Apple Airpods Max headphones Gen 1 (late 2020)

Oops… it happened again. Bought something I didn’t need. :vb-grin:

So first off: nobody should buy these.

  • they were introduced almost two years ago (Dec 2020) so a new version might be imminent
  • even at the discounted Costco price (briefly $430, now $450) they’re $80 more expensive than arguably the class leading competitor: the Sony WH-1000XM4
  • the sound seems pretty intense on the high frequency end to me. I haven’t seen a response curve, but I’m thinking there’s some “treble boost”.
  • they’re ridiculously heavy (0.85 lbs! On your head!)
  • they come in an infuriating flappy Airpod bra that offers little protection
  • they are pretty tight, as in “they squeeze your head”, not as in “yo, that sh*t’s tight”
  • they can’t be used passively with a wire, so the battery better stay healthy
  • you need to charge them with a lightning cable. Frickin’ lightning! Ugh
  • they STINK out of the box, at least mine did. Like intense acetone smell or something similar, presumably from manufacturing and sitting in the box for a long time. Faded after having them under a fan for a day though

So why did I buy them?

  • first, I blame @Desertlap who said “don’t try them, or else…”
  • I love music, I like my AirPods Pro’s and I was hoping for an exciting / more immersive / fuller sound experience
  • shiny newish tech
  • discounted, who can resist a $120 discount? (from the outlandish $550 list price to the outlandish sale price of only $430)
  • I really like the convenience of switching audio between my iPad and my iPhone. When a call comes in I can take it on AirPods even if I’m in the middle of watching Netflix on my iPad with 'em
  • the headband looked comfy (it is), kind of negated by the 0.85 lbs weight though

Now that I have them, what do I like

  • they sound quite nice. Not perfect imo, but nice
  • the active noise suppression means I can listen to classical music and enjoy quiet passages, not overshadowed by the noise of the fridge or AC kicking in. Shoutout to the Idagio app, which atm offers a two-month free trial. It’s like Spotify for classical music, including lossless audio.
  • I like having precise volume control right there on the headset
  • having zero wires means you can do other activities easily, like doing the dishes. :slight_smile: I have wired Sony MDR-1AM2’s hooked up to a Fiio bluetooth DAC (a $300 combo at the time), but that still leaves a dangling wire that gets in the way. TBH the Max don’t sound all that much better than that Sony/Fiio, minus the noise cancellation.

So I do like the convenience, I appreciate the sound, I love the noise cancellation, but this feels like “$250 worth of enjoyment”, not quite $430. With Costco supposedly I can return them until 90 days after purchase, so I’ll keep them and see if they grow on me (and whether Apple releases a much better version 2 in the coming three months).


Image from Marius Masalar’s review

BTW if you have some time to spare and you are vaguely interested in these, that review by Marius (who absolutely loves the sound btw) is worth a read. Sample quote: “Several hours of listening later, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t just experiencing some sort of hallucination caused by the extreme clamping force of these metallic behemoths…:joy:

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Good points otherwise, but I will have to disagree on the description of the AirPods Max’s sound signature. If anything, the treble is heavily shelved on the AirPods Max, like listening through a blanket. It reminds me of why I absolutely despised Beats by Dr. Dre (all bass and treble missing) and no wonder since Apple bought that company and the pedigree of their audio “expertise” (if you can call it that!) shows. Now, headphone frequency response graphs were hit-or-miss in the past and still are even with $10,000+ equipment if you don’t know what you’re doing (looking at you, RTINGS), but AudioScienceReview and Crinacle both match precisely with what I hear. As to why you hear a treble boost, it could be the contrast of the reference-level extreme treble (the “air” or those highest pitches at 10 KHz and up) with the heavily muted lower and mid treble that is causing this. I also see some peaks as well in the 10 KHz range which means it is pretty grainy and unrefined there too that is not doing any favors. This incoherent treble in the AirPod’s natural response could be making it sound piercing since you have to max out the volume just to get enough lower treble, at which point the high treble, which does not need that extra volume, is overcompensated and gets overwhelming.

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They sounded very bright to me doing a back and forth with the Sony 1AM2’s that I mentioned. I’ll go back and do that again, and maybe see if I left plastic covers on the Sony speakers. :grin:

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I think both can be true in this case. In other words, the Airpods may sound bright comparatively.

I have some B&W wired headphones and they have a somewhat dark sound signature. I’ve heard the Sony’s described as “warm” on places like head-fi which usually indicates a tuned down treble.

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One other thing and you are likely aware, but especially with audio because of the way your brain processes sound, whatever you use on a regular basis becomes the reference or default as to how it should sound.

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Very true. That also makes it very hard to do a good job making a decent mix out of a recording. At some point I read a tip to listen to the mix on several totally different audio systems, including in your car. Pretty good advice.

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:astonished: I guess with added ears it sounds better?

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Seems like they are targeting the Japanese market.

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I have never felt my age more keenly than right now.

I’m a millennial and of the younger crowd here and I still don’t get it.
WhateverShrugGIF

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Well, after extensive listening tonight, these are going back. [edit a few days later, they’re still going back, but the sound improved a lot after resetting them]

Now irrelevant discussion of audio quality before device reset

I’m not sure if I got a dud, but the listening experience on my AirPods Max is just no match for my old Sony MDR-1AM2’s (no ANC) with Fiio bluetooth DAC. I went back on forth between the two playing a ton of well-recorded tracks from a wide range of artists (later Cardigans, Soundgarden, Logic, Alabama Shakes, Sheryl Crow) and in all cases there was a clear difference:

  • Sony’s: amazing sound placement, wide sound stage, full bass
  • AirPods: “boxed in feel” slightly hollow sound, instrument placement a little hazy/fuzzy

If I were to try to describe the difference, the Sony/Fiio combo sounds tight and controlled, the AirPods Max sound like there’s maybe some small left-right phase issues muddying up the sound. Tried with and without ANC, no notable difference. Net result: with the Sony’s I’m listening with a wide grin on my face, and with the APM I keep trying to figure out what’s wrong with the sound.

BTW this testing also really drove home how heavy the APM are, with way too much clamping force. All in all not worth the premium for me. Maybe I just got lucky with those Sony’s, or maybe I got unlucky with a bad pair of APM. Either way, time to try out the Costco return process.

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Well as I’ve told many “good sound” is highly subjective and individual. I’d describe the Pro Max as 'balanced if a bit warm".

And I’m reminded that my favorite pair of in wired in ears, especially for something like jazz or acoustic folk, the Etymotic ER4’s are among the most polarizing in ears around.

I find them highly detailed and accurate, while the other true music lover in my family, my daughter, finds them cold and sterile sounding…

NEW ER4 Earphones (etymotic.com)

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And then there’s the non audiophiles like me who purchased Bose QC 35 II headphones for the frequencies the ANC blocks effectively. Namely, loud gasoline generators. And, being an audio peasant, I think they sound good, too! :smiley_cat:

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I totally agree. Despite that I’m almost thinking there’s something off about my APM though. I’ll try to see if it’s possible to force reset or firmware upgrade, because the difference with my Sony’s+DAC is so pronounced. If they do go back I will definitely miss the ease of connection, auto pause, picking up phone calls, and excellent ANC, but I’ll enjoy the close to $500 back in my pocket!

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I had a nephew that interned at Bose when he was going to college. Far more than any other audio company, they go full on in to psychoacoustic or how it’s perceived versus technical “accuracy”.

That approach as much as anything is why I think they have led the industry in noise cancelling tech for so many years (and the new quiet comfort II’s retake the crown IMHO) . And for that matter if you like the Bose “sound” signature you are all set.

Il will say that the overwhelming majority of noise cancelling headphones I see on planes etc. are Bose, so they must be doing something right

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And this is going to sound weird/trivial, but you also might try something as basic as reseating the earcups as well.

I can’t recall where I read it, but there was a whole thread on the topic with the net belief that a bunch of the Maxs came with them misaligned slightly coming from the factory. The people that discovered this, did so by accident when they just bought additional earcups.

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Oh wow, interesting! Will definitely give it a shot. BTW the other day I found something mildly interesting: there was an angle where the sound from a nearby running tap appeared like it was beaming right through the ANC. Some kind of specific relative orientation where the ANC algorithm wildly failed to predict the best choice of “anti-sound”. Truly as if there was a hole in my ANC shield. Funny. I didn’t see any evidence of dirt in any of the mics so I think that wasn’t it.

There is an extensive thread worth reading IMHO at head-fi.org on the Max’s and they have reported similar things as well as noting that small adjustments to listener position or to the fit can also make noticeable differences in sound signature and noise cancelling.

The cynic in me would argue if that’s broadly true, then the max may be more trouble than they are worth. OTOH fiddling with mine I did get them to an “ideal” positioning, and the perhaps single benefit to apples case (bra) is that you don’t have to collapse them down when putting them away.

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I suspected as much, so I did my sound quality comparisons mostly with ANC off (not transparency, just off). That didn’t help as far as I could tell. As for the “case” I ended up buying a stand with magnets on the support post, and that works pretty great. Another item to return. :confused:

Well I’ll be darned. I did a factory reset (hold two buttons until LED flashes white), re-paired them to my iPhone, and voila, phase issue and hollow sound resolved. Everything sounds beautifully placed! I guess I’ll evaluate a little longer before returning.

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