I may be a little late to the party here, as there are rumors of the second generation of AirPods Max coming soon, but I just received my AirPods Max about a week ago and wanted to let people know my thoughts.
I will start with two of the biggest criticisms of the AirPods Max, the weight and the clamping force. I grew up with a dad who was a private pilot and I flew with him a lot, so much that he bought me my own headset, a David Clark aviation headset with microphone, the same type of headset he war in the cockpit. This was over 30 years ago, when electronic noise reduction was very uncommon and very expensive. That headset did pretty well at blocking out engine noise, simply by creating a very good seal around the ear and squeezing very hard. It was also built with durability in mind. It was not entirely metal but had a lot of metal in it's construction and so was very heavy. I actually still have it and even occasionally still use it with some of my sound equipment. I grew up frequently wearing that headset and others like it. I am used to wearing headsets that have a lot of weight and clamping force. It is very obvious that anyone who says that the AirPods Max are heavy and have excessive clamping force never war one of those aviation headsets. LOL. Seriously, the weight and clamping force of the AirPods Max doesn't bother me at all. It is heavier than all of my other headsets, but it is also a lot more ruggedly built than they are. It also has more clamping force than my other headsets, but not so much that I find it uncomfortable, and it has much better passive isolation than my other headsets, probably partially as a result of the clamping force. I just don't find the weight and clamping force to be a problem at all.
Let's talk about transparency mode and noise cancellation.
Transparency mode feels a little strange at first, because it literally seems like you are not waring headphones, even though you can feel them on your head. I am not exaggerating. You can hear all the sounds around you, at their normal volume, and you can determine directionality. It's kind of crazy, in a good way.
Passive sound isolation is very good. Therefore, when you turn off transparency mode, even without turning on active noise cancelation, it gets much quieter. Other than the aviation headset I mentioned earlier, the AirPods Max have the best passive isolation of all my headsets. Then, when you do turn on active noise cancelation, it gets much quieter still. I stood in front of my clothes dryer, which is not quiet, and I was literally getting more sound coming up through my feet from the vibration on the floor than I was getting through my ears because the AirPods max were cancelling out almost all of the droning sound. No noise cancelation will cancel everything entirely but this will make it so quiet you have to listen for it and that's without audio playing. If you play any audio, even at low volume, it will drown out what little sound remains. As with all electronic noise cancelation, it does best with constant sounds, like the droning of the clothes dryer, but it does fairly well even with nonconstant sounds like voices. This is the only headset I own with active noise cancelation but I don't know how a better job could be done. Of course, I'm sure that performance of ANC is very dependent on specific use cases and I have only had mine for about a week but this has been my experience so far.
Let's talk about sound quality and latency.
Sound quality is very subjective. Much of what one thinks of the sound of any headset comes down to how the sound signature aligns with one's preference. I do not like sound signatures which are base heavy, partially because this tends to make speech, including text to speech, sound a bit muddy. The AirPods max have a sound signature which is not at all base heavy. This makes text to speech, as well as podcasts and youtube videos which consist mostly of spoken word, sound very good, at least to my ear. The 40 mm drivers are capable of delivering quite impressive base, when the recording includes it, but the base is not artificially boosted. To me, the sound signature is similar to my AirPods II but it sounds a bit richer, due, probably at least in part, to the over ear vs in ear design, as well as the much larger drivers. I find the sound signature to be somewhat similar to my Sure SRH 840A headset.
The AirPods Max are not capable of lossless audio, when using them either wireless or wired, something that many reviewers see as a big factor against them. To me, they sound excellent. Would they sound better if they could produce lossless audio? Sure but I doubt I could tell the difference, without a very close detailed direct comparison, and I doubt most other people could either. I have always struggled to distinguish much difference between lossless and lossy audio. I can discern a little difference, maybe. With better equipment than I have, maybe the difference would be more pronounced but I'm just not worried about it. I am reminded of what I have said to sighted people before, really trying hard to tell the difference between dark navy blue and black clothing. If you have to examine it that closely, does it really matter? LOL. I'm sure many people will consider this to be audio blasphemy but this is my prospective and this is my review. LOL.
Latency is very low when using bluetooth with my second generation iPhone SE. It is noticeably higher when using my 2015 MacBook Pro. I suspect that the difference comes down to the difference between bluetooth 5 on the iPhone and bluetooth 4 on the Mac. When using them wired (yes I bought the $35 Apple cable), latency is very very low. Even when using them with a wired connection, the AirPods Max require a digital input and, because the analog audio has to go through a DAC in the cable, there has to be some latency but it is so low that I cannot detect it.
Many say that the AirPods Max are not good for monitoring or critical listening. I don't necessarily agree. I think it would depend on the specific application. You might not want to use them in the production of a music album. However, between the low wired latency and the sound signature, I believe I can use the AirPods Max for audio monitoring and editing of my podcast, which consists of only spoken word. I'm going to give it a try anyway.
Now to what I consider to be one huge advantage of the AirPods Max, the digital crown. I have always found it mildly frustrating that I often can't seem to get the volume of my iPhone just where I want it. It will be slightly too low so I will press the volume up button. Then, it will be slightly too high. You can go into the control center and press and hold on the volume control to get the slider you can drag for fine adjustment but I have found that to be a frustrating process. The digital crown solves that. If you turn it very slowly, it changes the volume in 1% increments. If you turn it faster, it increases the volume more per the amount of rotation. For example, if you do a slow quarter turn, it may change the volume 2 or 3 percent. If you do a fast quarter turn, it may change the volume 10 or 12 percent. I am making up the numbers but I am hopefully getting the idea across. Once you get the feel of it, which isn't hard, you can quickly change the volume in large amounts or you can make very small incremental adjustments to get it just where you want it.
A quick word about build quality. Some say that the AirPods Max are over engineered, unnecessarily contributing to their cost and weight. I am very glad for the outstanding build quality, even if it does add to both the cost and weight. I have a relatively large head and have had multiple headsets break due to the constant stress of putting them on and taking them off my large head. I have no worries about that happening with the AirPods Max and that is worth something.
So, the bottom line is that, to me, the AirPods Max have excellent build quality, excellent noise reduction (both active and passive), are very comfortable even after waring them for extended periods of time, and have a sound signature that makes them great for both music and spoken word listening. Are they worth the price? To me, yes, absolutely. I don't know about for you but maybe the information I have provided here can help you to make that decision.