Battle Royale (with Cheese): AirPods Max Vs. Cheap Headphones

Do you get what you pay for?

Anker Soundcore Life Tune XR; Image by author.

When reviewers got their hands on AirPods Max, a lot of them did the exact same thing: they compared them to the “standard”, the headphones that people were already spending hundreds of dollars on. Sony’s XM4’s, for example. Most of them were asking the same questions, too: which sounded better? Or, more aptly, were the AirPods Max worth their high price tag?

That’s not what I’m doing here today. Not at all. I mean… what more could I possibly add to that conversation?

No, today I’ve decided to compare the AirPods Max to two of the cheapest over-ear headphones I’ve ever tried out on my head. You see, I’m not interested in finding out if the AirPods are worth spending an extra $100-$200 more; I want to find out if they are worth five times more than some good, cheap headphones.

I’m also doing this battle a little differently; I’m not going to be reviewing each of the headphones in this battle- for one thing, I’ve already reviewed the AirPods Max (which you can read here). Instead, I’m going to break it down into sections such as design, sound quality, etc., and so forth, and see how the AirPods Max compare to their cheap counterparts.

In each section, I’m going to assign a winner either by giving a point to the AirPods Max or a point collectively to the cheap headphones. In order for the cheap headphones to earn a point, they need to perform the same- or better- than the AirPods Max. For the AirPods Max to earn a point, they need to go above and beyond what the cheap headphones are capable of.

The headphones facing off against the AirPods Max today are Anker’s Soundcore Life Tune XR (as sold at Best Buy; these are called Life Q30 elsewhere) and JLab’s Studio Pro ANC. Will either of these stack up against the mighty AirPods Max? Or will the AirPods Max prove not to be enough bang for your buck? Let’s find out.

…….FIGHT!

Price

There’s no easy way to say it: AirPods Max are f***ing expensive. Unless you buy them refurbished or open-box, expect to pay $549 for the honor of having Apple’s latest and greatest in audio gear. For reference, you can get the iPad Air for only $50 more than that.

I said that the other two pairs of headphones were cheap, and I wasn’t exaggerating. Both Anker’s Soundcore Life Tune XR and JLab’s Studio Pro ANC retail for just $99. JLab also offers a non-ANC version of the Studio Pro for only $40. And for the Anker headphones, you can regularly find them on sale at Best Buy for just $69.99, or on Anker’s website under the name Q30 for $79.99.

One pair of AirPods Max, or five-ish pairs of the cheap headphones… Hmmm.

It won’t truly come to light until we complete the battle whether the AirPods Max are worth the money or way overpriced, but looking at the price tag alone, there’s absolutely no denying which one is going to feel better on your wallet.

AirPods Max: 0. Cheap Headphones: 1.

Design

AirPods Max; Image by author.

Build Quality

The AirPods Max definitely look and feel like they cost $549. They are designed out of aluminum and stainless steel, and the parts that interact directly with your noggin- the ear cushions and headband- are made out of a soft, pleasant mesh.

I personally love that the ear cushions are removable- they attach with magnets- which makes the AirPods Max somewhat repairable; the portions I would expect to wear out the quickest are the cushions so having the option to replace them makes me feel a little better about spending so much money on them. Apple sells replacement ear cushions for $69 (ironically, the exact amount I spent on the entire Tune XR’s), but while the headband is also easily removed, at this time Apple does not appear to be selling replacements for that yet. I find that to be a bummer because I feel like the mesh headband could easily get snagged on a zipper or something and ruined.

The Soundcore Life Tune Xr and Studio Pro ANC headphones are both built entirely from plastic. The Anker headphones do look the more premium of the two, with a headband design reminiscent of Apple’s Beats headphones, but the JLab headphones definitely look inexpensive with exposed wires on each ear cup. The JLab headphones also had a bit of rattling plastic in the left can when I got my unit, which was particularly annoying while listening to tunes with ANC enabled, but after a couple of days that piece of whatever it was worked itself free and they’ve been rattle-free ever since (and had they not, I imagine this would have been fixed by me simply exchanging the headphones).

Despite being entirely plastic, the cheap headphones still feel very sturdy and worth the money you paid for them, but the AirPods Max have the build quality to beat here, as any Apple product should have.

AirPods Max: 1. Cheap Headphones: 1.

Comfort

The AirPods Max fit pretty well, at least on my head, and the mesh ear cushions are very comfortable to wear for long periods of time. Because the headband is mostly mesh and designed to sort of float atop your head, however, there’s a substantial amount of clamping pressure from the ear cups to keep the secured on your head. For me, this ended up causing some headaches since I have a lingering jaw issue (for reference, I also had this issue with Apple’s Beats Solo Pro headphones). The headband also tends to slide forward or backward on my head. It is fairly easy to adjust the size of the headphones with the stainless steel arms, but it is easier to do so off your head than it is while wearing them.

Both the Anker and JLab headphones are very comfortable to wear, with soft memory foam ear cushions and similarly soft headbands. The JLab headphones also have a nice benefit of having the ear cups more ear-shaped, though depending on your ear size you may still find them to be a little on the smaller side. Both of the headbands here take on more of the headphones’ weight, so there isn’t as much clamping pressure on the sides of your face. I found that the JLab felt the most comfortable and secure during long listening sessions, while the headband on the Anker headphones would tend to slip just like that of the AirPods, especially if I was wearing them while walking around. The JLab headphones were also easy to adjust both on and off my head, while the click mechanism on the Anker headphones worked much better if I did the sizing before I put them on (this also avoided my hair getting snagged in the mechanism).

All of these headphones feel comfortable to wear, but if you are sensitive to pressure on your head, the AirPods Max may cause some long-term issues. For myself personally, I reached for the JLab headphones more than the other two, and I think that both cheap pairs of headphones feel just as comfortable as- if not more than- the AirPods Max.

AirPods Max: 1. Cheap Headphones: 2.

Buttons and Knobs

On the AirPods Max, you have two buttons, both located on the right can. a single push button toggles between noise-canceling and transparency modes, while a rotating crown- a larger version of the crown on the Apple Watch- controls volume and functions as play/pause, skip track, and Siri summoner depending on the number or length of your press. The crown is particularly satisfying to use, and the two buttons are very easy to tell apart when you are wearing them. They will also automatically pause the music when you take them off. There is no power button anywhere to be found.

The Anker headphones have a play/pause button and volume up and down buttons (which also function as skip track buttons) on the right can and a power button and noise cancellation button on the left, which cycles between noise-canceling, normal mode, and transparency. The buttons here are all a little small and feel the same, so at first, it could be easy to confuse which is which until you learn the layout. The right ear cup also has a touch sensor that will toggle transparency and either normal or noise-canceling (whichever you were previously using) just by you holding your hand on it for a few seconds.

The JLab headphones, like the AirPods Max, put all the controls into the right can; you’ll find a power button (also play/pause) and volume buttons (also track skip and, when pressed together, EQ switcher) along the backside of the ear cup. The JLab logo on the right can also function as a button that cycles through noise-canceling, normal, and transparency modes.

When it comes to controls, all of these headphones bring what you’d expect, sans the power button on the AirPods Max. The AirPods have, without a doubt, the best way to control volume (seriously, why don’t more headphones have a dial?), but I can’t say it is that much better than the standard volume buttons on the cheapies. And while the Anker’s controls can be a bit cumbersome to get used to, both cheaper pairs of headphones do give you a couple more functions than the duology of Apple buttons and knobs provide.

AirPods Max: 1. Cheap Headphones: 3.

Sound

JLab Studio Pro ANC; Image by author.

Sound Quality

The AirPods Max sound magnificent. There, I said it. They sound damn good. They aren’t bass-heavy, going for more of a neutral sound. This is welcome to those who want to hear their tunes unadulterated by the sound profiles you get with headphones like Beats. Songs are crystal clear, and there have been a few times where I noticed details in songs that I legitimately had not detected before.

The JLab Studio Pro ANC also have a neutral sound, but they do sound a bit flatter than the AirPods Max. The Soundcore Life Tune XR, however, sound very rich and, in 99% of the songs I compared, sounded just as good as the AirPods Max. They do provide quite a bit more bass than the AirPods Max, which may make some people happy but may put others off. But more on that in a moment.

Arguably, the most important aspect of any headphones is how good they sound. I mean, they can look beautiful, feel exquisite to wear, but if they sound like shit then they aren’t worth the time of day. And the AirPods Max do not let you down in this area at all. They sound like they are worth their asking price. That said… to me (not an audiophile), they don’t sound $400 plus better than the cheap headphones- especially compared to Anker’s Tune XR’s. I really want to give the AirPods Max a point here for how excellent they sound, but damn it, the rules are the rules. Point to the cheap headphones.

(if you want to hear the songs I use to test my headphones, you can find a good majority on my Apple Music playlist “Fantastic Beats and Where to Find Them”. Listen to it here)

AirPods Max: 1. Cheap Headphones: 4.

Sound Customization

The AirPods Max do not have any native EQ settings; what you get is all you get. You can change the EQ settings for your music app (for example, Apple Music has EQ options in the Settings app on the iPhone), but those don’t carry over to other music platforms or devices when you switch around. That means if you prefer a more bass-heavy approach than what the AirPods Max offer, you are S.O.L.

JLab’s Studio Pro ANC have three EQ settings built into the headphones (switchable by pressing the volume up and down buttons simultaneously), allowing you to choose between JLab’s signature EQ, a balanced EQ, and a bass booster. Even with the bass booster on, the bass isn’t terribly punchy. The Tune XR come with over 20 EQ profiles available in the Soundcore app so that you can find exactly the sound you are looking for. There is also a custom EQ builder to allow you to create your own sound profile, thereby giving you extreme control over how your headphones sound. Because of this, I found it easy to tweak the Tune Xr’s to fit my needs and to sound just as good as the AirPods Max.

AirPods Max: 1. Cheap Headphones: 5.

Noise Cancellation

So, this comparison was originally going to feature a different line-up. Originally, I was going to compare the mighty AirPods Max to the extremely cheap non-ANC version of the JLab Studio Pro. But just as I was getting ready to write this, JLab went and released the Studio Pro ANC, and, well, it was a no-brainer that I needed to compare these instead since one of the best features of both the AirPods Max and Tune XR’s is active noise canceling.

With that addendum, now all three headphones in this Battle Royale feature both noise-canceling and transparency modes. And they are, none of them, equal.

Alright, on the face of it, the AirPods Max have potentially the best ANC. When activated, 90% of the world around me disappears, leaving only the music behind. In fact, I am quite sure that the AirPods’ excellent sound quality I praised in the previous category is in large part due to the ANC.

Like the ANC on the AirPods Pro, however, the AirPods Max started giving me some sinus pressure, which wasn’t helped by the clamping force of the cans. Since this was a personal circumstance, I’m not going to factor that into the score, but I felt it was worth mentioning for anyone else who might have had an adverse reaction to active noise canceling, particularly for the strong ANC that the likes of the AirPods Pro- and now the AirPods Max- employ. I’ve read that for some, it will go away as you get used to it, but for others, it may not.

As mentioned, both the cheap headphones also feature noise-canceling; their ANC isn’t quite as effective as that of the AirPods Max, but they get the job done. The JLab headphones have two levels of ANC- aptly named ANC High and ANC Low- while the Anker headphones give you three modes- Indoor, Outdoor, and Transportation- to help focus on the specific outside world sounds you may be dealing with.

It is worth mentioning that in order to toggle between these options on the Anker headphones, you’ll need to use the Soundcore app, as the noise-canceling button or the touch control on the headphones will only switch between your preset level of ANC, normal (ANC off), and transparency. The JLab button will cycle through the high and low settings before taking you through normal and transparency modes. Both, rather annoyingly, will announce with a voiceover which mode you are in, which interrupts your music for a few seconds (and the JLab default you back to normal instead of ANC when you power them off and on again), while the AirPods Max have a simple, unobtrusive chime to indicate when you change modes.

ANC is an excellent inclusion on all of these headphones, but despite the headaches I got from them, the AirPods Max do provide ANC that is a cut above the rest.

AirPods Max: 2. Cheap Headphones: 5.

Transparency

Like ANC, all three headphones come with a transparency mode to allow the outside world in without having to take the headphones off.

And as with the ANC on the AirPods Max, Apple’s Transparency mode is equally effective. I mean, if it hadn’t been for the clamping pressure, I honestly wouldn’t have noticed that they were still on my head while using transparency. I was able to hold full conversations with the headphones on and music playing. Granted, you probably don’t want to be wearing your bulky over-ear headphones while talking to people (it looks rude), but it is an excellent feature.

The Tune XR also feature a great transparency mode and benefit from the aforementioned touch control that will quickly (after that annoying voiceover) switch the headphones to transparency. It isn’t really any quicker than pressing the AirPods Max’s button or even the button on the Anker headphones (except, as mentioned, that button can be a little hard to distinguish from the others), but it is a nice shortcut to have. The transparency mode here definitely sounds more mechanical, however, and for longer conversations, I felt more inclined to take the headphones off.

JLab’s “Be Aware” mode is… well… it’s functional. It gets the job done in a pinch, but you definitely can tell you are listening to the outside world on speakers and, like the Anker headphones, it will be better just to take the headphones off if you need to have a conversation. But again, nicer to have the option rather than not.

AirPods Max: 3. Cheap Headphones: 5.

Bonus Round

Ok, this is where the AirPods Max are going to gain some ground. Being Apple-made headphones, they have a few bonus features that the cheap headphones could only dream of.

Firstly, there’s the H1 chip. Actually, two H1 chips in the Max (one for each ear cup). These little potato chips are what give the AirPods Max their signature “Apple magic”, allowing them to connect nearly seamlessly between your Apple devices. And it is magic; to switch the cheap headphones between my devices, I first need to disconnect them from one to connect to another. The AirPods Max, on the other hand, will instantly move to whichever Apple device I happen to be holding and using to watch a video or listen to a tune, so long as I’m signed into my iCloud account on the device.

The AirPods Max also have a sensor in them to automatically pause the music when you take off the headphones. This was nice, and something I sorely missed with the JLab and Anker headphones (though for double the cost of the Tune XR’s, you can get Anker’s newer Q35 headphones that have a similar sensor).

Another big draw for the AirPods Max is Spatial Audio, which makes it feel like you have a whole surround sound system in your ears. This feature is wild, but as I said in my initial review, it is very limited (only on iPhone and iPad, and only working with certain streaming platforms) and probably shouldn’t be the sole basis on which to buy AirPods Max today. For now, it is a nifty party trick, and one that I’m sure will become more fully realized down the road.

The only “features” I can really talk about with the cheap headphones is that the Tune XR’s come with NFC pairing, which gives them a slightly faster pairing edge with Android devices. But that’s hardly something worth buying them for.

I do hesitate to give the AirPods Max this point simply because the majority of these benefits are only benefits when paired with Apple products, but I figure if you are considering buying the AirPods Max, you’ve already got an iPhone or iPad to go with it. So, point to AirPods.

AirPods Max: 4. Cheap Headphones: 5.

Function

Anker Soundcore Life Tune XR; Image by author.

Ports

The AirPods Max have a singular port, and- yeah, you guessed it- it is a Lightning port. I’ll get into the charging aspect of using the Lightning port in 2021 in a couple of sections, but just know that this is the only port you get. This port also doubles as the wired-in port if you use a Lightning-to-3.5mm cable… more on that in a section, too.

Both the cheap headphones have USB-C ports for charging as well; on the JLab, this port also doubles for your wired audio with a 3.5mm-to-USB-C cable. The Anker headphones also come with a dedicated 3.5mm port.

AirPods Max: 4. Cheap Headphones: 6.

Wired Connection

As I’ve just mentioned with the ports, the AirPods Max and the cheap headphones are all capable of using a wired connection to play music, however, they are not all made equal in this feat.

For one thing, the AirPods Max do not include the needed Lightning-to-3.5mm cable. Despite spending $549, Apple expects you to spend an additional $35 if you want this cable. On the flipside, both Anker and JLab had included at no additional cost the necessary cable for wired playback; Anker’s is a standard 3.5mm-to-3.5mm, while JLab’s is USB-C-to-3.5mm.

Another hurdle for the AirPods Max is that despite having the capability for wired playback, they still need battery power to do so. To me, that kinda negates the main reason to have a wired option, as I’ve personally only ever used the wired connection when I realize I’ve forgotten to juice up my headphones. JLab advertises that the Studio Pro ANC can be played with a wired connection without battery power and, though Anker doesn’t advertise this feature, it seems to be true of the Tune Life XR’s as well.

I obviously didn’t get to test the audio quality with the AirPods Max in wired mode- I wasn’t about to spend more money- but I imagine it works pretty well. Both the cheap headphones do a decent job here as well, with the Anker sounding a little better than the JLab while wired. The cheap headphones can utilize ANC while in wired mode if you have battery power; at first I didn’t think the JLab headphones could do it, but you have to hold the ANC button down for longer than normal to activate it and then press it as normal to switch modes. I believe the AirPods Max can use ANC while wired as well, but again, I didn’t get to test it and I couldn’t find any word one way or another in a Google search. Both the JLab and Anker headphones get noticeably quieter when ANC is turned on in wired mode.

The fact that sub $100 headphones included the wired cable while Apple’s $549 headphones couldn’t be bothered to do so gives this one to the cheap cans. Plus, having the ability to use the headphones without battery power is- to me- the main reason to even have this option built into the headphones.

AirPods Max: 4. Cheap Headphones: 7.

Charging

Apple’s been moving a lot of their products over to charging with USB-C; the MacBook, most iPads, and even some Beats headphones now use USB-C. This is not so for the AirPods Max, which still retain the Lightning cable. I mean… that’s fine, because my iPhone still uses Lightning and my other AirPods use Lightning, but in most days, I don’t have a Lightning cable around me because all of my other gadgets use USB-C (and I use the MagSafe charger or other wireless chargers for the iPhone). If I’m going places, it just means I’m also going to have to carry a Lightning cable, too. It doesn’t take up a ton of space, but it is annoying.

More maddeningly, the included cable is Lightning-to-USB-C, meaning you either need to buy one of Apple’s new charging bricks (not included; $19) or a computer with a USB-C port to charge them out of the box (of course, long-time Apple users probably have regular Lightning cables in abundance). Historically, AirPods have not come with the charging brick, so this might be more of an argument that Apple should have included one with the iPhone 12 instead. But it just seems like poor timing (or perhaps evil genius) that the moment Apple switched everything from their standard Lighting-to-USB cables in favor of Lightning-to-USB-C is also when they stopped supplying the charging brick in the box, rendering either our old Apple charging bricks useless or the included cable useless until we buy something extra.

But enough about missing charging bricks; after all, neither of the cheap headphones have one either, so it isn’t like they have a leg up here. Well, they do, actually, because their included cables are USB-to-USB-C, making both their cable and their charging method a little more universal. There’s something nice to be said about being able to use my MacBook’s charger to charge the majority of my devices, saving me room in my bag when traveling.

Apple’s included cable is the usual length of a Lightning cable that comes with other Apple products like the iPhone, which measures to roughly not quite long enough, but it is still longer than the cables included with the cheap headphones, which are short (Anker) and laughably short (JLab).

AirPods Max: 4. Cheap Headphones: 8.

Battery Life

Apple says that the AirPods Max will last for 20 hours with ANC on; Apple also doesn’t seem to expect you to use them otherwise, as they did not publish the battery life with ANC disabled, though I would imagine it would give you at least a couple more hours of use. 5 minutes of charging will get you 1.5 hours of listening, and they should fully charge in about 2 hours. Since I didn’t use the stupid case all the time, I found myself charging them every 2–3 days, depending on how often I was using them. Popping them into the included case will put them into a low-power mode to preserve battery power.

JLab’s Studio Pro ANC offer a massive 45 hours of play-time without ANC and 43 with it turned on, and will charge from dead in about 1 hour and 45 minutes. They do not advertise a fast charging option, though given their overall charging speed, I’d say they should give a couple of hours of use time with a short plug-up. Out of the box and after several days of mixed usage, I’ve yet to need to charge the JLab headphones.

Anker’s Soundcore Tune XR’s, once more, take the top spot here, offering 40 hours of playback with ANC on and a whopping 60 hours with it off. Fast charging here will get you 4 hours with just 5 minutes of charging. That just makes sense since Anker is very well-known for their charging accessories, even if they forgot to include one of their famous bricks. I’ve only had to charge the Anker headphones once since I powered them on, and that’s only because they came out of the box with about 50% juice in the tank.

As I might have mentioned, both the cheapies give you a dedicated power button to turn off the headphones. If you forget to turn them off, the JLab headphones appear to stay on indefinitely but don’t seem to drain too much power, while the Anker headphones seem to power themselves off after maybe an hour or two. Apple says that even without the case, the AirPods Max will eventually go into low-power mode when they haven’t been used, but jostling them seems to wake them up, thanks to the H1 chip always being ready to pair to your device.

AirPods Max: 4. Cheap Headphones: 9.

Cases and Storage

Each of these headphones comes with a case- such as it is.

Apple’s carrying case for the AirPods Max is baffling. It’s a bra, if you will. It looks absolutely stupid. It doesn’t offer any meaningful protection for the AirPods Max, with lots of openings that still expose the aluminum finish, the stainless steel bits, and the fragile mesh headband. Seriously the only reason I’ve used the case is to prevent the cans from banging into each other; even the power benefits didn’t seem that drastic to me.

Anker and JLab both also give you a case of sorts for your headphones; Anker went for a hard-shell zip-up box that is still slim enough to slide into a bag, while JLab actually just gave you a bag to put the headphones in.

Whether you use the case or not, you’re eventually going to want to store your cans for travel, right? I mean… when we all get back to traveling… right?

The AirPods Max do not fold. The cans swivel to lay flat, but that’s it. When putting them into my computer bag (which is, admittedly, small), they take up the majority of the space not used up by my MacBook and iPad.

The JLab headphones do not swivel, but they can fold up into a relatively small package, allowing them to get stuffed into a smaller part of my bag, while the Anker headphones get the best of both worlds: swiveling to lay flat and folding up to take up less space. The Anker headphones can’t fold up quite as small as the JLab (you are meant to lay them flat and then fold one can in to fit into their case), but either will take up less room in the bag than the AirPods.

AirPods Max: 4. Cheap Headphones: 10

The Battle Royale concludes with the AirPods Max at 4 points and the cheap headphones at 10. The cheap headphones win!

The AirPods Max win out in the areas of build quality, noise cancellation, transparency mode, and special features like Spatial Audio, but in the areas that mattered- like comfort or sound quality- they weren’t any better than headphones that cost a fraction of their price. And regarding things like customization or battery life, they simply fell far beyond what the cheap headphones were capable of.

Bang For Your Buck

AirPods Max; Image by author.

When I originally reviewed the AirPods Max, I absolutely loved them. And despite the two literal pain points I’ve personally had with them, they remain one of the absolute best pairs of headphones I’ve ever adorned atop my head.

And maybe, if you want all of the Apple-specific bells and whistles, the premium design, and a sound profile unhindered by extra bass or EQ tweaks, maybe you could justify the asking price of $549.

They sound fantastic. But I don’t think they sound that much better than the $69 or $99 headphones I compared them to. They don’t sound $400 plus better. For me, they don’t bring $400 worth of extra value or features to the table. If asked whether I should spend $99 on the JLab or Soundcore headphones, or $549 on AirPods Max… I’m going to buy one of the cheaper headphones. Hell, I might even buy both of the cheaper headphones.

And I don’t think this is true just of these two cheap pairs of headphones. In the past, I’ve tried other relatively inexpensive headphones- like Sony’s XB900N’s or Target’s Heyday ANC over-ear headphones or even Apple’s own Beats Studio3- and in every single case, yeah, the AirPods Max may be a little better, but they aren’t hundreds of dollars better.

I can’t definitively say whether the AirPods Max will give you enough bang for your 549 bucks, but I can say without a doubt that either the Anker Soundcore Life Tune XR and the JLab Studio Pro ANC give you a lot more than what you paid for. I loved the AirPods Max, but ultimately I didn’t love them enough to spend so much money on them. I’ll stick with the cheap headphones, thank you very much.

I am just clever enough to get myself in trouble…

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
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