Apple’s AirPods Max, a traveler’s perspective: great audio isn’t everything

by Emma

Anton D. Nagy contributed to this post. I don’t even know how to say this politely, so I’ll just start from the beginning. Apple’s AirPods Max is the most frustrating piece of hardware that I’ve ever wanted to almost love… There, I got it off my chest.

Let me explain: I travel a lot, 150,000 miles a year kind of a lot. It’s been the story of my life since I was 3, and for the past 20 years, it’s a sort of requirement I’ve set before taking any job. I’ve always been kind of like that George Clooney character in Up In The Air, where I only buy toiletries in small packages, I spend insane amounts of money on specific kinds of luggage just because they’re easier to drag, and I use Peak Design bags and tripods almost exclusively because of the amount of thought that’s put into making them compact.

The point is, I value ergonomics, practicality, and thoughtfulness before buying any product, and I’m willing to spend more on it. Obviously, with this pandemic, we all had to take a break from travel, but the main reason I felt the only way to finalize the review of these Max correctly, was to wait until I could fly again with them. The sound should be one of the most important reasons for you to buy a pair of headphones, but for anyone willing to spend so much money, it’s not everything.

Thoughtfulness, as a noun, is the consideration for the needs of other people. Let’s be honest, Apple hasn’t always been famous for this. Remember the excessive obsession over thin and light at the expense of battery life? Remember, the only two USB ports stuck so next to each other that one was pretty much useless on the old MacBooks. Or OK, just one USB-C port for everything on the MacBook? Sure, this is the company that put a thousand songs in your pocket, but it also killed the headphone jack against user feedback.

So, AirPods Max. Let me start with an important disclaimer. This is not an audiophile review, and I’m sure the Internet is full of them. I even battle with the idea of such an analysis for wireless headphones. At the moment, Bluetooth hasn’t really reached what most would consider as High Fidelity territory, even if Apple disputes it in their marketing. You either choose the convenience of a wireless connection at the expense of quality or the other way around at the cost of money, cause yeah, it can get thousands of dollars more expensive.

Disclaimers

That said, for Bluetooth, the AirPods Max is NOT at all affordable. At this price, *any* pair of headphones should sound amazing, and these do but bear with me. Let me begin with the things I like before you get the impression that this is a bashing piece. We have a different approach through computational audio, where the H1 chip detects everything from the music you hear to the fit in your ears to balance the EQ dynamically, and I can tell. I actually do appreciate the aluminum design, but for reasons that contradict the purpose.

I seriously think Apple chose the materials more to boost the audio experience than the build quality. See, I probably like most about these headphones because I’ve never heard a broader soundstage from Bluetooth Headphones. I’m talking instrument separation and crisp bass, if there is such a thing. I’m trying to find a word to describe how I can actually feel it without providing any sort of distortion. The aluminum actually seems to contribute to creating this sort of rumble all around that I can’t say I’ve experienced before.

Now, disclaimer number 2. I have no scientific way to prove this, but I’ve only experienced this soundstage on Apple Music. Yes, I know this is the exact AAC codec that Spotify uses, which I also download at maximum quality. For whatever reason that should seriously be obvious, Instrument separation and audio quality on Spotify is good, but I consider it better on Apple Music.

I say apparently because this is a very Apple thing to do. If you want to take maximum advantage of what these headphones can do, you have to be in their ecosystem. Pair them to one, and then they’re smart enough to switch between the rest of your Apple devices. Spatial Audio capabilities exist depending on the content supporting it, and all you have to do is say Hey Siri to get them to play whatever music you want… on Apple Music, of course. The concept of having this Apple Watch-style digital crown for audio and music playback is a more innovative approach to capacitive controls. Still, I think my favorite feature is the button next to it.

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