It seems the rumours of Apple unveiling one more product this year were not only true, but it’s come up with a nice surprise in the form of the release of its much-anticipated over-ear headphones, which the company is officially dubbing the AirPods Max.
While almost all of the recent rumours have suggested that Apple would use the name “AirPods Studio” for its new headphones, that stemmed from the name cited in a DigiTimes report back in May, but before that we’d been predicting they’d be called AirPods Max since early March.
Upon reflection, AirPods Studio ultimately seemed like it would have been an odd choice anyway, as Apple would likely want to distance its newest flagship headphones from the Beats branded Studio series, and considering Apple’s recent fascination with the “Max” designation in its iPhone lineup, AirPods Max seems like a much more obvious choice.
Names aside, however, the new AirPods Max are pretty much what we’ve been expecting, at least in terms of baseline features. Borrowing from the AirPods Pro in-ear headphones, they include Active Noise Cancellation, Transparency Mode, Adaptive EQ, and Spatial Audio, all in an over-ear design that should provide even better overall sound quality.
Where they differ from the rest of the AirPods family is that Apple will actually be offering them in five colours: Space Gray, Silver, Sky Blue, Green, and Pink.
Naturally, the AirPods Max also pack in Apple’s H1 chip — the same chip found in the AirPods Pro and second-generation AirPods, as well as Beats’ Powerbeats, Powerbeats Pro, and Solo Pro. While there was a slight possibility that Apple may have debuted a new chip for the AirPods Max, at this point it’s fair to say that the H1 probably does everything that it needs to do right now.
In fact, other than the choice of colours and of course the over-ear design, the AirPods Max pack in all of the same features as the AirPods Pro. The improvements in the AirPods Max come entirely from the acoustic engineering possible in a set of over-ear headphones that’s much harder to accomplish with wireless earbuds.
For instance, the larger headphones allow Apple to pack in 40mm custom dynamic drivers for an unsurpassed quality of sound, which Apple promises should be able to maintain total harmonic distortion of less than 1 percent across the entire audible range of frequencies, thanks to a custom-designed neodymium ring magnet motor.
Apple is also touting the H1 chip’s capabilities in a way that it hasn’t previously, noting that each chip has 10 audio cores that are capable of 9 billion operations per second to power a whole new level of “computational audio.”
It’s unclear whether this is an improvement over the Adaptive EQ in the AirPods Pro, but it’s definitely clear that Apple is making a much bigger deal of it for its flagship over-ear headphones, which is reasonable considering the new bracket that they’re competing in.
Eight microphones at various points around the headphones power the Active Noise Cancellation, with two of those doubling as voice pickup microphones, along with one additional mic dedicated for voice.
A Digital Crown
In putting together its new AirPods Max, Apple has also borrowed a feature from the Apple Watch, incorporating a Digital Crown that can be rotated for volume control, while also supporting the usual press gestures to play/pause audio, answer/end calls, skip tracks, or call up Siri.
A separate noise control button is used to switch between Active Noise Cancellation and Transparency modes, which will presumably also have options in the iOS and watchOS control centre, much like the AirPods Pro.
Not surprisingly, the AirPods Max also feature optical and position sensors to automatically detect where they are on your head, allowing music to be paused when you take them off, or simply when you lift one side away from your ear.
Beamforming microphones allow for clear voice calls and Siri commands by blocking out ambient noise, again much like the AirPods Pro, and of course thanks to the H1 chip the AirPods Max offer support for all of the other advanced features including “Hey Siri” and Announce Message with Siri, along with Audio Sharing and seamless switching between the iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Apple Watch, and Mac.
Each ear cup features its own H1 chip, along with an optical sensor, position sensor, case-detection sensor, and accelerometer, while the left ear cup also gets a gyroscope. These latter sensors are presumably used to support Spatial Audio.
Apple claims that AirPods Max will offer up to 20 hours of listening time with Active Noise Cancellation and spatial audio enabled, and while this implies that you’ll get more battery life with those features disabled, Apple doesn’t offer any specific numbers in that regard.
The AirPods Max also come with a Smart Case that will automatically switch the AirPods Max into an “ultra-low-power” standby state to preserve battery life. The AirPods Max charge over Lightning, and a USB-C to Lightning cable is included in the box.
What’s Not Here
Not surprisingly, Apple doesn’t include a power adapter, but we weren’t really expecting one.
More importantly, however, there are a few other rumoured features that haven’t materialized, at least not with these first-generation AirPods Max headphones.
Firstly, there’s no evidence of the rumoured U1 chip, even in the tech specs. While it’s possible Apple could be hiding it in there, we doubt it, since Apple disclosed the presence of the chip in the Apple Watch Series 6, despite otherwise making no mention of it at all, let alone what it would actually be used for.
While the AirPods Max also include a lot of sensors, there’s no mention of them being reversible, contrary to earlier rumours that suggested they’d be able to detect left and right ear placement. In fact, the mesh inside each ear cup features a large stylishly woven “L” or “R” to indicate the proper orientation.
There’s also only a single model of AirPods Max, with none of the interchangeable parts that were reported earlier, nor the rumoured separate “luxury” and “sport” versions. In fact, it doesn’t even appear that the ear cushions are removable, much less swappable with other versions. If anything the single version of AirPods Max is the “luxury” version, considering that at $549 it’s on the high end of the rumoured price range (the “Sport” version was allegedly going to sell for around $350).
While it’s possible that some of these features may have once been on the table for the new over-ear headphones, reports that they hit a major production roadblock earlier this fall suggested that a “few key features” were cut, so it’s entirely possible that the somewhat more basic version of the AirPods Max is a result of that.
Is this Apple’s ‘Christmas Surprise?’
Back in mid-November, the oft-cryptic leaker @L0vetodream hinted at a “Christmas surprise” from Apple, while adding that it would be a “Winter exclusive, good for winter.”
While it’s not hard to see exactly how the AirPods Max fit into that description, it’s probably the closest product that Apple could possibly come up with, barring a fur-lined version of the over-ear headphones. Further, @L0vetodream is known for being incredibly vague, and many of their tweets should be taken allegorically or figuratively rather than literally.
More significantly, however, with only a little over two weeks left until Christmas, it’s hard to imagine that Apple is coming out with yet another significant product release between now and Dec. 25th. The possibility remains of a minor Intel refresh of the 16-inch MacBook Pro, but that wouldn’t be significant at all with Apple’s M1 MacBooks already running circles around it, and while a rumour yesterday suggested a new Apple TV, that one remains more of a long shot, and it’s unlikely we’ll see it before early 2021.
Pricing and Availability
Apple’s AirPods Max are available for preorder on the Apple Store now for $549 in the U.S. and more than 25 other countries and regions, and are expected to begin shipping next Tuesday, December 15th, with in-store pickup likely available around the same time.
To use them, you’ll need to be using at least iOS 14.3, iPadOS 14.3, tvOS 14.3, macOS Big Sur 11.1, or watchOS 7.2 on your devices.