Dec. 23, 2020

Really Apple? Let's talk about the strange AirPods Max


*sigh* What's so wrong about Apple's AirPod Max over-ear headphones and why I'm really pissed off.

Transcript

Opener

Hello and welcome to another episode of the Words of Tim Podcast. My name is Tariq Monther, you can call me Tim, I hope you’re all doing well and you’re staying safe and staying sane. 

Intro

Let me begin by saying that yes, it has been about 2 months since the last episode aired. What can I say? Life got in the way, work was a bit hectic for a while, and I started streaming on Twitch. Fudfood who I co-host the Gaming Weekly episodes with also got a beautiful baby daughter and he’s still tackling the challenges of being a first-time dad. A lot has happened in the tech industry since the last episode, however today is when I finally decided to get off of my ass and record another episode. What’s the b ig news item that has made me come out of my hiatus? What was so important that I felt like I just had to come back and talk about it? Well if you haven’t guessed it from the title yet, it’s Apple’s AirPods Max. Their atrocious over-ear headphones which they announced a couple of weeks ago. Why is this important to talk about and why am I so riled up over a piece of tech which I know I’ll never plan on buying? Well, let me break it down for you.

What are AirPods Max?

If you don’t already know, Apple announced on December 8th their first over-ear headphones. They’re wireless headphones with active noise cancelling, transparency mode, spatial audio, magnetically detachable earcups, a 20-hour battery life, and a nifty digital crown to control audio playback and phone calls. As expected from an Apple product, the AirPods Max have a unique and clean look that is going to turn some heads for sure. What’s also expected from an Apple product is the typical atrocious lack of basic features. Oh, and it’s crazy expensive, too.

Such a turn off

The very first omission is the power button. Yes, the power button! You do not turn the AirPods Max on or off. If I’m not mistaken, I think they turn on with active noise cancelling or transparency mode by default the very first time you take them out of the box. If that’s true, then this is a smart move because by having noise cancelling or transparency mode turned on as soon as the user puts the headphones on their head, Apple can guarantee a great first impression. The problem is that there’s no direct way for you to turn the headphones off. If you take them off your head and just leave them stationary, they’ll enter a low power mode after 5 minutes of inactivity, and an ultra low power mode after 72 hours of inactivity. Slipping the AirPods Max into the provided Smart Case will enter them into low power mode immediately and after 18 hours they’ll enter the ultra low power mode. 

I’m not sure how they define stationary or inactivity, but to me it seems like if you have these in your backpack as you’re walking out and about or in the car when you’re driving around, then that might not enter your headphones in low power mode. What if you just leave them hanging around your neck for a long time? I don’t know, and I shouldn’t have to wonder about these things because a simple power button would have sufficed. How much battery preservation do the low power and ultra low power modes give you? No idea. Why did they go through all that trouble? I believe it’s one or two reasons: they either wanted to have as little buttons on the earphones as possible so that it looks nice and minimal and slick, or this is their way to make sure that the headphones are always on and ready to be used at all times.

The curious case of the AirPods Max

Speaking of the Smart Case (and I am actually doing air quotes every time I say that name), what the hell Apple? Seriously, what overpaid idiot thought this passes as a headphones case? Apple has once again taken it upon themselves to reimagine how an industry-accepted accessory should function. Calling them a case is stupid because they barely protect the headphones. The headband, the stems, and the hinges are completely exposed to any potential impact or damage, while most of the cups are covered with a soft silicon material which means that the only level of protection this case can provide is against scratches on some parts of the cups. 

It is because of this stupid design that while commuting or traveling the AirPods Max are also unprotected from spills, rain, snow, dust, dirt, and any other element that can either permanently damage them or leave a stain behind.

The final point about the Smart Case, and this is purely subjective, is that they look really ugly. A lot of people have pointed out that this case looks like a bra, which it kinda does look like that. As I said before, the case only covers up the ear cups, which means that to carry them around you need to hold them from the headband and what it looks like is that you’re carrying a purse. Again, this is subjective and you might not care about how it looks, but what is a fact is that this “case” barely provides any protection and that the headband, the stems, and the hinges are not intended to be protected at all.

No headphone jack (no surprise)

You know what’s also not intended? Using the AirPods Max with a wired connection. Apple has long been championing wireless audio and has been forcing it on people ever since it removed the headphone jack from the iPhones. I feel like I should have seen this coming, but I was still shocked when I found out that the AirPods Max do not have a headphone jack. Any other wireless headphones out there will have a headphone jack that you can use to plug in an auxiliary cable which provides a more stable connection, better audio quality, and a way to use the headphones when the battery runs out. 

You might scoff at the idea of wired audio if you’re an average consumer, however professional editors and content creators will not be fans of the latency that is to be expected with bluetooth audio. These headphones are made for people who just want to consume content, not create it. You can still use them for content creation, but they will not give you the same level of control as reference monitors that cost around the same.

Some other headphones like my own Lagoon ANCs from Beyerdynamic also allow you to use the USB cable to simultaneously charge and listen to audio using USB audio. The AirPods Max does not even have this feature. The only cable that comes in the box is a lightning to USB-C cable that is only used for charging. They could have at least used USB-C instead of lightning to charge these headphones, but I guess that’s too much to ask. If you are very keen on having wired audio as a backup plan, you can actually buy a lightning to 3.5mm cable for an additional 35 dollars, unlike practically every other competitor that bundles in an auxiliary cable with the headphones. But we are talking about the same company that is shipping their phones without a charger.


Comfort

One of the first visually different aspects of the AirPods Max is the headphone band design. Contrary to common design where the band will have some sort of padding or cushioning that rests on the top of your head, Apple decided to use what they’re calling a breathable knit mesh canopy. You’ll need to look up photos of it to get what I’m saying. There’s no actual cushion, just a mesh that I can’t help but wonder how extra careful you have to be to not damage it (especially since there’s no actual protective case for these headphones) or whether they are actually comfortable after long periods of use.

This mesh is supposed to help with distributing the weight of the headphones. By the way, these headphones are heavier than what you might currently own as they weigh a whopping 385 grams. You have the aluminum and steel components to thank for that. I’ve heard a lot of people mention that they can in fact notice that weight on their heads, and for some it wasn’t hard to shake them off of their head, meaning that they might not be suitable for vibing or headbanging to your music or using them while exercising. 

Comfort in regards to clamping force and weight is a subjective thing and it depends on your own personal preference and the size and shape of your head and ears, so there’s no telling how they’ll feel on your own head prior to trying them. But if you have other headphones that you thought were a bit on the heavy side and they are in fact lighter than the AirPods Max, then keep in mind that you’ll definitely notice that extra weight.

There’s no app for that

Another form of convenience with headphones, specially headphones that people will compare the AirPods Max with, is the companion app. Companion apps allow you to do things like check the precise battery level, turn features on and off, change what the controls do and select EQ settings or even customize them. Well, the AirPods Max don’t exactly have a companion app, rather some options are baked into the system which makes a lot of sense since these are Apple headphones that will most probably be used by people that have iPhones, iPads, or Macs. It’s all about that Apple ecosystem, isn’t it? It would have been nice to give people who are paying so much for these headphones options like custom EQ settings at the very least or the ability to remap what the digital crown or the button do, however it seems the only thing you can do is check battery levels, change in which direction the digital crown works to increase or decrease the volume, and toggle between the different modes.

Battery

Let’s talk battery life. Apple claims that the AirPods Max has a 20-hour battery life with ANC or transparency mode on, and a few reviewers have claimed that they were able to get a little bit more than that claim, which in itself is a good thing. 20 hours is also a lot of time to use headphones for between charges, and charging it for 5 minutes gives you an hour and a half of use time. However, for the price they’re asking, I would have hoped that they had a bit more juice in them, especially since there’s no way for you to actually turn them off which means that slowly but surely they will drain and also a lot of the competitors have higher claimed battery life at around half the price.

A great feature that the on-ear Marshall Major 4 headphones have is wireless charging, and those headphones cost 180 dollars and have an 80 hour battery life, however with no active noise cancelling support. How awesome would it have been if the AirPods Max supported Apple’s MagSafe charging? Or just regular wireless charging without the magnets. 

Price

And now, it’s time for the price. The icing on the cake is how much the AirPods Max cost. Apple is charging their loyal sheep 550 dollars for their vision of the future of wireless headphones. I don’t care how good these headphones sound, asking 550 dollars for headphones that not only don’t offer anything revolutionary, but lack some basic features and accessories is offensive.

To put things in perspective, the most popular mainstream wireless headphones are Sony’s WH-1000XM4 headphones (yes the name is stupid but you can just call them the Sony XM4s), and they launched at 350 dollars but you can easily find them for around 280 dollars. There’s also the Bose 700 which comes in at 340 dollars, and then there’s the Lagoon ANC from Beyerdynamic which I used for almost a year and loved it, and that retailed for around 350 dollars but can now be found for around 250 dollars.If the Marshall Monitor 2 ANC is anything like the original Marshall Monitor headphones that I had for a couple of years, then they’ll probably be the best sounding to my ears, and those retail for 369 dollars. Finally, there’s the Drop + THX Panda headphones which have received stellar reviews for their wireless audio quality and those cost 400 dollars.


A bad influence

So why am I so hot and bothered about these headphones? I said early on that I have no intention of buying them. Even if they were flawless and were decently priced I wouldn’t buy them because I don’t use Apple products. So what’s the big deal? Well, I am worried that Apple is going to do to the headphones industry what they did to the smartphone industry; move it in a direction that I don’t agree with. 

We’re talking about a company that is so influential that when it decided to remove the headphone jack, add an ugly notch to the display, and start pricing their flagship devices at a thousand dollars, the rest of the industry followed suit. Even after they announced that they will no longer ship their phones with a charger, it didn’t take long for Samsung to copy that  move. That is the effect that Apple has on the smartphone industry, and I am very worried that the next headphones from companies like Sony, Bose, Beyerdynamics, and Marshall will not have a headphone jack, will no longer include a carrying case, will forgo the power button, and will cost around 500 dollars. That is why I’m pissed off at Apple and their AirPods Max.

The good

Now let me be clear. I’m purposely not talking about what’s good about these headphones. Without trying them on myself I can guarantee that the AirPods Max will sound really really good thanks to the dual H1 chips that do all the audio procession and they’ll definitely have great noise cancelling. From what I’ve seen online, their transparency mode apparently is very well done, and Spatial Audio for those who care about it is also there for some reason and it works like a charm (however it has to be noted that Spatial Audio only works on the latest iPhones and some iPads, not on Apple laptops and computers). I’m also a fan of the idea of the digital crown as a control method as I despise touch panels on headphones because I’ve experienced a lot of accidental touches in the past. Of course I would have preferred something like the joystick that comes in Marshall Monitor headphones, but a digital crown makes sense for an Apple product.

As good as the good things are, I just can’t turn a blind eye at what I believe are bad about the AirPods Max. The point of the episode is to shed some light on the weird and in my opinion the wrong choices that Apple has made with these headphones. I know that my words will fall on deaf ears and the average consumer will not really care or pay any attention to these points. The proof of that is that AirPods Max have been completely sold out on Apple’s website and will not be available for another 3 months, which I’m sure will also sell out really quickly then. There have been some theories that the reason why they sold out this quickly now is because they were only able to produce a limited number of units. That could be true as there have been leaks in the past of troubles that they had in the production of these headphones, which by the way were originally rumored to have a removable headband and have touch controls and would have cost 600 dollars. Nonetheless, the AirPods Max that we have right now is in my opinion an overpriced slap to the face that will just keep selling regardless of what Apple does and the features that it takes out. People just won’t care, and that makes me sad in my little heart.


Outro

So tell me, are you one of the sheep that bought the AirPods Max? Do you think I’m overreacting and none of my concerns matter? Do you share my pain and worries at how this might affect the headphones industry?

Please reach out to me on Twitter or Instagram, my handle is @tmonther, and let me know your thoughts on the episode and on this show. You can also check out the rest of my episodes on the website wordsoftim.com.

Thanks for tuning in, and I’ll catch you in the next episode.