While there’s little doubt that Apple’s new AirPods Max are great premium over-ear headphones—almost every reviewer has given them high marks for sound quality, style, and fit—most have also agreed that the AirPods Max Smart Case is more than a little weird.
Apple’s design team, however, insists that there’s a method to its seeming madness; in an interview with Japanese design publication Casa Brutus, Apple’s VP of industrial design, Evans Hankey, was joined by industrial designer Eugene Whang and Apple marketing VP Bob Borchers where they explained that the motive behind the Smart Case was to eschew the large, cumbersome cases that accompany many headphones, instead going with a design that’s “extremely storage efficient” for travellers.
Even if you agree with Apple’s design principles and aren’t all that bothered by the look of the AirPods Max Smart Case, however, there’s one other slightly controversial aspect to the over-ear headphones—the fact that you seemingly need to use the case to conserve battery power.
Except that maybe you don’t.
AirPods Max Power Modes
When Apple somewhat quietly unveiled the AirPods Max via press release, it didn’t have much to say about power management other than pointing out that they came with a Smart Case that would automatically switch the AirPods Max into an “ultra-low-power” standby mode.
This was an important feature since the AirPods Max lack any other kind of power button. In other words, there’s no way to manually switch the headphones into a power conservation mode except by putting them into the case (although some creative users have found hacky workarounds using magnets).
However, some early reviewers such as Marques Brownlee actually found that the battery drains when the AirPods Max are sitting unused outside of the Smart Case at about the same rate as when they’re in use, although at least some others disagree, suggesting that while they drain very slowly, to the point of maybe only losing about 10 percent in 24 hours, they also go into other lower-power standby modes eventually.
The problem of course is that Apple has kept everybody guessing in terms of how the AirPods Max actually handle power management, but clearly the company has noticed all of the idle speculation going on, and as a result it’s decided to offer some much-needed clarification.
Specifically, Apple notes that the AirPods Max will automatically go into “low power mode” when they’ve been idle for five minutes, even if they’re not placed in the Smart Case.
This appears to be the exact same low power mode that is used when placing them into the Smart Case, since Apple uses the same terminology, stating that “they go into a low power mode immediately” in that scenario.
This means that regardless of whether you choose to place your AirPods Max into the Smart Case or not, you should still see the same kind of power savings, losing no more than five minutes of power, at least in the short term. However, there’s another catch.
According to Apple’s support page, The AirPods Max have another “ultralow” power mode that disables Bluetooth and Find My to preserve the battery charge even more, and this is where the Smart Case does come in for longer-term battery savings.
Specifically, when they’re placed in the Smart Case, the AirPods Max will go into this “ultralow” power mode after only 18 hours, while if you don’t put them in the case, they’ll remain in the standard low power mode for 72 hours before kicking into the almost entirely powered off state.
So to summarize, if you don’t plan to use your AirPods Max for more than a day or so, you should still put them into the Smart Case to preserve maximum battery life, since otherwise, they will still slowly drain for a couple of days before they kick into that mode themselves. However, there’s also no need to be obsessive about putting them into the Smart Case during normal use when you’re listening to them on and off throughout the day.
Without the Smart Case you’ll use up about five minutes of battery life before they go into standby, but considering that the AirPods Max are good for 20 hours of listening — that’s 1,200 minutes — the difference between using the Smart Case and not using it likely won’t even be noticeable in the short term.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that since the AirPods Max only detect the Smart Case by using magnets (as one YouTuber already demonstrated), it’s extremely likely that we’ll soon see third-party cases for Apple’s headphones showing up on the market that can replicate this Smart Case feature, so if you’re still not entirely sold on the design of the Smart Case, we wouldn’t worry too much as other options will likely start showing up in the new year.