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AirPods Max – brilliant but 2 fixes could make them even better

The forgotten gem in Apple’s lineup

AirPods Max

Sounds familiar

AirPods Max are brilliant – but often overlooked.

Surprisingly they were originally released via a website refresh approaching three years ago. In that time there have been precious few changes made which leads me to think that a new pair must be on the horizon. – well that or their imminent demise!

As great as they sound, and AirPods Max really do sound amazing there are a few areas that need Apple’s urgent attention. With other Apple-branded, and even non-Apple headphones available from them AirPods Max hasn’t got things their own way any more.

Tough times

The tenure of AirPods Max being Apple’s premium headphones is under threat and has been for a while. Is it now a case of Max in name only?

Last year things got properly shaken up with the release of AirPods Pro 2. Everybody that’s used them agrees they sound stunning. The audio they deliver is precise, defined & warm and the fit was improved with the addition of extra pair of silicon tips. The size of them makes them perfect for daily carry and the price is affordable.

But earbuds aren’t for everyone. Many don’t like the restrictive feeling that in-ear buds can give and they can become uncomfortable too after a few hours of use. The traditional thought is that over-the-head headphones will always deliver better audio for a whole host of reasons and it’s a thought I generally go along with too.

AirPods Pro 2 certainly shook everything up and upset the applecart for AirPods Max. It bought into focus their high price and their shortcomings. Suddenly the cheaper, supposedly lesser AirPods Pro were giving their bigger siblings a serious run for their money.

Chip of the old block

Much of the challenge from AirPods Pro 2 comes from the H2 chip they use. That one seemingly small single-digit difference between the H1 & H2 chips though makes all the difference.

It’s the H2 chip that helps to deliver such wonderful audio working in harness with a custom-built driver and amplifier – both areas that AirPods Max now find themselves trailing in the earbud’s wake.

That chip is also the force behind the improved battery life and excellent noise cancellation. Using adaptive algorithms the H2 chip processes unwanted sounds quickly which is the secret behind their stunning Active Noise Cancelling ANC.

So with all that going against them, what can Apple do with AirPods Max to help them once again to make them the king in Apple’s audio line-up?

A heavy heart

Part of Max’s USP is also their downfall – the weight.

Approaching 400 grams there is no denying these are a heavy pair of headphones. With that amount of weight behind them, these could very easily become uncomfortable yet somehow they don’t.

There has been a lot of discussion about the design of them and what the future may be for them, but overall I quite like them. As with many Apple products, they have an almost iconic shape & style to them. That anodised aluminium-clad design ear cup looks and feels high-end and almost as importantly is instantly recognisable as well.

That unique design signature has been one of Apple’s trump cards over the years and is one of the reasons the basic shapes of Apple product categories rarely change. AirPods Max have taken a while to catch on but suddenly I’ve noticed them finally being worn more and more. No longer do they seem like a target on your head and certainly in cities & airports they are now commonplace.

Apple managed to side-step the weight issue with the clever design of the headband. Again, unique among headphones is this dual steel banded approach that they used – and simple as it is, it works.

The two bands mean the heft is pretty evenly distributed over your head, But there are two problems with the headband I’d like to see fixed. The bands could benefit from being padded to make them even more comfortable and while we are still talking headbands – that mesh should go. I’ve been lucky with mine but many, many owners have found that mesh gets saggy. When that happens it means the weight is then resting solely on those bands.

On the side

Another feature that has its strengths and weaknesses is the ear cups.

One of the first things you’ll notice when you pop them on is the flat-side profile AirPods Max have. Most noise-cancelling headphones are pretty bulky and feel out of balance on your head but the Max sits ever so flat to your head.

Now, whilst that is all good the ear cups are actually too straight. There is no curve to them which means that the bottom of the ear cup doesn’t follow the contour of your face. That in turn creates an unwanted gap which allows for some audio leak. It just feels a little awkward, clunky and unfinished.

The material of the ears cups isn’t of the same quality as the rest of the headphones. Do you recall that horrible material that school bags used to be made from…well that’s what the ear cups feel like to me. A softer, more sumptuous material would be a far better fit and offer a better fit as well. Once again it would just help with a better fit around your ears and lessen any more loss of audio.

A case to defend

Speaking of things being a little unfinished, the Smart Case has come in for its fair amount of criticism over the past 36 months.

I’m one of those that doesn’t mind the case too much. I know there is a line of argument that says it doesn’t protect them but in honesty it covers the only parts – the ear cups – that could get damaged. They’re covered. If you are packing these in luggage why would you want more added bulk from a hard case?

However…the case is the only way of putting the Max into standby or low power mode – and that seems crazy. There should be a power switch on the headphones themselves. It seems an obvious oversight to me. I often use mine sitting on the sofa watching Apple TV with the case not to hand. What I’d give to be able to switch these off…

Charged up

The battery life on the Max is fantastic – the extra size of these headphones has been put to good use. Rarely do I even think about charging my AirPods Max – they seem to always have a charge on them. Apple quotes around 20 hours of battery life, and you know what, I wouldn’t disagree.

We know all about the USB-C story, so it’s almost a given that if nothing else AirPods Max will get a new port this year – the clock is ticking on that one. But apart from the port change, if the case could have some kind of MagSafe option in it that would be even better.

As a recent convert to the world of wireless charging having to reach for the lightning cable is a proper pain – and while talking cables…would it be too much to ask for to have the line-in audio cable included with AirPods Max? At £550 asking for another £40 seems a bit of a push.

In control

The Digital Crown seems awkwardly placed to me being too near the chrome stem. I don’t think my fingers are particularly fat, but I struggle to get a proper grip on it.

I may be about to say something stupid (not the first time!) but wouldn’t swipe, touch controls seem a sensible move? We’ve got used to gestures on AirPods Pro 2 so why not transfer that muscle memory to AirPods Max as well?

Audio

There is not too much of a fix needed for the audio as it’s always been great from day one.

AirPods Max needs that H2 chip badly. They also need to raid the Pros parts bin and steal their Adaptive Transparency, the Custom high dynamic range amplifier and the high-excursion Apple driver as well.

The glory win would be some form of a lossless codec for these headphones. Again, I may be wishing for the unthinkable, but as Apple Music offers lossless audio it would be the cherry on the Max cake.

AirPods Max is still using the older Bluetooth 5.0 connectivity so I’m thinking update them to Bluetooth 5.3 and then throw the Apple audio boffins at the lossless problem and see what they can come up with.

Concluding

As it stands AirPods Max are only Max in name only. They’ve lost out in too many departments to AirPods Pro 2 now.

The fact they’ve not been updated in three years is starting to show. Inherently though, AirPods Max are wonderful headphones. The fact they got so much right when they first bought these out means that they don’t need much attention even after three years.

Apple’s history and DNA are steeped in music. To have a premium pair of headphones in their lineup makes total sense – it’s what you’d expect from Apple.

But with AirPods Pro 2 and the new Beats Studio Pro both being Apple options, AirPods Max need a quick fix.

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