For the world’s biggest tech company to get into a hyper niche segment such as high-end headphones can only mean one thing - the death of audiophilia. ‘Hi-Fi’ as we know it is about sound of course, but the underlying snobbery and bragging rights of owning an esoteric brand that no one’s heard of validate your status as an intellect.
The AirPods Max then, would be like taking the path of least resistance but is that a bad thing? Not if you believe all of Apple’s literature and engineering claims, but I'm also, of course, going to put it on the test bench against some distinguished and established benchmarks. The fact that wireless headphones from many brands have reached a stage of maturity where you don’t have to think of them as “lesser” versions of wired headphones speaks volumes about current Bluetooth technology. Let the games begin!
After getting a taste of computational audio with the AirPods Pro, Apple has dialled it up to 11 on the AirPods Max. The over-ear architecture offers a lot more real estate for a coherent integration of acoustic design and silicon driven intelligence. At the heart of the AirPods Max, is a large 40mm driver, which is par for the course, but like all things Apple, has been custom designed. Using design principles similar to that of a serious floorstanders like a dual neodymium magnet motor, vented voice coil and bass ports, the AirPods Max have a solid foundation to start with. Add an H1 chip in each earcup to the mix and you get some serious number-crunching powers through the 10 audio cores available on each chip. That’s over 9 billion operations per second if you really want to know the figures, but that could be pointless without context. Apple likes to use the term ‘Adaptive EQ’ to make sense of it all and it basically works in real-time by analysing the fit of the AirPods Max on your ears, takes into account if there are any leaks caused due to wearing glasses, earrings and even hairstyles etc and tweaks the frequency response in real-time so that regardless of whether you’re dressed for Sula Fest or the Derby, Dua Lipa will sound the same.
The Max also uses most of its 9 microphones (1 mic is used exclusively for voice calls) to analyse incoming ambient noise, compares it to how much your ears are actually hearing of that noise and then generates an equal but opposite ‘anti-noise’ signal and this makes for a powerful active noise cancellation performance.
Luxury goes to the head
Incidentally, the AirPods Max are totally devoid of an Apple logo anywhere on the product or even the smart case, which means it had to look distinctive enough to be identified. With Apple’s mastery of moulding and colouring aircraft-grade aluminium almost into an art form, it certainly doesn’t need a second look to be noticed. Build quality is terrific all through, from the mesh knit on the canopy to the telescopic arms that have just the right amount of damping force, it feels luxurious and sturdy at the same time sitting atop your head. Around the ears, things are equally plush with memory foam ear cushions that magnetically detach with minimal effort for periodic cleaning. Typical to Apple design, everything works with precision and ease that evokes a sense of premiumness. The Digital Crown and the ANC on/off button too have a superb tactility to them that is lacking from most other premium headphones. Furthermore, their placement is quite a revelation too, as I experienced only after wearing the AirPods Max. Since they’re placed on the top of the ear cups, you tend to push down on the Digital Crown or the ANC button so it doesn’t upset the fit, as there is no play once the AirPods Max are snug to your head. Every other headphone has controls either on the sides or bottom, causing them to move around just a little bit whenever you access the controls, something I realised was annoying only after using the top-mounted solution on the AirPods Max!
The Smart Case, controversial in design and rightfully so, is convenient to use and its magnets interact with sensors on each ear cup to put the AirPods Max into a low power mode. But it does keep the headband (canopy) exposed to the elements, which in Indian conditions could prove ineffective very quickly. It does have a little cutout for the lightning port to be accessed so you can charge them while resting in the case. Eventually, just like the ubiquity of iPad as a name, the smart case will become an integral part of modern culture and hence, be accepted over time. For now, it does cause minor embarrassment.
Sound of music
With four microphones per ear up, computing power of the H1, 40mm custom drivers...the expectations from the AirPods Max are high. From the moment you put them on your ears and the memory foam quickly takes the shape of your outer ear, you feel pampered. Start playing any kind of music and the initial impression is that it sounds like music. Full, rich and balanced, they clearly have a slight emphasis on the bass, but never at the expense of midrange clarity or high-frequency “air”. There is ample dynamic range along with a light-footedness to the sound that gives it the best qualities of open-back and closed-back headphone designs. Californian Soil by London Grammar is delivered with all the power, spaciousness and emotional intent of the best home-audio speakers, only more intimate sounding. Low frequencies are well controlled by the Adaptive EQ, regardless of the volume level, not forcing you to pump the volume up only to “feel” the bass. This increases its appeal exponentially as a headphone that you can use for extended periods without feeling fatigued - both in terms of sound or fit. Sure, you’ll need to air out your ears after an hour or so of usage if you’re using them for the long haul as they can create some heat around the ears with the memory foam sealing off air circulation. It proves to be detailed on classical recordings that thrive on subtle nuances and can sound bombastic on a rock track like Trouble’s Coming by Royal Blood, not showing any signs of distortion or distress even at max volume using an iPhone 12 Pro Max. Overall, it’s not a neutral or sterile sound, but a more coloured and musical sound that’s rich in harmonic detail. Those used to monitoring headphones will certainly find reasons to complain, but that doesn’t make the AirPods Max any less fun. Be it on Apple Music or with Hi-Res audio files, the delivery is consistent with great transient response, huge soundstage width and depth and bass response that is thoroughly satisfying. Spatial Audio, for now, is limited to shows on Apple TV+, but soon enough there will be an API that can be utilised by other apps like Netflix, Prime Video etc to unlock more content in Spatial Audio. While it has its merits, it’s not a feature you can’t live without and I’m actually more interested to see it being used for music. It does enhance the sense of space while watching shows on Apple TV+ but can sometimes sound gimmicky too, depending on content.
The good news comes in the form of its noise cancellation, which is clearly the best in class. Although I couldn’t fly to the Maldives like the rest of India did, I did take them to a public park and the AirPods Max succeeded in quietening even the most boisterous of children. They also do not alter the frequency response or compromise the musicality while doing so, which is hard to achieve and Apple has nailed the most critical aspect of ANC. You do get Transparency mode which will amplify ambient noises for more spatial awareness, should you need it. Admittedly, I prefer Sony’s implementation of this feature where you just place your hand on the earcup to momentarily activate Transparency mode. On the AirPods Max, you either press the button on top or access it via your iOS device control centre. It’s pretty evident that they’re made predominantly for an Apple ecosystem, even though they will stumble their way through when paired with an Android device. Using the full web of iOS and MacOS products though, it allows for fast and automatic switching between devices and now with iOS14, even allowing you to share your audio with another pair of AirPods. Since there are no touch controls on the earcups themselves, Siri can be summoned for everything you use Siri for. Voice calls are a huge success too and every call or meeting I had wearing the AirPods Max turned out crystal clear, both for me and the party on the other end.
Battery life is a matter of usage, like every device these days. But Apple claims up to 20hrs which isn’t too far from real-world use. Of course, using ANC will deplete it faster but whichever way you use it, you’re bound to get at least 12 -14 hours out of them which is respectable enough, if not quite segment best.
Do the Apple AirPods Max make a strong case for themselves? Well, the case ironically is its weakest aspect but irony notwithstanding, yes, they are absolutely worth their asking price in the same way any luxury item is. No, they don’t sound three times better than the Sony WH-1000XM4 but then again, an S-Class doesn’t drive three times better than a C-Class either. So, eventually, it’s up to you to justify the price tag, depending on the sound you like, the quality you prefer and ecosystem you own. They are luxurious in build and sound and certainly have the best ANC performance I’ve heard from any on-ear headphone. And...lest you forget, all this performance comes in a wireless package which cannot be taken for granted. I’m addicted!