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Home / Reviews / Audio / Apple AirPods Max review

Apple AirPods Max review

Update: do they still have Maximum impact in 2024?

Stuff Verdict

Apple’s first over-ears are big, heavy, often brilliant, and far too expensive. As a result, the AirPods Max have set a new precedent for premium headphones.


  • Rich and detailed sound
  • Superb noise-cancelling
  • Spatial audio enhances TV and movies


  • Uncomfortable if worn for long periods
  • So-so battery life
  • Really bad case


Apple wasn’t a name many expected on lists of the best headphones, but given the wild popularity of the firm’s AirPods and AirPods Pro earbuds, it was always a case of when, rather than if. So sure enough, the AirPods Max are here: a lavish pair of noise-cancelling over-ears that step into a price bracket previously unheard of outside of boutique brands.

These premium cans cost considerably more than rivals from the likes of Sony and Bose – and come with a comically bizarre carry case that appears to offer very little protection. Hey, Apple gonna Apple. But if you’re an iThing devotee, the AirPods Max are unsurprisingly excellent. They sound brilliant, noise-cancel as well as pretty much anything out there right now, and are wonderfully easy to pick up and use.

Are they the very best ANC headphones around, though? They certainly should be, but I’m not so sure.

Review originally published March 3 2021

How we test headphones

Every pair of earphones and headphones reviewed on Stuff is used for a minimum of a week’s worth of daily listening. We use a playlist of test tracks made up of multiple genres to assess sound, and use our years of experience to compare to other models. Manufacturers have no visibility on reviews before they appear online, and we never accept payment to feature products.

Find out more about how we test and rate products.

Design: Case in point

You’d be right to expect that headphones this pricey have the build quality to match, and Apple doesn’t disappoint here. From the subtly textured anodised aluminum ear cups and memory foam cushions, to the stainless steel headband and open knit mesh canopy, the AirPods Max look and feel premium.

But are they comfortable? Initially, yes. The mesh that lines the top of the headband frame is both breathable and effective at evenly distributing weight, so the AirPods don’t feel like they’re weighing down too much on your head. The pivoting earcups feel like they mould to the shape of your head. The telescoping arms are a bit on the stiff side, but once you’ve extended them to your liking you can rest assured that they won’t budge.

There’s no getting away from it, though: the AirPods Max are noticeably heavier than my favourite plastic noise-cancellers. You can feel it when they begin to pinch at your temples after extended wearing. You always know they’re there. It took a while before I could conduct the ultimate test for any headphones of this sort (for obvious reasons); I soon discovered they weren’t entirely comfortable to wear for the duration. That’s an issue.

As for looks, Apple has gone for minimalism, and I’m quite fond of my sky blue review unit (black, space grey, green and red are also available). The enormous earcups are a bit strange, though. That expansive surface area would be understandable if touch controls were built in (rumour has it that they were originally supposed to be), but instead Apple has gone for a jumbo digital crown on the right earcup.

Despite slightly awkward placement, it works very well – you can’t always say that about the touch alternative. Button pressing and dial turning for your play/pause/skip and volume controls might be less flashy than touch, but they never let you down. I still inverted the default volume controls straight away, though. A button just in front of the Digital Crown is used for toggling ANC/passthrough, and is easy to locate when needed.

You’ll find a Lightning charging port on the bottom of the same cup; this wasn’t too surprising in 2021 when the AirPods Max was launched, but it’s baffling Apple still has yet to release an updated version with USB-C instead. The European Union will force its hand in December 2024, so expect a second generation version to appear before then.

What you won’t find is a power button. Like Apple’s earphones, the AirPods Max are technically always on; if you want to preserve battery life as much as possible you’ll need to keep them in the included Smart Case when not in use, as the magnets within it activate ultra-low-power mode.

And about that. By now most people on the internet have already pointed out the Smart Case’s striking resemblance to a certain undergarment, so I’ll leave it alone. But what I can’t mercifully overlook is its baffling impracticality. The soft case offers almost no protection, with the steel headband completely exposed. It means that on the occasions I take them out of the house in a backpack, I pull a beanie hat over them. I’d be relieved if it emerged Apple had released the thing as a dare; it might be the worst thing the company has made in recent years.

Setup and features: easy peasy

As I’ve come to expect from Apple gear, setting up the AirPods Max is delightfully simple – provided you’re an iPerson, of course. Once you’ve charged them up, you just plonk them down next to your iPhone or iPad and wait for the on-screen connect button to pop up. That’s it, and there’s no need to repeat the process for adding another device using your iCloud account.

When you’re wearing the headphones, you can tweak the settings in the Control Centre on your device in exactly the same way you do with in-ear AirPods. There’s no dedicated app here, and unfortunately no way to customise ANC levels like you can on Sony’s WH-1000XM4. It’s either on, off, or transparency mode.

AirPods Max owners will enjoy the same H1 chip-powered privileges that AirPods Pro users have been enjoying for a while: hands-free Siri, audio sharing between multiple AirPods, and automatic switching between connections to different devices. The latter is as great here as it is on the little AirPods. I was able to seamlessly hop between YouTube on the iPad and Apple Music on the phone in an especially problematic procrastination session, before jumping onto a dreaded Zoom catchup on a MacBook Air, near enough without a hitch.

Like most of its competitors, the AirPods Max feature automatic wear detection, and you can have Siri read out your incoming messages so you don’t have to fetch your phone when you’re on the move. Trust me when I say that the assistant doing this for messages laden with swearing is always, always funny.

Apple has really bigged up its spatial audio tech, which came to the AirPods Pro towards the end of last year, and it makes even more sense on their big brother. If you’re watching streaming content encoded in 5.1, 7.1 or Dolby Atmos, the AirPods Max can convert it into a surround sound-like experience. Various sensors in both the headphones and your iPhone or iPad then keep track of your head movements, ensuring the audio remains anchored to the device in front of you, even when you turn your head. While obviously not comparable to a proper 7.1 living room setup, spatial audio is quite impressive with the right mix being pushed out, making the plain old stereo alternative seem quite boring.

It’s worth mentioning that while most of the major streaming services support spatial audio, Netflix does not, and it doesn’t look like that’s going to change anytime soon.

Performance and battery life: Max power

If you’re spending as much as the AirPods Max cost on a pair of headphones, they had better sound pretty flippin’ good. I’m pleased to report Apple’s first over-ears are an all-round success in that department.

The firm has built its own 40mm drivers to live behind those sizeable ear cushions, which are bolstered by the sort of dual neodymium ring magnets you’d expect to find in floor-standing speakers. With these in tow, Apple says, you can crank the AirPods Max right up to full volume without hearing any unwanted distortion.

Meanwhile, the H1 chip looks after an adaptive EQ that automatically adjusts low and mid frequencies in real time, based on how the headphones fit and seal on your head and ears. If you’re a glasses wearer, you shouldn’t have an inferior experience. It all contributes to the AirPods Max being a decidedly great listen, with a remarkably spacious soundstage that seems to envelop you more than other ANC cans I’ve tried.

The detail on show is immediately apparent when I fire up Kacey Musgraves’ ‘Slow Burn’ on Apple’s recommendation. Vocals soar, and the warm acoustic guitar strums that underpin the song aren’t overwhelmed by the arrival of bass in the second verse. The AirPods Max bring you right into the recording studio.

Moving onto another Apple tipoff, the Weeknd’s ‘Blinding Lights’, and it’s clear that the Max’s can balance both throbbing bass with no muddiness, and the song’s now ubiquitous sparkling synth hook. There’s a real sense of attack from the drums on the energetic arrangement of Maximo Park’s ‘Baby Sleep’, while funky bassline, psychedelic electronics and MGMT’s vocal are all given room to breathe on The Avalanches’ magnificent ‘The Divine Chord’.

If you really listen, you might notice just slightly softer edges and a touch more crispness to the delivery with noise cancelling and transparency turned off, but I mean really listen.

As for the ANC, well, what it lacks in customisability, it more than makes up for in effectiveness. The AirPods Max have eight microphones on noise-cancelling duty, with the H1 chip adapting its processing 200 times per second to account for differences in fit and movement. What you get is damn near silence, with none of the pressure or faint hissing that plagues some noise-cancellers. I’m still not convinced that anyone has out-cancelled Bose, but Apple’s cans are right up there. And when it comes to to letting the outside world in, the AirPods Max’s transparency mode is probably the best there is.

Call quality is good too, thanks to a beamforming microphone in the left earcup that works alongside two of the noise-cancelling mics to isolate your voice on calls. While this is happening, the H1’s computational wizardry picks out and emphasises what you’re saying over background noise. Boring WFH meetings get a big tick.

At around 20 hours with ANC on, battery life is fine, but not close to the best out there, with Sony’s XM4s giving you 10 additional hours of juice. While the AirPods Max are always on, I didn’t notice much battery drain when I wasn’t wearing them, so that shouldn’t be a major concern.

Apple AirPods Max verdict

Apple AirPods Max verdict

Maybe it’s slightly reductive to keep bringing the argument back to price, but it’s extremely difficult not to with the AirPods Max. Apple has made some fantastic headphones, but they’re not going to pull in the proper audiophile chin-strokers. They’re not close to being worth £200 more than Sony’s XM4s, either – those remain the best overall noise-cancelling headphones for my money. They also come with a proper case.

You might argue the AirPods have an edge when it comes to audio, but there’s not a lot in it. And while Apple definitely wins on build quality, metal is heavier than plastic, and it’s not long before the AirPods Max remind you of that.

If you’re an Apple lifer with cash to burn, the AirPods Max will not let you down, and their ease of use should not be overlooked. But, as brilliantly fun as these headphones undoubtedly are, there are smarter ways to part with your cash.

Stuff Says…

Score: 4/5

Apple’s first over-ears are big, heavy, often brilliant, and far too expensive


Rich and detailed sound

Superb noise-cancelling

Spatial audio enhances TV and movies

They just work


Very expensive

Uncomfortable if worn for long periods

So-so battery life

Really bad case

Apple AirPods Max technical specifications

Drivers40mm dynamic
Bluetooth versionBluetooth 5.0
Codecs supportedAAC, SBC
Battery lifeUp to 20hrs
Dimensions187x169x83mm, 384g
Profile image of Matt Tate Matt Tate Contributor


I'm fascinated by all things tech, but if you were going to leave me on a desert island, I'd probably ask for my Nintendo Switch, a drone, and a pair of noise-cancelling cans to block out the relentless seagull racket. When I'm not on Stuff duty you'll probably find me subscribing to too many podcasts, playing too many video games, or telling anyone who will listen that Spurs are going to win a trophy this season.

Areas of expertise

Video games, VR, smartwatches, headphones, smart speakers, bizarre Kickstarter campaigns

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