While the whole world — and even the entire Android Central team — has been besotted with true wireless earbuds for the last few years, I'll confess that when I have to wear headphones for hours at a time, my go-to music conduits have always been over-ear headphones. They're easier to wear for long periods — especially if you have small ear canals like mine — they have longer-lasting batteries, they tend to have better passive and active noise canceling, and the controls are usually easier to use.
Today, Apple debuted the AirPods Max, which are striking, come in vibrant colors, have excellent ANC controls ... and they cost $550. Oh, but most of the features aren't available when you use them with Android, and they use Lightning rather than USB-C.
...and they lack a 3.5mm jack for listening old-school when the battery runs dead.
Apple can get away with this nonsense because Apple is Apple and it designs everything to drag you firmly into its ecosystem and keep you from ever reaching escape velocity. But just because Apple can get away with highway robbery doesn't mean that Apple's competitors shouldn't come kick its butt and steal its sales. After all, while $550 for ANC headphones isn't absurd if you're an audiophile, it is more expensive than an iPhone SE and a set of AirPods Pro. Or if you're swimming in the Google ecosystem, you can get a Pixel 4a and an 11.6-inch touchscreen Chromebook (opens in new tab) while still having $20 left for a nice case.
We know tech giants can put out amazing headphones when they get the itch to. The Microsoft Surface Headphones 2 and the Sony WH-1000XM4 both arrived in 2020 and they both sound great, are easy to wear for hours on end, and they have great noise-canceling for $250 and $350, respectively. Just a few years ago, Samsung was putting out pretty good over-ear headphones, too, but these days Samsung is all-buds all-the-time because that's what the market has been screaming about.
Well, now that everyone and their mom is selling a pair of wireless earbuds, it's time for these companies to turn their efforts back to tried-and-true over-ear headphones and give them the innovative push that they've given earbuds.
Granted, earbuds have required a fair bit of innovation to overcome the complexity of getting good sound out of buds while keeping them small and comfortable, as well as giving them as much battery as you can humanly squeeze out of such a small bud and equally small carrying case. Over-ear headphones need innovation in other ways: we need innovation to bring the brilliant sound quality and active noise canceling features to more affordable headphones, such as we're seeing with the Anker Soundore Life Q30.
We need a new revolution for controls that don't involve tiny buttons or inconsistent touchpads, something that Apple has hit upon with that Apple Watch-inspired digital crown on the AirPods Max. Joe Maring sent me his Urbanears Pampas that used a similar control knob, and while I get that it's not perfect for everyone, it's harder to mistakenly trigger and with some tweaks and it beats old-school buttons every day of the week.
Over-ear headphones just need an extra-large injection of style right in the cans; holy motherboard of mercy, I am so sick of plain black headphones, I could just SCREAM. The colors for the AirPods Max look great, and Google fans will note that they're the same five colors the Nest Audio launched in back in October! I would gladly give Google $200 bucks for Pixel Cans in Sky Blue with Power Delivery Charging, active noise canceling, and some intuitive controls.
I'd even pay $300 if they beat the 30-hour battery on my current Bluedio A2 (opens in new tab) beauties. (Can we talk about how insane it is that Apple's charging $550 for over-ear headphones with only 20 hours of playback time on a single charge?)
Better in almost every way
Microsoft learned its lessons from the original and has vastly improved the Surface Headphones 2. Active noise cancelation, seamless integration with both Windows and Android, and an adjustable EQ make these tough to pass on.
Ara Wagoner was a staff writer at Android Central. She themes phones and pokes YouTube Music with a stick. When she's not writing about cases, Chromebooks, or customization, she's wandering around Walt Disney World. If you see her without headphones, RUN. You can follow her on Twitter at @arawagco.
I think Google and Samsung should prioritize making their own chip that they can support longer than the 2-3 years that Qualcomm chips get. Google has a long list things they need to improve (Messaging, Wear OS, Stadia, etc). I'm sure making headphones would probably be easier than fixing their current issues, but that shouldn't be their priority. I do like my Pixel Buds 2 after recent updates.
Samsung already make their own chips that they COULD support for more than 3 years it they so chose.
I don't dislike the airpods max but I think I'll stick to the xm4's
Will be interested in the reviews of these sound wise if there isn't a noticable difference between these and the xm4's, it will be limited to more of a fashion buy vs a functional buy.
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