AirPods Max review round-up: love the sound, hate the case

Are Apple’s high-end headphones worth buying? The verdicts are in

AirPods Max colours
(Image credit: Apple)

With its new AirPods Max, Apple is promising the best noise-cancelling headphones around with an unbeatable mix of features, sound quality and comfort. Has it delivered? The first reviews are in, and a clear consensus is emerging: they’re great headphones for Apple users but the price is awfully high. Let’s discover what the reviewers thought.

AirPods Max sound quality

When you’re selling high-end headphones, they need to sound good – and the consensus is that the AirPods Max do. They even impressed the audiophiles at In Ear Fidelity, who gave them an A- for tone – although from a purely audiophile perspective “if you’re buying one expecting $500 sound… maybe temper expectations a little.”

According to ZDNet, “by far the most impressive aspect of the AirPods Max is their sound quality”: they’re miles better than the AirPods Pro. CNet praised their “top-notch sound” although noted that for the puresst possible sound “wired headphones coupled with a properly amplified source that plays lossless audio is going to get you to the real promised land”.

The Guardian praised the sound too – “The Max produce the sort of fantastic sound you should expect, joining a rare bunch alongside the B&W PX7 and Sony WH-1000XM4 that sound so good you will be able to hear new elements in well-worn tracks” – but suggested that “bassheads looking for thumping low-end in every track will need to look elsewhere… they could be a touch more raw in grunge tracks such as the classic Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

AirPods Max comfort and build quality

“The comfort and feel are top notch,” The Verge reports. “Fit and finish top the list of pros… a knit mesh canopy does a good job of keeping the substantial weight of these headphones from putting irritating pressure on the top of your head.”

“These are definitely heavy headphones,” CNet warns. They weigh 385g compared to 254g for the Sony WH-1000XM4 and 249g for the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700. “Big difference… For heavy headphones they're surprisingly comfortable, but I don't expect that they'll be super comfy for everyone, particularly those with neck problems.”

“The ear cups are really comfortable,” The Guardian says. “Once adjusted properly the Max are very comfortable even for extended periods.”

AirPods Max noise cancelling and Spatial Audio

Apple’s Spatial Audio is “very effective,” says Techradar. “It’s not as convincing as a true Dolby Atmos surround setup, but it does make movie watching feel far more immersive – and it’s a fantastic extra feature for those that watch a lot of TV shows and films on an iPhone or iPad.” The Guardian agrees: “it is genuinely great” but “it is disappointing that it works only with the iPhone and iPad”.

The AirPods Max’s active noise cancellation won lots of praise. The Verge said that “when it comes to active noise cancellation, Apple is neck and neck with the very best. The AirPods Max do an equally good job as Sony and Bose at quieting the outside world. They might even be better, but it’s all very close.”

AirPods Max problems

It’s safe to say that the price of the AirPods Max wasn’t popular. The Guardian called the price “painful”, while 9to5Mac described them as “the pinnacle of preposterous pricing”. CNet said “the price hurts”. 

The only other thing that attracted as much negativity was the case. “That’s not a case,” ZDnet says. “It’s more like a sleeve… the case does very little to protect my investment.” 

CNet wasn’t impressed either. “The case does make your high-end headphones look like a purse or futuristic bra – you’ve probably seen the memes by now”.

Are the AirPods Max worth buying?

If the AirPods Max cost the same as rivals, In Ear Fidelity says, they’d be a winner. But they don’t, so from a purely audiophile perspective they're not recommended.

“They cost £200 more than some exceedingly good headphones and I do not think they do much to justify the difference,” The Guardian says. “I would not recommend them for non-Apple users.”

Despite their many delights, “there’s still no world where I recommend the AirPods Max to your average headphone shopper,” The Verge says, noting that “the AirPods Pro offer a lot of the same features for less.” 

Techradar says “don’t buy them if you only use Android devices, if you want Hi-Res Audio support or you just want great sound… if audio fidelity is your sole concern, you could spend your money on a pair of high-spec reference headphones”.

“For most, the Sony WH-1000XM4 or Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 are the more practical choices and better values, particularly the Sonys,” CNet says. “But if you are looking for a high-end experience, the AirPods Max deliver one. Say what you will about the price, at least they are different and stand out in a very crowded field of wireless headphones.”