Apple might be making the AirPods Max’s ANC worse with software updates

A new firmware update has hindered the quality of ANC on the headphones, and some are suspecting Apple intentionally did it.

It looks like Apple might be playing dirty with owners of its AirPods Max headphones. Many users are reporting that the latest firmware for the headphones, version 4E71, has hindered the quality of active noise cancellation (ANC), and it’s unclear why. Reddit threads have been written about the issue, and it’s even gotten the attention of and The Verge.

The issue seems to be creating a very apparent difference in the ANC quality on the AirPods Max. Umar Shakir at The Verge says he purchased the headphones a week ago, at which time they worked totally fine. Then, thanks to an overnight update, the AirPods’ ANC quality dropped significantly, to the point where he could hear what was going on around him much easier than before.

Both my wife and I often work from home, and for a few days, my AirPods Max excellently rendered her business calls inaudible to me, banished the corgi barks emanating from under my desk to the nether realms, and audibly shut out the high-rise construction site outside my apartment window. But now, the ANC sounds like what I’d describe as a librarian’s transparency mode: it lets me hear my surroundings clearly but reduces the volume for everything. I’m hearing everything I don’t want to now, and I’m convinced it’s because of that firmware update.

Umar Shakir (The Verge) that the 4E71 firmware update does indeed reduce ANC’s effectiveness, but it’s still good enough for most scenarios.

The Apple AirPods Max’s noise isolation performance is great. However, after updating the headphones to firmware 4E71, their active noise cancelling (ANC) system blocks out a bit less noise between the mid-bass to high-bass range than the previous firmware. This range is occupied by sounds such as the low rumble of bus and plane engines. That said, it still does a fair job in this range and is comparable in performance to the Razer Barracuda Pro. When it comes to the mid and treble ranges, this firmware update has slightly changed the level of isolation, but it’s a relatively minor difference. The ANC can still reduce sounds like ambient chatter and the high-pitched whirl of AC units extremely well.

The reason behind the sudden change in ANC quality is unknown, although some suspect it’s a bug like what the Bose QC35 II headphones experienced in 2019. But given the AirPods Max’s age of nearly two years, many are guessing that Apple could be making them progressively worse as it readies to release a new model.

It’s a practice not foreign to Apple users. In 2018, it was discovered that the company was slowing down its iPhones in the name of preserving battery health, affirming a suspicion many had that iPhones get slower around the time new ones come out. Many think the AirPods Max are in the same situation, although there’s no way to prove it without confirmation from Apple either way.

Notably, this isn’t the first time Apple’s headphones have experienced ANC problems after an update. The original AirPods Pro received two individual updates that seemed to hinder ANC in some way or another, but both times seemed to be slip-ups as Apple later pulled the second update following user complaints.

So far, Apple hasn’t said a word about the problem with AirPods Max. Whether it’s a bug or not remains to be seen, but I’ll be keeping a close eye on this story in the meantime.