David Lewis Talking Tech & Audio
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AirPods Max are now max in name only – are they 2nd class & overpriced?

Apple’s premium set of over-the-ear headphones seems to have been left out in the cold…

AirPods Max are broken

Love ‘em

AirPods Max are really ever so good but they are not loved.

Because of the heavy price tag that has been associated with AirPods Max and to some degree the design too, AirPods Max have always been somewhat of a niche product.

Now two-and-a-half years old, they have barely been touched since they were released in December 2015. The fact that they were quietly released through a website update on reflection may have been telling of the importance that Apple placed on AirPods Max.

Headphones have come a long way though and now they are fast approaching mini computers. If you happen to be part of Apple’s fabled ecosystem then having headphones or earbuds with the latest chips is crucial – that is if you want to receive the latest updates and bells & whistles.

Bad omens

Reading between the lines, this year’s WWDC could be pivotal for the future of AirPods Max.

There look to be only two options – either they are about to be left to languish and eventually dropped by Apple altogether or, more likely, a refresh is finally on the way for them.

Later this year Apple headlined several new fantastic features that will be coming to AirPods but notably only AirPods Pro 2. The big new feature that has grabbed my attention is something called Adaptive Audio.

If you wear AirPods Pro 2 then you’ll know just how stunning the noise cancelling on them is. Adaptive Audio will meld together the existing noise cancellation & transparency modes depending on your listening environment. During June’s keynote Ron Huang, Apple’s Vice President of Sensing and Connectivity said that with Adaptive Audio;

“You can stay present in your environment while distracting noises are automatically reduced,”

I guess that Adaptive Audio will iterate on Adaptive Transparency which was launched last year with AirPods Pro 2.

Sounds likely

Adaptive Transparency is one of those features that you just have to trust is working.

It minimises the intensity of loud noises like sirens or power tools before they get through to your ears. Carrying on from that Adaptive Audio will subdue certain sounds but let through others that affect your safety such as bike bells, car horns and sirens etc.

You’d be a fool to bet against Apple and Adaptive Audio working – they shocked us last year with what the H2 chip can do in AirPods Pro 2 – my guess is this new feature will work and shock us all over again.

Important to note though is that either Adaptive Audio or Adaptive Transparency are only available on AirPods Pro 2 because they are currently the only AirPods that have the H2 chip. AirPods Max is still running with the earlier H1 chip which was good in its day, but outdated now.

As it stands then that means the Max at £550 will miss out on the latest round of updates including not only Adaptive Audio but also Personalised Volume, and Conversation Awareness too which, again if they work as described at WWDC will further enhance our audio experience.

Up next

The mini-computer I mentioned that we wear disguised as headphones is no more prevalent than with Personalised Volume.

You’ll know Apple is all about looking after our health and that includes our audio health. You’ll get warnings about playing music too loud too often and Apple is also keen to protect our ears for us and that is where Personalised Volume comes in.

Using AI this new feature over time AirPods Pro 2 will learn your volume preferences & setting in different environments throughout the day. As they start to learn about you the Personalised Volume feature will alter the volume of your content up or down to where it considers to be a comfortable and safe setting.

The other new trick I mentioned is Conversation Awareness which again sounds mighty impressive.

As it detects you are starting a conversation it will begin all manner of clever computational things. Not only will Transparency Mode kick in and attenuate the volume of your content but also it’ll enhance the voices in front of you and reduce background noise as well by focusing on the ‘mids’ and lifting those vocal frequencies.

Left out

AirPods Max though, which by their naming should be the premiere pair of headphones available from Apple are getting none of these new fancy bits. Not only are they missing out on the all the features I have mentioned but they are not even getting the ability to drop the ‘Hey’ to wake up Siri.

As far as I could make out the only upgrades that AirPods Max are getting will include being able to mute yourself on calls using the Digital Crown and an improvement to the temperamental auto-device switching. But that’s it!

It’s such a shame that it has come to this though. As I started by saying the actual audio they deliver is ever so good – they are a quality pair of cans. And now, after nearly three years it seems as if people are not afraid to be seen wearing them out and about either – it’s noticeable how many more people I see wearing them in coffee shops and supermarkets. They are becoming everyday headphones.

And seeing them being used so much more regularly means that users who aren’t wrapped up in the Apple gossip like we are will soon start to question why is it that they don’t have the latest updates that will doubtless hear about come the fall. It’s going to take some explaining why having spent good money AirPods Max owners are not being treated on an equal footing to AirPods Pro 2 owners.

Planning ahead

I can’t believe that Apple will drop the AirPods Max from their lineup entirely – they are too good, so clearly, something has to happen with them.

At the very least, assuming they are still available later this year the charging will have to be changed to support USB-C. So while Apple has the Max cranked open why not drop in the H2 chip as well to future-proof them and bring them up to date?

And although the carry/charging doesn’t offend me, it is a source of ridicule to many. Maybe while AirPods Max are in the factory getting some attention giving them a more traditional case that better protects them may not be the worse idea ever.

Other points on my AirPods Max Wishlist would also include dropping a bit of weight making them easier to wear for longer periods. As good as the audio already is and trust me they are stunningly good, if there is a way to bring the Lossless Audio codec to these headphones I’d welcome it and if we could have even better battery life that would be the cherry on the AirPods Max V2 cake.

Wrapping up

Although still more expensive than the Sony & Bose ‘equivalents’ there are deals to be had now. On Amazon, you can pick up a pair for about £450…which is £100 cheaper than I paid for them earlier this year.

Apple has a clear strategy for not fixing something that isn’t broken. AirPods Pro 2 are more or less identical to their predecessor and I’d wager whatever we get with Max 2 won’t look radically different to the existing pair. The brand identity is now well-established.

Other than a brief complaint that the ANC on AirPods Max was adversely affected by a firmware update a year or so back, the quality of AirPods Max has never been in question.

All they need is a few tweaks here and there and these headphones can reclaim their rightful position at the top of Apple’s headphone tree.

Whilst AirPods Max has fallen behind, remember this truism – class is permanent, but form is temporary.

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