AirPods Max 2: What we want to see in the new headphones
The AirPods Max are a stunning piece of hardware. Those aluminum earcups are weighty and scream quality, and that fancy headband makes them super comfortable. The digital crown is a great piece of design, and the earpads are soft and relieve stress over long listening periods. They are a serious, premium product that seem like they’re worth the price.
Only there’s one, glaring problem: I just don’t like them.
When I buy a piece of sound equipment, they have to have at least two of three things: good value, good sound, or good quality. My Sony WH1000XM4s, for example, are well made and are a good value for what I want from them, but they don’t sound that good. My Sennheiser 599SE are of excellent value, and they sound good, but they aren’t built to last. The problem I have with the AirPods Max is very simple: while they are stunningly made, the sound quality doesn’t align with the price tag, meaning, by my criteria, they’re not a good enough value. They don’t offer anything new to me, and when you’re spending upwards of $500 on a pair of headphones, that’s a problem.
In the world of consumer tech, however, we’re only one product revision away from potential perfection. Should Apple ever make a pair of AirPods Max 2, I have some suggestions for how they could improve. But first, here’s what I don’t like about the first-generation cans.
The problem with the sound
To many, the AirPods Max will sound fine. Good even. And on the surface, that’s true — the highs are crisp, the mids are welcoming, and the bass, smooth. The problem is the balance of the sound. Like the Beats that came before them (and with so many other headphones of today), the bass is overwhelming. It has a habit of overtaking the rest of the music, blending everything together into a big sound… blender.
Don’t get me wrong; I love bass. I like bass-heavy music and deliberately set up my home speakers to emphasize some of the lower frequencies, but I like my bass to be controlled and precise. I want to hear the rest of my music too: all the instruments, breaths, and idiosyncrasies of what I’m listening to. The bass is a massive part of that, but it is not the most important element of a soundscape, and unfortunately, the AirPods Max think it is.
What else is wrong?
Unfortunately, the sound isn’t the only problem with the AirPods Max. They’re heavy for a start, and while for some, that hasn’t been a problem, it was for me. I used them for a couple of hours and, as I was wearing them, they started to shift down my face. Slowly, but surely, they were sagging over my ears. I adjusted the little sliders on the side, and it stopped for a little while, but then started up again later. I’ve not seen others with this problem, so maybe I am an isolated case, but it sure did take the luster off my first try of some very expensive headphones.
The earcups are soft and comfortable, but the material they’re made of is like a magnet for makeup. I felt awful as I handed them back to the person who’d let me try them, taking with them an unexpected layer of foundation. I can only imagine how they’d look if I were to use a pair daily, as I would hope to.
And then there’s the case: a sorry excuse for a piece of microfibre-lined suede, it barely covers the headphones in a bag and cracks the earcups together when you slide them in. Apparently, it puts them into a sleep mode, but if I’m spending $550 on a pair of headphones, I want to be able to turn them off completely from such an option and receive a much sturdier case to protect them in a bag. My Sonys were $200 cheaper, I can turn them off, and there’s an incredible hard case in the box. It only further confounds why Apple’s case is so poor — you’re left having to find the best AirPods Max cases on Amazon and spend even more money. Our reviewer, Christine Romero-Chan, was able to get her hands on this Intelli CarryOn Case for AirPods Max and loved it, but again, if you’re already forking over hundreds for the headphones, the included case should be enough.
The cardinal sin
I use Apple Music. I am of the converted. It sounds better than any other music service I’ve tried, works better than TIDAL, and functions across all my devices nicely. I also get a subscription with my phone contract, which certainly helps. Part of my conversion to Apple Music after using Spotify for so long was the addition of Apple Lossless Audio — which uses the Apple lossless codec known as “ALAC.” I won’t go too far into it, but like FLAC and other formats, it has an ever-increasing bitrate that can help your music sound better. That’s doing a disservice to the complexities of the excellent codec, but it’s the simplest way of explaining it.
Before I begin, I should mention that no Bluetooth headphones will play lossless audio — the Bluetooth connection simply can’t transfer enough data for the higher bitrate tracks to work. There are methods to make Bluetooth sound better, but none of them quite get there. Apple Music Lossless Audio is the same — you need a wired connection for the normal lossless bitrates and an extra DAC to get the very highest quality available.
That being said, you’d expect Apple’s most expensive headphones to support Apple Lossless Audio if you plug them, wired, into your best Mac or iPhone. And certainly, you’ll get better sound than a wireless connection, right? The quality of the signal from the wired source will sound better than a Bluetooth source…right? Well, not quite. You see, the trouble comes from a limitation built into the headphones themselves, and how the headphones deal with the digital to analog conversion, and the reverse of the process.
On the phone or MacBook end, there is a DAC, or digital to analog converter, that takes the digital signal from the source (in this case, the phone or Mac) and converts it to an analog signal that it launches down the headphone cable. This signal reaches the AirPods Max, where it meets the ADC, or analog to digital converter. This takes the signal and reconverts it to a digital signal that the headphone’s noise-canceling center can use — it needs a digital signal to mess about with the microphones and sensors that allow for the noise canceling. This ADC, however, is only capable of sending a 24bit, 48KHz signal to the in-built amp, which is not a high res, lossless signal like Apple Music is capable of putting out. It will even downgrade sound pumped out by a stronger external DAC.
Reddit user TeckFire, who taught me everything I know about this issue, puts it best in their Reddit thread:
“The real thing that AirPods Max cannot do, full stop, is play Hi-Res audio. The ADC would down-convert any Hi-Res analog signal being sent to it back down to 24bit 48KHz audio,” TeckFire says.
This makes absolutely no sense to me. While it’s a feature that only the most hardcore users would be after, the fact that there is a built-in hardware limitation that means you can’t listen to one of Apple Music’s most exciting features on their top-of-the-range headphones is baffling. It’s a problem that, just like the others, is exacerbated by that price tag. The AirPods Pro get away with it because they are reasonably priced, very convenient, and sound good enough for a pair of true wireless in-ear buds. But Apple’s flagship headphones should be the best way to listen to Apple Music — or so you would have thought.
What Apple should fix for AirPods Max 2
As much as I’m not a massive fan of the AirPods Max in their current form, I can see how with some improvement, they could be a fantastic option for both listening at home and on the go.
First off, Apple should fix the case for the AirPods Max 2. Nobody wants to pay $550 for a nice pair of headphones and receive a glorified microfibre-lined nappy in the box. Give us a proper case that’s sturdy and actually protects the headphones when they’re put in a bag.
As much as the build quality is excellent and the headband comfortable and supportive, they are just too heavy. Those earcups could use a looking at as well as I’m really not sure if they’re made of the best material for those of us that use foundation. I’m not sure how to make them lighter, given the sheer amount of aluminum on display, but there must be somewhere they can lose some weight. If nothing else, I’d like them to not slip down my face, smearing away hours of work in seconds.
That sound signature needs changing too. It’s evident that the hardware can produce some great sound. There are flashing moments of greatness in the highs and mids, but the bass is just too present to make listening anything other than adequate. I think this could set the AirPods Max 2 apart from the market. Instead of just being “the same bass-heavy sound as everyone else but through better drivers,” it could be a case of filling a niche — wireless headphones with an audiophile sound profile.
Finally, they really need better Apple Music Lossless Audio support. I’m not holding out for a Bluetooth update to bring it along, but when you’re attempting to listen wired? There really shouldn’t be any excuse. Apple Music Lossless is one of the biggest reasons I personally chose to ditch Spotify and leap over to Apple Music, and the fact that Apple’s flagship headphones aren’t shouting about one of Apple Music’s best features from the rooftops is, as I said before, baffling. Just let me plug my headphones into my Mac and listen to Lossless Audio — and don’t build in a hardware limitation that gets in the way.
With all these in consideration, I would be far more likely to buy a pair of Apple’s AirPods Max. Most of my fixes are, for the most part, at a hardware level. There’s no way to download an update that makes them weigh less, and it’s likely impossible to update the onboard DAC to support above 24bit 48KHz res audio. The audio tuning might be possible to tweak with software updates, but I had a play with an equalizer with little luck so I have my doubts.
In all, I just want them to feel more like they’re worth that lofty price tag because even with the best Airpods deals, they still feel far too expensive. When there are plenty of other options available at much more affordable price points, the AirPods Max feel like a financial slap in the face.
Oh yeah, and Apple? Spatial audio is bad for music. Stop. Please.
Please Apple, improve the AirPods Max
It’s interesting that if the AirPods Max were less expensive or potentially the same price as their rivals, I might have a nicer overall opinion on Apple’s flagship headphones. But they’re not, and it needs to change. There are so many alternatives to the AirPods Max that people have other options.
Alas, it looks like the AirPods Max have sold well enough that Apple won’t care about what I think about the AirPods Max 2 (not that they would anyway). The people that buy them don’t care about the things that I do, and it’s obvious that I am not the target audience of the AirPods Max.
Except, perhaps I am, or should be. I live Apple. I have a Mac. I have an iPhone. I write about Apple. I glance at the Apple Watches with envious eyes as I work out whether I can afford one, saving the pennies for an Apple Watch Series 8 and an iPhone 14. I am an Apple Music customer, and I subscribe to Apple Arcade. I love Apple, I really do, and perhaps that’s why the AirPods Max sting so much. An expensive pair of headphones from Apple should be right up my alley, especially if they go all in on Lossless Audio.
I pray that Apple will do something very un-Apple, and admit the AirPods Max aren’t perfect — and, much like the Mac Pro wheels that came before them — far too expensive for what they are. I still hold out hope for the AirPods Max 2 to deliver what my ears deserve. Who knows: MagSafe is back, so stranger things have happened.
If you must…
Even if after my inane diatribe you still want a pair of metal Beats, you can go to Amazon and find a pair. You will get some very heavy, very solid headphones, and who knows, maybe you’ll love the way they sound. To each their own.