight: 13.6 ounces
  • Audio features: Apple-designed dynamic driver, active noise cancellation, transparency mode, adaptive EQ, spatial audio with dynamic head tracking
  • Sensors: Optical sensor, position sensor, case-detect sensor, and accelerometer in each ear cup; gyroscope in left ear cup
  • Microphones: Nine microphones total: eight for active noise cancellation, three for voice pickup (two are shared with ANC and one additional mic)
  • Chip: Apple H1 chip
  • Battery life: Estimated up to 20 hours
  • Buttons and ports: Digital crown, noise control button, Lightning port for charging 
  • In the box: Smart Case and Lightning to USB cable

Setup

AirPods Max setup

If you've ever used a pair of AirPods, you already know how to get started with the AirPods Max. After taking the AirPods Max out of their case and holding them near your phone, you'll see the familiar setup animation guiding you through the quick pairing process. 

Once you press the "Connect" button, you'll see a few instructions in that same dialog box telling you about certain features, like how to use the noise control button to switch between noise cancellation and transparency modes. And that's all there is to it.

The setup process is part of what has made Apple's AirPods lineup such a hit. Pairing other noise-cancelling headphones is also simple, but not quite as frictionless. To set up the Sony WH-1000XM4, for example, I need to download Sony's app to register the headphones and follow the prompt to select them from my iPhone's Bluetooth menu. 

Design and comfort

AirPods Max 1

If there's any indication that the AirPods Max are an Apple product, it's their design. They may not have a visible Apple logo, but the aesthetic details give it away. 

Everything, from the sturdy aluminum and steel finish to the way the left and right symbols denoting which ear each cup belongs on are stitched into the fabric, screams Apple. The AirPods Max even have the same rotating digital crown found on the Apple Watch for controlling the volume.  

AirPods Max inside ear cushion

Apple's headphones make the Bose Noise-Cancelling Headphones 700 and Sony WH-1000XM4 feel cheap and plasticky in comparison, and they should considering the AirPods Max come at an unusually high price for consumer-grade wireless headphones. Bose's headphones cost $379, while Sony's are priced at $350, making them about $170 and $200 cheaper than Apple's headphones respectively.  

That being said, the AirPods Max do have a very specific look given their large, oval-shaped ear cups and soft colors, which may not be for everyone. These headphones definitely stand out. 

Overall, the AirPods Max feel more sturdy, durable, and premium than less expensive yet still very good headphones from Sony and Bose. I don't share that same enthusiasm, unfortunately, for the AirPods Max case. The case only covers the ear cups and leaves the headband completely exposed, not to mention it has an unconventional look that inspired some jokes at launch

AirPods Max case

While this design does make it convenient to carry the headphones since the band essentially serves as a handle, it's disappointing that such an expensive product doesn't come with a more protective case. Although the AirPods Max seem durable, I'd feel uneasy tossing them in my backpack for a flight or even in my purse while commuting to work without fully concealing them.  

But perhaps more important than the way the AirPods Max look is how it feels to wear them for long periods of time. The thick, soft cushions and large-sized cups make the AirPods Max a pleasure to wear throughout the workday, never leaving my ears feeling sore or uncomfortable.  

However, these aren't the right headphones to wear during a workout. They're not rated for water or sweat resistance, and I noticed that the fabric ear cushions looked and felt a bit damp after a 25-minute run. To be sure, Apple isn't marketing these for workouts, and most people probably prefer smaller, lighter earbuds for a run. But it's still worth keeping in mind if you're thinking about spending $549 on a pair of headphones.  

Some reports have also suggested that a few AirPods Max owners have noticed condensation collecting inside the ear cups. I haven't experienced this with my own review unit, but I've reached out to Apple for more clarity on the situation and will update this review accordingly if I hear back. 

Noise cancellation 

AirPods Max 3

If you're looking for a pair of wireless headphones to drown out the world around you, the AirPods Max will surely do the job. The AirPods Max have nine microphones total, eight of which are used for active noise cancellation.

I sat underneath an elevated subway that runs above a very busy street near my apartment to see whether the AirPods Max were able to sufficiently drown out the noise, and they worked impressively well. 

The rumble and screeching of the train above me was still audible of course, but the AirPods Max significantly dulled the shrill sound of the train grinding to a halt as it pulled into the station, and I was still able to hear music playing at half volume. Traffic was also barely audible when wearing the AirPods Max.

Apple's headphones were noticeably better at blocking out the sounds of cars buzzing by and the trains pulling in and out of the station than the Bose Noise-Cancelling Headphones 700, which use six microphones for active noise cancellation and four for voice pickup. Bose's headset did an okay job at drowning out noise, but the train still sounded much louder than it did while wearing the AirPods Max and music sounded lower even when playing at the same volume.

Sony's WH-1000XM4 were a close contender, as they were able to pump out loud tunes that were still very audible over the train, much like the AirPods Max. Sony's headphones use two microphones in each ear cup to capture ambient noise, which it then passes through Sony's HD noise-cancelling processor. But Apple's headphones were just slightly better at muting the sounds of nearby street traffic, possibly because they feel like they form a more complete seal around the ear than Sony's headphones.

If you still want to hear your surroundings, you can turn on Transparency Mode, which enables you to hear what's happening in the world around you. Apple's AirPods Pro earbuds also offer this feature. 

Sound quality

AirPods Max being worn 2

Regardless of whether you're trying to block out surrounding noise, top-notch audio quality is a must for any pair of over-ear headphones, especially at this price. The AirPods Max deliver on this front by pumping out crystal clear audio with sharp vocals, deep bass, and plenty of punch across genres. 

The AirPods Max come with an Apple-designed driver and 10 audio cores for delivering computational audio, according to the company. This enables features such as adaptive EQ and spatial audio. Adaptive EQ adjusts the headphones' sound to the fit of the ear cups and measures the audio delivered to the wearer to optimize it in real time. 

I've spent nearly a week using the AirPods Max for listening to music and taking calls, and also spent more than an hour and a half conducting side-by-side tests against the Sony WH-1000XM4 and Bose Noise Cancelling 700 headphones

The verdict? The AirPods Max blow the Bose headphones out of the water in just about every scenario, whether I'm listening to pop, rap, heavy metal, rock, or electropop on Spotify. In each test, I listened to music with the volume turned up about halfway. And each time, the AirPods Max sounded much louder than the Bose headphones, with much more depth, detail, and color as well. 

The AirPods Max sound more open, clear, and generally have a bit more definition and energy than the Sony WH-1000XM4, especially when listening to heavy metal or rap. But there are some instances where it's a close call, which is significant because - in case you forgot - the Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones are so much cheaper.

Audio can be subjective, but I find that the AirPods Max sound smoother and crisper than headphones from Sony and Bose, particularly when it comes to vocals and when listening at high volumes. Although Sony sometimes does a better job at isolating certain elements of a song, like the bass, Apple's audio sounds more balanced, open, and defined. It almost feels like you can hear more of a song thanks to the increased clarity. 

The AirPods Max also work well for calls and video conferences; I used them throughout the course of the workday for two half-hour-long calls, and the audio connection remained clear and consistent the entire time. 

The bottom line: the AirPods Max offer top-notch audio, as they should for their price. But you can also get an impressive audio experience that's probably enough for many listeners with the more affordable Sony WH-1000XM4.

Smart features 

AirPods Max Connectivity

Apple's high-end headphones come with all of the features you'd expect from AirPods, such as the ability to quickly pair when held near your iOS device, automatic playing and pausing when placed on or taken off your ears, and hands-free Siri access. They're powered by Apple's H1 chip just like the AirPods Pro. 

These are some of the characteristics that made AirPods so popular in the first place, as they eliminate the need to fiddle with Bluetooth menus and make it easy to quickly connect and switch between Apple devices. 

I only wish Apple would develop a similarly useful AirPods interface for the Mac. Connecting your AirPods Max to a Mac computer requires pretty much the same process as pairing any other Bluetooth accessory. 

That may have been fine when Apple was only selling earbuds, but most people who own noise-cancelling over-ear headphones probably use them with their laptop throughout the workday. Considering Apple has increasingly made its macOS operating system much more consistent with that of the iPhone and iPad in recent years, it's disappointing not to see that continuity translate to AirPods connectivity. 

If you're an Android phone owner, you'll still be able to use the AirPods Max as a regular pair of Bluetooth headphones. But you'll be missing out on the signature AirPods-specific features, like spatial audio and hands-free voice assistant access. 

Headphones from Sony and Bose don't offer the same helpful pop-up box confirming that they're connected to your iPhone and showing the battery percentage. That's because they don't have the same level of integration with the iPhone's software as AirPods. 

But you'd be mistaken to think that AirPods are the only noise-cancelling headphones that come with convenient features. After pairing them for the first time, both the Bose Noise-Cancelling 700 and Sony WH-1000XM4 usually connect to my iPhone with ease whenever I bring them within range. There have been a few instances, however, where I've had to manually pair the Sony headphones again, which is frustrating.

Sony also supports some convenient features like the optional Speak-to-Chat function, which uses the headset's microphones to detect when you're speaking and pauses music to let in ambient sound. You can also place your hand over one cup to automatically turn the music down if you need to hear something quickly without taking the time to pause or remove your headphones. 

Bose, on the other hand, also offers compatibility with its soundbars so that you can watch TV loudly without disturbing others. Both headphones allow you to access voice assistants as well, with Bose offering hands-free Alexa compatibility. So each pair of headphones provides its own selection of features that may be right for you depending on your usage and preferences.

Touch controls and input

AirPods Max digital crown

Bose and Sony also have touch sensors built into their headphones for controlling music playback and other functions, unlike the AirPods Max

Apple, however, has what in my opinion is a much better solution: the Apple Watch's digital crown. You can twist the crown to control the volume, and press it to play and pause music or answer phone calls among other functions, which I find to be much more intuitive than the touch sensors found on other headphones. 

It's a lot easier to tell precisely where the digital crown is on the AirPods Max compared to the invisible touch sensors on other headphones, which often result in a lot of tapping and swiping around the outside of the ear cup as I get accustomed to where the controls are. 

Where other headphones excel over Apple in terms of convenience is in the accessories they include in the box and their available input options. 

Sony's headphones come with an adapter so that you can use them to listen to in-flight entertainment systems, as well as a headphone cable, a USB-C cable, and a stereo mini jack located for using them in wired mode. Bose also includes an audio and charging cable with its Noise-Cancelling 700 headphones, which have a 2.5mm audio jack. 

Apple's AirPods Max, meanwhile, only come with a Lightning to USB cable for charging and don't include any other input options. 

Battery life

AirPods Max 2

Apple claims that the AirPods Max should last for 20 hours on a single charge. While I didn't wear them for 20 hours straight, I can certainly tell that they should be more than capable of getting through a full day or a long flight with ease. 

After wearing the AirPods Max pretty consistently to stream audio from my MacBook Pro and, in some cases, my iPhone during the workday, I still had 70% of the battery left after roughly 6.2 hours of use.

However, I did encounter some issues when it comes to power management, both of which have since been resolved. In one instance, the AirPods Max wouldn't charge when plugged in until I reset them by holding the noise cancellation button and digital crown. In one other instance, I found that the AirPods Max's battery had mysteriously drained from about 70% to 13% overnight when I left them outside of their case. I've reached out to Apple for clarity on both of these issues and will update this story accordingly. 

While it's great that the included Smart Case puts the AirPods Max in ultra-low power mode to preserve battery life, it's a let down that they don't actually charge the headphones themselves. The charging case that comes with Apple's AirPods earbuds is hugely convenient, and it's a shame that Apple couldn't find a solution that translates to the AirPods Max in this regard, which would have helped justify their higher price. 

Should you buy them?

The AirPods Max are well-designed headphones with impressive noise cancellation and superb audio. But their high price means they're only worth buying if you're an Apple loyalist that doesn't mind paying a premium for high-end sound quality and a design that's significantly more polished than similar headphones in the $300-$400 price range. 

If you're an Android phone owner, or are considering switching to Android, you're better off looking elsewhere since you won't get the full benefits that AirPods have to offer. If having flexibility when it comes to input and output options is a priority, the AirPods Max also probably aren't for you. 

What are your alternatives?

The $350 Sony WH-1000XM4 and $379 Bose Noise-Cancelling 700 are both excellent options. They work well across iPhone and Android, meaning you won't have to remain tied to one ecosystem, and they cost significantly less than the AirPods Max

They both offer excellent audio quality and noise cancellation that's probably sufficient for most people, although I prefer Sony's headphones over Bose's based on my testing. 

If you're looking for professional grade audiophile headphones and don't mind plugging them in, the $599 Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro are our current pick for the best over-ear headphones. They've gotten high marks in reviews from PCMag, TechRadar, and SoundGuys for their exceptional audio quality and comfortable fit. 

The bottom line

AirPods Max 4

There's no doubt that the AirPods Max are excellent when it comes to sound quality, noise cancellation, design, and comfort. The question is whether they're worth the $549 price. 

While the AirPods Max are well-built headphones that deliver first-rate performance, the benefits they offer may not justify the exceedingly high cost for most people. That's especially true considering there are plenty of great options from Sony, Bose, and others available for less that are likely more accessible for the average listener.

The AirPods Max feel like a middle ground between wired audiophile headphones and less expensive wireless noise-cancelling headphones meant for casual buyers. Apple succeeds in that regard with the AirPods Max, but what remains to be seen is whether there's a market for an in-between product like this. Apple has struggled in the luxury audio market before with its original HomePod, so we'll have to see if things will be different for the AirPods Max

Pros: Top-notch audio quality, excellent noise cancellation, premium design that feels more substantial than cheaper rivals, comfortable fit with thick but breathable ear cushions

Cons: Expensive, no charging case, included case doesn't protect entire headset, no input options or included cables for other audio connections, AirPods pairing mechanism still exclusive to iOS, some battery-related bugs

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