Review written by Andrew Park (@Resolve)
The Apple Airpods Max were recently released with a price tag of $550. While the Airpods Max is a wireless noise cancelling headphone, solidifying its position in the more traditional consumer electronics market rather than the high end audiophile market, there are two reasons why this is of significant interest to the high end audio crowd - and perhaps simply to people who value sound quality in general.
First, we’re all hoping for a noise cancelling wireless product for portable use and/or other activities that would meet the bar set by at least mid-level audiophile headphones in terms of sound quality. Historically these products have sacrificed quite a bit in terms of technical performance for the benefits of all the features jam-packed into them. Many companies have tried to make a good noise cancelling headphone, and while the tonal balance of these headphones, along with feature integration has dramatically improved over the years, that’s not enough to truly satisfy those of us entrenched in the high end headphone landscape - and moving to these feature-rich headphones often means “being okay with it” for the sake of a given activity, rather than truly enjoying the sound quality on offer.
Second, many within the high end headphone space use Apple products on a daily basis and are firmly integrated into the Apple ecosystem. Even if the Airpods Max is marginally better than alternative ANC headphones, it’s the exciting ANC over-ear solution those within the ecosystem have been waiting for.
With all of that said, I have to give the disclaimer that I personally am not typically an Apple user, even though I’ve used Apple products extensively in the past. Take that for what you will, but while we (the headphones.com content team) may all have our individual preferences when it comes to how we use technology, it’s our job to hedge against brand preferences and use case biases to evaluate the product for what it is. To that end, it was my pleasure to thoroughly recommend the Airpods Pro last year, and I still highly recommend them - both as a convenient auditory information device, and for their sound quality in general. To that end, for this review, the Airpods Max was evaluated on an iPhone 11 Max, and a recent MacBook Air.
So, how does the Apple Airpods Max (APM) fare? Does it continue the high bar set by the Airpods Pro? Let’s find out.
Build, Design & Comfort
The Airpods Max have a remarkably good build quality - and I have to say, for my experience with both wired and wireless headphones, it feels best in class. There are other headphones that may feel more ‘robust’ in the high end, or more premium, such as the HD800S from Sennheiser. But the Airpods Max feel solid and satisfying to hold - with one exception, and it’s the headband mesh. To put it bluntly, it feels like flimsy fabric that will likely wear out over time. But it’s also understandable that Apple went with this design choice to ensure the headphone doesn’t become too heavy, especially since it’s already heavier than many other popular ANC headphones.
For comfort, the APM may be agreeable for some listeners over the course of the average session, however for anyone with a larger than average head (like me), the comfort will likely be a problem. The clamp is a bit too tight, and the top of the pads press too strongly just behind my temples. I find I have to take them off after about an hour or so of use, which might seem like a long time for music listening sessions, but imagine being on a flight for eight hours. For me, the comfort in that situation unfortunately is not appropriate.
The APM isn’t just meant to be another ANC wireless headphone but rather somewhat of a ‘smart headphone’. The idea here is that all of the various features are able to be integrated into the experience, and Apple’s H1 chip is the centerpiece that ties it all together.
Active Noise Cancelling
The APM’s noise cancelling mode has been somewhat hit and miss in my experience with it. The overall level that it’s able to attenuate is quite competitive with the likes of the Bose 700 and the Sony WH-1000XM4. It doesn’t do as good a job at attenuating the upper frequencies as the competition, but in situations where the more intrusive constant tones show up (on transit rides for example) the APM’s low frequency attenuation does a good job.
Where I have some issues with the APM’s ANC is that it seems somewhat inconsistent at the attenuation. I found there was almost a kind of catch-up effect going on when switching environments. This could be something related to the computational audio features and the ‘environment sensing’ aspects, and future firmware could improve this.
Personally I didn’t have any issues with the ‘cabin pressure effect’ many listeners report with ANC headphones, but for those who are sensitive to this, it has been reported to be noticeable.
The ambient mode on the APM is excellent, providing a very clear and transparent window to the rest of the world around you. While this is an essential feature for these types of headphones - and indeed it’s prominently featured in the marketing materials - I’ve never understood the need for the quality of this feature to be excellent. But it’s clear that Apple has put a lot of work into this part of the experience. When walking around outside, turning the ambient mode on causes all the sound to come rushing in through the headphones in as clear a manner as if it were a recording you’re listening to, or in some way a part of the music.
Perhaps one of the APM’s more interesting features, Adaptive EQ compensates for loss of seal when the headphone isn’t securely coupled to the side of the head. This is an important step for listeners who commonly wear eyeglasses. Usually with dynamic driver headphones, compromising the seal will cause the bass to drop out entirely, and with the APM, that doesn’t happen. In my testing, the biggest change was in the bass, and I found it to be moderately effective. There were times when it would clearly boost the bass more significantly than the default tuning would ask for. So while it’s an interesting feature, in my testing this is something that could be improved upon.
In my opinion this is also a huge missed opportunity. In almost all modern noise cancelling or feature-rich wireless headphones, there is usually some form of digital signal processing going on to correct for acoustic limitations or asymmetries introduced by all the electronics put in. So all of this has to be done at some level regardless. What makes the APM different is that its use of this concept has a variable frequency response result, depending on the conditions of the seal. The real shame here is that there’s no way to specify what that frequency response is. As usual with Apple, we get the “we know better so we’ll do it for you” decision made for us here, and as we’ll see later on, it turns out they don’t actually know better when it comes to frequency response.
The bottom line at the moment is that where Apple’s competitors have EQ functionality and customization built into mobile applications, Apple’s Adaptive EQ effectively removes all potential choice from the user, aiming for a consistent frequency response for every condition. There is one setting deep within iOS that does allow the user to change the sound, under Headphone Accommodations, however this isn’t quite the same thing as the custom EQ options available on competing devices. Moreover, changes made on the iOS device don’t carry over to other devices paired with the APM.
Spatial Audio & Head Tracking
One particularly interesting feature is the APM’s spatial audio and head tracking capabilities. While this only works with certain content - and it’s more about the relationship between the content and the headphones, rather than an aspect of the headphone itself - for content it works with, it’s an interesting effect. The experience is as if it turns the audio from the movie or TV content into a binaural recording, and while the overall quality of the sound doesn’t improve, it does feel immersive in ways that traditional headphones do not.
The head tracking functionality isn’t something new, Audeze has done this with the Mobius already - and just like with the Mobius, on its own it's a bit of a gimmick. But the combination of this with spatial audio and the right type of content, this is a worthwhile experience to pursue. Moreover, as far as I’m aware this is the first time that spatial audio and head tracking have been implemented into a noise cancelling headphone specifically. So the combination of all of these features is unique to the APM.
For those who might be used to more consumer focused headphones, all the various factors that redound to what we can describe as “good sound quality” can be put into two categories (and they’re related).
The most common assessment of good sound comes from the tonal balance a headphone has, namely the relationship between bass, mids and treble. On a more fine-grained analysis, we can evaluate tonal balance for various different ranges of the headphone’s frequency response, and look for adherence or deviation from a given target response. But, more importantly we can also look for how the headphone’s balance handles the relationship between fundamental and resonant harmonic tones for the music we’re listening to. If that balance is intact, the headphone will generally sound pretty good.
The second part of the sound analysis is what headphone enthusiasts refer to as technical performance. This is the headphone’s ability to resolve all the finer nuances and details of the music, or have surgical precision imaging and instrument separation - the sort of thing that makes a headphone more engaging. I like to use the following analogy for this: imagine looking through a window at a scene, how transparent and clear the window is will determine how well you can make out the details of the scene. If the window is opaque or translucent, the details will still be there in the scene, just not as clear. Now, that window may have a tint to it or it may be perfectly transparent, and that’s where this relates to tonal balance and frequency response.
Let’s start by looking at this aspect first by evaluating the Airpods Max frequency response.
Frequency Response & Tonality
The following is how the Apple Airpods Max measures on the GRAS 43AG standardized measurement rig relative to the combined Harman target curve (Harman 2013 bass but Harman 2018 mids and treble). For reference, the Harman 2018 bass is substantially elevated - far too much for what I think most audiophiles would consider appropriate, even if some bass heads may like it, so I prefer to use the more modest 2013 bass shelf. In any case, these are raw measurements, meaning it should not look like a flat line across. This instead shows the raw measurement relative to the target that would otherwise be normalized in compensated measurements.
How do you read this? The dotted black line is the target (how we might want it to measure), and the colored line is how the headphone in question measures. Effectively, this shows how significantly the headphone’s frequency response deviates from the target.
Let’s begin with the bass, and as we’ll see, the APM’s bass is actually my favorite part of the headphone’s sound. It’s definitely elevated, enough to occasionally be distracting, however this is an extremely intelligent tuning for this type of headphone.
In particular, what really works here is that most of the bass emphasis is in the sub-bass. Yes it does intrude a bit on other elements of the mix when listening to recordings that fully token sub-bass frequencies (think jazz tracks with a prominent upright double bass), but this has the added benefit of walking the line between typically bass elevated consumer focused tunings and the more reference Harman bass shelf seen here with the dotted line.
Now, while the Harman reference curve is often criticized for having too much bass, this particular one is from 2013, and so it’s maybe a bit more ‘audiophile appropriate’. But regardless, the very purpose of the reference tuning is to create agreement between playback equipment and recording environments, and relative to that idea, the APM’s bass is intelligently boosted, coming down at an appropriate spot to follow the contour of the lower mids as is often desirable in closed-back headphones.
We can see that for the lower midrange frequencies everything looks good, but the slight bloom at around 1khz does cause problems for the general lack of ear gain in the upper mids. Now, if you’re wondering what this means, the human ear amplifies these frequencies. This is also why the target response curve elevates above 1khz. For the Airpods Max, this region - the upper mids in general - is notably subdued, and the slight bloom around 1khz is exacerbated as a result. The overall effect is a slightly muffled and muted presentation for the mids that can come across as a bit veiled or congested at times. But, I should also stress that the upper midrange recession isn’t that bad, and I’ve certainly seen worse.
At first listen, the treble didn’t sound all that bad to me. It has this kind of shimmery effect that’s typically the result of a boosted upper treble or ‘air’ region of the frequency response above 11khz. This on its own isn’t all that bad, but given the somewhat uneven lower and mid treble response, it ultimately sounds disjointed, bordering on unpleasant when the recordings being listened to rely on an even balance for this region - generally percussive instruments require this in order to sound natural. On the APM, they simply don’t.
Zooming out again and considering the entire tuning, however, it really isn’t all that bad - for a wireless noise cancelling headphone. It’s a generally agreeable sound, with a few foibles here and there that make it moderately competitive with other headphones of a similar category. Make no mistake though, the APM’s tuning is recognizably consumer oriented. Perhaps this shouldn’t be all that surprising, but for some audiophiles with their eyes on the APM, its tonal balance may not be suitable. In my mind this is where the absence of a custom EQ option becomes more relevant. Yes, they came up with a tuning that isn't terrible, but it could also certainly be better.
One thing to note about the APM's tuning is that when going into the iOS Headphone Accommodations accessibility settings, it is possible to alter the headphone's sound. The Vocal Range preset adds a bit more midrange presence at the cost of subduing the treble slightly, and the Brightness preset tilts the treble upwards to an unpleasant degree.
While the Vocal Range may be preferable to the overall tuning to some, others have pointed out that this is all under the accessibility section of the iOS software, and this indicates that these presets are likely intended for listeners with very specific requirements - like to accommodate hearing loss in certain regions - rather than functioning like a traditional EQ preset found in app software for other wireless headphones. Moreover, as of writing this article, the presets do not carry over to other non-iOS devices the APM is paired with.
This is undoubtedly going to be controversial, but I find its detail capability to be particularly average at best.
After spending time testing back and forth with competing headphones, I’ve come to the conclusion that the APM’s detail isn’t just average for wired audiophile headphones. It’s average even for wireless ANC headphones. This may come as a bit of a surprise, and it’s something that I only noticed after a longer period of listening, because initially it sounds like it’s all there. It sounds engaging and fun at first. But, there are moments with the APM where you simply don’t hear the finer nuances and details coming through where you do here them on other headphones within the same category.
I’ve been going back and forth with the Bose 700, Sony WH-1000XM4 and Sennheiser PXC 550 ii, and I find the APM to be at best on par with the XM4 in this regard, even if it’s better in other areas. Surprisingly, the Sennheiser PXC 550 ii did the best job at overall image clarity, with second place going to the Bose 700.
Now, detail isn’t everything, but once you hear the absence of it, it becomes difficult to unhear. In particular, I can only describe the APM’s mids as grainy and hazy. The bass doesn’t suffer from the same effect, and as mentioned the bass is my favorite part of this headphone, but there is still a lack of clarity for the last little bits of tones that should be there. Once again, it’s not that you can’t hear all the information in the music, it’s that the finer more nuanced elements of that information aren’t as clear as they are on other competing headphones.
The APM’s treble is marginally more resolving than the mids but it does have a similar quality to it. Moreover, if I were to resurrect a term from the audiophilia of yesteryear, the APM seems to lack any sense of ‘microdynamics’ or what others have described as small gradations of volume. When you hear a piano tone, you don’t hear the final tail as clearly as on other headphones. The tone is there, but it’s as if all the various nuances of it are missing. I like to think of this as analogous to a colour gradient, where the fewer the shades are in the gradient, the worse it looks - and the APM sounds like it has too few shades in the gradient.
Speed & Dynamics
The initial leading edge of tones isn’t particularly satisfying, leaving the APM somewhat on the ‘sluggish’ side of things - worse than the PXC550-ii but about on par with other competing wireless ANC headphones. This is entirely unsurprising. At first listen, however, the APM does sound quite punchy - in part due to the elevated sub-bass response. This really helps with the overall sense of enjoyment, as it makes certain types of music feel engaging and fun. However, there’s a caveat in that when you listen to genres that don’t fully token the sub-bass frequencies (classic rock for example), all sense of punch and dynamics is lost. For those genres, I can only really describe the APM as a bit ‘lifeless’. Still, this is all par for the course when it comes to these types of headphones.
This is also why I say the APM’s tuning is intelligently done. Without the sub-bass boost, the APM simply wouldn’t sound fun or engaging on any level. But, because of the sub-bass boost, it’s able to get away with its somewhat lacking technicalities a little bit. Especially for those who maybe aren’t as interested in getting the finer nuances and details. In short, for big sounds, the APM does it reasonably well, but for small sounds, there’s a lot left to be desired.
Soundstage & Imaging
Note that the evaluation here is based on music listening, not the specific content that makes use of spatial audio or head tracking functionality.
The APM’s soundstage and sense of space is slightly above average. When I compare it with some of the competition, namely the Bose 700, WH-1000XM4 and the Sennheiser PXC-550 II, the APM’s sense of space is noticeably ahead of the PXC-550 II, about on par with the Bose 700, and at best a slight step behind the WH-1000XM4. But, it has to be said that there really isn’t a big difference among all of them, except for the PXC-550 II being significantly tighter and more claustrophobic sounding than the rest.
The imaging on the other hand is a bit of a mess with the APM. To begin with, image separation and distinction is quite poor. Instrument lines blend together and create this ‘wall of sound’ effect, leading to a somewhat smeared presentation overall. This is one area where both the Bose 700 and the PXC-550 II do a better job. Image placement and positional accuracy is also average. Front left and front right for the center image aren’t particularly well defined, and for this it’s only marginally better than the Sennheiser.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 has arguably better noise cancelling across the board and it’s also considerably lighter and more comfortable for long listening sessions. Moreover, the XM4 has an excellent app that can be used to customize the sound. What’s great about this is that when you have the XM4 paired to multiple devices at the same time, say a phone and a computer, the custom EQ profile stays enabled regardless of which device you’re using it on. So far, the APM doesn’t seem to retain the Headphone Accommodations presets when switching to MacOS.
Unfortunately, you also should probably be using the custom EQ functionality for the XM4, because its default tonal balance is quite poor, with a massive bloated bass to mid region. The APM’s bass is much more well controlled and more satisfying as a result. For technical performance, they’re similar with neither of them being particularly ‘high res’ - it’s a wash between them on that front. My pick? For an ANC headphone it would have to be the XM4 with a custom EQ profile.
The Bose 700 has a better default tonal balance with better clarity overall than the Airpods Max. The one downside with the Bose 700’s tuning is that the lower treble balance is quite uneven with the upper mids, but I do find that overall the balance is more enjoyable than that of the APM. Moreover, it does also have better technical performance with a slightly better sense of detail overall, even though it’s not on the level of wired headphones.
ANC on the Bose 700 is also excellent. The drawback with the Bose 700 is that it’s not as customizable as the XM4 for tuning, but thankfully at least its default tonal balance is more agreeable.
The Audeze Mobius is a wireless planar magnetic headphone that doesn’t have active noise cancelling, but it does have a number of other features. Most notably, just like the APM, the Mobius has a 3D audio effect and head tracking. The difference is that on the Mobius it’s a feature of the headphone, while on the APM it’s a feature of the relationship between specific content and the headphone.
With that said, I do find that when the experience works, it is better on the APM. I always felt like the Mobius’ head tracking was a bit of a gimmick, but on the APM, in conjunction with the immersive spatial audio - which is better than the Mobius’ 3D enhancement - it’s a better experience for watching that type of content. The limitation is with the content itself.
Now, where the Mobius dramatically outshines the APM is in terms of technical performance. The detail retrieval and image separation is far better on the Mobius leading to a much cleaner and clearer presentation for finer nuances and details in the mix. For the tonal balance, the Mobius’ ‘neutral’ preset is pretty good for the most part, notably better than that of the APM, but at the same time it’s a bit finicky to have to go through software to get everything working. The Mobius really is that type of multimedia device, and in many ways it’s more suited as a wired, USB headset than as a wireless BT headset for on the go.
The Drop Panda has a similar limitation to the APM for microdynamics with an over-dampened kind of sound to it. Where the Panda wins out is in terms of instrument separation and control during busy passages. It still loses to competing wired headphones or the Mobius, but there is still a superior sense of image clarity from the Panda when compared to the APM. On the flip side, the APM has a more agreeable bass response, being more sub-bass focus. The Panda unfortunately has quite a bit of bass bleed into the midrange, and the upper treble rolls off above 10khz pretty hard, leaving it with a generally muddy and congested sound.
Between the two, the APM’s additional features make it the better pick, and for sound quality the APM’s tonal balance is likely going to be more palatable for more listeners. So even though the Panda does certain things better than the APM, it’s tough to give it the edge overall.
The Apple Airpods Max are unfortunately not the audiophile’s answer to noise cancelling or wireless headphones that many of us hoped it would be. For the Apple fanbase, however, the Airpods Max is reasonably competitive with other noise cancelling headphones. From a features standpoint, Apple has done something unique here - especially with the ‘smart’ aspects of the headphone and Adaptive EQ. Moreover, the APM has one of the more intelligently tuned bass responses for this type of headphone, one that others should seek to emulate. So there are some good things on offer for those within the ecosystem.
With that said, for overall sound quality, the limited microdynamics and lack of detail put it squarely in the ‘techphones’ category, without really offering anything special to those of us principally interested in sound quality. Add to this the weight and comfort issues, and my recommendation is to just go with the Airpods Pro for convenience and ecosystem related headphone needs, and then put the rest of the money saved into wired headphones for sound quality instead.
Watch the video review here:
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