In the many years of reviewing headphones, I’ve only turned my head twice because I didn’t know where the music was coming from. The first was when sampling tracks on the Sennheiser HE 1, which comes with its own set of tube amplifiers and costs almost as much as my house. The second instance happened earlier this week when testing the Apple AirPods Max with a binaural track streamed over Apple Music.
When the track started on a cello, I instinctively turned my head to the side where the music was coming from and then immediately looked at the other side where a drum kit had followed. This is the effect you should expect from the Apple AirPods Max, which, despite its unconventional design and heavy build, wraps around your head and soon blends in like it’s not there.
The Apple AirPods Max differs in a number of ways. The design, for example, has all of its unique aspects, the most noticeable part of which is the mesh hood, which has replaced the soft pillow band we’ve associated with high-end headphones. It looks different, but I think it goes a long way towards distributing the weight of the headphones and making them very comfortable to wear for long hours. In fact, I wore the AirPods Max to work for a full week – that could mean at least six to eight hours of calls – and didn’t feel it at all.
The other difference is the shape of the anodized aluminum ear cups on either end of the stainless steel telescopic arms. The ear cups actually look like giant replicas of the Apple Watch and even have a crown like this one. There is a small button on the right auricle right next to the crown. With the button you can switch the noise suppression on and off. The crown allows you to adjust the volume and skip songs. I found the combination of double and triple tips to move back and forth on the playlist a little hard to remember and held up to the phone to change tracks. Of course, you can call Siri with a long press of a button to get to your favorite song quickly.
There is one more unique design element that needs to be mentioned. The AirPods Max have fabric-look memory foam pillows that wrap around your ears – your rags are in these cups – creating a natural seal against external noise. These pillows can be pulled out in case you need to clean or replace the inside. I have a feeling that later on Apple may bring out pillows made of different materials, and these standard pillows may not last long in tropical conditions.
Inside the ear cups, along with Apple’s own dynamic drivers, are a number of sensors that provide the best sound regardless of the music or the type of your ear. It’s a bit like how the HomePod works, just closer to your ear.
The joy of using an Apple accessory is how easily and natively it can be paired with the device you are using. On the first day myself, I used the AirPods Max with my iPhone, MacBook, Apple Watch and iPad without having to pair the headphones. Regardless of the device, you can quickly access the controls and adjust the volume and noise cancellation. When you’re listening to music on MacBook and an incoming call comes in on iPhone, all you have to do is answer the call on the phone for the AirPods Max to switch to that source. It’s as convenient as the AirPods have always been.
But how good is the noise cancellation? As I said earlier, the pillows themselves can do a good job of cutting off outside noise. When I wear the AirPods Max with the noise cancellation turned off, I can’t hear the noisy street I live next to, but I know the air purifier is buzzing right next to me. When noise cancellation is on, this air purifier is suddenly quiet, almost like there is no pollution in Delhi. I also can’t hear Harsha Bhogle on TV to find out what’s going on in the gabba test. In transparency mode, I can hear all of this as well as the Ed Sheeran number I’m hearing. In terms of effectiveness, this is spot on with the Boses and Sonys. And maybe a notch better as there is no negative space or feeling of being sucked out when you are not listening to music with noise cancellation turned on – one of my main use cases to help me think and work better.
Let’s go back to Amber Rubarth’s Strive binaural audio file to talk about audio quality. I’ve tried the same file on other headphones over time. With the AirPods Max, however, this sounds different due to the spatial audio signal. Here it’s more like music in a room and less in my ears. As you hear more, that experience grows on you because it is more natural.
The AirPods Max in my books has a neutral audio profile. The bass can take a punch, but only when it’s necessary. Not with every stroke. It’s rich and you can hear every note and instrument clearly. It’s spicy and you can hear the singer inhale before a rather long alaap. You can almost hear Kadri Gopalnath taking his lips off the saxophone. It’s like you’re in the room.
With noise cancellation, spatial audio that keeps the source of noise where it should be even when you move your head, and rich, deep audio profile, the AirPods Max take the other high-end headphones a step in my books advance that makes one or two of the above very good. And then, overall integration with Siri and the Apple ecosystem offers an advantage that the others clearly don’t have.
While there is of course music, these headphones will get you caught up while watching a movie on your Mac or iPad, or when you have an Apple TV at home. Since movie theaters are now a distant dream for most of us, this is the best you have to have a movie theater experience at home, albeit a very personal one. As you move Vin Diesel across the screen and glide on the asphalt, you can hear the movement all the way, almost like you’re in a Dolby Atmos theater … just a little better with spatial audio in your headphones.
With the AirPods Max you have a battery life of 18 to 20 hours when fully charged – a whole day or from home and two working days from home. If you only use the headphones for casual listening, you may only need to charge them once a week. In addition, the AirPods Max comes with a smart cover that turns it off as soon as headphones are plugged in, thus saving battery. The headphones also interrupt the music as soon as they are removed from the head, but remain connected to the source.
At Rs 59,900, the AirPods Max is clearly not for everyone. And frankly, not everyone has to consider this an option. There are headphones from audio companies that offer great audio and ease of use at half the price. The AirPods Max is clearly intended for those who want to go above and beyond when it comes to pure music experience, style, and convenience. And that’s what they pay the premium for. This is the iPhone 12 Pro Max from headphones, a notch above the rest.