AirPods Max hands-on: Apple’s $549 headphones raise the noise-canceling bar – CNET

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The AirPods Max come in five color options. I got the silver.

David Carnoy/CNET

When Apple first revealed its new AirPods Max noise-canceling headphones a lot of people balked at their $549 price tag. But lo and behold the initial batch of AirPods Max, which went on presale on Dec. 8 and ship Dec. 15, has already sold out in all five color options -- blue, green and pink were back-ordered in a matter of hours -- and as I'm writing this, you're seeing them go for upwards of $850 on reseller sites like eBay and StockX. So maybe Apple isn't even charging enough for them.

I got a silver unit yesterday and have put in several hours using them. While demand has outpaced the limited supply of AirPods Max in the wild, I'm still going to try to answer whether they're really worth their high price -- and yes, for most folks, it is high. Note that these are merely my first impression after one day of use -- I'll be following up with a more in-depth review.

The first thing you notice when you open their box is that their build quality is like nothing that's out there in the $300-$400 range. And when you first hear them, well, they do sound impressive, like high-end headphones, with tight bass, natural mids, crisp highs and a wide soundstage -- for a closed-back headphone anyway.

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AirPods Max are already commanding a steep mark-up in the secondary market.

StockX/Screenshot by CNET

On top of that, their noise-canceling is arguably the best I've experienced, slightly edging out the noise-canceling on both Sony's WH-1000XM4 and Bose's Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 (I haven't yet compared them closely to Bose's QuietComfort Earbuds, which offer the best noise-canceling for true-wireless earphones). They don't completely silence the world around you, but I was out on the streets of New York, and they did a bang-up job muffling noise -- I could barely hear the traffic around me. Finally, they work quite well as headset for making calls and are particularly good at reducing wind noise. Also worth noting: When you're in headset mode, you can hear your voice in the headphones so you can modulate your voice and not end up shouting. Their similar in that regard to the AirPods Pro.  

The one thing people may have a problem with is the weight of the AirPods Max. These are definitely heavy headphones, weighing 384.8 grams. By comparison, the Sony WH-1000XM4 weigh 254 grams while the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 weigh 249 grams. So big difference.

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The AirPods Max next to the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 and Sony WH-1000XM4.

David Carnoy/CNET

Like I said, the AirPods Max's build quality is impressive. They've got a lot of metal -- a stainless steel frame and aluminum  earcups that are reminiscent of Apple's Macbooks -- and metal weighs more than plastic. And then there are the swanky design touches like the telescoping arms and pivoting hinges. I also liked how their almost gel-like memory foam earpads adhere magnetically to cover Apple's 40mm custom drivers. They have a fabric covering, which makes them more breathable than your typical earpads with a leather or faux leather covering. As a result, your ears steam up less in warmer environments. Apparently, you'll be able to replace those ear pads for $69 and the AirPods Max's battery should be replaceable, although you'll have to have Apple do it.

For heavy headphones they are comfortable, but not necessarily super comfy. It'd be nice if they were 20% lighter, but the way the headband is designed, with its mesh canopy, it takes a good amount of pressure off the top of your head. They might look and feel a little big for people with smaller heads, but they do seem to fit a good range of head types.

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The mesh canopy.

David Carnoy/CNET

I did find myself making small adjusts, sliding the headband forward on my head a bit to get a more comfortable, secure fit. If it sits right on the crown of your head -- or at least the crown of my head -- it can get a little uncomfortable. 

The controls are really well implemented. There are only two buttons, both on the right earcup. The front button allows you to toggle between noise canceling and a transparency mode that lets sound in and makes you feel like you're not wearing headphones. It sounds natural, similar to the transparency mode on the AirPods Pro. The second button is a bigger version of the digital crown that's on the Apple Watch. You use that to control volume and click it to pause your music, answer and end calls and double click to advance tracks. It's smooth and responsive and in cold weather, you don't have to worry about touch controls that don't always work, though the aluminum on the ear cups does feel quite cold to the touch. (The headphones don't list any water-resistance rating, but they survived just fine after I wore them in a snow shower for 2 minutes).   

I'm not going to go into too much detail on the specs. You can read about all that on Apple's website. They have a total of 9 microphones, two of which are inside the ear cups to assess how you're wearing them on your head, with glasses or not, for instance. The 9th microphone is a beam-forming microphone dedicated to picking up your voice with two other microphones during calls.

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The optical sensors inside the earcups.

David Carnoy/CNET

Also, there are sensors that can tell when you have the headphones on your head, and automatic pause your audio when you take them off or put them around your neck. Plenty of other headphones have this feature, including those from Sony and Bose, but Apple's version seems pretty high-tech. Apple says the AirPods Max have optical sensors (each ear cup), position sensors (each ear cup), case-detect sensors (each ear cup), accelerometers (each ear cup) and a gyroscope in the left ear cup.

Like the AirPods Pro, these have Apple's H1 chip that allows for easy pairing with iOS devices and always-on Siri, so you can issue voice commands without touching any buttons. Apple says the H1 has lots of processing power for the on-board adaptive noise-canceling and making your digital music sound better. These do pair with Android devices, but you lose some of the features, like always-on Siri and Apple's spatial-audio virtual surround feature with head tracking.

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Battery life is rated at 20 hours with noise-canceling on, which is pretty good, though not superb. And you get 90 minutes of playback from a 10-minute charge via the Lightning port. I kind of wish it charged via USB-C but that's a small gripe.

My bigger gripe is that no cable is included for wired use. Like Apple did with the Beats Solo Pro, you have to buy a $35 Lightning to 3.5mm cable if you want to go wired, say to use an in-flight entertainment system. The headphones should sound the same for wired listening, Apple says, but the wire eliminates any latency, which might be a factor while gaming, but I didn't experience any latency with video watching.

I only spent a little time watching movies. Like the AirPods Pro, these have Apple's aforementioned spatial-audio virtual surround sound feature with head-tracking. It's definitely an added bonus and differentiator from competitors from Sony and Bose. These have more kick than the Airpods Pro, so the virtual surround experience seems a little more visceral, but it's largely the same. 

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The controversial case.

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I don't know quite what to say about the protective cover that comes with the headphones. The best part about it is that it's easy to get on and off the headphones and adds almost no bulk to the headphones (so yes, the headphones take up a little less room in a bag compared to the Sony WH-1000XM4, which includes a traditional hard case. Also, the magnet inside the clasp puts the headphones into a deep sleep mode to save battery life. The case does make your high-end headphones look like a purse or futuristic bra -- you've probably seen the memes by now -- which is kind of bizarre, but someone might appreciate that vibe. I suspect we'll see plenty of alternative cases.

I spent some time comparing these to Sony's WH-1000XM4 and Bose's Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, which aren't cheap but they cost a lot less than the AirPods Max. As I said, the AirPods Max offer better sound and noise-canceling. They're just a more articulate headphone than both the Sony and Bose, with more refined, richer sound. It's not a huge difference, but they do perform better overall.

That said, the Sony is still the best over-ear value when you consider that it often sells for less than $300 and has dipped as low as $278. It's a warmer sounding headphone compared to the AirPods Max, but it still has great sound (as does the Bose), particularly for a wireless noise-canceling headphone. It's lighter as well, and some people may find it more comfortable.

So, too, are the AirPods Pro. A lot lighter. And while they don't sound as good as the AirPods Max, lacking their overall clarity and bass energy (with better definition), for the majority of people, they're still the better bet.

But if you are looking for a high-end experience, the Airpods Max, deliver one. Just don't spend $850 on them. Or even $600. $549 is enough.

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