Some have called the Airpods Max another overpriced Apple gadget. Others have called them a masterpiece.
As a headphone enthusiast I was excited to try them, particularly to suit my growing need for mobile listening.
Their wide mesh headband, metallic piston arms, and polished aluminum earcups are an interesting blend of visual concepts.
At first I was disappointed that the only color that was available was black (given all the fun alternatives offered) but after holding them in person I actually think that gives the mesh headband less of a “toy” look others have mentioned.
I won’t go into a ton of discussion about features and settings here since other reviews do that exhaustively, and instead I’ll focus on what brought you here.
How do the Airpods Max compare to other audiophile headphones?
Prior to trying the Airpods Max I’d searched this extensively and found very little. It seemed like opinions about them were largely from two groups of people:
- Average listeners who were wowed by the sound but shocked at the price
- Audio snobs that turned their nose up at the idea that Apple headphones could even be in a discussion of high end headphones
And so, as someone who’s been a lifelong audio enthusiast and owns a lot of gear, but wouldn’t call myself quite that anal, here’s my take.
Headphones I’ve tested the Airpods Max directly against:
- Beyerdynamic DT 770
- Beyerdynamic DT 1990
- Denon AH-D5000
- Sennheiser HD600
The midrange of the Airpods Max most remind me of the Sennheiser HD600 – very present and well represented in the mix, more so than the DT 1990 in terms of levels.
The Airpods Max have better bass than the Sennheiser HD600. Of course by “better” I don’t necessarily mean the sense of impulse speed or clarity, but rather overall presentation and how deep they play. Like the Beyerdynamic DT 1990, the Airpods Max can play well into subwoofer depth of bass.
I think the DT 1990’s bass with some EQ is actually better overall than the Airpods Max (with comparable EQ), but the Airpods’ bass is, to me, punchier out of the box with no EQ.
That’s really the most striking feature I would say about the Airpods Max sound.
There’s a real sense of tonal balance where the bass is solid but not bloated, the mids are powerful without stealing the show, and the highs are clear and articulate without being overly bright. This is a different experience than the HD600 or the DT 1990. The DT 1990 is a pretty bright headphone, and while it also boasts a ton of beautiful detail can also be somewhat fatiguing.
The Airpods Max don’t always strike the same level of instrument detail as the DT 1990. But I would say they certainly have a more accessible sound that, without changing the earcups or using EQ, is fun without being fatiguing.
Instrument separation is excellent on the Airpods Max. Nothing sounds like a wall of sound in your face like some headphones; instead each instrument stands out distinctly, which makes guitar solos, percussion, and vocals very engaging on a variety of genres.
For rap with fast rhyming, this clarity and strong mids section makes the lyrics easy to follow. In Metallica’s Black Album I really got a sense of impact at Lars’ drumming (which stood out almost more than the memorable guitar sections). For pop music with strong, emotive vocals like Adele, Dua Lipa, and Ed Sheeran I got a very similar emotional experience to the DT 1990.
Those vocals hit hard, intimately, and emotionally.
Just as importantly, these details are for the most part handled cleanly. When I compared the Airpods Max against the Denon AH-D5000, I got a similar sense of somewhat laid back but fun sound, but I couldn’t help but notice the sibilance of the D5000s in the treble — something I do not notice in the Airpods Max.
For comparisons to other “audiophile headphones” in the price range I think there’s one thing worth bearing in mind in fairness to the Airpods Max. The APM are noise cancelling bluetooth headphones with numerous microphones and other tech inside them. That’s part of what you’re paying for.
To necessarily expect that the whole $550 price tag goes into nothing but housing and drivers, like is the case with the other headphones, isn’t fair. But just how much sound quality the Airpods Max do provide while doing all those other things? I think it’s great.
The DT 1990 are generally my daily drivers any time I’m sitting at my desk with the DAC and headphone amp.
But the rest of the time? I’ve used the Airpods Max almost exclusively — even sometimes at the desk via cord — for weeks and I’ve found them to be a very solid experience.
The excellent build quality, sleek look, extremely comfortable headband, and well-represented tonal balance create a worthwhile package for anyone looking for great sound on the go.
The fact that you get active noise cancelling, the brilliant transparency mode, and engaging detail without needing a separate DAC and headphone amp are great benefits, especially for someone just getting into high end audio.
The Airpods Max price tag might indeed be steep compared to other portable headphones, granted. Their sound isn’t perfect. But to the claims that they’re overpriced for what they offer? I disagree.
Pick yours up here at a great price on Amazon.
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Great review! I really related to a lot of the stuff you said. At first when I tried the APMs headphones, I found it hard to like them, having used the very bass heavy Sony XM3s. I liked that type of sound quality a lot since I listen to a lot of dance and house music. But after hearing them more, I realized how the AirPods Max have a certain depth in clarity that really beats the XM3s even though they aren’t as sub bass heavy like the XM3s. I definitely grew to appreciate the APMs more and now solely use them for music, even bass heavy EDM music that I most love.
Agree and I had a similar feeling. If you use Apple Music, you can use iOS’ EQ for something like Electronic that will mildly boost treble and the really deep bass, and the APM will rock it a heck of a lot more. The bass they can handle shines with some boost. In other words, they are very bass capable headphones, but without being forced to be via EQ they don’t present that way.
Couldn’t agree more. I only just got these, as I was being prejudicial. They’re great headphones. Very exciting bass and presentation, great soundstaging and crispy trebles. They’re not bright. To me these sound like that exciting, well mixed and mastered, punchy CD sound of the early 90’s. But they’re pretty forgiving and make most records sound good and “3D”. The Sennheiser HD580/600/650 have been my favorite pair for over 20 years, I have them paired with a solid DAC and amplification and what these do wirelessly is, honestly, unexpected. I would say that versus the Senns, which are a reference, they’re not better nor worse – just different. And they do share similarities! I wholeheartedly recommend them. Also, for playing games and watching movies I will never again reach for anything else. As a final note, to my head and my hears, these are extremely comfortable. Like fancy memory foam pillows. And they’re beautiful! My headphone inventory includes Airpods Pro, Etymotic ER4XR, Sennheiser HD 580/600/650, BeyerDynamic DT660, 770, 880 and 990, Hifiman Deva Pro. Thank you for the review!
Thank you for the kind words! Glad you’re enjoying the APM.
Hello thanks for the feedback. And to play bass guitar on my amp it can be good too ?
Hey! Eager to hear how you would compare the APM to the Deva Pros, strictly in terms sound quality?
Awesome review! Very well said and loved the comparisons against other high headphones. I’m definitely interested in purchasing a pair as I have owned the Sennheiser HD650. The 650’s are great, but lacked the excitement of the HD 598’s and the APM seems like a nice balance of the two while remaining in the Apple ecosystem. You should definitely do more headphone reviews! You are on my radar now!
Thanks for the kind words! The APM definitely are a nice balance of tonality. If you enjoyed this headphone review and use YouTube, I invite you to check out my channel where to talk about other headphones and gadgets.
Excellent review. I like that you compare them to several other high end headphones, and also review the Naenka earbuds, compared to the Apple Airpods If I ever consider high end headphones, I will certainly look at your reviews. You could end up costing me a lot of money !
I think how you worded the review was very well said. If I was in the market for over-the-ear headphones and I had a Apple phone I would give it some serious thought. All in all once again and extremely well worded review
Thanks for the kind words! Inevitably some things were left out of this review since the first draft was way too long, but hopefully this strikes a balance of giving useful info while being easily digestible.