In the many years that I have been reviewing headphones, only twice have I turned my head because I did not know where the music was coming from. The first was while sampling tracks on the Sennheiser HE 1 which comes with its own set of tube amplifiers and costs almost as much as my house. The second instance happened earlier this week while testing the Apple AirPods Max using a binaural track streamed via Apple Music.
As the track started with a cello, I instinctively turned my head towards the side the music was coming from and then immediately looked the other side from where some percussion had followed. This is the effect you should expect from the Apple AirPods Max which despite its unconventional design and heavy build, wraps around your head and soon blends in as if it is not there.
The Apple AirPods Max is different in many ways. The design for instance has any unique aspects, the most striking part of which is the mesh canopy which has replaced the soft cushion band we have come to associate with high-end headphones. While this looks different, I think it goes a long way in distributing the weight of the headphone and making it very comfortable to wear for long hours. In fact, I wore the AirPods Max to work — that could mean at least six to eight hours of calls — for an entire week and did not feel it one bit.
The other difference is in the shape of the anodised aluminium ear cups at both ends of the stainless steel telescopic arms. The ear cups actually look like giant replicas of the Apple Watch, and even has a crown just like it. There is a small button too just next to the crown on the right ear cup. The button is used to switch noise cancelling on and off, while the crown lets you adjust volume and skip songs. I found the combination of double and triple taps to move back and forth on the playlist a bit hard to remember and stuck to the phone for changing tracks. Of course, you can summon Siri with a long press of the buttons to get quickly to your favourite song.
There is one more unique design element that needs a mention. The AirPods Max have fabric finish memory foam cushions that wrap around your ears — your lobes are inside these cups — thus creating a natural seal from external sounds. These cushions can be pulled out in case you want to clean inside or replace them. I get a feeling Apple might bring out cushions in different materials later and maybe this standard issue cushions might not last long in tropical conditions.
Inside the ear cups, along with Apple’s own dynamic drivers, there are a set of sensors that work to offer the best sound whatever be the music or the type of your ear. It is a bit like how the HomePod works, just closer to your ear.
The joy of using an Apple accessory is how easily and natively it pairs with whatever device you are using. In the first day itself, I used the AirPods Max with my iPhone, MacBook, Apple Watch and the iPad, never once having to pair the headphone. Whichever the device, you can access the controls quickly and adjust volume and noise cancelling. Also, if you are listening to music on the MacBook and a call comes on the iPhone, all you need to do is take the call on the phone for the AirPods Max to shift to this source. It is as convenient as the AirPods have always been.
But how good is the noise cancellation? As I said, the cushions itself do a good job of cutting off the external noise. When I wear the AirPods Max with the noise cancellation off, I cannot hear the noisy road I live next to, but I know the air purifier is whirring away just next to me. When the noise cancelling is on, this air purifier is suddenly silent, almost as if there is no pollution in Delhi. I also can’t hear Harsha Bhogle on the TV, trying to figure out what is happening in the Gabba Test. In the transparency mode, I can hear all of this, as well as the Ed Sheeran number I am listening to. In terms of effectiveness, this is right up there with the Boses and Sonys. And maybe a notch better, as there is no negative space or vacuumed out feeling when you are not listening to any music with the noise cancellation on — one of my primary uses cases so that I can think and work better.
Let’s come back to the binaural audio file, Strive by Amber Rubarth, to talk about the audio quality. I have tried the same file on other headphones over time. But it sounds different on the AirPods Max because of the spatial audio at play. Here it is more like music playing in a room and less in my ears. As you listen to more stuff, this experience grows on you, because it is more natural.
The AirPods Max in my books has a neutral audio profile. The bass can pack a thump, but only when it is called for. Not with every beat. It is rich and you hear every note and instrument clearly. It is sharp and you hear the singer breathe in before a rather long alaap. You can almost hear Kadri Gopalnath take his lips of the saxophone. It is as if you are in the room.
With the noise cancellation, the spatial audio that keeps the source of the sounds where it should be even as move your head, and the rich, deep audio profile, the AirPods Max in my books goes one step ahead of the other high-end headphones that do one or two of the above very well. And then the entire integration with Siri and the Apple ecosystem give it an advantage the others clearly don’t have.
While there is of course the music, where these headphones will have you hooked is when you are watching a movie on the Mac or iPad or if you have an Apple TV at home. With cinemas now a distant dream for most of us, this is the best you have to getting a cinematic experience at home, though a very personal one. When you Vin Diesel vrooms across the screen and glides on the tarmac, you can hear the movement all the way, almost as if sitting in a Dolby Atmos theatre… just a bit better with spatial audio in the headphones.
The AirPods Max give you about 18-20 hours of battery life on a full charge — a full day or work from home and two days of work from office. If you are using the headphone purely for casual listening, then you might need to charge only once a week. Also, the AirPods Max comes with a Smart Cover that switches them off as soon as headphones are slipped in and thus saves battery. Even otherwise, the headphones pause the music as soon as they are taken off your head, but stay connected to the source.
At a price point of Rs 59,900, the AirPods Max is clearly not for everyone. And frankly not everyone needs to look at this as an option. There are headphones from audio companies that offer great audio and ease of use as half the price. The AirPods Max is clearly for those who want to go beyond that when it comes to sheer music experience, style and convenience. And that is what they are paying the premium for. This is the iPhone 12 Pro Max of headphones, a notch above the rest.