Apple’s headphones provide the ultimate listening experience – even if you have hearing loss.
Apple is a company that has the resources to make amazing products. In my time covering Apple, I have been pretty happy with the gear I’ve gotten my hands on and I’ve had very few poor experiences with the company. The first generation gold MacBook wasn’t a very positive experience but the laptop also ended up being defective, and I wasn’t very pleased when I purchased the MacBook Pro in 2018 only to have Apple change the graphics card to the Radeon Pro Vega 20 (4GB) within the same month. Both of those instances ended up being positive because Apple made the mistakes right, and for that, I will forever be grateful.
When I first heard the rumors of Apple’s over-ear headphones, I honestly didn’t think much of it. I thought that Apple might release a new Apple TV box, but low and behold, the AirPods Max dropped instead. For a while, I had been going back and forth between using my AirPods Pro, Cleer earbuds, and Bowers and Wilkins over-ear headphones. I was considering upgrading to a newer set of over-ear headphones like the Sony WH-1000XM4 Wireless Noise-Canceling headphones. I was just about to push the ‘purchase’ button on them when something told me to wait. Then Apple’s announcement came:
After I perused the specs and got over the sticker shock of the price tag, I thought, “These might be worth the investment for me.” I have high-end hearing loss, and because of that, most speakers, earbuds, and headphones don’t do much for me. I have an especially hard time hearing dialogue on our TV unless the sound is being pumped through our Apple HomePods. That is what caused me to pause and really consider the purchase. “What if the AirPods Max are like putting HomePods on your ears?” That was worth it to me.
Once I made the decision to order a pair, I thought long and hard about the color I wanted. During this time, I was also given pause as I realized that the headphones charged using Lightning instead of USB-C. I started second-guessing my decision. I went back and forth like this for quite some time as the $550 price tag was nothing to scoff at. I finally decided that because they didn’t charge using USB-C that I wouldn’t place an order. Later in the day, I changed my mind one last time. I came to the conclusion that the headphones charging by Lightning wasn’t that big of a deal and that I really didn’t want to miss out on trying out the AirPods Max. But, was I too late?
After I finally decided to place the order, it was late in the afternoon, and shipping was pushed back 12-14 weeks. If I placed my order at that time, they wouldn’t be available until March 2021 – no matter what color I ordered. On a whim, I decided to check and see what the engraving option for the headphones was going to look like. I don’t know what made me decide to look, but when I did, I found that the Space Gray AirPods Max with engraving was shipping within 2 weeks. My guess is that Apple allocated a certain amount of headphones for engraving apart from the plain sets going out. Engraving doesn’t cost anything extra so I placed the order for the engraved pair of headphones and began the wait.
I waited impatiently for the headphones to arrive. Apple always has impressive packaging and the AirPods Max was no exception. The shipping box is also impressive. It has a bi-fold opening that reveals the Apple box inside. The headphones come with a Lightning to USB-C cable and the Smart Case for the headphones. The set-up for the headphones is the same process you go through with the AirPods or AirPods Pro. When you take them out of the Smart Case, your Apple devices will recognize the headphones and allow you to connect the two devices if you wish to.
After setup was completed, I put the headphones on my ears and heard the first sounds through the AirPods Max. It was a Christmas song that I had heard dozens of times before. The sound was so rich, deep, and clear that it was like I was hearing the song for the first time. “Ok, there is no way these sound this good.” At that moment, Robyn, my fiance, walked into the room and said, “So, are they like having HomePods attached to your ears?” All I could do was nod yes. She gave me a look and I handed them over to her. She put the headphones on her ears and scrolled through my library until she found The Beatles. She tapped ‘play’ on one of their songs and tears welled up in her eyes. Robyn is sort of the polar opposite to me when it comes to hearing. She has super-sonic hearing and can hear a whisper on the other side of the house. So, seeing her reaction was not only priceless, it was confirmation that the AirPods Max are the best sound experience I’ve ever had with headphones.
During the two-week waiting period, until my headphones arrived, I did a lot of reading about them. Many people were saying that the headphones just barely beat out Sony and Bose brand headphones of the same style and feature-set as the AirPods Max. I have the Sony MDR-1000X and Bose QuietComfort 35 headphones and for a while, the Sony’s were my favorite over-ear headphones. I noticed after listening to the AirPods Max that the sound experience was less muddled than when I use the Sony’s. The sound is clean and I have been hearing subtle noises that I’ve never picked up on before. Now, I want to point out here that because of my hearing loss, I can only speak for how these headphone sets sounded to me. Other people may hear all three of the headphones differently than me.
When I test headphones, I have a few go-to songs I like to try out so that I can get an idea of the listening experience of the headphones from every angle. The songs are pulled from a variety of genres including soundtracks, rock, grunge, punk, classical, and even a bit of rap. The AirPods Max does an incredibly nice job with all of them. The headphones keep a nice, deep bass sound while protecting the integrity of the rest of the track. I also found that vocals are crisp as well and I really love that as I turn up the volume, that I don’t get any distortion. That’s not been the case with other headphones I’ve used.
Overall, I’ve been impressed with all the features of the AirPods Max. Here’s a brief rundown of my thoughts on the main features of the headphones.
Active Noise Canceling (ANC): Until I used the AirPods Max, the ANC on the Sony headphones was the best I’ve ever used. I took the Sony headphones on a flight a few years back and never heard the airplane’s engine noise. Therefore, I’ve always regarded the ANC on the Sony MDR-1000X as the ‘best’. While I haven’t taken the AirPods Max on a plane yet, I can say that it deadens ambient noises like dogs barking, vacuums, and TVs that are left on in the background.
Mesh Headband: I love the look of the headband. I think it looks very clean and it accentuates the lines of the AirPods Max. The design is right up my alley.
Weight: I’ve heard some people say that the weight of the headphones is an issue for them. I have noticed that they feel a bit heavier than other headphones I’ve used, but the weight seems evenly distributed to me and so it doesn’t bother me. I’ve worn the headphones for several hours at a time and have not had any issues with headaches or soreness.
Buttons: I am a big fan of the buttons. This is odd for me to say since I never thought I would be a proponent of moving to analog from digital, but Apple did a nice job of blending in the Digital Crown and the ANC button. I had a real love-hate relationship with the touch controls on my Sony MDR-1000X headphones. So, it was really nice to have something that worked and felt natural to use.
Smart Case: This is one thing I wish that Apple would have reconsidered when they were designing the AirPods Max — the Smart Case. I really consider it more of a ‘sleeve’ than a case because — well, that’s what it is. The sleeve is made with a single piece of what seems to be polyurethane material and utilizes magnets for the closure. While the sleeve does protect the metal earpieces of the headphones from getting scratched up, for the most part, it doesn’t protect the headband and there is even a cut out on the bottom that leaves the headphones exposed to the elements and potential damage. I also noticed that when I take the headphones out of the sleeve that the AirPods clink together. The only way I’ve been able to stop that from happening is if I physically place my hand there.
Now that I said my piece about the Smart Case, I do want to highlight some information from an interview that Evans Hankey, Apple Vice President of Industrial Design gave to Casa Brutus, a Japanese publication. In the interview, she justified the reasoning behind why Apple did not include a full-sized case with the headphones. Whether or not you agree with this rationale, it is nevertheless the reason why we have the Smart Case. The quotes below were pulled from that article and translated using Google Translate.
“Today, most headphones come with large, cumbersome cases, but we travel a lot, so we know how important it is to fit in a bag. So it’s extremely storage efficient. I wanted to make a good case. Our case has a structure in which one sheet is cut out and fastened in several places so that it becomes three-dimensional. When the ear cup is rotated and inserted here, the headband is exposed. Although it is still in the state, it is judged that it is not necessary to cover it because it is made strong in the first place. Also, thanks to the exposed band, it is possible to have a function that you can easily grasp it with your hand and take it out of your bag. I was able to do it.” – Evans Hankey
Even though there might be a few minor things I would like to see improved about the AirPods Max, I’m absolutely thrilled with them. They are far superior to any other listening experience I’ve had and think that their price tag is worth the investment. Even though the cost is prohibitive for many, if you want the ultimate listening experience, I can’t recommend the AirPods Max enough.