Design Review: AirPods Max
We brought the AirPods Max into the design room to talk industrial design in the audio space. I caught up with Ken Tomita, our CEO and co-founder, and Sean Kelly, our lead designer, and we took the headphones for a spin.

- Nick LaPlante, Marketing & Product Strategy
Headphone Underwear
Ken: Okay, just right off the bat, we gotta talk about the controversial case.

Sean: The underwear?

Ken: The headphone underwear.
Ken: Supposedly, when you put it in this underwear, it puts the headphones into a deep sleep. And that's the only way you can get a deep sleep, because these don't have an off switch.

Sean: Inherent in Apple's minimalism, they don't have an off switch, so they're always on. But they go into a sleep mode if they're not using them.

Ken: And the batteries last forever, so I don't really see any use to put them in there. You know?

Sean: Is it more for travel, like if you're taking it places? Do you think?

Ken: The case alone? I'm not going to throw this in my bag. You know, with all the crap in my bag? It's going to damage this really nice band. So I always carry it in the box. This case is basically pointless. I mean, I think it's one of those things that's deservedly heavily criticized on the internet. A lot of indirect criticism is usually just trolls, but not this.

Do you want to know the thing about it, though? I love it. I love the way it looks. I love the way it's constructed.

Lead Product Designer
Ken: Yeah, but it doesn't work.

Sean: But I love the way it's built. It has this amazing little fold through.

Ken: So we're going to ignore that it's completely useless, for now.

Sean: Yes. All right. What if this was just an effective case, like a soft shell case? Just to protect the top webbing.

Ken: Well-made, useless underwear. Beautiful underwear.
Material Choices
Ken: I think my favorite part of the headphones is probably the head strap, with this three-dimensional fabric—like a reverse hammock for your head.

Sean: Yeah, this mesh thing is really gorgeous. And if you look down it like this? People use it in architecture a lot. When you have those converging lines and it bends.
Ken: A lot of headphones will have a lot of mass there, you know? You're layering a bunch of layers, you have that soft piece that goes on your head, then you have the structural piece that goes above that. But with Apple, they took it out. So the structure goes around this three-dimensional fabric, but all the material is taken away. So, it just is very breathable and it looks very lightweight and nice and airy.
Sean: I mean, that's moving towards that softness, that warmness of tech. They're trying to use materials that are more approachable in some way.

Ken: What's nice about this fabric style ear cup is that they probably won't get those cracks, like on other headphones. And I've found them to be extremely comfortable. I used to have the Sony. These are more breathable.

Sean: (Puts on the AirPods Max) Wow. I find the action on the digital crown dial to be extremely satisfying, actually. When you turn it, it makes a clicking sound. I think digital. And it's really mimicking the Apple watch. You can tell that the hardware is really high quality.
Ken: Let's talk about the cans. I mean, that's the thing that makes these headphones super expensive, right? And nobody else really does it like this, with anodized aluminum.

Sean: Those are usually injection-molded plastic.

Ken: It does have one serious drawback though: it makes them really heavy. These headphones are noticeably heavier than the Sony and the Bose.
Sean: But the head strap is so well designed that it's not that big of a deal. I don't find them to be too uncomfortable. I'm not going to wear these headphones for like five hours straight anyway.

Ken: So I think it was worth the trade-off, but the trade-off of course is cost, right? If they made them out of plastic that looks like metal, it'd be $200 cheaper to the consumer.
Sony vs AirPods vs Dolby
Nick: Okay, so we've got Sony over here, the AirPods, and Dolby (now discontinued) all lined up. Let's compare!

Ken: In terms of comfort, I gotta say the Sony are more comfortable. They're just so much lighter.
Sean: From an industrial-design perspective. I would rank the Dolby number one of these three. I think the Dolby are the most 'successful' design. Then Apple in the middle, and the Sony last.

Ken: Okay, so one issue I have with the AirPods is I feel like the design aesthetic is a little bit of a mismatch. These machined metal cans are really gorgeous. You see them in person—they're perfect. The anodizing is really nice. These curves are really unusual, but they kind of have a retro vibe, like what helicopter pilots wear. And then the band is really modern and new age.
Sean: Yeah. The retro symbolism is strong—I can't un-see it.

Nick: Yeah. I'm looking at the Dolby and the Sony. They're both sort of pyramid-shaped.

Sean: Right. They have more volume. This Apple one is very flat.

Ken: Mm-hmm. I think something that Apple and Dolby are doing really successfully though, is how they integrate the ear pads into the can. Apple's is really nice because it has these beautiful material gaps and match-ups, in the way you can remove the ear pad. And then Dolby's are cool because the can becomes part of the ear pad. You can remove these too, but it just looks like a continuous soft piece all the way around which is really successful.
Sean: So that's what bothers me about the AirPods Max, is you have so much energy in the headband, it's three-dimensional and flowing. And the ear pieces are just a little bit flat.

Ken: From an audio perspective, the part that really blows me away is when you watch movies with them. I was like, "Okay, okay" when they talked about it in the presentation. They always hype up features like that—but I started watching movies with these on and it's unbelievable. Like sometimes I have to double check to make sure it's coming out of my headphones because I feel like it might be bothering other people in the room.

Sean: The Dolby's do the same thing. It's super realistic.
Made to Display
Sean: I love that, leading up to these, we've always wanted to see a pair of Apple headphones like this. Then they acquired Beats, and they were working with Beats for a bit, and finally these came out. And I was actually really surprised when I saw them. There were a lot of details on it that were unexpected to me.

Ken: Like what, Sean?

Sean: The headband, specifically, and the connectors—the way it connects to the cans. I just thought that chrome detail was beautiful. It was reminiscent of the back of that super pro iMac that they have. Just the chromed-out details, almost medical in a way. Just really clean design.
Sean: The colors reminded me of what they're doing with the iMacs—bringing this beauty to a market that is dominated by black-everything, most of the time.

Ken: So I talked a lot about how, overall, I feel like the components don't really match very well. But if you isolate just the can, its absolutely incredible.

Sean: And then look at the micro chamfers on the lip, the inside lip here. I mean, it's just incredible. And on the side, on the outside too, that's interesting. There's a larger chamfer.

Ken: Exactly.

Sean: Which actually makes me think of our pen pot.

Ken: It goes small on the inside, big on the outside.

I think this is really for the home office. Sitting there, just working. They're not meant to be moved—it's just too heavy. Like for travel, I just take my AirPods.


Further Reading