Can Apple make a high-quality noise reduction headset that audiophiles will love?

AirPod Max hero

They have made an offer to audiophiles with the AirPods Max. They are a $549.00 nicely-built accessory that has already been controversial for its price and both its features and lack of features. The AirPods Max comes in 5 colors.


Apple AirPods Max Over the Ear Headphones

  • Lovely design and construction with an aluminum frame and memory foam ear pads
  • Apple-designed 40mm dynamic driver with rich, deep bass and clean high frequencies.
  • Adaptive EQ that measures the seal and adjusts the equalization in real-time.
  • Active Noise cancellation is best in class in my tests, with complete noise removal or a mode to let some sounds through, like a ringing telephone or conversations.
  • Spatial Audio – something Apple has on the AirPods Pro, this mode, with the right content, can provide a realistic, immersive surround sound that also supports Dolby Atmos.
  • There are other small features that add to the value of this headset, which I will detail below but they add up to a fairly-priced product given the competition and its sound quality.
  • The provided case for the headphones is a major misfire, providing little protection with a non-standard form factor that made me not want to use it.
  • There is no cable provided for wireless listening. Apple has one for an additional $35.00!

The Apple AirPods Max headphones were a bit of a surprise when released. Apple hasn’t always had high-end aspirations. People liked the sound of the HomePod speakers but found them too expensive at their original price and Apple has dropped the price a few times. They were seen as competitors to smart speakers from Amazon and Google, but not something for serious listeners. They aren’t for serious listeners, but they are far better than their cheaper competition.

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The Apple AirPods have been a serious hit for Apple, and sound pretty good, but they weren’t really high-end transducers either. They found a place with runners and casual users, and Apple has aimed higher with the AirPods Max headphones.

Most reviews have compared them with less expensive noise reduction headsets from Bose, like the QC-700 and the Sony XM4, but I think those reviews miss the point. It is not just comparing to headsets that have or do not have NR. It is about the quality of the NR, and if the NR adversely affects the overall frequency response. The Apple AirPods Max headsets do better at reducing noise, have better frequency response in my listening tests, and offer features competitors simply don’t have.

Apple AirPods Max Over the Ear Headphones SPECIFICATIONS

(Note, Apple does not generally provide good tech information like frequency response and distortion numbers, so keep that in mind when reading these specs.)

Audio Technology:

Apple-designed dynamic driver
Active Noise Cancellation
Transparency mode
Adaptive EQ
Spatial audio with dynamic head tracking


Optical sensor (each ear cup)
Position sensor (each ear cup)
Case-detect sensor (each ear cup)
Accelerometer (each ear cup)
Gyroscope (left ear cup)


Nine microphones total:

Eight microphones for Active Noise Cancellation
Three microphones for voice pickup (two shared with Active Noise Cancellation and one additional microphone)


Apple H1 headphone chip (each ear cup)


Digital Crown
Turn for volume control
Press once to play, pause, or answer a phone call
Press twice to skip forward
Press three times to skip back
Press and hold for Siri
Noise control button
Press to switch between Active Noise Cancellation and Transparency mode

Size and Weight:

AirPods Max, including cushions:

6.64 inches (168.6 mm)
3.28 inches (83.4 mm)
7.37 inches (187.3 mm)


13.6 ounces (384.8 grams)

Smart Case:

Weight: 4.74 ounces (134.5 grams)


Up to 20 hours of listening time on a single charge with Active Noise Cancellation or Transparency mode enabled
Up to 20 hours of movie playback on a single charge with spatial audio on
Up to 20 hours of talk time on a single charge
5 minutes of charge time provides around 1.5 hours of listening time

AirPods Max with Smart Case:

Storage in the Smart Case preserves battery charge in an ultra-low-power state.
Charging via Lightning connector/USB C



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Product Reviews Apple AirPods Max, wireless headphones, Noise reduction, ANC, spatial audio, over the ear, headphones, headphone review, headphone review 2021


I’ve had Apple products for a long time, going way back to the first Mac in 1984. I’ve always appreciated their good designs and their class-leading ideas that others soon followed, like widespread adoption of the mouse, 3.5“discs, the revolutionary (at the time), the iPhone, and so on and so on.

I was skeptical when I heard of the release of the AirPods Max. I’m definitely a headphone guy, and I’ve been buying them since my senior year in high school after using them every day at the radio station where I worked part-time. (Those were the venerated Sennheiser HD414s). I liked the idea of wireless headphones, but they always suffered a bit in fidelity.

The Apple AirPods didn’t really interest me. Not high-end fidelity, and every pair I tried fell out of my ears at the slightest movement. So here comes Apple again with an over the ear headphone that claimed high fidelity, good wireless range, easy pairing with Apple devices, and the ability to pair with Android too.

The price didn’t bother me, as I have paid more for headphones than Apple’s asking price – what was important was how did they sound?


They are a bit of a departure from the headphones that are out there. The headphone frame is stainless steel, which provides strength, and its sturdy tube design can lower or raise the ear cups to fit about any head.

AirPods Max side view

The knit mesh headband is designed to distribute weight but keep the AirPods comfortable. The replaceable ear cushions are made of memory foam. All in all, it’s a striking design and one that looks like it will hold up. The AirPods Max headphones come in 5 colors, I preferred the space grey.

Controls on the right ear cup include a digital crown, a design taken from the Apple Watch. It’s larger and can control volume, answer and drop a phone call, and there are multiple taps for next track, previous track, pausing music, and invoking Siri.

AirPods Max crown

AirPods Max button

Also on the right ear cup is a rectangular button that controls noise reduction off, on, or partial NR to let some sounds from your environment bleed through.

The AirPods Max is designed for mostly wireless use, but one can buy a cable that will let you listen wired to a 3.5mm jack.

About that Case

Apple calls it a Smart Case and it’s not smart and it’s not a case.

AirPods Max Case

First of all, it only covers the ear cups, leaving exposed the headband and mesh fabric. It’s likely to get snared on something, and not easily replaceable. Apple calls it a Smart Case because when you put the headphones inside a magnet puts the headphones into a deep sleep. It’s not a big deal, as taking the AirPods Max headphones off and letting them sit for 5 minutes also puts them into a deep sleep. Apple should have provided an all-enclosing case. Third parties are rushing to get them out and capitalize on Apple’s failure of design.

About those Cables

The AirPods Max headphones come with a cord for charging. It has a Lightning connector on one end and a USB C connector on the other. Personally, I would have preferred USB C to USB C, but it’s not a big deal. What is a big deal is that the headphones do not include a cable for wired listening even though the headphones support it. Instead, you must buy a specific cable from Apple for $35.00. It’s short and it’s flimsy. In my view, a cable should have been included with a headphone that is just north of $500.00, and it should be a quality cable, braided and long enough to be really useful. Apple is a smart company and focused on consumers. These kinds of dumb decisions are devoid of logic and common sense. When consumers buy a product, they should not have to run off somewhere to buy accessories, so the product is complete.

Also, as has become Apple’s silly practice, there is no charging block included, so no AC wall charging without a proper adaptor. You want one, you buy one or find one that will work around the house.


Apple is good at making tricky things easy, and they’ve done it again with the AirPods Max headphones. Right out of the box there was a 70% charge, enough to simply hold it next to my iPhone and it paired right away. The same with my MacBook Pro and the iMac in my office. It also paired easily and quickly with my FiiO music player that has Bluetooth via Android. You pair with a non-Apple device by holding down the noise reduction mode button for a few seconds. It also easily paired with a Bluesound music system.

In Use

The first thing I should bring up is how the noise reduction system works. Apple Noise reduction is very, very good. With the headphones on and noise reduction engaged I could snap my fingers and not hear them. Sounds of heaters, dishwashers, and other things around the house were simply inaudible. When I put the headphones into Transparency Mode, the noise reception was reduced a bit to let outside sounds in. That’s a feature all noise reduction headphones should offer.

I wasn’t sure what to expect about audio quality. Turns out the audio was really quite good. Listening over Bluetooth from the FiiO player the high frequencies were smooth, and the bass was surprisingly deep. I’ve heard headphones with deeper bass, but they often sounded bass-heavy. It’s like the designers were trying to score points with people who really like bass. Those enhanced bass headphones sounded a bit like speakers with the loudness control turned on. They were often muddy, and unrealistic.

On the other hand, the Apple product was very musical, especially with acoustic instruments and voices. There was not a sign of strain or unrealistic pushing of one part of the frequency band over another. I would compare the sound to some of the better $500-1000-dollar planar headphones, although the AirPods Max is a dynamic design.

When I listened to the just reviewed Stax SR-L700 MKII Earspeaker and amplifier combo ($2468) the Stax sounded better. No surprise there. Especially in the mid-range and high frequencies. I also thought the bass response of the Stax and the Apple headphones were similar but not identical. The Stax had a more visceral thump. The Stax were better in dynamic range, and when the music got very busy, like with a full orchestra playing, the Stax were a bit less congested. When playing music with plucked strings, the Stax headphones had more impact, and they should, they cost a lot more. Still, the AirPods Max headphones were competitive. And that’s saying something.

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Listening to my Bose Wireless NC700 phones ($339.00), the Apple AirPods Max simply sounded better. Noise reduction was superior, audibly but not a tremendous difference, and I thought overall the sound of the Apple headphones was smoother. Highs, especially percussion instruments like cymbals and triangles sounded much better, and the bass was slightly better too.


I found the AirPod Max headphones comfortable and a good fit, but others who have used them often say they wished there were more options for different sizes in the cushions. In my use, I found the Apple headphones at least as comfortable as some Sennheiser, Stax, and HIFIMAN headphones. Your experience will vary with your head contours and facts like humidity.

Here’s some of the music I auditioned and my comments on each: (Note, most of my listening was done using the wired feature of the AirPods Max headphones. I found the Bluetooth audio quite capable, but just a bit lower in quality than listening while wired. If you weren’t directly comparing the audio you probably would not notice it.


Vasks: Viatore, Distant Light with the Munich Radio Orchestra, 16 bit/44 kHz FLAC file.
Vask writes glorious music for orchestra and chorus. The strings glisten on the AirPods Max headphones, and the image is spread nicely from left to right.


Tenet: Original Sound Track: 24 bit/48 kHz FLAC file.
A confusing movie but one of striking visuals and soundtrack. The music has lots of percussion and electronic music that all sounded great on the AirPods Max headphones.

Donald Fagan

Donald Fagan, Morph the Cat, Reprise, 2006.
A meticulously recorded album of vocals and instruments. There’s a lot of bass to savor and enjoy..


Hovhaness, Mysterious Mountain, High-Definition Tape Transfers, 24 bit/192 kHz FLAC file.
This is a classic album, and the transfer from 2 channel reel-to-reel is superb. The music and the recording are a showpiece.

Vaughan Williams

Vaughan Williams, Pastoral Symphony and Tuba Concerto, High Definition Tape Transfers, 24 bit/192 kHz FLAC file.
A great recording from Andre Previn and the London Symphony. The AirPods Max headphones handled the strings very nicely, and the overall balance was realistic.


AirPods Max pad view

If you are an Apple devotee and are looking for some serious noise cancelling headphones, the Apple AirPods Max are very worthy of your consideration.

  • Very good sound quality
  • Charges rapidly from a USB port
  • Easy pairing to Apple devices and decent pairing to non-Apple devices
  • Excellent Bluetooth range
  • Siri integration
  • The Digital Crown knob is far better than touch controls on competitors.
Would Like To See
  • A case that fully encloses the headphones for maximum protection
  • Apple needs to include a high-quality cable for wired connections.
  • Apple needs to include a charging brick.

For many buyers used to $99-$300-dollar headphones, the AirPods Max will seem pretty high-end. For Audiophiles, it is a mid-range product. If you’re part of the Apple ecosystem and a serious music listener, I think the AirPods Max is a winner. It’s easy to integrate with your iOS devices and your Mac. It’s got Siri, making it easy to make and receive calls. It doesn’t play high-resolution files at their best, because Apple limits the Bluetooth resolution to AAC, or basically CD quality. Still, I didn’t hear much difference comparing the AirPods Max to other corded headphones that could play higher resolution files. Considering that in my tests the AirPods Max was very close to considerably more expensive headphones, I would consider them a good buy.