This week on The Wrap, we’ll talk headphones, covering noise cancelling, over ear, in ear, and Apple’s exy AirPods Max. All in five.
Near the middle of December 2020, you’re tuned into The Wrap, and however you’re listening to this, whether it’s through a nice pair of headphones or earphones, through a pair you wish was better, through a speaker, or just loud and proud sharing this voice with the world on your phone, you probably heard the news about Apple’s big headphones this week, the AirPods Max.
And if you didn’t, here it is: Apple has one more thing for the year, and it just might surprise you in the price department.
This week, the big news is a pair of headphones, which is nice for headphone reviewers like myself, because headphones are rarely big news. But this week they are, as Apple unveils its first over-ear headphones, the AirPods Max, a model which takes some of the design and focus of the AirPods Pro noise cancelling in-earphones from last year, and turns it on your head, quite literally.
Bigger all round, the AirPods Max are large headphones, using similar technology with larger drivers, plus some new tech to help keep the distortion low. Right now, the AirPods Pro are small noise cancelling in-earphones, meaning the drivers are small. In the AirPods Max, there are 40mm drivers, which means a bigger sound overall, and they’ll be paired with Apple’s H1 chips, which analyse the sound and noise to both equalise and cut out the world.
They look interesting and definitely have that sleek Apple aesthetic, but the kicker for Apple’s new headphones may be the price, because at $899, they are some of the most expensive noise cancelling headphones around.
As it is, the benchmark is Sony’s WH-1000XM4, a pair that we’ve regarded as close to perfect, and which leads the pack for a street price of half that, giving Apple some stiff competition.
The noise cancelling earphone market is stiff, and so we thought that in light of the light news week this week, we’d talk about noise cancelling overall, and the type of earphones and headphones that make a difference there.
For instance, you might not understand noise cancelling, because not everything is noise. Noise is actually just repeatable sounds that sit in the background of what you hear, things life traffic, engines, aircraft noise, and the chorus of human traffic all blending together. Noise cancelling headphones can get quell this by sampling it using a microphone, and basically inverting the response, cutting it out inside headphones.
Big noise cancelling headphones provide padding for your ears, and kind of seal them in to help with the noise cancelling effort. Noise cancelling in-earphones like the AirPods Pro and plenty of others do the same by blocking at the hole in your ears, the aural cavity.
Both can be as effective as each other, and there are numerous approaches to cancel out noise as you walk or move. Most noise cancelling headphones are set to spectrums of sound, but there are headphones that can adapt based on specific pre-made profiles, some can adapt based on altitude and fit when you trigger them, and some are adaptive again automatically, such as Apple’s.
Comparing the big headphones to the small ones can be a little like apple and oranges, but the focus is always the same: great sound, no noise.
And right now, everyone has a lot of choice here, from big headphones like Sony’s benchmark XM4, as well as the previous XM3, to the Bose 700 which are great, and even the crazy Australia Nuraphones. In the small category, there’s plenty of great choices, including Apple AirPods Pro, Sony’s WF XM3, the Bose QC Earbuds, and the Oppo Enco W51.
Which one works best and is more comfortable will come down to you, but you don’t need to go with noise cancelling, either. If you’re keen to save money, forgoing noise cancelling could be the way.
Recently, we’ve been checking out earphones of all sorts, some with, some without, and while there are the occasional not great ones, most of the earphones and headphones we’ve checked out this year have been not bad. That’s great news for customers, with much of the focus being on good wireless sound dependent on what you want to spend.
If you’re getting in between $60 and $100, you’ll find corded earphones like the AudioFly AF33 and Beats Flex, which are nice and loud, but corded. Move into the $100 and $200, and things get a little better, but also wireless and cordless. And just because it’s wireless and cordless doesn’t mean it’s automatically good; there are some pretty meh earphones that cut the cords.
Most things over $200 tend to be pretty good. Simply put, if you’re shopping for headphones, you need to shop around, and you should read the reviews.
And with that, we’re out of time. So you’ve been listening to The Wrap, Australia’s fastest technology round-up. A new episode goes live every Friday at Podcast One, Spotify, and Apple Podcasts, but for now, have a great week. Stay safe, stay sane, and take care.