“Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes. It is best to admit them quickly, and get on with improving your other innovations.” - Steve Jobs
Now, we all know that I love Apple. I mean, this whole blog could have been on anything to do with "Great Design", and here I am making the entire thing about Apple. But, even I can admit that... sometimes... just sometimes... Apple can get things wrong.
Let me start by saying, the AirPods Max are, by far, the best quality headphones that I have ever used. I have spent a lot of my life in recording studios using a wide range of different headphones and earphones. I have experienced everything from the best of Sony to Beats to Bose to Sennheiser. However, I can categorically say that the AirPods Max are in another league when it comes audio quality, spatial audio technology and sound cancellation. Putting on the AirPods Max and hitting play on a song, genuinely, transforms you to a different place. You completely lose sense of anything stressful, uncomfortable or forestalling. The spatial audio makes you feel like you're amongst the music; as if you're attending a live recording of your favourite music.
The noise cancellation technology in the AirPods Max is the best I've ever experienced. The technology, along with the specially designed over-ear ear cups block out almost all noise, even with no music playing. In addition to noise cancellation, like other recent AirPods models, you can use a mode called "transparency mode". This does the opposite of noise cancellation; broadcasting surrounding noise directly through the headphones to immediately raise awareness of what is going on around you. With a simple press of a button on one of the ear cups, you can switch instantly between noise cancellation and transparency. This is great for a range of situations, such as getting on and off public transport, or bumping into someone on the street!
The headphones also have some fantastic physical features. The ear cushions on the AirPods Max are removable, which is brilliant for many reasons. Firstly, it allows the user to easily replace them once they become damaged or worn. It also allows the user to take them off to clean them if they're overused or shared with others, maximising hygiene. However, the main reason why I love the removable ear cushions is because it maximises customisability. Apple has released ear cushions in a variety of colours, meaning that the user can interchange their ear cups to make their headphones more personal, or to match outfits. You can also buy a huge range of third party ear cushions that are designed for different functions, such as workouts or increased noise cancellation.
Another great physical feature of the AirPods Max is the telescopic arm that adjusts the length of the headphones. It's a beautifully simple mechanism that allows the user to pull and push the band to adjust the fit using air pressure. The feel of using the telescopic arm is a big part of what makes the user experience with the headphones so special.
A soft headband, called the 'canopy', is crafted from a knitted mesh which moulds perfectly around the top of your head. The canopy, in conjunction with the ear cups, make these the most comfortable headphones I have ever worn.
The headphones have an extremely impressive battery, lasting for 20 hours of continuous use on a single charge. When you're not using them, however, AirPods Max can be stored in a smart case, which comes with them by default. When the headphones are inserted into the case, they enter an "ultra-low power state" that preserves the charge.
Apple also integrated the "Digital Crown" from the Apple Watch into the AirPods Max. The Digital Crown is a rotating button, inspired by traditional watches. Rotating the crown allows the user to adjust volume, and pressing the crown in various patterns can summon Siri, play and pause music and navigate your music.
So if these headphones are so amazing, where did Apple go wrong? I actually owned a pair of these for about 2 weeks, before I then sold them on. So... here's why.
The first issue I have with the AirPods Max is that they have no water resistance. For headphones that set you back £549, this is an essential feature. Considering Apple's other high-end earphones, the AirPods Pro, are water resistant, it seems like a big misjudgement from the company not to do the same with the AirPods Max. When spending this much on headphones, you want to be able to use them everywhere. However, living in rainy-rainy Glasgow, I was almost always unable to use them outside. In California, where they're designed, this isn't so much of an issue. But, in most places, rain happens... and in Glasgow it happens a lot. This meant that I was using my water resistant AirPods Pro when walking outside or commuting to and from university. When I arrived home, I would then use my HomePod speaker to play music out loud, as it's a more comfortable listening experience than wearing headphones. Therefore, I was immediately noticing my AirPods Max becoming redundant; not used at home or outside.
The first issue dominoes us into the second. When you want to take your AirPods Max out with you to use at, say, university, you have to take them in your bag in case it rains. Now, although the case that they come with is very sleek, beautifully crafted and designed to keep your headphones charged, it's not very practical. It gives the headphones little-to-no protection in your bag, especially if you're carrying other items in the bag with them. This meant that I had to invest in a third-party hard case to ensure that my headphones wouldn't get broken on the way to university; the only place that I used them.
Finally, some customers started to notice a fault in their devices. People began to report instances of condensation building up within the ear cups after extended use of the device. This is relatively concerning, especially for an electronic device. Apple responded to these reports by stating that it is "normal for over-ear headphones to experience some amount of condensation when used in certain conditions". However, they acknowledged the issue and said that they would "continue to monitor the situation and investigate any customer concerns". Apple then went on to offer some suggestions on how to prevent or minimise the issues with condensation. These suggestions include "using the headphones in a cooler, drier environment, avoiding wearing them during intense workout sessions, and storing them in a dry place when not in use". In other words, the headphones that already had a reduced spectrum of use due to the lack of water resistance and durability in transportation now had even more usage restrictions.
It's interesting, especially after the condensation fault was discovered, that Apple continues to sell these headphones. Looking back at the quote at the beginning of this blog post, I wonder whether Steve would have continued to sell them, or whether they'd have even been released in the first place.
I want to reiterate that these are, without a doubt, the best headphones that I have ever experienced. The quality and sound engineering is impeccable and they're a game changed in the audio industry. However, the issues with them are so large that they, unfortunately, overshadow the qualities.
You may be wondering why the blog is titled "AirPods Max - Close But No Banana". We all know the phrase is "close but no cigar"... Well... it seems not all of us knew the phrase was "close but no cigar". One of my friends was so convinced that the phrase referred to a banana, that is become a bit of a running joke, and has even become the password for my house wifi.
So. AirPods Max. Close, but no banana.
Hardware Design - 6 / 10
Although the audio hardware, telescopic arms, removable ear cushions and knitted canopy headband are brilliantly designed, the lack of water resistance and durability from the case has to let this category down. You may argue that water resistance is such a simple hardware feature that it can't knock the overall rating down by this much, but I think its that exact reason that it does.
Usability - 8 / 10
The headphones are extremely easy to use, and even easier to set up. Apple describes the setup process as a "one-tap setup". You simply hold the headphones next to your phone, and a pop-up appears. You tap connect and there you have it. The headphones are also designed to be an easy listening experience. When you place them on your head, your music plays automatically. Likewise, removing them from your head will pause whatever you're listening to or watching. A simple button and Digital Crown on the ear cup allows you to easily switch between transparency mode and noise cancellation, as well as adjust volume and navigate your music. However, as I have said many times, they can't be used in the rain. They can also get issues with condensation build-up after extended use.
Fun Factor - 5 / 10
The most fun part of the headphones is definitely the telescopic arm. Each arm extends and retracts in such a beautiful motion with such a beautiful mechanism. I could quite happily play with the arm for hours. It's almost like a stress toy. However, compared to most Apple products, I would say that the AirPods lack the usual Apple fun-factor.
Innovation - 10 / 10
There is no doubt that these are extremely innovative headphones. Whether referring to the amazing audio hardware, the noise cancellation and transparency technology or the removable ear cushions, AirPods Max are an absolute game changer in the world of headphones and audio.
Aesthetic - 6 / 10
The product, as with all Apple products, is beautifully crafted. The colour range of anodised aluminium bodies reminds us of the brand, and compliments the stainless telescopic arms and the fabric canopy. However, they do look quite bulky to me. I know there is a lot of technology being packed into them, but they remind me a little bit of ear defenders. I would argue that the close ups and individual parts of the headphones are much more aesthetic than the full thing together.
TOTAL - 7 / 10