Table of Contents
For a brief overview and non-audio opinions, refer to my first impressions on the AirPods Max.
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) revolutionised 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
If you’re not interested in the following, you can skip right to the next section using the Table of Contents above.
So first and foremost, I’m sure there’ll be many reading this review who aren’t familiar with me or my work who would (understandably) be asking: who is this guy? Why is he calling himself an audiophile? Why should I listen to him?
Hello, I am known as “crinacle” and I run In-Ear Fidelity (IEF), a fully independent website dedicated to the “portable audio” scene of the audiophile hobby, mainly focused on headphones and earphones. I first started in the hobby in the late 2000s (the earliest official record being my Head-Fi registration in 2011) and started getting a reputation for myself only around 2016, with the IEF website being created in early 2019. In short, I’ve been in the hobby for a little over a decade, and been involved in the audiophile community for a little under that.
(Do note that the portable audio hobby is relatively young, so don’t expect your average “veteran of the hobby” to have “decades of experience” like with the 2-channel speaker world.)
Currently I maintain the world’s largest public database of frequency response measurements for headphones and earphones, and I also maintain highly popular ranking lists of (most of) said headphones and earphones.
This is my full-time job so one could call me a “professional” considering that, well, this is my profession. It is my job to keep up to date with the audio scene, provide my thoughts and opinions on various products and topics, and of course making sure that my measurements database don’t go obsolete by keeping it updated with new releases.
As for why you should listen to me… that’s really your call to make. On many occasions I’ve labeled myself as simply “a guy on the internet” because that’s really all I am: just one of the many voices out there in the world. And while of course nobody should take my word (or anybody else’s) as gospel, I do hope that you would take my opinions into consideration when contemplating a purchase. If anything else, at least just for audio-related concerns since that’s my specialisation.
Next up, some further clarifications on the concerns that people had after the publication of my initial impressions post.
Some have raised concerns over the fact that apparently mentioned in my “first impressions” article that the AirPods Max does not fit my head. I’d like to clarify that they do fit my head but “just barely”. I still get a full seal with no bass roll-off and nothing sounds like it’s broken or malfunctioning.
That said, I did figure out why the AirPods Max wasn’t very secure on my head. The mesh headband is not the grippiest thing in the world, so while the cups themselves may be properly sealed against my ears, large movements result in quite a bit of momentum for the relatively heavy AirPods Max and so I can feel the headband start shifting as I do.
Doesn’t really affect sound quality, as far as I can tell. But it is worth noting in terms of comfort and security.
I’ve said my piece in my initial impressions and they still hold true now. You can read it if you want, but I won’t be going into the weeds of it all in this review since I don’t really care about it, and also it’s not in my wheelhouse.
iDevice usage and features
I used the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold2 for my initial impressions, but this full review will be done on the iPhone 7 Plus (iOS 14.3). That should alleviate most doubts, but I still need to clarify a few extra things:
- The Adaptive EQ activates automatically. You don’t need to be on an iDevice for it to function.
- The Spatial Audio function only works on files with 5.1/7.1/Dolby Atmos audio enabled. It does not activate when normal music files are played and if it does, a prompt will show up stating so. I have not seen this prompt pop up during testing.
- Deep in the iOS settings, there is a “Headphone Audio” setting that allows you to tune AirPods devices to various profiles. I acknowledge this feature exists, but this will not be a factor in this review as it is exclusive to iOS only.
- The tuning/tonality of the AirPods Max will be the same regardless of what device you connect it to. More on that below.
Signature & Tonality
Compensated (IEF Neutral, top) and raw (bottom) measurements of the AirPods Max
Not sure how to read graphs? Click here
This review is based on the APM connected to the iPhone 7 Plus (iOS 14.3).
The AirPods Max (APM) has a signature that, depending on your perception of treble in general, varies between “downsloping response with a sub-bass emphasis” to “U-shaped”. Where a typical V-shaped headphone would have a general wide-band boost of bass and treble, the APM keep their emphases in the extremeties of sub-bass and upper treble, hence the term “U-shaped” to denote a more focused boost compared to “V-shaped”.
Arguably the best aspect of the APM: the bass response. Very well-controlled and focused boost down into the lowest octaves of bass, resulting in a good separation between the basslines and the rest of the melodic mix. Due to the sub-bass focus over mid-bass, the APM is not a punchy headphone and prioritises sheer rumble over bass tactility. Less “boom” and more “growl”, if that makes sense.
Overall, the APM is a very well-tuned headphone, even within the context of the “hifi audiophile” models. The upper midrange is a little tame for my own liking but it’s not to the point where it’s screws with the tonality and timbre of vocals and instruments (looking at you here, Audeze). Definitely more than acceptable for the mainstream crowd, and the average audiophile would probably be pleasantly surprised too.
That said, the aforementioned sub-bass emphasis doesn’t quite mesh well with the rest of the frequency response, and despite its lack of bleed it very clearly dominates the sound of the APM. If it were up to me I would probably try to EQ up the 2kHz to 6kHz to balance out the tonality (either that or drop the sub-bass, but that doesn’t really address the midrange), however as it stands I wouldn’t consider the APM as a “muddy” or “bloated” headphone.
One potential dealbreaker would be the treble response; I’m personally a little sensitive to treble so the APM is edging into “sharp” territory for me, though it’s not too much of a problem since it acts as a decent counterbalance to the bass response. But regardless, there is a certain “spiciness” to the upper frequencies that one may or may not be accustomed to, and considering that treble is probably the biggest make-or-break aspects of frequency response it is certain worth the caveat emptor mention here.
And, for the objectivist crowd out there, I guess here’s the comparison you all have been waiting for:
AirPods Max measurements compensated to Harman AE/OE 2018
Comparison courtesy of the Graph Comparison Tool
If one assumes that the Harman AE/OE 2018 target is perfection (I certainly don’t) then the APM deviates in two regards: having a smidge too much sub-bass and a recession in the upper-midrange. That matches my subjective impressions a little (for the upper-mids at least, no such thing as too much sub-bass /s) so if you’re looking for a headphone that matches Harman, the APM actually isn’t the worst headphone to get. The EQ profile required to get it to Harman should be relatively simple and should not create any odd distortion artifacts should you go that direction.
An additional clarification: your music player should not have any effect on the tuning of the APM.
The black line (sample size: 1) represents the output of the APM connected to an iPhone 7 Plus (iOS 14.3) using linear-averaged periodic white noise. The grey lines are the original measurements (sample size: 6), connected to a Bluetooth connection through a Windows laptop using the Farina-sweep methodology used for the rest of my measurements database.
Apart from the differences in bass (which are due to the difference in measurement methodology rather than any difference in tuning or DSP on the transducer’s end), the overall differences observed are within the margin of error expected of typical headphone measurements due to placement variation, angling, clamp force etc.. So regardless of what device you use, whether it be Android or an iDevice, the final tuning of the APM should not be any different between devices.
- Great overall tonality
- Well-controlled, bass-forward response
- Could use more upper mids
- Potentially sharp/spicy treble
Tone grade: A-
A headphone is not purely tuning; else we can just EQ the APM to sound exactly like a Sennheiser HE-1 or something.
Let’s talk stereoimaging (shortened as “imaging” among the audiophile crowd), something you would expect the APM to do well in considering all the talk about DSP, on-the-fly EQ adjustments and other high-tech magicks that is typically Apple.
The APM… doesn’t sound extraordinary. The soundstage isn’t particularly wide or spacious (though above average for a closed-back headphone) and the positioning of the instruments themselves aren’t impressive either. Look, it’s not bad per se but when the marketing goes out of their way to mention it, I (and I suspect many other people as well) expect a lot more. Currently, in terms of imaging, the APM performs on the level of a decent-ish closed-back. Just don’t expect the APM to sound as wide as a HD800 or as precise as an Utopia.
(As mentioned in the Foreword, the Spatial Audio function is impressive, but exclusive only to files with 5.1/7.1/Dolby Atmos formatting which are typically exclusive to videos and movies. For 99.9% of music listening, Spatial Audio is not active.)
Resolution and leading-edge transients are where the APM falls short. Again, it’s not bad per se but it performs more on the level of lower-end closed-back studio monitors like the Shure SRH440, the Audio Technica ATH-M50X or the Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro. Decent, but also nothing mindblowing. Enough to get surface-level detailing but foreground notes in the melody tend to smear over the nuances in the background, especially when the tracks get more complex.
In some circles, comparisons have been made against the Audeze LCD-2 and the Sennheiser HD800S. I’ll guess I’ll be the first to say: not even close. I won’t even bother elaborating.
A quick mention: the APM does sound marginally better on the iPhone 7 Plus than on my Samsung Galaxy Z Fold2. However, the changes are mostly in the intangibles (slightly better resolution, less note smearing here and there) and the tuning itself will not change from device to device as mentioned in the section above.
- Acceptable imaging capabilities, but nothing beyond the realm of a typical closed-back headphone.
- Resolution is slightly above average.
Technical grade: C+
A brief primer on my valuation system, I give out “awards” based on three merits:
★: “Worth the price”
★★: “Redefines the price bracket”
★★★: “Worth the Blind”
Here is the important part though, these are awarded purely on the basis of sound quality. After all, this is an audio-focused headphone review website, and as such the ratings are audio-focused as well.
But I’ll deviate a little for the sake of the “typical usecase” for the APM. After all, one does not buy an Apple headphone purely for sound quality, much like how one does not purchase an iMac for raw horsepower. Looking at the APM’s immediate competition, we have the two biggest ones: the Bose 700 ($350) and the Sony WH-1000XM4 (also $350). Effectively, the APM is a $200 premium over the two, so begs the question: can that be justified?
I will say this, assuming that all three are priced equally, I will pick the APM. I despise the WH-1000XM4 and find it muddy and bloated, which surprises me since Sony had historically been a leader in the audio market (I myself am a fan of their flagship IER-Z1R in-ear monitor). The Bose 700 is, IMO, slightly better than the XM4, but doesn’t really have sound quality that matches other similarly priced audiophile-centric headphones anyways.
While the APM may be similar in terms of detailing, resolution and imaging, I would consider it to be vastly superior in terms of tuning. Against the XM4, it’s bass heavy without affecting the rest of the instruments; against the 700, it’s “balanced” without sounding wonky.
Is it $200 better though? Not really. I could really see myself praising the APM if it were at the same price as its competition, but that kind of premium is far too hard to swallow right now. And considering that you would never see Apple products going on discount, its value just gets worse and worse as its competition get cheaper and cheaper.
(For reference, both the Bose 700 and the Sony WH-1000XM4 are going for $280 on Amazon. Effectively making the APM double the price of its immediate competition.)
At any case, in the context of the IEF rating system, $550 is far too high for the level of sound quality that the APM presents. Not worth the dosh if sound is your primary concern.
Value Rating: N/A
If you’re someone who is deep in the Apple ecosystem and are looking for a luxury, “high-end” wireless ANC headphone, the AirPods Max will probably have features and conveniences that would benefit you far more than the average person, and so this review would likely not be reflective of your own needs and wants.
What I provide is, reiterating the title of this review again, the “Audiophile’s Perspective”. My ranking system only takes into account sound quality and audio performance, and nothing more. So if you’re expecting the AirPods Max to be a “do-everything” headphone, with “audio fidelity” being part of said “everything”, then I’m afraid that that’s the one thing that I’ll have to strike off that checklist.
The AirPods Max isn’t a bad sounding headphone, far from it. But if you’re buying one expecting $500 sound… maybe temper expectations a little.