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AirPods Pro 2 v. AirPods Max – a fair comparison?

Which pair of AirPods should you reach for, and when?

AirPods Pro 2 versus AirPods Max

Taking it seriously

AirPods are a series business for Apple.

In 2020, the AirPods division alone, in Apple’s empire, turned over $23.05 billion. That means it generated more revenue for Apple, than the combined incomes of Twitter, and Spotify.

This year, with the re-introduction of the big HomePod, has seen the company clearly stake their interests in the audio size side of their business. It’s always been in their DNA. We know that iTunes only came about due to the passion that Steve Jobs had for his music.

Apple and music, and creative, music production go hand in hand, so it should be little surprise to anyone that the audio gear they make is good – very good.

The full monty

A few weeks ago, I was asked to join Hartley & Dan on their MacRumors podcast. The brief was that we were to talk about Apple’s audio products.

At that point, I had one gap in my line-up – I didn’t own a pair of AirPods Max. Getting ready for the podcast, I bought a pair, which means I now have the full suite. But, that also means it means I now have to choose which pair of AirPods I reach for first.

Clearly, they are obviously different beasts, yet, there are similarities, that I’ll come back to later.

Unlike AirPods Max, that I was very late in buying, I was at the front of the queue when it came to the release of the second generation AirPods Pro. I’d only bought my first pair of AirPods Pro six months earlier. But, so impressed was I by them, that the promise of what the newest pair had to offer, was enough for me to hand over another $250.

At last autumns iPhone 14 event, Apple unveiled AirPods Pro 2 with the promise of improved Active Noise Cancelling (ANC), better battery life, and in-ear detection. Along with these tweaks and improvements, there were also some brand-new features debuted too. For the first time, volume controls were bought to the stems of the earbuds. We were also given another layer of audio protection with Adaptive Transparency, and precision finding to help in finding lost or misplaced AirPods.

Unlike the Pro’s, AirPods Max are still on their original production run, which now dates back to 2020. Coming with a hefty $550 price tag, the over the ear Max headphones share many of the features with the smaller ear buds – namely ANC, head-tracking, spatial audio, Siri compatibility, and auto-switching. But are they worth the extra money?

So, as I head out the door, or am about to collapse on the sofa of an evening, which pair do I reach for?

All quiet

The most startlingly noticeable difference, comes in the way they deliver ANC.

The detachable cups that completely cover your ears with the Max means that the ANC is in a different league.

There had been feedback from users, that an update a year or so back, had ruined their experience of ANC with the Max. The forums were alight with reports of the noise-cancelling having been watered down.

Obviously, I didn’t have a pair back then, but my experience of ANC on the Max has been nothing but positive – if anything, itstoo good! With ANC on, you are so isolated, as for it to be almost eerie. You really are in transported in to your own world. I can hear literally no outside distractions.

While that sounds optimum, after a while, it can almost be too much – it invokes a feeling of loneliness, it’s sthat effective. Whereas with AirPods Pro, I always leave ANC switched on, with the Max, I switch back-and-fourth between that and Transparency Mode.

Horses for courses

At just a touch under 400 grams, AirPods Max are hefty. You certainly know you’ve got them on.

The substantial design of AirPods Max also makes them quite the unwanted, visual target. Whereas the buds sit in-ear, almost out of sight, Max shouts that you have a pair of $550 headphones on. That feeling, makes for quite an anxious experience whenever I wear them outdoors, away from home.

The fit of both pairs of AirPods are good, but not without their flaws.

As far as the earbuds go, even with the array of four sizes of inter-changeable silicon ear tips that you now get with Pro 2, they still don’t fit as well as the original pair of basic AirPods I own. The longer stems of those, seem to offer an improved balance and fit – they just stay put better. With the Pro 2, I find myself continually fiddling with them, and re-seating them.

I have carried out the in-ear fit test that is part of the AirPod Pro set up, but even so, there is still that feeling that they couldfall out. Of course, that sensation is always more extreme in one ear, than the other – in my case, the left ear.

The skin-detect sensors work brilliantly on AirPods Pro 2. The moment they detect a break of contact, the audio cuts. This is notably better than on the pair I bought a few months earlier.

Once they are snuggly in, though, they feel great. They offer a surprising amount of noise reduction, and filtering from the ‘real-world’. The ANC is surprisingly effective, and I also love the new Adaptive Transparency mode too.

The fit of the Max is not quite what I’d expected. The sheer weight, and bulk of them, means they have a very secure feel to them. But, the balance is off.

To me, they seem to feel as if they want to tip forwards all the time – even when stationary on the sofa. It’s not movement related, but a weight distribution issue.

The engineering of the stems, or legs, is perfect, though. Beautiful engineering – a sheer joy.

The ear-cups also feel short of an optimum fit, too. They seem too straight, and don’t curve enough around your lower cheek bone. It’s odd, and quite hard to describe, but, they just don’t feel finished. It’s a shame, as the fit at the top part of the cup is about as good as any headphones that I’ve tried.

New tricks

As I mentioned, AirPods Max will soon be three years old. They need a refresh – they need to be bought up to date.

The $300 cheaper earbuds have the newer 5.3 Bluetooth codec, Adaptive Transparency, Conversation Boost, and the later H2 chip (which enables the precision finding).

AirPods Pro 2 were my device of the year from Apple last year. I’ll come on to the sound delivery later, but in part their amazing sound is down to the new high-excursion driver, which features a high dynamic range amplifier. Imagine that driver in the Max!

Apple’s premium pair of headphones are showing signs of ageing – they require a 2023 makeover, and facelift.

Volume squared

I mentioned earlier, that the Pro 2, now has volume adjustment available on the stems. For me, it’s fiddly. I do use it sometimes, but more often than not, I still reach for the phone.

The stems are so small, that the technique to flick the volume up and down is awkward.

On the Max, volume is adjusted using the crown. Whilst large, prominent, and easy to use & find, it’s in the wrong place. It would be far better positioned infront of the chrome leg, rather than behind.

Battery life on both pairs of AirPods is good. With some kind of noise-cancelling enabled on both, you’ll get around twenty hours with the Max, and five hours with the Pros.

I’ve found charging to be rapid on both pairs. The fact you have the option to charge the Pro 2 on a MagSafe puck, is a neat trick, which is yet another area that the Max will need to be brought up to date with – and soon. As it stands, the lightning cable port will soon be out of line with the imminent European Unions regulations that come in to play next year. Like it or not, Apple will have to bring either USB-C, or MagSafe to AirPod Max within a year.

I heard that

Out of the gate, the two sound signatures are similar, but different…Max gives you a much fuller, immersive sound experience, and given that these are over the ear headphones, that is not altogether surprising.

A-B testing the two using the same tracks, it was clear that there is very much an Apple signature EQ going on here. To my ears, the lower mids are more scooped out on AirPods Max. This helps for the vocal mix on a track to be a little more present – or forward…without jargon, you just hear the vocals clearer.

Neither pair is overly heavy, nor rich on bass, which I happen to like. I’m not saying that they lack bass, just that they’ve not been given the Beats treatment, if you know what I mean. I guess, the best way I could describe the bass, is that it is not overwhelming. It doesn’t drown you in a thick, thumping, heavy bass. Coming from a studio background, I’ve got used to a flat, neutral response. Now, that’s not for everyone, and, you probably wouldn’t want that kind of sound for casual, recreational listening anyway.

The frequency range, is pretty wide, and full. I keep coming back to that word full…but that was the first impression I had when I started listening to them.

Wrapping up

Purely from a sound perspective, AirPods Pro deliver.

For serious audio listening, they are the pair I would understandably reach for every time. But, the 2022 version of AirPods Pro 2 have shown what Apple is capable of, and how much their audio design, and audio engineering have improved over the past three years.

There have been rumours of a new pair of Max, possibly by next year. Let’s hope that Max doesn’t go the same way as the Mac Pro, and become an over-priced, outdated showcase for Apple.

AirPod Max are inherently good…but…they just need bringing up to date. With a few features lifted straight from AirPods Pro 2, Max could easily become almost perfect!

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