AirPods Max vs. AirPods Pro: What’s Apple’s Best Pair of Noise-Cancelling Headphones?
Chances are you’ve come to this story because you want a pair of AirPods, and you’re deciding between the AirPods Max and the AirPods Pro. Yes, there are plenty of other excellent headphones and true wireless earphones with strong ANC (active noise cancellation) out there that aren’t made by Apple, but let’s set those aside and assume you definitely want a pair of AirPods. The standard AirPods aren’t in the same league as the AirPods Max or AirPods Pro in terms of sound quality or noise cancellation capabilities, so we’ve left them out of this comparison.
It’s not often we compare earphones and headphones as they tend to be quite different, but the $549 AirPods Max and the $249 AirPods Pro present a unique case in that they both offer many similar features, like high-quality ANC, spatial audio, hands-free Siri access, and Apple’s H1 chip for a seamless pairing process with iOS devices. So it makes sense that iPhone and iPad users, in particular, would be drawn to headphones that are designed to work specifically with their devices. Considering the $300 different in price, however, choosing between the AirPods Max and AirPods Pro isn’t a decision to be made lightly, and we’re here to help you figure out which pair you should get.
First, Who Shouldn’t Get AirPods?
We’ll be blunt here: The prices for both of these models are high, so if you’re looking for a bargain, that’s not going to happen with either the AirPods Max or Pro. Check out our roundups of the best noise-cancelling headphones and the best noise-cancelling true wireless earphones for a list of more affordable alternatives.
The AirPods are made to work with iOS/iPad OS, so if you don’t use an Apple phone or tablet, you’ll be missing out on a lot of the wow factor. That isn’t to say the AirPods don’t shine on their own, you just won’t be getting the full experience.
Finally, audiophiles and purists seeking a super-accurate listening experience should steer clear of AirPods. These are audio signatures designed for listeners who don’t mind plenty of boosting and sculpting. Don’t expect much control over the sonics, either — neither pair has adjustable EQ. Yes, Apple Music has built-in EQ, but there’s no graphic EQ in the settings menu for either pair of AirPods.
Active Noise Cancellation
At their best, the AirPods Max have the most powerful ANC for low frequencies we’ve tested to date. At their worst, they’re still pretty solid, but mysteriously inconsistent. The ANC here is adaptive, and while that’s mostly a good thing, it can result in some inconsistent noise cancellation. It’s capable of completely eliminating powerful low-frequency rumble like you’d hear on an airplane, but if you adjust the fit of the headphones even slightly, that noise cancellation can change. Sometimes a sound being cancelled out will actually be louder in one ear, even though the sound is pretty much equal in both ears when you hear it with the headphones off. But if you get a result you don’t think is great, all you have to do is turn your head a bit or shift the earcups and, generally, the ANC will recalculate and (usually) improve.
Highs are a bit problematic for the AirPods Max. Tested against a recording of a crowded restaurant, they have no problem with the lows and mids, but the highs would seemingly pass through the ANC at times undetected, almost as if they were being highlighted or the headphones were in ambient mode. This, too, wasn’t an entirely consistent issue in testing, but generally speaking, the headphones fare better with lows and mids.
The in-ear Pros, meanwhile, are far more consistent in their noise cancellation. They don’t hit the same highs, and they don’t hit the same lows (both figuratively and literally). They can’t dial back bass rumble like the Max can, and while they do a great job with lows and mids, they too can struggle a bit eliminating the highest frequencies. But they also don’t tend to shift as wildly when you move them around.
So we’ll say that the AirPods Max are capable of the most powerful ANC, but their adaptive approach often leads to inconsistencies, while the in-ear AirPods Pro are far more consistent, if less powerful against deep bass drones and rumble. Ultimately, both are top-notch ANC options.
Apple probably tried really hard to match the sound signatures of the AirPods Max and Pro, which is no easy feat because your ears will naturally hear things differently when listening through headphones versus earphones. Typically, the differences can be drastic, but here the differences between the two sound signatures here are subtle. Both boost the lows to a degree, but not too much, and both offer crisp high-mids and highs.
I’d say that, between the two, the in-ear AirPods Pro sound a little more sculpted — they’re both a bit more bass-forward and brighter, but we’re talking just a smidge. The over-ear Max headphones sound a little more natural and less sculpted, but again, not wildly so. Listening for drastic differences while playing our test suite, the bass drum on a particular track might have a little more low-end push through the AirPods Pro, but just barely. And that can have more to do with the in-canal seal than the drivers themselves.
So, sonically, it’s a bit of a toss-up. One note of interest: Both models only support AAC and SBC Bluetooth streaming (there’s no AptX support). That’s no real surprise for an Apple product, but you should still expect more from your typical high-fidelity, expensive headphones or earphones. Regardless, they both sound great — exaggerated, sure, but more subtly sculpted than plenty of competing models we test.
Hands-Free Siri, iOS Integration, and Spatial Audio
The experience for all of the above-mentioned features is nearly identical with the AirPods Max and AirPods Pro. Neither has a notable advantage when it comes to Siri, spatial audio, or how the headphones work with your iPhone or iPad. That said, these features are either completely or mostly unique to AirPods, so it’s worth going into a little more detail.
For starters, both models work quite well with hands-free Siri commands. Built-in mics pick your voice up, and Siri can give you weather reports or play your Apple Music requests within seconds, among many other possibilities. You can also disable this feature if you don’t want the mic to always be on.
iOS integration is another way these models stand out. They both automatically trigger an on-screen pairing process with your iPhone or iPad when used for the first time. This really only saves you a small step of manual pairing, but it’s a cool way to start things off, and it adds a sense of luxury to the user experience, with the feeling that the products are tailor-made for one another. If you own both pairs and they’re both connected to your iPhone, your phone will detect which pair you’re wearing and switch to that one. It’s impressively quick, and saves a lot of extra Bluetooth menu work. Each model also has its own settings menus in your device’s Bluetooth menu to make some basic adjustments.
Spatial audio is another cool feature, but ultimately, it’s still more or less a gimmick. It takes 5.1, 7.1, and Dolby Atmos film audio and applies an effect that makes it seem as though it’s happening inside a room or theater. It isn’t surround sound, but a bit of magic that creates a somewhat more realistic sense of space. It sounds great on both pairs of headphones, perhaps a little more so on the Max, but not enough to tip the scales one way or the other.
Earphones fit everyone differently. My own extensive use of the AirPods Pro tells me that people with ears like mine will mostly enjoy them, but might find that the fit tends to get less and less secure as the day goes on. For short-term listening scenarios, this isn’t a big concern, but if your day is filled with several long Zoom meetings, you might feel them start to wiggle and loosen. This would be less noteworthy if Apple included more eartip fit options, but in its true minimalist fashion, you get three white eartip pairs to work with, and no stabilizer fins or hooks.
If there’s one thing you learn quickly wearing the AirPods Pro for a long period, it’s that you should never adjust them by casually grabbing the stems, unless you want to accidentally trigger the touch controls and play or pause music playback. It’s unfortunate, because adjusting the fit by trying to secure the slippery rounded top part of the earpiece is less effective. Carefully grabbing the stems is definitely the best way to quickly adjust the fit, and with some practice, it can be done without misfiring on the control panel.
With the AirPods Max, these concerns more or less go out the window. The fit is very secure and unlikely to require much adjustment over long listening periods. That said, when you do adjust the fit, you don’t want to pull down from the top of the earcups — this is where the controls are, and it’s very easy to accidentally bump the Digital Crown control and play music or suddenly blast the volume.
If we’re talking about which pair is likely to retain its ideal fit over the course of an hour or more, the AirPods Max have the clear advantage. Even though fit is subjective, the Max’s headband is more adaptable to different head shapes than the three pairs of AirPods Pro eartips are to different ear canals.
Winner: AirPods Max
Major Design Differences and Battery Life
The AirPods Max and AirPods Pro couldn’t look or feel more different, but that’s obvious. Past the form factors, though, there are still plenty of notable design differences to highlight. For instance, the AirPods Pro have an IPX4 rating, meaning they can withstand light splashes and should be fine to wipe down with a damp cloth. The AirPods Max have no IP rating, and therefore you shouldn’t get them wet.
Controls on the AirPods Pro are handled with pressing or holding on the stems of each earpiece — they’re easy to operate and fairly intuitively laid out. We’ll give the edge to the AirPods Max here, though, which simply have more real estate to work with. The Digital Crown is a dial/button combo that handles most of the basic functions gracefully, and there’s a dedicated ANC button that can switch between three modes.
Charging is another basic functional design difference. The AirPods Max use a Lightning-to-USB-C cable for charging, and don’t ship with a power adapter for outlets. This means if you don’t have a way to charge them via USB-C, you’ll need to buy an adapter. The AirPods Pro, on the other hand, also charge (inside their included battery case) via a Lightning-to-USB-C cable, but the case is also compatible with Qi wireless charging pads. There’s nothing comparable with the AirPods Max — their included Smart Case merely puts the headphones into sleep mode.
And speaking of the Smart Case, while it looks kind of cool, its surface is a dust magnet and it hardly protects the headphones at all. What looks like the most vulnerable part of the AirPods Max — the knit mesh canopy — sits out of the case in the open with zero protection.
When it comes to battery life, the AirPods Max have roughly 20 hours of battery life, while the AirPods Pro have around 5 hours of battery life, with another 20 hours in the charging case. Comparing battery life between bulky over-ear headphones and tiny true wireless earphones is like comparing apples with oranges, but ultimately, both are pretty average in their respective categories.
Simply put, you can buy two pairs of AirPods Pro for the price of a pair of AirPods Max — and still have $50 to spare. There’s no question which model wins the price war. The AirPods Pro offer some of the best in-ear ANC we’ve tested, and are among the most affordable of the top true wireless models, making them a relative bargain.
Nothing about the $550 AirPods Max can be described as a bargain. The headphones are fantastic, yes, but their closest competition, the $399.95 Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 and the $349.99 Sony WH-1000XM4, both cost significantly less. Bundle that with the reality that the AirPods Max aren’t likely to get a markdown anytime soon, and what we you have is a pair of beautiful, highly effective ANC headphones that, even with all of their positives taken into account, are overpriced.
Winner: AirPods Pro
It Comes Down to Value
Do I think you’ll regret spending $550 on the AirPods Max? No — if you can afford them, I think you’ll really enjoy just about everything they bring to the table. I do have to admit that, for the most part, the AirPods Max are slightly better than the AirPods Pro in the ANC realm, and more visually pleasing. You’ll just have spend twice as much as you will for a pair of AirPods Pro.
But I’m not sure the difference is enough to warrant the price gulf between them. In my reviews of both models, only the AirPods Pro earned our Editors’ Choice award, and you can bet that pricing has a lot to do with it. Dollar for the dollar, you simply can’t deny that the AirPods Pro offer much greater value, making them the better choice for most people.