Remember travel? You know, where people leave their homes, get in a car or a train, or on a plane, and go somewhere different for work, or pleasure, or just because? In case you've forgotten, it's still magical, even if the threshold for what justifies the hassle, expense, and safety concerns is significantly higher.
Of course, we're all optimistic that there will be a time in the near future where travel will again be normal for all the reasons it was before.
Last week, I had to make a quick trip for family reasons, and my daughter went with me. We took all of the things you take when you travel--suitcase, toothbrush, hand sanitizer, and extra masks. Also, I took the AirPods Max.
You know, Apple's $550 high-end headphones that the company announced in December to excitement as well as a healthy dose of "they cost how much? And they don't even have a case?" There's still a legitimate question to be asked as to whether $550 is worth it for a pair of headphones, but the AirPods Max are very good--especially in terms of audio quality.
They're not quite audiophile-level good, but they're really good for a pair of Bluetooth over-the-ear headphones with all of the limitations that come with that combination of technology and features. The real test was whether they did the thing you expect from active noise-canceling headphones. How good are they at blocking out noise? Well, the best place to tell whether they're up to the task is to take them on an airplane.
For comparison, I also have a pair of Bowers & Wilkins PX7's and the new Sony WH-1000XM4's. I've also tested the Bose Quiet Comfort 35II's in the past. I'm generally a fan of the B&W's in terms of overall sound quality, and I prefer that model's controls. The Sony's tend be just a bit better as far as noise cancellation, however. The Bose are, as the name suggests, usually considered the most comfortable.
For me, Apple's high-end over-the-ear model would have to be better at all three--sound quality, noise cancellation, and comfort--for me to consider them the best overall headphones for traveling. That's a high bar to clear considering the strength of the competition, all of which have been at it much longer than Apple. Could the AirPods Max really be that good?
The simple answer? Yes. They're that good--at least if you're inclined to spend that kind of money in the first place.
Not only did the battery last the entire trip--which consisted of about 4 hours of use, as well as a full day and a half in the case--they were plenty comfortable to wear on a plane for a few hours at a time.
As for the noise cancellation, it's as good, if not better, than any of the other options I've tried. Airplanes aren't necessarily a difficult environment to block out sound since the background noise tends to be a consistent hum that is relatively easy for the headphones to block out. That said, airplanes are noisy.
One thing that really sets the AirPods Max above the competition is the transparency mode. I was traveling with my daughter, which obviously means answering all kinds of questions about taking off, flying, landing, and almost anything else that goes through a 10-year-old's mind on an airplane.
With transparency mode enabled, I was easily able to carry on a conversation with her. Surprisingly, the AirPods Max seem to do a really good job of prioritizing voice over background noise, so even though it was piping in the ambient noise, it was easy to pick up her questions.
I will say that the case Apple includes is still ridiculous. It's not even a case. I didn't even bother to bring it, mostly because I would have been embarrassed to pull them out with it on.
Instead, I brought along a model from Waterfield Designs, and it was more than up to the task. It fit just fine in my backpack, and not only protected the AirPods Max but also includes the small magnets that tell headphones to go into low-power mode so that the battery doesn't drain when they're stashed.
It does highlight one thing worth mentioning. For a company that is so focused on the overall experience of using its products, it's still surprising to me that Apple released these headphones, at this price, without something to put them in that's up to the task in the same way the headphones are. Whether that means they're worth the cost, I can't say. They are, however, the real deal.