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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/
Driver configuration: Dynamic
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…
- 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.
These impressions were done with the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold2. The full review will be done with the iPhone 7 Plus as well.
- 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.
- 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 frequenciessince 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 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.