Here's a first look at Apple's $549 AirPods Max headphones

Key Points
  • CNBC takes a first look at Apple's new $549 AirPods Max headphones.
  • They feel high-end to match the price, with a steel and aluminum design.
  • They sound good and are comfortable.

In this article

First look: Apple's AirPods Max provide great sound and style for a hefty price

Apple sent me a pair of its new AirPods Max headphones to check out ahead of their release on Dec. 15. The $549 price tag shocked a lot of people when Apple unveiled them earlier this week. And, yeah, that's a lot of money. But they sure are nice.

Apple dominates the Bluetooth headphone business, with more than a 50% share of the market, according to Strategy Analytics. That's thanks to the huge success of the original AirPods and AirPods Pro. With the AirPods Max, Apple built a luxury pair of headphones that borrows some of the features from the AirPods Pro but with larger speakers and more premium materials like steel and aluminum and better sound.

The AirPods Max kind of remind me of the original HomePod. It's one of the best sounding smart speakers on the market, but it also costs several times more than competitors from Amazon and Google. Apple may not sell millions and millions of the AirPods Max the way it does the AirPods, but it doesn't need to. I think these are really just a top-tier option for people who want the best headphones Apple makes. Sort of like how Apple sells a $5,999 Mac Pro for people who want the best Mac Apple makes.

Here's a look at the AirPods Max:

They come in this AirPods Max Smart Case, which looks a bit like a purse

Apple AirPods Max
Todd Haselton | CNBC

This case serves a purpose, though. It has magnets inside so that when you put the AirPods Max in it they automatically go into low power mode to help save battery life. I agree with the critics. It looks a little weird.

They're super comfortable

Apple AirPods Max
Todd Haselton | CNBC

I wore the AirPods Max for several hours Wednesday and they felt super comfortable. There's a breathable mesh band on the top that felt light on my head and didn't get sweaty or hot. I also love the ear cups, which are spacious and fit around my ears instead of sitting on them.

There are a lot of high-end touches, like aluminum cups and a steel frame, instead of plastic parts you might find in competing headsets. I also dig the Digital Crown that Apple brought over from the Apple Watch. It feels solid and turns easily to adjust the volume. A lot of competing high-end headphones use touch controls for volume, which isn't as accurate as a physical control.

They're easy to use

Apple AirPods Max
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The AirPods Max are just as easy as other AirPods to set up. That's important, since it's one of the reasons the AirPods are so successful. You just turn the AirPods Max on, bring your iPhone or iPad nearby, and tap a pop-up that says "connect." That's it. There's no need to poke through your Bluetooth settings for the connection.

I like that it's easy to switch between an iPhone, Mac or iPad, too. But, they don't have a 3.5 mm headphone jack so you'll need to buy an adapter and a cord if you want to use them with non-Bluetooth devices.

You don't need an Apple gadget to use the AirPods Max. They'll connect to Android phones, Windows PCs and other devices like any other Bluetooth headset.

They sound great

Apple AirPods Max
Todd Haselton | CNBC

They sound really good to me. I'll revisit more in my full review, but I also don't know that I could stand here right now and pinpoint exactly how much better they sound than a pair of Bose or Sony headphones. The noise cancellation is pretty solid: I didn't hear people talking in the room next to me while I was working. I'm not sure how they'll compare on an airplane to Bose yet, though. And I won't be flying anytime soon for obvious reasons.

Apple has a few tricks competitors don't have, like Spatial Audio, which makes it sound like noises in a movie are coming from all around you and from the source, like your iPad or iPhone. It's a cool feature Apple recently added to the AirPods Pro.

There are lots of sensors, so the headphones pause audio when you take them off, or even when you lift an earcup. That works well.

Finally, I tested the microphones with a quick 10-minute call Wednesday. It seemed like the other side heard me just fine, and I could hear them perfectly.

They're big

Apple AirPods Max
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The AirPods Max are also pretty big. One of the reasons I love the AirPods Pro so much is that, back when we could travel, I was able to leave my Bose headphones at home and use the noise cancellation in the much smaller earbuds. They just slip in my pocket and I can carry them with me wherever I go. The AirPods Max don't have that convenience. They're still big enough that you'll need a bag to carry them around. But they're perfect at home right now when I'm mostly sitting at my computer most of the day.

Apple announces AirPods Max over-ear headphones for $549