I don't care much for Apple's AirPods Max. While they are pretty to look at, they're simply too heavy, cost too much, and don't sound very good. Perhaps the main gripe I have with them is the cost — at $550, there should be more features included, or at the very least a sturdy and practical case.
I haven't been quiet regarding my complaints about the AirPods Max — in fact, I laid out everything I think could be improved ahead of a potential second-generation AirPods Max in a previous article. However, in it, I didn't say what you could buy instead — and what other options there are available to you.
Here, we'll go through some AirPods Max alternatives and tackle various categories. In the first, I'll imagine that price isn’t the issue — that you’ve got $550 laying around, and you want the best experience possible, with some noise canceling and good sound quality. Then, we'll take a look at more budget-friendly options, because there are so many ways of getting a better experience for less. Lastly, I’m going to go all out and tell you not to get anything Bluetooth and instead listen to the outside world when you’re out and about. Revolutionary, I know!
For those with $550 laying around
$550 is a lot of money — it quite literally could get you two pairs of headphones, and this is the way I’d recommend you go. Get a pair of headphones to wear out and about with all the noise canceling you could want to make it dangerous to cross the road, and then a pair of solid wired headphones to go with them. This is where you can really see just how much the AirPods Max cost. My picks would be Sony’s flagship WH-1000XM5 for your out-and-about pair — they’re $150 cheaper than the AirPods Max, but offer a much better value. Their noise canceling is as good (if not better) than the AirPods Max, and they’re lighter too. They have a similar sound profile, but given the other pros (cheaper and lighter) they're a great deal.
For your at-home listening pair, you really don’t have to spend anywhere near as much to get the best sound possible. A pair of Sennheiser HD599 will give you top-quality sound, and they’re super comfortable and light too. They’ve not quite got the build quality of more expensive headphones, but they’re excellent value at around $140-$150. With these two picks, you’ve spent the same as you would on a pair of AirPods Max and get an arguably more rounded listening experience.
They may not be made out of metal, but they sound a lot like the AirPods Max, and they have better noise cancelling. They're also generally a good $150 cheaper than Apple's offering.
Great sound, low price
Cream they may be, but they're light, comfortable, and sound very, very good. They're open back, so you'll be able to hear everything around you, and everything around you will be able to hear that cheesy playlist you're listening to. Stick these on for a dedicated listening session and you'll be hooked.
For those that want to save some money
So there are a couple of different routes you could take here — there are some great sounding options out there for far less money. You could just go for a pair of the Sennheiser HD599 from above but you might not want to wear them outside due to their open-back design. However, they’ll be great to listen to at home. You could also opt for a pair of headphones from another brand like Bose’s noise-canceling headphones that are generally cheaper, but they’re also starting to show their age now.
Honestly, though? It may be time to ditch over-ears for a second and spend a little on a pair of AirPods Pro. I know, I know, you're probably thinking, "What? An audiophile recommending true wireless in-ears? Is the world ending?" I mean, yes, but also, no? The AirPods Pro may not be the most dynamic of audio devices, but they’re very convenient, well made, and actually offer a pretty good value. They may not be excellent at any one thing, but they are competent at most.
All you'll ever need
They sound better than you might expect, have got excellent noise cancelling, and they'll last for a long time. They're not the perfect in-ear, or even the perfect audio device, but a great all-rounder they most definitely are.
The extreme option
What if you stopped wearing headphones when you’re out and about, and instead listened to the world around you? I jest, but if you’re looking for the best audio experience, then you’re not going to get it wondering through town down a busy street. You’ll have the best listening experience with a proper pair of top-quality headphones at home, hooked up to a good sound source. That sound source nowadays could even be one of the best Macs with Apple Music on it — especially if you’ve got a 14-inch or 16-inch MacBook Pro.
Otherwise, pick up a little DAC! The Fiio BTR5 is a good portable option, or get a Schiit stack, comprising of a Schiit Magni headphone amp and Schiit Modi DAC. These little devices will hook up to your laptop and provide the extra juice a pair of headphones will need.
Then, headphone-wise, you can start off with a solid pair of classic Sennheiser HD600. You’ll likely have heard of these, as they’re something of an audiophile staple. They sound phenomenal, if a little analytical (that's audiophile speak for "balanced" or "flat"), but when hooked up to a good source, they’ll show you what music can sound like. Beyond that, have some fun and join the dark side. Just remember — most things you listen to after will never match up.
It's popular for a reason
FiiO makes some really cool little products, and the BTR5 portable DAC is a great example. It'll give you plenty of power to run demanding headphones, and even link up to your phone over Bluetooth. It's not top of the range, but you don't need top of the range.
Sennheiser have become known for some of the best-sounding headphones in the world, and the HD 600 are at the heart of that reputation. Stunningly balanced, but crisp and imminently listenable, the HD 600 are worth every dollar.
Don't wait for the AirPods Max, get something better now
Let's recap — the AirPods Max are too expensive and sound bad, so with these options, we've fixed what we can. There are options that cost the same but give you a more rounded experience. There's an option that costs less but still gives you that same Apple build quality. There's even an extreme option that does away with portable headphones altogether. I think we've shown you that you can get a better experience than the AirPods Max, but we'll leave the final decision up to you.
If you're still interested in getting a pair of AirPods, we know where to find the best AirPods sales and deals, as well as for other Apple products, like the best iPad deals or the best Apple Watch deals. Either way, there are cheaper ways to get all in on Apple. Sometimes, however, the best way is to look beyond the Apple option — there may be some surprises out there.
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As iMore's Senior Staff writer, Tammy uses her background in audio and Masters in screenwriting to pen engaging product reviews and informative buying guides. The resident audiophile (or audio weirdo), she's got an eye for detail and a love of top-quality sound. Apple is her bread and butter, with attention on HomeKit and Apple iPhone and Mac hardware. You won't find her far away from a keyboard even outside of working at iMore – in her spare time, she spends her free time writing feature-length and TV screenplays. Also known to enjoy driving digital cars around virtual circuits, to varying degrees of success. Just don't ask her about AirPods Max - you probably won't like her answer.