In 2016, when Apple launched the iPhone 7, it removed the headphone jack from the device. This was widely rumoured and highly controversial. Phil Schiller coined the move as courageous at the time. But more than courage, it was preamble to a revolution that we see boom every day today. It set the stage for the launch of AirPods quickly became the most popular wireless earphones in the world. Soon, they became the most popular earphones in the world. While all this happened, other manufacturers started following Apple’s lead and we started seeing the headphone jack disappearing from every premium phone.
Last year, then Apple was back — in the first half of the year, it released the AirPods 2, which looked identical to its predecessor, with better battery life and connectivity. Later in the year, in October, precisely, it had a bigger play. The AirPods Pro — they had a new design, ear tips for a better fit, a new case, better audio and active noise cancellation. Recently, Apple even added spatial audio to these puppies.
One would believe that the big over the ear headphones were left for the sister Beats brand, but clearly, that’s not happening as now we have AirPods Max which Apple dropped out of nowhere after hosting its last event of the year in November. The AirPods Max, or as they were rumoured, as AirPods Studio were leaked for months. We pretty much knew they were coming, but the one thing any of us expected was their astronomical price.
They pack a serious spec sheet that is enough to make segment leaders like the Sony WH-1000XM4s sweat. So there is a method to Apple’s madness — let’s explain what makes them interesting and what’s Apple’s strategy.
Audio Quality and Features
In terms of the audio, the headphones feature massive 40mm Apple-designed dynamic drivers capable of providing rich bass, accurate mid-range and, crisp, clean high-frequency extension, so every note is audible to the user. They also have a unique dual neodymium ring magnet motor that allows the headphones to maintain a total harmonic distortion of less than 1 per cent across the entire audible range, even if one is listening to tunes at 100% volume.
To add to the plethora of audio features, the AirPods Max come coupled with an Apple designed H1 chip in each ear cup. It is the same chip that’s found in AirPods Pro. When paired with a custom acoustic design of the headphones and advanced software, the headphones provide the highest quality of listening experience possible, which is made possible via computational audio, at least this is what Apple claims. But an outlier to this being fact is that Apple hasn’t announced any kind of support for high-resolution audio.
Going in-depth, the AirPods Max utilise each of the chips’ 10 audio cores — capable of 9 billion operations per second — computational audio powers an audio experience that includes Adaptive EQ, Active Noise Cancellation, transparency mode, and spatial audio. Apple promises it to be special and seeing what Apple has been achieving on the audio front, this may be possible, especially because of its use of its AirPlay wireless audio protocol.
Apple also hides more 9 microphones, accelerometers and gyroscopes which isn’t the case with other active noise-cancelling headphones.
Most of these features are comparable with other headphones that offer active noise cancellation including ones from Bose and Sony, the de facto leaders in the category, alongside Apple-owned Beats.
- Adaptive EQ: AirPods Max uses Adaptive EQ to adjust the sound to the fit and seal of the ear cushions by measuring the sound signal delivered to a user and adjusting the low and mid-frequencies in real-time — bringing rich audio that captures every detail.
- Active Noise Cancellation: AirPods Max deliver immersive sound through Active Noise Cancellation so users can focus on what they are listening to. Each ear cup features three outward-facing microphones to detect environmental noise, while one microphone inside the ear cup monitors the sound reaching the listener’s ear. Using computational audio, noise cancellation continuously adapts to the headphone fit and movement in real time.
- Transparency Mode: With AirPods Max, users can switch to Transparency mode to simultaneously listen to music while hearing the environment around them — ensuring everything, including a user’s own voice, sounds natural while audio plays perfectly. Switching between Active Noise Cancellation and Transparency mode can be done with a single press using the noise control button.
- Spatial Audio: AirPods Max use spatial audio with dynamic head tracking to place sounds virtually anywhere in a space — delivering an immersive, theatre-like experience for content recorded in 5.1, 7.1, and Dolby Atmos. Using the gyroscope and accelerometer in AirPods Max and iPhone or iPad, spatial audio tracks the motion of a user’s head as well as the device, compares the motion data, then remaps the sound field so it stays anchored to the device, even as the user’s head moves.
With over the ear headphones, the design plays a pivotal role and, considering as to how the AirPods Max feature multiple custom modes, the design is even more important. To tackle this simple aspect, which is often overlooked, Apple seems to have pulled off a feat worth applauding.
The breathable knit mesh canopy, spanning the headband, is made to distribute weight and reduce on-head pressure. The stainless steel headband frame provides strength, flexibility, and comfort for a wide variety of head shapes and sizes. Telescoping headband arms smoothly extend and stay in place to maintain the desired fit. Each ear cushion uses acoustically engineered memory foam to create an effective seal — a critical factor in delivering immersive sound.
The Digital Crown which is one of the most note-worty features of the Apple Watch makes a debut with the AirPods Max when it comes to audio products. It offers precise volume control and the ability to play or pause audio, skip tracks, answer or end phone calls, and activate Siri.
This makes the AirPods Max, premium, comfortable and just a product of a higher grade than most premium noise-cancelling headphones are. For instance, almost all of them are made out of plastic. But this comes with a trade-off as the AirPods Max have the highest weight at 354 grams which could be a significant disadvantage in terms of day to day wearability.
For a change, you can also use these AirPods Max in an analogue way if you buy a Lighting to 3.5mm cable. This is a welcome change, if good enough sonically, they may even attract some professional users like DJs.
Ease of Use
AirPods Max join the existing AirPods family in delivering unparalleled wireless audio, whether a customer is listening to music, making phone calls, enjoying TV shows and movies, playing games, or interacting with Siri. The magical setup experience customers love with today’s AirPods and AirPods Pro extends to AirPods Max with one-tap setup, which makes the experience of pairing your AirPods Max seamless.
AirPods Max automatically detect when they are on a user’s head using the optical and position sensors present on their casing. Once in place, AirPods Max begin playing audio and can pause once removed or when the user simply lifts one ear cup. With AirPods Max, voice calls and Siri commands are crisp and clear due to beam-forming microphones that block out ambient noise and focus on the user’s voice. This results in microphone quality which lives up to the name of the original EarPods, notoriously famous for their mind-blowing mic quality.
Battery Life and Additional Features
AirPods Max feature great battery life with up to 20 hours of high-fidelity audio, talk time, or movie playback with Active Noise Cancellation and spatial audio enabled. To add to the ease of use, the AirPods Max come coupled with a soft, slim smart case, which is quite handy when one wishes to store their new AirPods Max.
Now, this is an interesting claim. Other vendors like Sony claim up to 30 hours of battery life but they don’t say if that’s with active noise cancellation on or not. If not, then this more or less balances the equation in Apple’s favour. Honestly, till the reviews are out one will never know.
Apple never leaves a single bit out and, it is no different this time, since the AirPods Max, apart from their regular specifications, come with some special features that aid in the usability.
- Automatic switching allows users to seamlessly move sound between iPhone, iPad, and Mac. When playing music on Mac, users can easily take a call on iPhone and AirPods Max will automatically switch over.
- Audio Sharing makes it possible to easily share an audio stream between two sets of AirPods on iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, or Apple TV 4K. Simply bring AirPods Max near the device and connect with a single tap.
- Siri capabilities include the ability to play music, make phone calls, control the volume, get directions, and more. Siri can also read incoming messages as they arrive with Announce Messages with Siri.
Pricing and Availability
- AirPods Max are available to order starting today for $549 (US) and INR 59,900 (India) from apple.com. Apple will start shipping them in India on December 15.
- AirPods Max require Apple devices running iOS 14.3 or later, iPadOS 14.3 or later, macOS Big Sur 11.1 or later, watchOS 7.2 or later, or tvOS 14.3 or later.
- Customers can add personal engraving to AirPods Max, AirPods Pro, and AirPods for free on apple.com and in the Apple Store app.
Are They Too Expensive?
Obviously, the price is astronomical in India ₹59,900 but is also about positioning and fit and finish of these products. On one side, we have products which are the current cream of the crop — made out of cheap materials like plastic, then you have something from a different galaxy of build quality. Then there are hardware features that aren’t there in other products — gyroscopes, accelerometers, the H1 chip. It also relies on Apple’s AirPlay protocol and provides perhaps the only viable spatial audio experience.
Then there is a bit about the rumour which claimed that they will start at $400 while these are at $549. That rumour specified a model made out of stainless steel which could cost $600, which means we haven’t seen the affordable model yet.
It also sits better in Apple’s portfolio of headphones when Beats is added into the mix. The Beats Solo Pro Wireless cost ₹25,000 on Amazon India which is their most expensive wireless headphone right now. But that also costs as much as a pair of AirPods Pro. This makes the AirPods Max, the big daddy of Apple’s personal audio hardware portfolio. This is their S-Class. And they are treating it like at ₹59,900.