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Four years after the launch of the original in-ear AirPods headphones, Apple has launched its first-ever over-ear headset, the AirPods Max. Costing an astonishing £549, our audio lab experts have put them through their paces to see if they justify the high premium compared to rival pairs.
As you’d perhaps expect from the launch of a new Apple product, it promises to revolutionise the listening experience. Indeed, the brand states the new headphones are ‘a perfect balance of exhilarating high-fidelity audio and the effortless magic of AirPods’, claiming them to be ‘the ultimate personal listening experience’.
You’ll certainly have to pay for the privilege, though. Their eye-watering £549 price is £200 more expensive than the priciest wireless headphones we’ve tested to date.
Are they worth it? Below, we take a look at whether the specs appear to justify the cost; click through to our full review to find out whether the AirPods Max lived up to our astronomical expectations in our tests. We also highlight some leading over-ear headphones that – on paper at least – are similarly well equipped.
Has Apple taken a lead over rivals Bose, Sony and Sennheiser? Find out how the Apple AirPods Max fared with our independent lab tests and professional listening panel in our Apple AirPods Max review.
Apple AirPods Max key features
Constructed from a stainless-steel frame with telescopic adjustment, the AirPods Max certainly look the part. Combining this with breathable textiles around the ear cushion and headband, the design is as classy and refined as we’ve come to expect from the brand, despite the Max’s rather large size.
Furthermore, they’re fitted with active noise cancellation, gyroscopic sensors (to best deliver a surround-sound experience as you move your head) and a ‘digital crown’ jog-wheel, allowing you to control the audio, answer calls or activate Apple’s digital assistant Siri.
You’ll have to be an Apple devotee to reap the most benefit from them, though; if you don’t have a compatible Apple device, you can still play music wirelessly, but you’ll miss out on many of the high-end Apple features that doubtless contribute to the high cost.
Apple AirPods Max vs Sony WH-1000XM4: key features compared
|Apple AirPods Max||Sony WH-1000XM4|
|Claimed battery life||Up to 20 hours||Up to 30 hours|
|Noise cancelling||Active noise cancelling with ‘transparency mode’||Active noise cancelling with ‘ambient sound’ setting|
|Connectivity||Bluetooth 5.0||Bluetooth 5.0|
|Voice assistant control||Yes – Siri||Yes – Alexa, Google Assistant or Siri|
Based on the specs as they stand, bar a few fancy-sounding features, the AirPods Max don’t appear to break new ground for wireless headphones. For the record, ‘transparency mode’ and ‘ambient sound’ are essentially the same thing; they let you temporarily change the settings to hear external noise when you need to (if you’re crossing a busy road, for example).
They do, however, promise to be comfortable – regardless of the shape of your head; you’ll need to read our full review to find out if our professional listening panel agreed, especially given they weigh a full 134g more than the Sony WH-1000XM4s we’ve compared them to above.
They will sync effortlessly with your Apple device, be it an iPhone, iPad or Apple Watch. They also come with a soft, slim travel case that when stowed away makes them look a bit like a handbag.
When can I get the Apple AirPods Max?
The Apple AirPods Max are in very limited supply right now, being out of stock online at many major retailers, including Amazon UK and John Lewis.
You can order the AirPods Max directly from Apple, but at time of writing, the estimated delivery dates for each colour are around late February to early March. Some retailers including Richer Sounds are currently taking pre-orders as well.
Alternatives to the Apple AirPods Max
Apple in no way has the premium over-ear headphone market to itself. Here are some rivals to consider, particularly if the AirPods Max price has you raising an eyebrow. All three are fully compatible with both Apple and Android devices.
Sony WH-1000XM4 (£309)
Sony’s premium wireless over-ear headset has plenty of features, many of which are configurable with the accompanying smartphone app. They also boast substantial battery life and advanced noise cancellation – just the thing for uninterrupted sound quality on the move. Available for around £309 from many retailers (somewhat lower than their £350 RRP), they’re also substantially cheaper than the new AirPods.
We’ve also tested the XM4’s predecessors, the Sony WH-1000XM3s, which have seen their price drop a fair bit since the newer version launched and you can now pick up for £220.
Sennheiser Momentum 3 Wireless (£339)
Another high-end headset from a respected brand, that again represents an excellent saving over the Apple AirPods Max.
These traditional-looking over-ear headphones certainly feel well built and have a voice control function, if you’d rather not fiddle with tiny buttons.
Sennheiser has a reputation for high sound quality. Find out if this model delivered in our full Sennheiser Momentum 3 Wireless review.
JBL Live 650BTNC (£149)
At less than half the price of Sony and Sennheiser’s flagship pairs, these may be a cheaper alternative to all-singing, all-dancing rivals, but the JBL Live 650BTNC headphones shouldn’t be discounted as a good option. They have the battery life, noise cancellation and sound-quality credentials to match more expensive models.
Our testing revealed some slight imperfections, but at this price, it may be worth overlooking a few flaws.
Can a budget offering really match up to the might of Sony and Apple? Find out in our JBL Live 650BTN review.
For all the results on the best large headphones we’ve tested, head to our guide to the best over-ear headphones for 2021