Apple AirPods Max: Measurements & First Impressions

The full review is now available.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Let’s get it straight first, I’m neither an Apple fanboy nor a hater. I hate macOS, love iOS, hate the AirPods, and am lukewarm towards the AirPods Pro. If a brand makes something good (or bad), I’ll give credit where credit is due. Regardless of existing reputation.

Despite what we audiophile snobs would like to believe, Apple is no amateur in the audio world. The original Apple earbuds was built with drivers sourced from Fostex, their devices once sported DACs from Wolfson and Cirrus Logic, and let’s not forget that they’ve literally pioneered (or at the very least, highly popularised) the concept of “portable audio” with the iPod and its variants.

Sure, the EarPods (and the sonically identical AirPods) weren’t exactly good sounding transducers. And it really wasn’t until the AirPods Pro that people realised that they could make a decent earphone (after removing the headphone jack, of course). But now Apple wants to play a different game, from entertaining the masses and the prosumers to having their feet firmly planted into the hifi scene: a headphone that costs more than $500.

Yeah, I know. $500 is pretty much chump change to the ballers of the headphone hobby. For some, $500 is only enough to pay for the amplifier that powers their $1,500 headphone. But to everyone else, it’s a new frontier, a whole new world that the gods at Apple have opened their eyes to. And if anything else, I’m just happy that Apple would be normalising the concept of spending $500 a headphone, just like it normalised spending $250 on a true wireless earbud.

However, we’re not here to reminisce. Apple has entered the headphone game, and so now it’s time for the tech YouTubers to make way. As per usual, let them handle the other stuff: the build, the looks, the software, the convenience, whatever. In-Ear Fidelity is here to answer the question they skim over: how good does the AirPods Max sound?

Product page: https://www.apple.com/airpods-max/

MSRP: $550

Driver configuration: Dynamic

Non-audio opinions

My unboxing posts are pretty much the only times I’ll ever talk about build quality, accessories and the like. I’m not really the person to ask about these things as I don’t really care about them that much.

I also kind of lost the box on the day I bought the APM, so I can’t really do an unboxing…

Accessories

  • Smart case
  • Lightning to USB-C cable

Build: Apple-style “matte metal” finish. Headband reminds me of one of those mesh office chairs. Seems sturdy, no immediate complaints.

Fit: headband doesn’t quite extend far enough for my tastes. The APM just barely fits my head, which isn’t ideal since it’s not very secure once I start moving around.

Isolation: Transparency mode allows you to hear your environment on, and there’s ANC which… works. More on that below.

Initial impressions

These impressions were done with the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold2. The full review will be done with the iPhone 7 Plus as well.

ANC/software-specific impressions

  • Pretty bad, at least in comparison to similar Bose and Sony offerings.
    • The AirPod Max’s (hereby abbreviated as simply “APM”) ANC puts a lot of pressure on my ears, something I haven’t felt in a long time and is especially bad in quieter environments. The pressure is less noticeable in more noisy environments, but…
    • The ANC is also rather unstable in inconsistently-noisy environments (e.g. bumpy bus rides). Any bursts of noise in the environment is also met with sudden increases in the aforementioned pressure. Granted I have not tested the APMs on a plane, but it’s 2020.
  • The Transparency mode (that allows you to hear your environment with the headphones on) is within expectations. It works, but there’s also an audible and lingering noise floor in the background with it active. Full marks if this quirk common in other ANC headphones was resolved, but alas.
  • Connection dropouts are pretty common with Android devices. Do not recommend unless you’re knee-deep in the Apple ecosystem.

Sound impressions

  • The signature: downsloping response with a sub-bass emphasis.
    ELI5: bass is the loudest part on the APM.
  • The good: for the sheer amount it has, the APM’s bass is very well-done. The bass emphasis is focused mainly in the sub-bass (sub-150Hz frequencies since people keep harassing me about this, yes sub-bass is technically under 80Hz but the APMs begin their rise at around 150Hz, hence brain-fart) and so is well separated from melodic instrumental frequencies. A lot of consumer-friendly headsets tend to get this very wrong (looking at you, Sony) so thumbs up to Apple for being one of the few to get it right.
  • The meh: with all the talk on DSP and other software magics, the imaging performance on the APM is… average. None of the familiar crossfeed tech seems to be at play here and the APM sounds like what it is: a closed-back headphone. Utterly average and nothing special.
    But do note that this is with non-Apple devices, so maybe the “Spatial Audio” function on Apple devices could fix this. More on that in the full review.
  • The bad: in the “intangibles”, the APM does very little to justify its $550 price tag. My personal benchmark for resolution/detail for this kind of sound signature would be the $700 Audeze LCD-2 Classic, and the APM is not even close. Let’s not even talk about the Sennheiser HD800S… frankly, doesn’t even belong in the same conversation much less a comparison point in a formal review.
    The APM is probably closest to a decent $100 closed-back studio monitor; the AKG K371, the Shure SRH440, the Audio Technica ATH-M40X/M50X, maybe even the Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro.

TL;DR: In consideration that it’s a wireless ANC headphone, good for $300.

Reminder that these are initial impressions. Full review coming soon.

Measurements

Not sure how to read graphs? Click here
Data has been uploaded to the Graph Comparison Tool

Measurements are performed on an IEC60318-7 compliant system (GRAS 43AG-7) with the following specs:

  • GRAS RA0402 “hi-res” IEC60318-4 compliant occluded-ear simulator
  • GRAS KB5000/50001 anthropometric pinnae

More details here.

Support me on Patreon to get access to tentative ranks, the exclusive “Clubhouse” Discord server and/or access to the Premium Graph Comparison Tool! My usual thanks to all my current supporters and shoutouts to my big money boys:

“McMadface”
“Olindrax”
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Faheem

21 thoughts on “Apple AirPods Max: Measurements & First Impressions”

  1. FR looks excellent to me, very smooth and extended. The withdrawn region from 3-8k should make this great for easy listening. This type of bass boost is one of my favourites. It leaves the rest of the spectrum intact while giving you a nice headmassage when listening to some of the more contemporary music that actually has content in the lowest octave.
    Just looking at that alone I would argue that this is probably the best wireless headphone out there right now as far as acoustics are concerned.
    Too bad the overengineered hinge can’t make it fold into a travel friendly shape, the case it comes with is a joke.
    Taking that and your early impressions about the ANC into consideration I’d assume this to be a decent first attempt from Apple.

  2. Hi Crin,

    Please review the PSB M4U8.

    I think Paul Barton deserves more attention for
    The sound quality of his Bluetooth headphones.much better than Bose and Sony.

    Thanks!

  3. This will put to rest a lot of the confusion and debate over the sound and ANC. More straightforward and detailed but slightly similar to the impressions of others. Thanks for the graph and impressions.

  4. Overall surprised and also unsurprised by what apple has done this year with this pair. They marketed to audiophiles, something that is actually finally good to listen to and not overly bass bias like the original airpods in my opinion, with its god awful muffled bass sound and weak treble. But of course when it comes to apple, it is unsurprising the amount of marketing bs there is in the ads, and also the unimaginably high price tag does not surprise me, just plainly baffles me what people would pay for something that will break slightly in 3 years, accompanied with a 200 dollar fee for repairs.

  5. Imo really nice frequency response, however the fact that it doesn’t have a 3.5 input, the design and “The APM is probably closest to a decent $100 closed-back studio monitor; the AKG K371, the Shure SRH440, the Audio Technica ATH-M40X/M50X, maybe even the Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro.” really put me off (additionally, I don’t really need any ANC or wireless capability).

  6. Would it be possible to perform measurements for separate EQ profiles, like for the Audeze Mobius?

    Would be awesome for Galaxy Buds+ as well.

    Thanks!

  7. People have been dissing Apple’s audio performance but only kenrockwell and that one review in asr that were able to produce graphs and actual measurements in the internal DAC the older iPhones had and it measured better than most sub 1,000 usd outboard DACs. Even the obsolete iPods had better measurements than the Sony walkmans up to 24/48. I don’t understand that automatic hate towards Apple? Maybe bc they can’t accept that their niche hobby is easily matched, often times exceeded, by a mass brand? Sure it ain’t worth the price tag but people buy 5,000 usd cables all the time that don’t even make .00001% of improvement to the sonic qualities of any system besides aesthetic and placebo.

    1. There are several other measurements and (positive) opinions about Apple’s products among the “audiophile” community, however it is unfortunately true that the average “John Doe audiophile” who rather invests in boutique cables and manufacturers and that hi-res and DSD ripoff instead of relying on measurements and objective data (shockingly, most don’t even have a very basic understanding of measurements and the like) automatically assumes that Apple’s products are bad while they are really not. My goodness, the inexpensive Apple USB-C to Headphone Jack adapter is far superior to most of the stuff on the market, yet most assume that it isn’t capable because of its low price and since it’s from Apple.

  8. Ugh… of course you mean *those* measurements. Can anyone measure the inside part of the AirPods Max Ear Cushions and tell me how tall and wide the opening is? In other words, what is the maximum size an ear can be and fit into it without extreme discomfort?

  9. I really want to read what you have to say but this site has so many ads… It’s impossible to consume your content… Reminds me of Geocities, lol.

  10. Whelp, I’m not gonna be purchasing the airpods pro max for a long shot now. I already have my m50x and if I’m gonna pay for more than what my m50x’s cost, it better be on the class of Grado, Beyerdynamics, and audeze headphones. For now, my m50x’s will do.

    On the other hand I’ll probably get the galaxy buds for earbuds

  11. You said that the ANC had more pressure and had more instability than other ANC headphones but never mentioned how much sound they actually blocked out compared to the rest. Pretty important considering this is probably why anyone would want to buy these things.

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