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This article was published on May 20, 2021

Here’s how Apple can improve the AirPods Max — you’re welcome, Tim

All I want is a small statue in Apple's HQ

Here’s how Apple can improve the AirPods Max — you’re welcome, Tim
Callum Booth
Story by

Callum Booth

Editor of Plugged by TNW

Callum is an Englishman in Amsterdam, but not in the way you're thinking. He's the Editor of Plugged, TNW's consumer tech vertical. He w Callum is an Englishman in Amsterdam, but not in the way you're thinking. He's the Editor of Plugged, TNW's consumer tech vertical. He writes about gear, gadgets, and apps — with a particular focus on Apple — and also makes the occasional odd video. Basically, he's halfway between an abrasive gadget nerd and thinky art boy.

Apple’s AirPods Max have really grown on me. When they were announced at the end of last year, I was broadly sceptical. Yes, I thought they’d be good, but in no way would be worth their $550 price tag.

As some nobody with a guitar once said though, “times are a-changin’.”

While I still wouldn’t put the AirPods Max on the top of my over-ear Bluetooth headphone tree (currently, that award would go to Sennheiser’s Momentum 3), I’ve really begun to adore Apple’s cans.

But this could change in the headphones’ next generation. Because although I love them, the AirPods Max have flaws. Lots and lots of flaws.

Let’s consider one of these that arose last week. Apple announced a lossless version of Apple Music. Basically, this will offer users of the service the highest quality of digital music. You can read about what that means here.

The issue? None of Apple’s headphones — including the AirPods Max — are capable of playing lossless audio. In other words, a service Apple is offering cannot be used by its own products.

All this got me thinking more broadly about the AirPods Max in general and how Apple could iron out the current issues in the next generation. Effectively, how it can take them from good to excellent. You’re welcome, Mr. Tim Apple.

First though…

What’s good about the AirPods Max?

Before we get into the specifics about what to improve, it’s useful to spend a little bit of time on why I’ve been so impressed with the AirPods Max in general.

First up, of course, is the integration in the Apple ecosystem. It’s easy to forget just how seamlessly you can switch AirPods between different devices until you try and do the same thing outside of Apple’s bubble.

Next is the build quality of the AirPods Max. Honestly, I’m not sure I’ve ever come across a pair of headphones that appear so solid and well-made. At least, nothing in the close price range.

Apple AirPods Max case rear
Might stop writing and go and lick these for a minute.

Then, we come onto the noise-cancelling. While I think this feature can be improved (more on that later), the way it blocks sound is astounding. It’s genuinely eerie. My partner hates me wearing them around the house because I can’t hear anything: talking, the doorbell, dogs barking, or alarms. You name it, with the AirPods Max on, I can’t hear it.

Now, the real meat: sound. I’ll run our superlatives to describe the AirPods Max. These are headphones tuned for maximum enjoyment. Everything is crisp, lush, and rich. The sound is spacious and the presentation is excellent. They’re a really wonderful pair of cans.

Of course, there are other things I like about the AirPods Max (the ear cups, the Apple Watch-style, the fit, the lack of touch controls… it goes on and on), but that’s not the point of this piece.

We should do what we came here for: to talk about how Apple can improve its most expensive headphones. Because as good as they are, I’m still not convinced they’re worth it.

The AirPods Max need a new case

When the AirPods Max were released, I immediately wrote about how fucking stupid the case is. Time has not mellowed my opinion.

Apple AirPods Max in case
LOL IT LOOKS LIKE A THING LMAO.

Aesthetics-wise, the case doesn’t bother me. All the “bra-strap” jokes fell a bit flat — it’s a headphone case, who gives a shit?

No, the issue is all about function. As in, this case is useless when it comes to being, well, a case. Because it doesn’t cover the AirPods Max themselves, I simply don’t take them anywhere that I might need to put them in my bag.

A solo walk or a trip to the shop? I’ll put them on. But if I’m going to meet a friend? They stay at home. If you spend this much on headphones, you expect to be able to take them anywhere.

Currently, the only option is to get a third-party bit of kit, many of which are literally a case for your AirPods Max case. Yep, read that again. And then look:

AirPods Max case third party
Imagine I quoted Xzibit “I heard you like…” meme here.

The solution here is so fucking easy: make a case that actually covers the entirety of the AirPods Max. A sentence that is so absurd I can’t believe I’ve written it. Again.

To be honest, I’m still half-expecting Apple to release the AirPods Max Magic Protect Case, something that’ll retail for a cool $79.99.

Replace the lightning cable with USB-C

It appears a matter of when, not if, Apple will shift its hardware from its proprietary Lightning connector to USB-C. In fact, it’s already happened with the iPad Pro and Air range.

Look, I sorta get the logic on why the AirPods Max have a Lightning port. It’s likely you’ll be using the headphones most with your iPhone, meaning you only have to carry a single charging cable around. But… how about you change the iPhone to USB-C too, Apple?

You’d expect a pair of AirPods Max to last for at least five years. Its connection should’ve been future-proofed.

header image new ipad air lightning cable usb c
THE TRUTH.

Include a fucking audio cable

This is one of my biggest issues with the AirPods Max: there’s no included 3.5mm jack cable.

This does exist, but it costs $35. Yep, to use your $550 headphones with a wire, you need to shell out another $35. Just fucking include a headphone cable, Tim.

And introduce proper lossless support for the AirPods Max

This is the point that kicked off this piece. Even if you’re using an audio cable, the highest resolution you can achieve with the AirPods Max is 24-bit/48 kHz (more on what that means here).

To get there though, the digital audio from your phone is converted to analog before being reconverted to digital in the AirPods Max. Effectively, the original lossless file is being altered along the way to your headphones. This isn’t good.

Now, I’m sure there’s a technical reason this is trickier than it sounds, but if other headphones manage to do it, why not the AirPods Max?

Apple AirPods Max front earcups
Here’s a photo of the non-full lossless headphones.

Another element of lossless playback I’d love to see is some sort of wireless option. Bluetooth has technical limitations on bandwidth — effectively it can’t reliably stream files the size of lossless digital music.

But there are other options. For example, it’d be amazing if Apple could weave some magic so you could AirPlay audio (a service that does allow lossless playback) to the AirPods Max.

Better battery life

The AirPods Max don’t have a terrible battery life, but it’d be useful if the next generation of the headphones lasted closer to 30 hours, rather than the current 20.

Cheaper battery replacements

Again, not rocket science. Who doesn’t want stuff cheaper?

Currently, it costs $79 to replace the AirPods Max battery. A scheme where this was cheaper if the replacement happened in, say, the first three years of ownership would be grand.

Of course, this’ll never happen. There’s money in repairs.

Apple AirPods Max case empty
Here’s a picture of the empty AirPods Max case, because why not?

And, while we’re talking about things that’ll never happen…

Actual Android support

I mean, there’s a reason Apple doesn’t go out of its way to cater to Android users. The company makes more money long term by enticing people into its ecosystem. But a proper Android app would be nice, wouldn’t it?

Control over the AirPods Max’s noise-canceling

At the beginning of this piece, I brought up the noise-canceling capabilities of the AirPods Max. While this is a great feature, sometimes I feel a slight discomfort because the effect is so strong.

It’d be fantastic if there was a way to change the intensity of the noise-canceling so I can find that sweet spot depending on my environment. In fact, this could be rolled out via a software update, rather than in the next generation of the AirPods Max.

Phew. Well, there you go, Apple. A whole load of ideas about how to make the next version of the AirPods Max even better. I’ll be waiting for the short film in my honor during your next event.

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