Apple in December 2020 surprised us with the AirPods Max, the long-rumored high-end over-ear headphones that have been in development for at least the past two years.
AirPods Max are the first Apple-branded over-ear headphones that Apple has designed. There have been similar over-ear headphones sold under the Beats brand, but the AirPods Max join the AirPods and AirPods Pro as an Apple audio accessory.
The AirPods Max feature oval-shaped ear cups with a U-shaped inverted knit mesh headband and knit mesh ear cushions. The design of the headband allows it to distribute weight and reduce on-head pressure, plus it has adjustable arms to fit a range of head sizes.
Ear cups attach to the headband through what Apple calls a "revolutionary mechanism" meant to balance and distribute pressure, and each ear cushion has been designed with acoustically engineered memory foam to create a seal for immersive sound.
Ear cushions attach to ear cups magnetically and are interchangeable, with Apple selling ear cushions on a standalone basis. AirPods Max come in five colors: silver, space gray, blue, pink, and green, all with matching ear cups.
At the top of one of the AirPods Max ear cups, there's an Apple Watch-inspired Digital Crown that provides precise volume controls and gestures for playing/pausing audio, skipping tracks, answering/ending phone calls, and activating Siri.
To provide excellent sound quality, the AirPods Max are equipped with a 40mm Apple-designed dynamic driver. Apple says the AirPods Max deliver deep bass, accurate mid-ranges, and crisp, clean high-frequency extension. With a dual neodymium ring magnet motor, AirPods Max maintain a harmonic distortion of less than 1 percent across the audible range, even at max volume.
Like the AirPods and the AirPods Pro, the AirPods Max are equipped with two Apple H1 chips that provide high quality sound thanks to the 10 cores that power computational audio capabilities.
AirPods Max feature Active Noise Cancellation technology and the same Transparency mode, Adaptive EQ, and spatial audio features that are in the AirPods Pro.
Active Noise Cancellation works through three outward-facing microphones on each ear cup that detect environmental noise, along with a microphone inside each ear cup to monitor the sound reaching the listener's ear. Apple's software adapts the noise cancellation to the environment in real time.
Transparency mode allows outside sounds to still be heard even with ANC turned on, while Adaptive EQ adjusts the sound to the fit and seal of the ear cushions by measuring the sound signal and adjusting it in real time. Spatial audio uses dynamic head tracking to place sounds anywhere in space for an immersive, theater-like experience.
All of the devices in the AirPods family feature automatic device swapping on any device where the user is signed into their iCloud account, along with quick pairing, Siri access, and audio sharing. AirPods Max have optical sensors to detect when they're on a user's head.
When put on, AirPods Max can play audio, and when removed, AirPods Max will pause audio. The aforementioned microphones allow for clear phone calls and ensure that Siri hears user commands even when music is playing.
AirPods Max have a battery that lasts for up to 20 hours for listening to music, talking on the phone, or watching movies with Active Noise Cancellation enabled and the volume set to 50 percent. For charging, Apple provides a Smart Case made out of a soft material that puts AirPods Max in an ultralow-power state to preserve battery charge when not in use. AirPods Max charge using Lightning, and a five-minute charge provides 1.5 hours of listening time.
Apple sells AirPods Max for $549, and iOS 14.3, iPadOS 14.3, macOS Big Sur 11.1, watchOS 7.2, and tvOS 14.3 are required to use the headphones.
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How to Buy
AirPods Max can be purchased from the online Apple Store at the current time, and the first orders arrived to customers on Tuesday, December 15. All colors are sold out and will no longer arrive before March 2021 when purchased online, but Apple does have some in store stock in the United States, Europe, and other countries.
AppleCare+ is available for AirPods Max for $59, with the coverage including two incidents of accidental damage every two months, subject to a $29 service fee. Out-of-warranty battery service is priced at $79.
Hands-on first impressions of the AirPods Max have been published ahead of the release of the new headphones, and for the most part, initial thoughts from members of the media have been positive. Sound has been described as "crisp and bright" with little distortion even at max volume, and the AirPods Max are "more than good enough to compete with other high-end headphones."
Some reviewers found the AirPods Max to offer superior noise cancellation compared to other headphones with ANC, including the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 and the Sony WH-1000XM4.
Most reviewers pointed out the weight, as the AirPods Max are heavier than most other headphone options. The mesh headband is said to reduce some of the pressure, but they might feel large on people with small heads. The ear cups, though, have good air distribution and didn't feel sweaty or hot.
Apple designed the AirPods Max with oval-shaped brushed aluminum ear cups attached to a retro-style U-shaped curved "canopy" with telescoping arms for size adjustment purposes. There are mesh ear cups that Apple says are made from an acoustic fabric that better conducts sound.
The headband curves upward and is made from a breathable knit mesh material between a stainless steel frame that Apple says distributes the weight of the headphones across the head to make them more comfortable. The frame is covered by a soft-touch material.
The AirPods Max headband can be removed with a standard SIM card ejector tool, which suggests that interchangeable headbands could be possible in the future, and it also facilitates easy headband repairs. At the current time, Apple does not sell headbands. There's also a small Lightning-like connector inside that allows the headband to connect each ear cup together.
Apple says that the AirPods Max design allows for an "uncompromising fit" that creates an "optimal acoustic seal" for many head shapes. Each ear cup rotates independently on the frame to balance pressure, and the mesh material and memory foam internals of the ear cushions are meant to offer pillow-like softness.
Apple sells AirPods Max in five colors: silver, space gray, sky blue, pink, and green. Color wise, the shades that Apple chose are similar to those used for the 2020 iPad Air, and each color has a matching color for the ear cushions and the headband.
The AirPods Max ear cushions attach to the ear cups magnetically, and they are interchangeable. Apple sells standalone ear cushions for $69 per pair, allowing for different color mixes.
AirPods Max are significantly heavier than many noise cancelling headphone sets from other manufacturers, weighing in at 13.6 ounces or 384.8 grams. Comparatively, Sony's WH-1000MX4 headphones weigh 8.96 ounces and the Bose Quiet Comfort 35 II weigh 10.93 ounces.
AirPods Max are not waterproof or water resistant, and Apple warns customers not to get moisture in any of the openings.
Some AirPods Max owners have noticed condensation inside the ear cups after prolonged usage, but it's not yet clear if this condensation can cause issues with the AirPods Max. It appears that this is an issue that affects many over-ear headphone options, and is not limited to AirPods Max.
Digital Crown and Button
Like the Apple Watch, the AirPods Max have a Digital Crown for control purposes. The Digital Crown can be used to turn the volume up or down, skip between tracks, answer phone calls, and activate Siri through both rotating and pressing gestures.
The button next to the Digital Crown allows Active Noise Cancellation to be controlled, switching between ANC and Transparency mode.
Turning the Digital Crown controls volume, pressing once answers a call or plays/pauses a song, pressing twice skips forward one track, pressing three times skips back one track, and pressing and holding activates Siri.
AirPods Max have an LED light on the bottom of the right ear cup, which can be used to determine charge level when pressing the power button while the AirPods Max are charging. At above 95 percent, the light is green, at below 95 percent charge, it's amber. Pressing the button on the AirPods Max when the headphones are not charging shows a green light if there's more than 15 percent battery life remaining, while it shows an amber light if there's less than 15 percent charge.
Apple ships AirPods Max with a soft Smart Case that wraps around the ear cups but that does not provide protection for the headband. The case is designed to put the AirPods Max into an ultra low power state that preserves battery life, utilizing magnets.
The AirPods Max pair high-fidelity audio with Active Noise Cancellation for what Apple describes as an "unparalleled listening experience."
There's a custom-built driver inside the AirPods Max that produces ultra-low distortion sound across the audible range. Apple promises rich bass, accurate mids, and crisp, clean highs, even at the highest volumes.
The driver is equipped with a dual-neodymium ring magnet motor that's modeled after the drivers in high-end floor-standing speakers. The magnet motor is designed to minimize total harmonic distortion, which is how the AirPods Max deliver the clearest possible sound.
H1 Chip Features
There are two Apple-designed H1 chips in the AirPods Max, and this is the same chip that Apple has used in prior products like the AirPods Pro. Apple added one H1 chip to each ear cup, and the 10 audio cores provide computational audio capabilities that provide all of the magic Apple's headphones are known for.
Apple's computational audio enhances Active Noise Cancellation, allows for Transparency mode, enables hands-free Hey Siri functionality, allows for quick paring and devices switching, adapts sound to the fit of the headphones on the head, and more.
Active Noise Cancellation
As with the AirPods Pro and some Beats headphones, the AirPods Max feature Active Noise Cancellation capabilities. There are a total of six outward-facing microphones to detect noise in the environment, and two inward-facing microphones that measure what the wearer hears.
Combined with Apple's software, the microphones allow the AirPods Max to determine and mitigate the outside noise level while fine-tuning the audio that's playing.
These microphones power Active Noise Cancellation. Two of these microphones and one additional microphone also make sure Siri can be heard for voice commands even with music playing and that voice calls are clear even when it's windy.
Transparency mode can be activated for users who are worried about Active Noise Cancellation drowning out the sounds in the environment, which is useful when it's important to hear what's going on.
Transparency mode turns down the Active Noise Cancellation so AirPods Max owners can listen for traffic, hear flight announcements, and more, without having to turn off their audio. On AirPods Max, Transparency mode can be activated by pressing on the noise control button that's at the top of the headphones.
First introduced in iOS 14 with the AirPods Pro, spatial audio brings a movie theater listening experience to Apple's headphones.
Spatial audio applies directional audio filters and subtly adjusts the frequencies that each ear receives to place sounds virtually anywhere in space for an immersive listening experience.
The feature uses sensors in the AirPods Max along with sensors in the iPhone or iPad to track the motion of a person's head as well as the position of their device, comparing the motion data and remapping the sound field so that it stays anchored to the device even as the head moves.
Adaptive EQ feature provides better sound quality by tuning the music that's playing to the individual fit and seal of the headphones on the head. The inward-facing microphones in the AirPods Max measure what you hear and then adjust the frequencies of the music for a rich, consistent experience.
AirPods Max support always-on Hey Siri functionality so to change the music you're listening to or to ask Siri a question, Siri will activate with the "Hey Siri" wake phrase.
Pairing, Switching, and Sharing
Like other AirPods, AirPods Max connect automatically to other Apple devices with one-tap setup and pairing capabilities. Connecting AirPods Max to an iPhone or iPad, for example, is as simple as holding the headphones near the device and then tapping the Connect button.
There are also quick device swapping capabilities that let users quickly and easily switch use AirPods Max on any device they're signed into with their Apple ID.
As of iOS 14, automatic device switching lets the AirPods Max automatically switch between iPhone, iPad, Mac, and Apple Watch as the devices are used, with no need to access Bluetooth controls to swap devices.
Audio on iPhone, iPad, and Apple TV can be shared with two sets of AirPods, and this feature also applies to the AirPods Max.
Sensors in the AirPods Max allow them to determine when they're on the head, so when the headphones are removed, audio will pause, and when placed back on the head, audio will resume. Pausing the music can also be done by lifting up an ear cup.
Each ear cup includes an optical sensor, position sensor, case detection sensor, and an accelerometer. There's also a gyroscope in the left ear cup.
There is no U1 Ultra Wideband chip in the AirPods Max, even though this chip was included in the iPhone 12 models and the HomePod mini. The U1 chip offers better spatial awareness than Bluetooth, precisely calculating the time that it takes for radio waves to pass between two devices.
The AirPods Max battery leasts for up to 20 hours of listening to music, watching movies, or talking on the phone with both Active Noise Cancellation and spatial audio enabled. Apple's testing was conducted with the volume at 50 percent.
The headphones charge with a Lightning cable, and a five-minute charge provides 1.5 hours of listening time. It takes approximately two hours for the AirPods Max to charge to full. The AirPods Max has no power button, with Apple instead relying on different power modes to preserve battery life.
When AirPods Max are removed but not placed into a Smart Case, they go into a "low power mode" after five minutes. When untouched, they remain in this state for 72 hours. After the 72 hour period, the headphones enter into an "ultra" low power mode that disables Bluetooth and Find My location to further retain charge.
When the AirPods Max are put into the Smart Case when not in use, they go into low power mode immediately to preserve battery. After 18 hours in the Smart Case, the AirPods Max go into the ultra low power mode that turns off Bluetooth and Find My Location. This means that the AirPods Max go into the same "low power mode" in and out of the case, and the case is not strictly necessary for power saving for those who prefer not to use it.
Some AirPods Max owners have been seeing issues with excessive battery drain and have noticed the battery depleting 10 to 12 percent each day when not in use, and sometimes more. It's not clear if this is a bug and something that Apple can refine in a future software update.
AirPods Max How Tos
- How to Reverse the Digital Crown Volume Controls on AirPods Max
- How to Customize the Noise Control Button on AirPods Max
- How to Disable Automatic Head Detection on AirPods Max
- How to Reset AirPods Max to Factory Settings
- How to Reset AirPods Max to Factory Settings
- AirPods Max Switching to ANC in Only One Cup? Here's How to Fix It
- How to Get AirPods Max to Announce Your Calls
- How to Connect AirPods Max to Apple TV
- How to Check AirPods Max Battery Life
- How to Unpair AirPods Max From iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, Apple Watch, or Mac
- How to Change the Name of Your AirPods Max
- How to Use Apple's Live Listen Feature With AirPods Max
- How to Control the Transparency Feature on AirPods Max
- How to Control the Active Noise Cancellation Feature on AirPods Max
Software and Device Requirements
Using the AirPods Max to their fullest capabilities requires macOS Big Sur 11.1 or later, iOS 14.3 or later, iPadOS 14.3 or later, watchOS 7.2 or later, or tvOS 14.3 or later.
AirPods Max are compatible with the iPhone 6s and original iPhone SE and later, the iPad mini 4 and iPad Air 2 and later, Apple Watch Series 1 models and later, and the Apple TV 4K.
As for the Mac, the AirPods Max work with machines dating back to 2012, and the AirPods Max will also pair with any device that supports Bluetooth 5.0, though most features require an Apple device.
What's Next for AirPods Max
There were originally rumors that the AirPods Max would be available in two varieties including a lower-cost sport variety, so that's potentially something that we may see in the future.
Apple is also said to have removed several features from the AirPods Max due to production issues and development challenges. Early rumors also indicated the headphones would feature interchangeable headbands, touch pads for controls, and no specific left and right orientation, but these features did not make it into the final product.
It's possible that a future version of the AirPods Max will include the functionality that was left out of the first launch version.