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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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."
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.
- 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.