It’s been a long wait, but the latest Apple headphones were finally unveiled yesterday. Nobody expected them to be cheap, of course – this is Apple – but the $549 price of AirPods Max has raised quite a few eyebrows.
That is $150 more than the excellent Bowers & Wilkins PX7, which is arguably the product to beat in the wireless over-ear ANC headphone category. It’s $200 more than the Sony WH-1000XM4, which have also been given rave reviews. It’s $250 more than the Bose QC35 II, which completes the set of the most popular premium headphones in this category …
No-one should be surprised when Apple opts for premium pricing, but it is still quite a bold step to price so far above other premium brands with a richer heritage in quality audio.
Early signs suggest that Apple’s pricing isn’t deterring buyers: shipping times for all five colors have now slipped to 12-14 weeks.
It’s important to stress that this doesn’t necessarily mean that early demand is massive – all we know for sure is that it exceeded Apple’s expectations. It’s entirely possible that Apple saw the AirPods Max as a relatively niche product, and placed initial supplier orders accordingly.
Indeed, I wouldn’t be greatly surprised were that to be the case. All the evidence suggests that the original HomePod has turned out to fall into the ‘relatively niche’ category. Whether Apple knew from the start that this would be the case is uncertain, but one thing does seem clear: Apple now has a consistent strategy for audio across both headphones and speakers.
With AirPods, it started with a (for Apple) entry-level product, then added more expensive variants: the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max. With speakers, it started with a premium model – HomePod – and later added an entry-level one, HomePod mini. (I’m not sure there’s a market for a even pricier Apple speaker, but if there is, the HomePod Max name would be ready and waiting.)
Will the AirPods Max justify that pricing? That remains to be seen – or, rather, heard. I’m certainly very curious to try them. Much of what Apple stresses in its marketing is just table stakes in this price category: 40mm drivers, hybrid ANC, stainless steel frame, smoothly telescoping arms, memory foam cushioning, auto-pause and so on.
But Apple’s headphones do have three things going for them, compared to their B&W, Sony and Bose competition. Let’s look at these in what I would say is increasing order of importance.
First, spatial audio. That’s undoubtedly useful for gaming, and perhaps for movies, but it’s not something I would personally want with music – even live music. There, I want the optimum listening experience no matter how I orient my head. Since music is the main reason to buy quality headphones, I don’t see this as a huge selling-point.
Second, and far more appealing to me, the digital crown volume control. It sounds like a small thing, but most audio people vastly prefer rotary audio controls over buttons. A rotary control offers greater precision, improved ease of use and a generally more pleasant and satisfying experience. I’d honestly pay a decent premium just for this feature in any of my current headphones.
Third, and most compelling of all, deep integration into the Apple ecosystem. The painless automatic pairing experience is massively better than clunky conventional Bluetooth pairing. Automatic switching between devices can be a mixed blessing, with the potential for unwanted switching, but if Apple can work out the glitches here, it’s a valuable benefit. Finally, there’s audio sharing: the ability for two people to listen to the same music or video, each with their own AirPods. That’s a fantastic benefit when travelling with your significant other.
My primary headphones at present are my B&W PX7. Would I switch to AirPods Max? If they delivered the same audio quality, I have to admit I’d be tempted for the digital crown and instant pairing/switching capability. The PX7 does support dual-Bluetooth channels, so I’m connected to my iPhone and Mac at the same time, and it will stream from whichever device is playing audio, but I still have to disconnect in order to connect to my iPad.
Normally, I would say that’s a huge ‘if’: Apple has not generally covered itself in glory when it comes to audio quality. But the original HomePod delivers incredible sound for the price, especially two stereo-paired ones. So Apple certainly can deliver the kind of audio quality associated with well-respected audio brands when it tries. My wallet will be feeling somewhat nervous whenever I finally get the chance to try them.
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