Apple AirPods Max (2020) Review: Insanely Great, Insanely Expensive

Apple AirPods Max (2020) Review: Insanely Great, Insanely Expensive

The flimsy case doesn’t offer much protection, but you have to use it to force the headphones into low power mode. 

Photograph: Apple

Apple’s noise-canceling is once again excellent, with HVAC and keyboard noises disappearing instantly. I’m not shocked, given that senior writer Adrienne So claims her toddlers routinely scare the crap out of her when she’s using the AirPods Pro. Never fear though, conversationalists: With a quick push of the button on the top of the headphones, sound from the room is piped into your ears, which makes quick chats a breeze.

It’s really the sound quality itself that takes the AirPods Max to the level above their competition. Put simply, these are the best-sounding wireless headphones I’ve ever heard, and by a significant margin.

I honestly say this as definitively as I can. When they first arrived, I put the AirPods Max against the Sony WH-1000XM4, Bose Noise Cancelling 700, Mont Blanc MB01, Bowers & Wilkins PX7 Carbon, and Shure Aonic 50.

The main difference between these headphones and all the others is how open they sound. From rumbling lows to bright and clear highs, everything finds a spot. Bands appear to be playing in bigger rooms in your mind’s eye, and each instrument becomes more distinct than ever in the fog of busy mixes.

I love listening to detailed pop from newer artists like Billie Eilish, because her brother Finneas’ creative production techniques come into complete focus. Each little shimmer and growl seems more distinct than ever. Hip hop is equally enthralling because the bass is punchy and defined but never boomy or car-stereo flabby. 808 kicks and detuned voices never blend, and brighter elements of each song ride perfectly atop them.

When listening to hard-panned sounds like Elliott Smith’s guitars, they feel like they’re way at the edges of my musical vision, giving lots of room in the middle of the sound. The overwhelming sense of musical clarity is insane for noise-canceling headphones. Some competitors can keep up with Apple’s work better than others, but in most cases it’s as though you’re pulling a layer of wool off of other flagship noise-canceling headphones when you switch to the AirPods Max.

Good for Movies

Another excellent feature that sets the AirPods Max apart is spatial audio that’s actually usable. If you’re watching on a compatible app (I watched on HBO Max on an iPad), the AirPods Max will simulate object-based surround sound like Dolby Atmos, so that audio effects seem to materialize out of imaginary “speakers” placed all around you in a 3D space.

Turn your head and the audio stays locked to the original orientation. It makes sounds a bit more sibilant (or “brighter”), but the feature does really immerse you in the viewing experience. It’s as though you’re in a true home theater with surround-sound speakers all around you. I can’t wait for this feature to become available on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video too.

To Buy or Not to Buy

The AirPods Max, like any $550 accessory, are obviously not for everyone. But despite their exorbitant price tag (and a few small quirks), the build quality, ease of use, and astonishing fidelity they offer make them worthy of the cost.

Unlike other Apple products, these are objectively the best in their category. Somewhere in the ether, Steve Jobs is probably jamming out with pride.

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