Let’s cut to the chase: can a pair of wireless headphones really be worth £549? Ultimately that’s the question facing anyone considering a pair of Apple’s AirPods Max. The answer is, and I say this somewhat reluctantly, yes, the Airpods Max justify the price tag, but only if you’re already wedded to the Apple tech family.
It’s not an answer I expect to give. £549 is PlayStation 5 money; it’s package holiday abroad money. However, after a month’s use, mostly working from home, the Airpods Max have barely left my head, such is the comfort, audio prowess and ease of use of Apple’s new headphones. I’ve exhausted my music library, sought out new albums and even started watching movies on my iPad.
The only caveat is that if you’re not already invested in Apple’s expensive ecosystem, many of the AirPods Max Pro’s best features will be lost to you.
Apple’s setup for a new product is, as usual, frictionless. Turn the AirPods on next to an iPhone and the two will pair and register the headphones to any other owned Apple devices. Once complete, the AirPods automatically play audio from which ever Apple device you use. It’s effortless. I can hang up a video call on my laptop and hit play on my iPhone and go back to listening to my music there.
It’s a small touch, but any other Bluetooth headset makes this process a headache, asking you to disconnect and connect your Bluetooth device anew every time you switch devices. If you’ve ever stuck your laptop in your bag and forgotten to unpair it from your earphones, you’ll know what I mean. Sure it’s a minor, first-world problem, but I can’t overstate how this simple change means I use these headphones so much more.
Unlike most headphones, there’s no touch controls on the cans. Instead you can turn up the volume, pause the music and skip tracks via the ‘digital crown’. The other button here controls transparency mode and noise-cancelling.
Transparency mode is designed for those brave enough to leave the house with over £500 sat on their head: with this turned on, the headphones allow some outside noise to enter so you’re not totally clueless about what’s going on around you. Push the button and the headphones go into noise-cancelling mode, a godsend in a small apartment with two working adults – it’s so good it can shut out conversations happening metres away.
The earphones are a world apart from the build of most wireless headphones which feel creaky and toy-like in comparison to Apple’s traditional machined aluminium finish. The mesh textile on the headband and ear cups, as well as the memory foam inside, distribute the pressure across the surface of your skin such a way that you can wear the headphones for hours on end without discomfort, even with glasses on. The mesh is also far more breathable than the leather you traditionally find on headphones.
The extendable arms are strong and stiff, staying in place once you’ve adjusted each arm and, as a famed destroyer-of-headphones, it’s hard to see potential frailty. It’s only the price tag that’s stopping me from chucking them in the bottom of the backpack.
The ear cushions, which look like they might weather with age (often the first element to show signs of wear on a pair of headphones), are replaceable. They’re £75 for a pair and snap in and out magnetically, so it’s an easy swap.
The only let down in the design department is the “case”. Perhaps it’s a statement about how durable the headphones are that they only need a thin sheath to protect the aluminium from scuffs. Ultimately though, I think I’d wrap the headphones up in a scarf if they leave the house.
An Apple H1 chip – a specialised audio processor chip built from the ground up by Apple – powers each earcup separately. While delivering sound to each ear, each chip listens in to what’s going on inside the earcup via eight microphones dotted in and around the headphones.
They’re looking for any distortion or interference caused by real-world use – maybe you’re wearing glasses, maybe you’re lying down – the idea is that they can make 200 adjustments per second to the audio to make sure everything’s consistent.
The combined effect of this unique tech puts these headphones in a class of their own. Like the very best hi-fi tech, these headphones feel as though they completely open up your music. The soundscapes of electronic jazz rock band Comet is Coming’s debut album become hugely cinematic on the AirPods Max.
Compared to a lesser headphone, the bass no longer drowns out the detailed synth and percussion in the mid-range, while the saxophone is sharp and crisp in the high-end frequencies.
Switch to something more aggressive like Turnstile’s latest hard rock album Glow On and the thrashing guitars feel like they have more crunch, the hi-hat has more sparkle. It’s one step closer to listening to your favourite album in the flesh than most wireless headphones can offer.
The headphones really come into their own when paired with a source that has spatial audio. Apple’s slowly adding this tech – powered in part by Dolby Atmos – to its library. It’s essentially an attempt to simulate your music coming from a 3D space, in other words to mimic how music reaches your ears when you watch a live performance.
Listen to Blinding Lights by The Weeknd and the 80s kick-and-snare drum intro sounds as though it’s coming to you from the back of the room before the vocals hit front and centre. Freddie Mercury sounds like he’s getting closer and closer as he builds into the verse of Another One Bites The Dust. I’d love to hear some Dolby Atmos live recordings on these headphones.
Spatial audio really comes into its own when you watch a movie. It simulates cinema surround sound in a way I’ve never really heard on headphones before. You can hear rubble and debris fly around your head as the Avengers fight Thanos in Avengers: Endgame, or you can just luxuriate in Hans Zimmer’s surging score for Interstellar as it surrounds you. An iPad and a pair of Airpods Max is as close as you’re going to get to a mobile cinema.
There’s one last trick these headphones can pull off. Accelerometers inside track the position of your head relative to the device you’re watching on – so if your turn your head to the left, the sound moves round with it. It’s uncanny the first time you realise what’s happening. Again, the idea is to more closely simulate audio in a real, live space.
While I wouldn’t tell anyone to go out and spend £550 on a pair of headphones, I would say that this is a purchase you wouldn’t regret. The Apple AirPods Max are just a tier above any other wireless headphone you can buy in almost every department: features, design and audio quality. They’re just so functional and comfortable that you’ll end up wearing them all the time.
Ultimately, a pair new of headphones boil down to how they make you feel about your favourite albums when you listen to them for the hundredth time, and the AirPods Max have put a smile on my face every single time.
If you want to spend a bit less…
Guide price: £279
If you’re not embedded in Apple’s ecosystem and the thought spending over £500 on headphones makes you queasy, you can’t go wrong with these noise-cancelling headphones from Sony. The audio from these headphones is rich, spacious and full of detail, while the design is light, comfortable and looks great.
Apple AirPods Pro
Guide price: £249
For half the price, these in-ear headphones offer most of the same features that make the AirPod Max headphones so good. They even share the same audio-processing tech. Unfortunately they can’t match the sound performance of a pair of over-ear headphones, but they’re as good as it gets when it comes to wireless earbuds.
Nothing ear (1)
Guide price: £99
At £99, these noise-cancelling wireless earbuds are probably one of the best value-for-money gadgets right now. We love the retro-futuristic design, decent battery life and smart features. The audio quality is great too, but at times a little lacking in bass and detail in the high frequencies.
Jabra Elite 45h
Guide Price £89
These on-ear headphones from Jabra sound just as good as some headphones that are double the price. The build is light and compact – they’re meant to be thrown in your bag – while the audio quality is big and bassy. They come with an impressive battery life and quick charging, and though they lack noise-cancelling it comes there’s dozens of other great features included.