Apple AirPods Max first look: lots to prove

Photo by Nilay Patel / The Verge

I’ve been playing with Apple’s new $549 AirPods Max over-ear headphones since yesterday afternoon, and so far they sound very nice and fit very comfortably.

They also — I have to say this — have a distinct smell, like a funky riff on new-car smell. I am pretty sure that’s a byproduct of the memory foam earpads rolling off the manufacturing line and straight into a shipping box to my house, and I’m reliably told it will fade away over time.

I would probably not tell you what a pair of $100 headphones smells like. But at $550, I feel compelled to note that the AirPods Max are a multisensory experience out of the box.

Design-wise, the AirPods Max are an interesting blend of classic only-Apple design flourishes and odd incongruities. The headband is stainless steel covered in white rubbery material, with a “breathable mesh knit canopy” across the top; Apple says this distributes the weight of the headphones more evenly across your head. (I can’t say it feels very much different than my Sony WH-1000XM2s, but it’s possible I just have a very large head.) The headband connects to the earcups with adjustable stainless-steel extensions culminating in a pleasantly spring-loaded hinge, all of which is nicer than any other premium headphones I’ve used.

The fairly large earcups are where things get a little messier. I have the silver AirPods Max, and the vast expanse of flattish aluminum does not look at first glance like $550 — it’s possible the other colors look more premium, but you would be forgiven for thinking these are plastic until you touch them and feel the coldness of metal.

The earcups are not smooth, unbroken surfaces. There are 10 slots of various shapes and sizes cut into the earcup shells. Seven of those are microphones: six used for noise-cancellation and another for voice calls. (There are another two mics inside the earcups.) These slots are not symmetrical; the top of the left earcup has one long slot, one short one, and then three more slots on the bottom along with a long gray plastic antenna line.

There are two slots on top of the right earcup, and there are three more on the bottom, in addition to a small status LED and the Lightning port, which Apple chose over USB-C to be more convenient for all the iPhone users out there. The AirPods Max can be charged to its full 20-hour battery life in two hours from the standard 5W iPhone brick, and run for 90 minutes after just five minutes on the charger. (There’s no fast-charging available, even if you use a USB-C to Lightning cable.)

The right earcup also has a button to switch between noise-cancelling and transparency mode, as well as a Digital Crown volume control you can press to play and pause music, and hold to invoke Siri. (You can also just say “Hey Siri,” which worked well enough.) One note on the crown: it’s much bigger than the one that appears on an Apple Watch, so it doesn’t feel too awkward to use.

All of this is to say: there’s a lot going on visually with the AirPods Max, much more so than you’d expect from a pair of $550 Apple headphones.

One thing you will not find: a 3.5mm or 2.5mm analog audio input, which is standard issue on noise-canceling headphones at this price point — that’s how you plug into an airplane seat-back entertainment system to watch the movie. Apple knows this is a common use case, because it is selling a $35 3.5mm-to-Lightning cable for exactly that purpose. That brings you to $585 for the AirPods Max, which is just $15 less than an entire iPhone 11.

The memory-foam earcups are very comfortable, and attach magnetically — they remain firmly in place, but come out easily when you need them to. Underneath, there’s white plastic, and a window for the sensor that detects your ears — the music automatically stops when you take the headphones off, or even just lift one earcup to talk to someone. The AirPods Max don’t have a power button, which is very Apple; they just go to sleep when they haven’t been on your head for a while, and then wake up when you put them back on. Clever.

The back of the AirPods Max case exposes where the material comes through itself and is glued in place.

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.

It is one of the cheaper-feeling things Apple has ever made, in my estimation — the second in a trend that started with the MagSafe Duo Charger. I hope there is not a third thing.

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.

Of course, those competing headphones are all cheaper — much cheaper — than the AirPods Max. The newest Sony WH-1000XM4s are regularly on sale for $300, sound very good, and have a 10-hour-longer battery life. The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 are $339, also sound very good, and have brand cachet that’s known in first-class cabins the world over. (They also both have audio-in jacks for those seat-back entertainment systems.)

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.

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Comments

Glad to see an initial impression. For airplanes I have been using Airfly. It adds bluetooth to the airplane infotainment.

I don’t fly a lot but some country have older commercial flyer regulation that require people to turn all wireless devices off during takeoff/landing, so technically these don’t skirt that. I agree, having another powered dongle to go with your wireless headset is the way to go in the cabin.

This is interesting for city commutes and short air plane rides, it loses luster for long flights where my iPhone is the LAST device I’ll likely use. I’ll instead opt for the inflight entertainment system, an iPad, or my computer if I’m being productive.

The wired option here is poor – high end iPads forgo both lightning and 3.5mm. They instead have USB-C which this doesn’t support. If they at least has USB-C I could overlook the other issues.

Airfly is interesting for an Airpod Pro, but silly here where you are paying a premium for sound quality only to be limited by a cheap DAC in the Airfly. That’s before we even get to the issues of charging devices on airplanes and multipoint pairing limitations of current gen bluetooth.

Apple is showing they don’t understand the use case for high end travel headphones.

These work wirelessly with iPads and Macs.

Of course they do. They work wireless with everything bluetooth. My point is that on long flights/connecting flights you may want a wired option on big over the ear headphones for various reasons like preserving battery life or using and charging your dead phones simultaneously.

There are many times when I’ve done business trips that look like this:
-5am trip to airport
-8am flight
-meetings
-client dinner
-hotel: team meetings, sleep, etc.
-additional meetings
-late PM flight

On those trips, the the last device you’ll likely charge is your headphones. So a wired connection is especially helpful.

Given the sad excuse for a case, I think we can agree that Apple didn’t think too long about making these great travel companions. I’m heartened to hear they at least sound good, which unless you’re shopping for Beats headphones, is really the point I suppose.

I can’t get over how much I truly hate the looks of these, but looks aren’t everything I guess.

Can you describe what you don’t like about the look? I don’t get it.

What about the USB-C cable that comes in the box?

Unfortunately it doesn’t pass through audio according to the commentary below.

Glad to see Airfly getting some Love. It’s not much more than Apple’s wired solution, and has the added benefit of being able to pair to two devices so if you are flying w/ a family member you can watch movies together (it’s not to much work to start the movie simultaneously but you always wind up a few seconds off).

I wonder how many Bluetooth connections the AirPods Max can remember (minus the sharing across Apple devices). I’d like to get these for my dad and the Airfly looks like a handy little accessory for travel (if we get back being able to travel). Just worried about the weight as these are heavier than the Bose

Are the ear pads washable?

They’re replaceable, a new set is only $549…

They really are replaceable. I believe $59 is the cost of a new set, and they are magnet so easily changeable.

I realize you’re joking, but the actual replacements are $69. Nice

It’s actually only $138 to replace the ear cups, which is still way too much.

One set of ear cushions. Made by Apple for $69 from your link.

I can buy replace cushions for my Bose for like $15 on Amazon

So you are comparing the aftermarket — off-brand — replacement cushions of an established set of headphones that have been on the market for a while, to a just-released set of headphones that are so new a review is not even available, nevermind third-parties to have access to making replacement pads?

If the Apple Watch is any indication, you will see a ton of third-party manufacturers making replacement pads for these with a ton of options. Probably even $15 leatherette options from amazon.

To be fair even the actual Bose replacements are half the price of Apple’s at $34.95. It’s not really surprising though since Apple charges a premium on everything.

https://www.bose.com/en_us/products/headphones/headphone_accessories/noise-cancelling-headphones-700-cushions.html#v=noise_cancelling_headphones_700_cushions_acc_black

They are also nowhere near as complex. I know it is common to say Apple always has to charge a premium, but these are not like for like to make that same comparison.

And why are they overly complex?

Who said they were overly complex?

They clearly wanted them to be breathable so they shied away from the standard leather, which anyone can appreciate if they have ever worn over ears in the summer.

Apple has never been a company to cut corners to make something cheaper, they will always try to improve standard elements and interactions. Sometimes they fail but at least they try — so far I haven’t heard any complaints during the numerous initial tests i have seen online.

How do you manage to link the product page but completely misrepresent the price? Apple needs no help charging customers premium prices for their goods. The product page clearly says cushions, plural, and the description says "one set of ear cushions".

That’s weird, it showed up as AirPods Max Ear Cushion (no s) in the app I linked from.

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