David Lewis Talking Tech & Audio
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AirPods Max – nearly perfect

I was sitting in the studio wearing these today and thought I should share my thoughts…

AirPods Max in blue on desk

AirPods Max has been on my studio desk for a little over a year now and I recently realised just how little I’d been using them – which is a crime! Not only is it a hideous waste of money but they also happen to be a great set of cans!

Apple occasionally does make some odd shouts, and AirPods Max is certainly one of those. They’ve been ignored since their launch (which was only via press release anyway) in December 2020. That means they are rapidly approaching their 4th birthday with zero updates or spec bumps – and at £500, that’s expecting a bit much from us.

The truth is that Apple got a lot right with AirPods Max which is what has allowed them to sit back on their laurels and leave them untouched for so many years. But there is no denying that 4 years is an eternity in tech terms and they are now showing signs of being left behind.

Over the past month, I’ve made an effort to wear them more than my AirPods Pro 2nd Gen to remind myself of the good and bad and in my opinion what needs to be done to make them worthy of the moniker Max once again.

AirPods Max internals

We’ll talk about design and function a little later but first of all it’s worth going under the hood to find out where they are falling behind internally.

Firstly and most obviously the chip at the heart of AirPods Max needs to be replaced. The H1 chip was mighty in its day but its crown has now fallen to the H2 chip found in AirPods Pro 2nd Gen.

The older chip in the Max means there is no Adaptive Audio or Conversation Awareness and even the Active Noise Cancellation is not as good as it could be. The older chip also means that AirPods Max lacks the skin-detecting sensor which works so well on AirPods Pro.

Moreover, without the H2 chip, it means we are still using the cumbersome controls on the AirPods Max whereas touch controls would now be a far better option – more on that later.

When AirPods Pro 2nd Gen were launched they were a ‘stop the press’ moment. The audio quality they deliver is almost beyond comprehension for tiny in-ear buds and much of that quality is down to the custom high-excursion Apple driver & high dynamic range amplifier.

The chip uses powerful adaptation algorithms to process audio quicker, and the custom-built driver and amplifier that work with the H2 chip provide lower distortion during playback helping to deliver punchier, cleaner audio even at lower volumes.

In short AirPods Max needs the H2 chip – end of!

The audio

You buy AirPods Max on the promise of great audio – and four years on they are as on-point as ever.

Even coming from a studio background where I’m used to quality open & closed-backed monitoring headphones the AirPods Max stand-up. They are balanced and not overly EQd. There have been complaints over the years that there is no way to personalise the sound profile, but honestly, there is not much I would want to alter.

The problem with tinkering with EQ is that it’s very easy to ruin the sound. The Apple engineers know what they doing, and in my opinion, this stuff is best left to them. Because of the Noise Cancelling, you don’t need anything too drastic with treble and in particular, bass. With the over-the-ear design of AirPods Max, there is very little noise from the outside world that gets through to your listening experience – thus the need for sympathetic EQ.

The one thing that Max cannot be faulted on is their audio – balanced, clean and faithful.


This is where I have some issues.

The most annoying design flaw for me is the way that ear cups clang together when you carry them in your hands as you take them off. I know that sounds minor but for such a pricey, premium product it feels bloody awful. You also fear damaging or chipping the aluminium coating – that needs to be sorted out, please.

The fact that they don’t lay flat when you take them down is plain uncomfortable and cumbersome. They don’t have Conversation Awareness which means that if you want to talk to someone you have to pull them down, at which point they sit there at a very awkward angle. The cups need to be able to pivot – come on Apple…

The balance has felt slightly off to me from day one with AirPods Max – tending to want to roll forward. I guess that could be particular to me, but I wager it’s not. The pivot point seems fractionally wrong – which is something you’ll notice pretty quickly.

That mesh design on the headband needs a re-think – now I’ve started to use mine more it’s rapidly starting to show signs of wanting to sag. It hasn’t yet but that material along with that horrible, harsh lining to the ear cups needs a re-think.

The basic design is fine and I love the slim ear cup design even the aluminium bars are cool with me – but those other points I’ve made need some work in my eyes.

A few more points

The lightning charger obviously needs to change when AirPods Max gets refreshed. I’d love to see not only USB-C come to Gen 2 but also wireless charging too – we all hate cables!

To facilitate that I’d imagine the case would need to be re-thought. I’ve never had a problem with the case itself but we need a dedicated power on/off button on AirPods Max. The fact you have to put them in the case to properly power them down is plain daft.

The specs tell me that I’m supposed to get around 20 hours of playback but it never feels like it to me – the number of times I’ve taken them out recently only for them to go dead – I’ve lost count.

AirPods Pro have IPX 4 sweat and water resistance which the Max doesn’t. Having to look outside and check on the weather before wearing them is a pain. I’d never wear these or the AirPods Pro in heavy rain, but the fact I’m worried about taking the AirPods Max out in even light drizzle is something that could be overcome easily enough. Again if the case were to be re-designed maybe Apple could come up with a water-resistant case that fully covers the headphones – make sure sense right?

I have two more points that I’d love to see looked at – one software and one hardware.

Automatic Switching sounds as if it should be a dream – yet it’s still from it! Apple has built up this ecosystem where many of us have more than one device around us at any given time – it’s what Apple wants right?

Well, today I wanted to play music from my MacBook Pro as I was writing this and write on the MacBook Air – that shouldn’t have been a problem but as it turned out was almost impossible. The moment I touched to keyboard on the MBA the AirPods wanted to connect – in the end, I gave up and just listened to Apple Music on the MacBook Air. My thoughts on Auto Switching – if can’t work properly then dump it…

Lastly the controls. Skipping and pausing is fine but I’d prefer if the volume were to now be gestures on the side of the ear cups. The crown feels back to front to me and ever so awkwardly placed. As we’ve got used to gestures with AirPods Pro why not carry that design way over to the Max? After all, there’s no shortage of space.

Wrapping up

I’m glad I’ve started to pick these headphones up again. They deliver wonderful sound and are beautifully engineered.

All I want is for them to rightfully deserve the name Max again. Four years is too long to leave them languishing – they deserve more. Whether or not Apple can bring a lossless codec to them frankly matters little – the audio is almost the one thing that doesn’t need a freshen-up.

I’m no engineer but I’d have thought most of my muses through this story are achievable. AirPods Max is a fantastic device and with just a few tweaks they would be almost perfect!

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