Nine things you need to know about Apple's new $900 headphones

$900 buys you smart design and superb sound, but not a battery charger...

By David Flynn, December 9 2020
Nine things you need to know about Apple's new $900 headphones

Apple's new AirPods Max noise-cancelling wireless headphones launch into a competitive market dominated by the likes of Bose, Sennheiser and Sony.

The $900 price tag is unapologetically high-end, as is the design and promised performance: Apple is pitching the AirPods Max as much more than just a pair of cans for frequent flyers.

If anything, it's the ultimate expression of Apple's embrace of music, which began in 2001 with the launch of iTunes and the iPod.

This also makes the AirPods Max pure fan-bait for those already heavily invested in the Apple ecosystem.

With the AirPods Max on sale now, ahead of arrival in stores later this month, here's what you need to know about Apple's over-ear headphones. 

Apple's $900 AirPods Max noise-cancelling headphones.
Apple's $900 AirPods Max noise-cancelling headphones.

Yes, they cost $900

The US list price for the ‌AirPods Max‌ is US$549, although that's immediately spiked up by sales tax depending on where you buy them.

By the time they land in Australia and get our standard 10% GST added on, the sticker soars to $899.

This is of course much more – even twice the price – of equivalent top-shelf headphones from rivals.

Stand-out audio features

Naturally, Apple is breathlessly spruiking the audio quality and technology of the AirPods Max, so we won't rehash that here.

Apple has crammed a lot of acoustic tech into each AirPods Max earcup.
Apple has crammed a lot of acoustic tech into each AirPods Max earcup.

Suffice to say that the core features include similar active noise cancellation and 'transparency mode' as the AirPods Pro and competing headphones.

There's also 'spatial audio' which the company says "places sounds virtually anywhere in a space" to deliver "an immersive, theatre-like experience for content recorded in 5.1, 7.1, and Dolby Atmos", plus 'Adaptive EQ' for real-time adjustment of low and mid-frequencies based on the fit and seal of the ear cushions.

This Apple Watch-style 'digital crown' controls the AirPods Max.
This Apple Watch-style 'digital crown' controls the AirPods Max.

Get set for a delay

Apple's AirPods Max come in five colours: silver, space gray, sky blue, pink, and green. But limited supply plus the popularity of lighter, brighter colours will come into play if you're hoping to pop these under the Christmas tree.

At the time of writing, silver and space grey models will be delivered just before Christmas, but choose blue and you're looking at mid-January.

(Interestingly, for some colours, selecting the option for free engraving sees the delivery date move a few days earlier.)

Blue appears to be the hot new colour at Apple.
Blue appears to be the hot new colour at Apple.

Retro design

There'll be no mistaking the AirPods Max for any other make or model of headphones.

The colours, the large elongated earcups, the stainless steel frame and telescoping headband arms, the lightweight 'breathable knit mesh' canopy which connects the earcups and the Apple Watch-inspired crown for controlling playback, phone calls and summoning Siri – it's all Apple, amped up a notch and with a dash of retro thrown in.

In fact, if we had to guess, we'd say the AirPods Max were shaped by Marc Newson, who formerly worked at Apple and has now set up shop with fellow Apple design guru Sir Jonny Ive.) 

Is it just us, or is there a touch of Marc Newson in this design?
Is it just us, or is there a touch of Marc Newson in this design?

Replacement ear cushions

Heavy-duty headphone wear can see the ear cushions wear out, and in most cases this means an overly-expensive repair or resigning yourself to buying new headphones when the ones you have still work perfectly fine.

Apple's AirPods Max design incorporates memory foam ear cushions which magnetically attach to the headphones, making it easy to swap them out down the track.

Replacement cushions are now listed on Apple's website (although they're not shipping) for $99 in silver, black, green, blue and red.

20-hour battery life, but BYO charger

Apple claims the AirPods Max' battery life at up to 20 hours "with Active Noise Cancellation and spatial audio enabled."

The supplied 'Smart Case' puts the headphones in an a low-power state to preserve their battery charge when not in use, although unlike the smaller AirPods this case doesn't recharge the battery.

Is it a Smart Case, an eye mask or a compact clutch?
Is it a Smart Case, an eye mask or a compact clutch?

To do that, you'll need to plug the supplied Lightning to USB-C Cable into a not-supplied USB-C charger.

Any handy 18W-20W power adapters will not only suffice, but it'll give you a fast charge boost which delivers 90 minutes of listening time with just five minutes of juice.

Also, BYO audio cable...

Although the AirPods Max work over Bluetooth for wireless listening, you can connect them to a conventional audio jack.

But guess what? Similar to the iPhone, the headphones' audio output is through the Lightning connector.

If your audio source uses a 3.5mm port, you'll have to spring for a Lightning-to-3.5mm audio cable.

Yes, Apple happens to sell those, at $55 a pop.

Heavy metal

Something else you'll want to consider: at 384 grams, the AirPods Max are heavier than challengers from Bose, Sony and Sennheiser, which weigh in at 227g (for the Sennheiser PXC 550-II), 254g (Sony WH-1000XM4) and 310g (Bose Quiet Comfort 35 II).

Grams are small units, and a difference of say 100g won't seem like much on paper.

But on your head, and for hours on end, it can detract from overall comfort.

Perhaps to counter this, Apple says the canopy "is made to distribute weight and reduce on-head pressure."

Naturally, there's automatic Bluetooth pairing with an iPhone.
Naturally, there's automatic Bluetooth pairing with an iPhone.

What didn't make the cut...

The ‌AirPods Max‌ have been under development for some time, during which they were rumoured to be called AirPods Studio in a nod to their high-end audio characteristics.

But it wasn't only the name that was dropped: several expected features which were earlier reported are missing from this version 1.0 release.

They included

  • interchangeable headbands and earcups
  • touch controls on the sides of the headphones
  • automatically switching the left and right audio channels depending on which way you wear the headphones (no need to orient them for L and R cups, just slip 'em on and let the tech do the rest)
  • a less-expensive 'sport' variant

Bloomberg's Mark Gurman suggests that many of these were sacrificed in order to get the headphones launched in the lead-up to Christmas, saying "it looks like they made some changes on these to get them out the door, as was deemed likely after several development set backs over the past many months."

This points to at least some of those features making an appearance in a 2021 edition of the AirPods Max‌.


David Flynn is the Editor-in-Chief of Executive Traveller and a bit of a travel tragic with a weakness for good coffee, shopping and lychee martinis.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

15 Aug 2017

Total posts 118

I have a iPhone and iPad and love them both but I wouldn’t be seen dead wearing these especially with the outrageous price. Best to stick with the BOSE NC700’s, Sony or Sennheiser for onboard NC. 

Style is obviously subjective, I think these look great, and deliberately very different from its competitors, which have pretty much the same shape and style. Apple has probably gone out to make that difference even more noticeable, and I agree they do look like something from Marc Newson!

But the point would be that there's no reason to make them look 'normal' because Apple customers are real fans and almost 'ambassadors', and anybody who buys these would want people to see they have Apple headphones and maybe even that they can afford $900 for them! It's like how the first white iPod earbuds were so iconic, if you saw them you pretty much knew the person had an iPod tucked away in their pocket.

And yes, very expensive, but since when did Apple launch any new product in a 'budget' skew? That may or may not come later, but Apple knows it has plenty of people who will pay for this, and it also knows that it needs to really make it an Apple product, cool 'cutting edge' features and almost over-engineered in some ways, because there's no sense in Apple just churning out a Bose wanna-be. This is all about marketing and differentiation done the Apple way.

But no, I would not myself spend what Apple is asking!!

26 Jul 2011

Total posts 13

No chance. $900 is insane, especially when Bose Quiet Comfort II's are half the price, and do a stellar job.

But as we all know, this won't stop the fanboys/girls from buying them, which is exactly what Apple wants. Can't help but think though, if you're going to buy these, you may want to add an "I'm a sucker for marketing" logo onto the side as well

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

23 Mar 2015

Total posts 52

Here come the stupidly snide comments. I don't know why Apple makes so many people angry when all they do is sell great products and support them globally. No other brand is better for an international traveller. If you can't afford them hard luck, no-one is forcing you to buy them. No one forces you to fly Business Class either. 

I look forward to trying these out, the integration across Apple products on my AirPodsPro is just amazing and I expect these will be the same doing things no other headphone can. Only a personal road test will speak to sound and comfort, I still use old Bose QC25 as they are so comfortable.  Amazingly the AirpodProMax are already sold out globally until March 21!

Singapore Airlines - KrisFlyer

14 Jan 2014

Total posts 341

Don’t like the design and the fact that next year’s version will have all the bells and whistles they couldn’t get to werk on this first version. Me thinks if you are going to be stupid enough pay that price (that coming from an Apple Fan boy mind you), then wait a year for the one that DOES include all the bells and whistles!!! Simples!! LOL

The design's not going to change, certainly not in the next few years. I think the 2021 version will gain some of the features left out of this one, I like the idea of not having to worry about which earcup is L and which is R. Touch controls, well it sounds cool and Apple can probably do it, but I would be okay with the crown. I will admit to being tempted but I will wait for duty-free to return and maybe for them to be on sale somehow.

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