It turns out Apple has one more major hardware announcement before 2020 comes to a close: after many months of rumors, Apple today unveiled its own over-ear noise-canceling headphones. They’re called the AirPods Max, and they come with the premium design that’s expected from flagship Apple headphones. They also come with an extremely premium $549 price and are set to go on sale on December 15th. Preorders start today.
The AirPods Max come in five colors: space gray, silver, sky blue, green, and pink. They feature what Apple calls a “custom acoustic design” with a 40mm driver system “that provides rich, deep bass, accurate mid-ranges, and crisp, clean high-frequency extension so every note can be heard.” Apple has brought over a number of features that first debuted in the AirPods line, like adaptive EQ, transparency mode, spatial audio, and audio sharing. There’s even an element from the Apple Watch — the Digital Crown — that has made its way to these headphones. Apple says it “offers precise volume control and the ability to play or pause audio, skip tracks, answer or end phone calls, and activate Siri.” There’s also a separate “noise control” button for switching between noise-canceling and transparency modes.
As for the design, here’s what Apple says:
The breathable knit mesh canopy, spanning the headband, is made to distribute weight and reduce on-head pressure. The stainless steel headband frame provides strength, flexibility, and comfort for a wide variety of head shapes and sizes. Telescoping headband arms smoothly extend and stay in place to maintain the desired fit.
Each ear cup attaches to the headband through a revolutionary mechanism that balances and distributes ear cup pressure and allows it to independently pivot and rotate to fit the unique contours of a user’s head.
None of that sounds particularly “revolutionary” when stacked up next to other high-end noise-canceling headphones, but the memory foam ear cushions should make for good comfort. They’re also removable and attach via magnets, so hopefully replacing them won’t be too much trouble.
The AirPods Max offers 20-hour battery life and charge over Apple’s Lightning connector — not USB-C. (Apple has a sold-separately $35 Lightning to 3.5mm cable for wired listening.) If you’re in a hurry, a five-minute charge gets you 90 minutes of playback time. The headphones automatically pause audio when removed from your ears and resume playback when you put them back on.
There’s also a “smart case” for the AirPods Max (below) that automatically puts them into a low-power state. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that Apple is selling a more protective hardshell case at this time.
Similar to approaches from Bose, Sony, and others, Apple’s noise-cancellation system produces anti-noise to hush external sound by using six outward-facing microphones. Two inward-facing mics measure what you’re hearing to cancel out additional distractions. Apple also claims the AirPods Max perform well for voice calls (even in windy conditions) with their built-in beamforming mics.
By moving into the premium headphones space, Apple will directly compete with brands like Bose, Sony, Sennheiser, AKG, Bowers and Wilkins, and others that have years of experience and a long list of products between them. Apple is going higher than just about all of them on price, but the company is riding the momentum of the AirPods and AirPods Pro, which have dominated the true wireless earbuds market. My biggest question is whether the sound quality can live up to the price. For much less, you can get the Sony 1000XM4, which support LDAC, a wireless audio codec that isn’t too far off from CD quality. There’s no equivalent for this on iPhone, and Apple Music still only offers lossy AAC audio.
Still, Apple has taken impressive advantage of the synergy between its hardware by introducing features like automatic device switching — the AirPods Max, AirPods, and select Beats products can switch between an iPhone, Mac, and iPad based on whichever one you’re currently using — and, in the case of the AirPods Max and Pro, a capability called spatial audio that replicates an immersive surround sound experience when watching movies and TV shows on an iPhone or iPad.
Apple’s Beats brand also sells higher-end headphones, including the Solo Pro and Studio 3 Wireless, both of which feature active noise cancellation. More recently, with Apple firmly covering consumers invested in its ecosystem, Beats has shown a renewed interest in appealing to Android device owners; the new Beats Flex earbuds have a USB-C connector instead of Apple’s proprietary Lightning port.
Early December is an unusually late time of year for Apple to introduce new products. Today’s news was tipped last week by MacRumors, which reported that Apple had sent out a memo to authorized service providers about imminent changes to AppleCare. In the days since the long-in-the-works headphones have been viewed as the most likely candidate.