AirPods Max are better with Tidal too

Posted on January 16, 2021
Updated January 26, 2021

If not an audiophile, or a music lover – I’m a sound lover. Oh wait, philo means love – as in philosophy, the love of wisdom. So I guess I am an audiophile, although audio generally refers to the reproduction of sound. The reason I’m not a real audiophile is I haven’t put in the hard yards chasing down better and better sound: someone who has proved their love with gifts.

This is my initial AirPods Max review. Apple is doing great things in the mid-fi arena, with HomePods and the AirPods Pro (APP) and now the AirPods Max (APM).

When I was about 10 Dad got a pretty decent CD / Amp / bookshelf speaker combo which I enjoyed a lot into my late teens. I remember discovering sting and U2 on huge, old headphones plugged into the JVC amp, lying on the floor with my eyes closed discovering new sounds in Zooropa. Still a track I use to audition audio equipment, as it’s a beautiful mess that comes alive with decent equipment. The AirPods Max is the first solution I’ve encountered since then that really helps the song shine, even if it’s to be considered prosumer or mid-fi rather than hi-fi.

It’s hi-fi to me, but as mentioned, I’m missing some context. That said, many audiophiles have found the AirPods Max’s sound remarkable.

When it comes to audio maybe I’m a bit like I am with photography: not so concerned about the technicalities, but very concerned about the overall effect and ability to appreciate an image. So I tend to like prosumer cameras too, with a done-for-you approach, such as the fuji x100 series. I accept the computational magic in the x100s as well as the APM, because the result is natural.

At home I listen with stereo HomePods. I use AirPods Pro for daily hour-long walks. The AirPods Max (APM) are replacing the Beats Solo3 for everything in-between, including work and being splayed on the couch. I didn’t mind the Solo3s initially, but over the year I’ve had them I’ve grown interested in finding a better sound.

Across all of this I’m using Tidal Hi-fi as a source: CD quality streaming as opposed to Apple Music, which sounds great but is limited to a lower, but good for casual listening, bitrate.

I spent a good half hour auditioning the Max in-store and I was hugely enthusiastic about their sound. Even in the noisy store I was hit by Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, and bathed in Benee’s Evil Spider.

AirPods Max or a Mid-fi Stack?

The APM is pretty unique, without a lot of direct competition. Most wired headphones that compete on sound quality also need an amplifier and DAC, eliminating convenience. But I seriously considered going down this route. A stack would do everything the APM does but separated into dedicated wired components – potentially better value for money. But as they sound good to me, and even some (not all!) ‘audiophiles’ say the APM matches more expensive hi-fi stacks, I trusted Apple with my dollars.

In any case the APM is a huge step up from Beats Solo3. The increased cost (more than double) is well worth it to me. Music sounds wider, more lush, layered, full bodied, sparkly and warm and deep all at once. Having come from the Solo3s I didn’t have huge requirements for sound stage, but music seems to be mostly out of my head and around me, as well as clearly separated into parts, which is what I wanted out of them.

I have been listening to music on the AirPods Pro while walking in the evening. They sound OK, but the APM is on such another level that I think I’ll just listen to the real world while I walk and save my listening for later in the evening when the lights are out the APM is wrapping my soul in a warm blanket. The difference is mainly in the body and stage of the sound, something I think that just comes from being over-ear. They allow me to enter the sound where as with the APP I can only listen to it.

Here are some tips for getting the most out of the APM, things I’ve learned along the way which also apply generally to the Apple Music ecosystem and hardware.

Use Tidal Hi-fi even over bluetooth

Lots of people advise that there is no point streaming high bitrate music over AAC Bluetooth because the bitrate is capped. If you really love listening to music (as opposed to just hearing), you should at least try Tidal’s H-ifi offering or another high quality audio source. Tidal sounds better than Apple Music, in separation and clarity and maybe other technicalities too, even over bluetooth.

Here’s my theory about this: music is not passed directly from the source file to your device DAC/output, it’s being mixed in with the system audio of your device, which is sent as one stream to your output. This resampling is probably quite destructive – a process which Tidal’s higher bitrate can withstand better.

One criticism of AirPods Max is that the instrument separation dies in complex situations. I’ve tested this with Tidal Hifi and it seems to hold up. Maybe this is also related to this issue.

I’ve looked for info on this with no luck. Let me know if you think there’s a difference between Apple Music and Tidal Hi-fi over bluetooth.

Join Tidal with a 60 day free trial

Use this link to get the extra month for your trial. I will also save on my own subscription costs by referring you. I recommend the Hi-fi tier.

ANC might change the frequency response

A consistent criticism of the AirPods Max’s sound is a certain reduction in the upper mids. I have found this too, as well as a thinness or raspiness to treble on occasional tracks.

However with active noise cancelling off they sound a touch fuller, warmer, flatter and perhaps more immediate. The bass is noticeably slightly less deep and whoofy which sounds more reasonable. I’ve been switching between and I’m not sure which I prefer.

I have a theory about this too. When you aren’t engaging ANC (or transparency, which relies on ANC), the AirPods Max’s adaptive EQ stops analysing the seal and adjusting the frequency response to suit your anatomy. For me, adaptive EQ reduces the upper mids, causing the rasp. The effect would be unique for different heads, see how the AirPods Max sounds for you with ANC/transparency off, and let me know if you notice a difference. You might even prefer it, at the cost of the of the ANC magic. Comments are off, you’ll have to hit me on Twitter (see footer).

AirPods Max MacOS Tips

Bypass system audio

When using Tidal on Mac, bypass the system audio mixer (and associated resampling) by following these steps:

  • Select the AirPods Max as the output device in Tidal
  • In more settings, make sure exclusive mode is also set. Forcing volume is also handy.
  • Set main system output set to another device
  • Ensure that the system will not automcatically switch back to the AirPods Max by going to settings > Bluetooth > AirPods Max > Options > Connect to this Mac, and changing from automatically to ‘when last connected to this mac’

Short of buying a third party app such as Audivarna or Roon, I think this is the ultimate way to listen to music on the AirPods, although the difference is probably pretty negligible.

You can do a similar thing with Apple Music by selecting APM as the output from the app rather than changing the system audio. As with Tidal, you’ll have to also disable automatic switching.

I’m not sure if there is much improvement to the sound or not as I don’t know how it all works, but I guess the less processes interrupting the sound the better.

Increase bluetooth audio quality.

MacOS apparently defaults to reduced bluetooth audio quality to increase compatibility. If you’re willing to get dirty, take a look at this article that describes how to change these settings. I don’t think you can break your computer this way – I’ve done this myself it was fine – but should something happen please know I don’t take responsibility!

Tidal electronic music playlists

To get you started, here are a couple of my better Tidal playlist…

  • Electro – a collection of active and colourful electronic music old and new.
  • Slow – My downtempo evening chill mix.
  • Sound – Soundscapes and experimental electronic music.