Teardown: Apple AirPods Max headphones
Image credit: Apple
Brilliant engineering at a hefty price.
OK, £549 for a pair of headphones? If you could, would you? Well, maybe.
I spent a good slice of my childhood caddying dad’s ‘test’ LPs as we schlepped around hi-fi shops, remembering little more than the price of the turntable or amp that he bought – he could recite every spec. Since this is Engineering & Technology, it is fair to assume the readership contains a higher percentage of audiophiles than average.
Yet Apple has launched its AirPods Max, its first non-Beats over-ear headphones, at a challenging time.
As the price demands, this is a heavily engineered product. It has an aluminium-led industrial design that discreetly bellows ‘quality’, a thoughtful interior layout, and a range of audio features that fully exercise Apple’s dedicated H1 headphone ASIC.
Yet right now there is reduced demand for high-comfort, noise-cancelling headphones from one key market: the frequent traveller. Moreover, numerous reviewers have found that the AirPods Max feel tied to an ecosystem where the best available audio quality from Apple Music is 256kbps AAC compression as opposed to the lossless option aficionados tend to prefer.
There are even areas where it feels Apple has been rather mean. There is no 3.5mm jack nor any adapter bundled with the headphones. Instead, the user must pay an extra £35 for a Lightning-to-audio cable. Then, the Max’s case has drawn fire partly from the bemused because it looks like a bra but mostly because it does not fully cover – and thereby fully protect – such an expensive product.
Finally here, if the battery does drain completely there is no passive mode (though with 20-hour capacity, a 15-minute fast charge providing an hour’s play, and an ultra-low-power standby mode, that is hard to achieve).
Nevertheless, audiophiles can be forgiving if the product delivers results in terms of sound and, for headphones, comfort. Here, Max scores highly.
In its full active noise-cancelling mode and a separate ‘transparency’ mode (which lets some outside noise through), eight on-board microphones feed into a system that can optimise output hundreds of times a second – six capture the surroundings and two what the user is hearing. Processing is done via ten audio cores in two on-board H1s, one in each cup.
A spatial audio feature can then be used for video offering a well-rated conversion of Dolby 5.1, 7.1 and Atmos soundtracks into a three-dimensional rather than solely horizontal spread.
Performance is also highly rated across the full dynamic range with any of these features – or a further Adaptive EQ – turned off. The sound itself is delivered by two 40mm Apple-designed dynamic drivers.
On comfort, the Max weighs roughly 100g more than premium rivals at 384.8g. Apple has sought to mitigate wearer fatigue by giving the canopy a lightweight stainless-steel frame and a breathable knitted mesh headband as well as balancing weight across the two cups.
An iFixit teardown highlights the canopy design. “Any capable headphone headband has to tilt, spin, and connect the ear cups together, but no other headphone does it quite like this. Apple’s electromechanical hinge hardware is both intricate and overbuilt and might make the AirPods Max’s price tag a little easier to swallow,” iFixit found.
“This hinge needs to provide a sturdy but comfortable connection for the headband, while also reliably passing a power connection through from the battery. Apple uses a wraparound flex cable in the rotating portion of the joint, with some clever routing and built-in strain relief – then switches over to spring contacts for the connection to the headband. What a flex.”
As its teardown team explains, these things do matter: “The two points in any headphone where the headband meets the ear cup are paramount for comfort. The joint needs to move with multiple degrees of freedom to sit comfortably on the wearer’s head, and be sturdy enough to be yanked around a bit during the putting-on and resizing process.
“Additionally, headphones are little pockets of pure vibration. Inside both ear cups, the drivers vibrate rapidly for extended periods of time to create sound for your earholes. So any joint hardware inside the ear cup needs to be pretty robust.”
Meanwhile, though not signalled in the marketing, Apple has included a further feature that allows a user (or, more likely for now, a repair engineer) to insert a SIM pin into a small hole and detach the canopy
After so many earbud teardowns where partial replaceability and repairability have been disregarded, Air Pods Max reverses the trend.
The ear cushions, the most vulnerable spots for wear and tear, are held in place by smart magnets and are user replaceable (albeit at £75 a pair).
Access to the ear cups is mostly a case of removing screws, although there are some pentalobe and very small (down to T1) Torx screws as well as a modest amount of glue. Once inside, battery and driver removal and replacement is relatively straightforward. For iFixit, the main issue then became the sheer range of screws used: “You’ll need an extensive tool kit, even by our standards.”
At this price, you suspect that the bill of materials for such a sculpted and unique design has made Apple not merely more repair-friendly but also wary of the costs it could face for replacements.
You cannot get away from the fact that the AirPods Max are on every level a beautifully designed product (once out of the case). You equally cannot get away from wondering if, notwithstanding Apple’s massive brand power, a price tag of around £200 like more than comparable headphones from Bose and Sony would have been asking a lot at the best of times.
Teardown: Apple AirPods Max headphones
1. Detachable canopy
2. Cups (2x)
3. Lightning port
4. Cup covers (2x)
5. Drivers (2x)
7. Motherboard A
8. Motherboard B
9. Electromechanical hinge (exploded)
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