This is a question I’ve seem pretty frequently on the YouTube channel.
The short answer to both is no, but I’ll get into more detail below if you’re interested in why.
How Airpods Max Work Plugged Into A DAC
Using the optional 3.5mm to lightning cable, the Airpods Max basically take whatever signal is passed through the cable and run it through their built-in DSP (digital signal processor).
As I covered in my video on similar topics (above), one common misconception about Airpods Max and DACs is that since the Airpods Max already have their own internal DAC/DSP, using an external DAC will damage the sound.
While this DSP means that there’s also digital processing happening within the headphones, the Airpods Max are still reliant on a quality signal coming in to end up with the best sound reaching your ears.
Put another way, there’s only so much that DSP can do to correct bad audio.
I’ve tried this myself and can confirm that running the Airpods Max via 3.5mm cord from a Sound BlasterX G6 sounds better than out the headphone jack of an old iPad Air.
Every Device With A 3.5mm Jack Has A DAC
Not everyone may realize this, but this point is the big one that dispels the misunderstanding about using a DAC with the Airpods Max.
Speakers of any kind, whether big home theater speakers or the ones inside your headphones, only work in analog.
That means that any time we’re starting with a digital signal, like an MP3 or FLAC file, at some point before reaching the speakers it must be converted to analog.
There are no exceptions to this.
Even in an “all digital” setup such as HDMI from the source device to a TV, and then HDMI or optical to a stereo receiver. Yes, until the receiver that signal was all-digital. But in order to power the speakers, the receiver must then convert that signal to analog and out the speaker wires.
That also means that any device you’re using that has a 3.5mm has already, at some point prior to that jack, done a digital-to-analog conversion.
Why do I explain this?
To illustrate why it’s false to claim that connecting the Airpods Max to a DAC will damage or diminish the signal. To even use the 3.5mm cable at all with the Airpods Max, you are by definition connecting them to a DAC.
The only difference is whether you’re connecting to a basic DAC like what most motherboards or inexpensive devices feature, or a high end one you’d probably buy separately.
To reiterate the related point made earlier on, why would connecting to a high end DAC damage the audio? It doesn’t.
Is There A Benefit To Connecting Airpods Max To A Headphone Amp?
From what I’ve observed, no.
The reason is that the Airpods Max can’t be driven passively. That means that even when you use a 3.5mm cable, the Airpods Max are only using the signal coming through the cable for the signal. They continue to use their own built-in amp to power the headphones.
The bummer of this is that the Airpods Max are always using battery power, even using the 3.5mm cable.
It comes with the upside that you’re aren’t reliant on buying a standalone headphone amp like other high end headphones, which can get expensive.
But it also means that connecting them to a headphone amp doesn’t really provide much benefit.
The exception to that statement would be using a device like the Sound BlasterX G6 (that I’ve used) that has both a high grade DAC and a headphone amp in it. I still benefit from connecting the Airpods Max to the G6 because of the great DAC providing a great signal, but I don’t benefit from the power output of the G6’s amp.
In fact, the input level being too high can cause distortion in the Airpods Max, so keep an eye on that. It’s relatively simple to stay below that level at any reasonable mid volume level. I wonder if the distortion caused by too high an input signal is what some are interpreting as the amp “ruining” the sound of the Airpods.
That’s a simple fix, and is easy to avoid.