AirPods Max, two years on: Have AirPods Pro 2 made Apple's over-ear headphones obsolete?

AirPods Pro vs AirPods Max
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I'm starting to write this piece about how the AirPods Pro 2 have almost replaced my AirPods Max … while wearing my AirPods Max. I’m on a flight right now and, when packing for the trip, instinctively reached for the larger headphones. There’s no substitution for that noise-cancellation right now -- but it’s getting close.

And that’s kind of the point of this piece. I love these over-the ear headphones; our AirPods Max review is right: They’re cool (depending on if you like the design, which I do), surprisingly comfortable, and have the best sound quality and noise cancellation of any headphones I have ever used.

All of you Sony and Bose bros, I get it. There are certainly arguments to be made that you can grab similar sound quality and more customizable features for a better price, not to mention the fact that they have better compatibility with non-Apple devices. But hey, this is an Apple site. So tough noogies.

That said, while I do still find myself reaching for the AirPods Max in certain situations, it isn’t as quickly as before after Apple released AirPods Pro 2. If you’re debating between the two, it’s an easy choice. But, if you appreciate the nuances that each bring to your overall relationship with audio, you might want to consider having both.

Anyway, let’s dive into why the AirPods Pro 2 have almost replaced my AirPods Max.

AirPods Pro 2 are a better all-rounder

AirPods Pro 2 on a mosaic table

(Image credit: Gerald Lynch / Future)

There’s no getting around this one. AirPods Pro 2 are just a better everyday pair of headphones (well, earbuds) than the AirPods Max. While the AirPods Max still win on audio quality and noise cancellation, they’re big and bulky.

When you’re on a phone call, attending a meeting, going on a run, or basically moving at all, the AirPods Max become a big, bulky monster real quick. Don’t get me wrong, they’re very comfortable when you’re sitting down and working, watching television, or whatever, but as soon as you get up and move around you start to notice that weight.

AirPods Pro 2, on the other hand, are wireless earbuds, so they’re made to be incredibly light. I’ve gotten so used to them being in my ears that it’s sometimes easy to forget they are even there.

If I had to pick one pair of headphones instead of owning both, knowing that I’d be using them for phone calls, meetings, music, podcasts, hiking, running, hitting the gym, and whatever else the day throws at me, I’m grabbing my AirPods Pro 2.

I say this not to offend any gym goers who wear AirPods Max while they lift. I get it. That bass can be motivating. But it’s not for me.

You can even get away with them on air travel

AirPods Pro 2

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One of the things that blew me away with AirPods Pro 2 was just how much better the noise cancellation got. I remember watching the keynote and Apple claiming that noise cancellation was twice as good in the second-generation earbuds compared to the first, so I was very curious to see how that shook out.

While I could tell it was better during the day to day, I didn’t really get the full force of the improvement until I flew. I know, I know, I just said above that I’m wearing my AirPods Max on the plane I’m writing on right now. It’s undeniable that the AirPods Max are still the king when it comes to noise cancellation, especially in challenging environments like a plane.

However, what’s crazy is how much AirPods Pro 2 closed the gap. One of the reasons that I bought the AirPods Max was because the noise cancellation, while not bad, was not nearly as effective with the first-generation AirPods Pro. I would need to turn the earbuds up to at least 70% volume to actually hear what I was listening to or watching in order to overpower the noise that was still coming through.

With the AirPods Pro 2, I’ve noticed that, if I turn the volume up to around 40-50%, I’m totally good. While you can still hear a little bit of noise coming through, it’s very minimal and makes the listening experience much more comfortable. A little less getting those noise notifications that blow out your eardrums.

AirPods Max, of course, still take the cake. I have the volume on those up halfway and I hear nothing but music. These things block out everything. So, if you want to hear absolutely nothing but the sound of your music, podcast, or movie, the AirPods Max are still the go-to. However, the AirPods Pro 2 have closed the gap by a significant margin.

Once again, if I had to pick one pair to take with me on a trip (flights included) I’d be grabbing the AirPods Pro 2.

Where does that leave AirPods Max?

AirPods Max laying flat on table.

(Image credit: Christine Romero-Chan / iMore)

So, if AirPods Pro 2 improved the audio quality and noise cancellation so much — two of the main features of the AirPods Max — where does that leave Apple’s big, expensive headphones? That’s a good question. I can’t speak for anyone else but I can at least tell you where that lands them for me. 

For me, AirPods Max are now my default for a few key areas of my life. The first is, serendipitously, when I’m flying as I am right now. While AirPods Pro 2 are getting close with noise cancellation, there’s still nothing like completely blocking out everything, and AirPods Max are still the only headphones that do that. That said, if I’m packing really light and need to make a decision, I’m grabbing my AirPods Pro 2. While they’re not the best, they come damn close and will work just fine for most.

The second area that the bigger headphones have grown on me is for work. While I work from home most days, I have started to return to the office from time to time. There’s only so many conversations I can have with my cat before things start to get weird. When I’m at the office, putting on some music and blocking everything else out is really helpful when I’m trying to focus. While AirPods Pro 2 could give me a similar experience, it’s still not at the level of audio immersion you get with over-the-ear headphones.

And that leads me into the third area that AirPods Max still reign supreme: audio immersion. If I’m relaxing in my apartment and want to respect my neighbors but get totally immersed in music, there’s nothing like AirPods Max. I remember the commercial that Apple released when they announced the headphones. It showed a woman lying on the couch, feeling like she had blasted into space.

That’s honestly what it feels like when I’m listening to a song I’m really into. With the noise cancellation on and audio up, everything else fades away and I’m completely immersed in the music. The audio quality is also so stellar that you hear things in the song that you never would with earbuds.

It always comes down to convenience

AirPods Pro and AirPods Max

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While I'm someone who values audio quality, it can be painful to admit that people will always choose convenience over better audio. Sound bars and wireless earbuds already prove that. And, while I will always enjoy my AirPods Max in specific scenarios, even I can’t help but reaching to the AirPods Pro 2 as my default set of headphones.

That said, the AirPods Max still take the cake in certain situations and I’ll always keep them on hand for when those times roll around. However, if I had to choose between the AirPods Pro 2 and AirPods Max as my only headphones, the choice is clear.

If you’re still debating between the two, check out our comparison between the two in our AirPods Pro vs AirPods Max: Which should you buy? post.

Welcome to the future, where over-the-ear headphones are a niche product!

Joe Wituschek

Joe Wituschek is a Contributor at iMore. With over ten years in the technology industry, one of them being at Apple, Joe now covers the company for the website. In addition to covering breaking news, Joe also writes editorials and reviews for a range of products. He fell in love with Apple products when he got an iPod nano for Christmas almost twenty years ago. Despite being considered a "heavy" user, he has always preferred the consumer-focused products like the MacBook Air, iPad mini, and iPhone 13 mini. He will fight to the death to keep a mini iPhone in the lineup. In his free time, Joe enjoys video games, movies, photography, running, and basically everything outdoors.