It was inevitable that despite their hefty $549 price, Apple’s AirPods Max headphones would eventually start to miss out on the company’s latest software enhancements. Headphones are basically computers now and have evolved into their own platform, so just like with any iPhone or Mac, Apple’s latest ecosystem tricks and software features require more powerful silicon and newer components.
We started to see the swan song for the two-and-a-half-years-old AirPods Max earlier this month at WWDC when Apple announced several new features coming this fall that, in nearly all cases, will exclusively apply to the second-generation AirPods Pro — and no other models. The headlining feature is called “Adaptive Audio,” a new sound mode that intelligently blends noise cancellation and transparency modes based on your surroundings. “You can stay present in your environment while distracting noises are automatically reduced,” Apple’s Ron Huang said during the keynote presentation. Adaptive Audio will generally muffle the outside world, but you’ll clearly hear certain sounds — bike bells, car horns, etc. — that are important for personal safety.
Adaptive Audio builds upon the Adaptive Transparency mode that launched with the second-gen AirPods Pro. On those earbuds, Apple’s passthrough mode can quickly soften ear-piercing sounds like sirens and construction work. The company said this on-device processing was made possible by its H2 chip, which (so far) is only available in the latest AirPods Pro. The AirPods Max have an H1 chip in each ear cup, but apparently, that’s still not enough to make Adaptive Audio happen.
Adaptive Audio promises some unique functionality, and I’m looking forward to testing it. But some of Apple’s other new audio features — again, all exclusive to the newest AirPods Pro — seem inspired by what we’ve seen from the earbud competition.
Personalized Volume is another of those tricks announced at WWDC. Over time, the AirPods Pro will learn your volume preferences in different conditions and automatically try to keep the loudness right where you like it. This is an idea that Google pursued with past Pixel Buds, but the company ditched Adaptive Sound with the Pixel Buds Pro. Apple is very cognizant of hearing health, so I’d wager Personalized Volume will only crank your music up so far.
And then there’s Conversation Awareness, which is a feature I’d argue Sony pioneered before other earbuds adopted the same concept. That said, Apple’s implementation sounds slightly more sophisticated than simply turning down the volume and flipping on transparency mode as soon as you start talking. Conversation Awareness lowers the music, sure, but Apple has said that it can “enhance the voices in front of the user, all while reducing background noise.” There’s a focus on isolating voice frequencies that isn’t present in other approaches to this I’ve tried so far.
But again, the bad news for AirPods Max owners is that none of this new functionality is coming to Apple’s most premium headphones. They’re not being ignored completely; you’ll be able to quickly mute yourself on calls with the digital crown, and Apple has said the sometimes-unpredictable automatic device switching will be much more reliable after this fall’s round of software updates. But the most helpful upgrades aren’t coming. Even small conveniences like the shorter “Siri” activation word — no more “Hey” required — are only for the second-gen AirPods Pro. Ouch.
The AirPods Max have caught on in a big way
Anecdotally, I’ve been seeing the AirPods Max everywhere lately. There are two people wearing them at the coffee shop where I’m writing this. I’m sure much of that momentum is owed to frequent retailer discounts, as it’s very easy to find sales on them at this point. Still, even with a discount, they are typically more expensive than many competitors.
Either way, a lot of the time, they’re being used outdoors on busy city streets. Adaptive Audio would absolutely be a beneficial feature for this product. And why wouldn’t I want Conversation Awareness when wearing them at the office? You’re not going to see many complaints piling up during the summer beta cycle, but once these features roll out to everyone come September, I’d wager more than a few AirPods Max owners will be irked by what they’re missing out on — if they’re even aware of the new features at all.
Will Apple really keep the current model around for another year (or more) and leave them stranded with fewer features compared to the AirPods Pro? Even right now, after hearing the WWDC announcements, I’d feel a bit ripped off walking into an Apple Store and spending $549 on headphones that have nearly hit the wall on new features.
Rumors on the next AirPods Max have been few and far between. Supply chain analyst Ming-Chi Kuo doesn’t expect anything until the second half of 2024 or even later. That feels… very late. I’m hopeful we’ll see a new version of the company’s noise-canceling headphones this fall alongside the iPhone 15 lineup. The iPhone’s pending transition to USB-C opens the door to an “easy” AirPods Max refresh: Apple could swap out the Lightning port, upgrade the silicon to the more advanced H2 chip, and call it a day. I’d take that over nothing at all. The AirPods Pro are very likely to get a USB-C charging case, and that’ll probably be it until a third-gen set comes along.
But I hope we’ll see something more than that for the AirPods Max. There’s no denying that for all their careful design considerations, Apple’s headphones are heavy and can get fatiguing over time. Hell, we’ve got people getting anxious about denting their heads nowadays. If the company can shave off some of that load, it could result in meaningful improvements to extended comfort. And then there’s the pitiful “case” that offers little in the way of actual protection for the premium cans. That could desperately use a do-over at some point. And as an audio fidelity nerd, I’m still dreaming of the day we get some sort of wireless Apple Lossless support. Not holding my breath for that last one, though. Longer battery life would be nice, seeing as companies like Sennheiser have lapped the playback time of the AirPods Max.
It’s evident that Apple is calculated and deliberate when it comes to new AirPods hardware. The second-gen AirPods Pro look very similar to the originals — much to the chagrin of anyone who’d hoped to see new colors or a fresh design — but offer substantial improvements in sound quality, noise cancellation, transparency, and reliability. They haven’t suffered the crackling/static woes that often plagued the first pair. Noise cancellation quibbles aside, I’ve yet to see any common AirPods Max issues surface since the headphones were released.
Apple is working from a solid (albeit very pricey) foundation. But as with any iPhone that’s come and gone over the years, we’re starting to see that the company’s headphones can only keep up with the latest software enhancements for so long. The open question is how long Apple will wait before bringing the AirPods Max back up to par.