Can $550 Headphones Live Up to Your Expectations?

Can $550 Headphones Live Up to Your Expectations?

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In terms of sound quality, the Apple AirPods Max wins. Against both the neutral Bose sound and the more dynamic Sony, the AirPods Max shines. Higher voices and treble accents sound more crisp, midtones feel more full, the bass truly kicks. And thanks to Apple’s spatial audio software, listening with the Max is far more immersive than with the Bose or Sony.

But when it comes to noise-canceling…the AirPods Max are also the best of the trio. All three headphones do a great job of eliminating the kind of everyday noise you’d encounter working in an office—currently, the hum of my refrigerator. The AirPods Max, however, shine in situations with a higher-degree of difficulty. When I wore them on an ill-advised walk during a blustery December day, the Max had no trouble smoothing out the blisteringly loud whips of wind. Both the Bose and the Sony struggle in these kinds of contexts.

One small issue, though: when you aren’t listening to music or a podcast, you can almost hear the Max headphones working to erase background noise—it feels as if something deep in the headphones is physically moving.This is a problem you usually only see on much cheaper noise-cancelling headphones (often referred to as “ear suck”), but it only rears its head when the headphones are on, but the music is off. Not a normal use-case for me, but beware if you’re a cone-of-silence type headphone user.

We also appreciated how quickly the headphones actually boot up. The AirPods Max never technically turn off, which means that by the time you’ve pulled them up to your ears, they’ve already existed “ultra-low power mode,” and are ready to use.The Bose headphones and Sony headphones pair quickly enough, but it’s great to have the same instantaneous connection you get with most true wireless headphones on a more music-focused device.

Also, They’re Beautiful

Of course, you’ll see a striking difference between AirPods Max, the Bose, and the Sony headphones before even putting them on. The brushed metal earcups are gorgeous, particularly in any of the lighter colors, where the little accents shine through. Apple’s typical thoughtful details are all over the Max, too: magnetic ear pads that will be easy to swap out when they’ve worn out, a comfortable and breathable steel mesh headband wrapped in a soft-touch rubber. The Bose and Sony headphones are nice; the AirPods Max are luxurious, in a Tiffany lamp kind of way.

But Luxurious Doesn’t Mean Perfect

The Max have a lot going for them: powerhouse audio, top-notch noise-canceling, an off-the-charts lust quotient. But for $550, damn near everything needs to be perfect. The Max isn’t perfect.

Here’s a brief list of AirPods Max issues that annoyed me:

  • The multifunction knob on the right earcup—basically, an enlarged version of the crown on the Apple Watch—is awkwardly placed and annoying to use, especially if you, like me, have long hair. Also, its volume control feels backwards: counter-clockwise for louder, clockwise for quieter. For ease of use, I’ll take the touch controls on the ear cups of the Bose and Sony headphones. Swiping up to increase the volume just feels right .
  • The Max’s implementation of Transparency mode, which pipes in a fluctuating, software-controlled amount of outside noise, works badly. On the street, it transformed the engine of every passing truck into a screeching gremlin. At busy Brooklyn street corners, the bustle of cars and chatter was overwhelming. (Points to Bose and Sony for making their version of Transparency mode manually adjustable.)

  • The bra-like case looks foolish, and doesn’t protect the headphones that well, which seems like a missed point.

Where Does That Leave Us?

When the original AirPods first went on sale in December of 2016, they did that very Apple thing of kick-starting a nascent category—true wireless earbuds—by getting the details right. They were small, they stayed in place, the battery life was usable, they connected instantly with your (i)phone, and they sounded fine. They became the de facto standard, as Apple’s best products tend to do.

With the $549 AirPods Max, Apple’s not delivering a need-to-have-it essential so much as a might-be-nice-to-have-it product. Apple made the Tiffany lamp of headphones! That’s laudable, in its own way—particularly if you exist in a tax bracket where you can throw more than half a grand at a pair of genuinely great-sounding headphones.

But would I actively recommend the AirPods Max to someone asking if they’re worth the price? No. They’re good, but they’re not essential. You can find a pair of headphones, or a lamp, that works just as well, maybe even better, for a lot less.


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