Sound and Vision: The AirPods Max are coming into their own
OPINION: I must admit, when the AirPods Max were first launched, I thought they were a hugely expensive fashion accessory masquerading as a pair of headphones.
They looked odd, came with a charging case that offered little protection, offered no hi-res audio support, did the usual thing of only playing nice within the Apple ecosystem and, of course, that eye-watering price. Surely the AirPods Max would fall to the same fate as the original HomePod.
How wrong I was.
When I’m walking around London, or commuting on public transport, I tend to look at what headphones people are wearing. There are the usual suspects: Bose QuietComfort models, Sony WH-1000X (from Mark 3 to Mk5), the cheaper Sennheisers cans, Apple AirPods (and their true wireless imitators) and many, many more beyond that. But over the last year I haven’t seen a pair of headphones as often as I have the AirPods Max. Everywhere I look, there’s a person wearing them.
And it’s a surprising turnaround, at least to me. When the AirPods Max first launched, they were scarcely available. Even several months to a year after they were available, you can find articles online talking about how much of a success they truly are since they were as rare as hen’s teeth.
But success isn’t measured in weeks and months but – in the case of the Max – it’s years, a slow burn that’s become more popular among the Apple favouring contingent. And the most interesting aspect about it are the people wearing the headphones. Not your business suit wearing types with plenty of money to burn but those who are much younger, people who look like they’re in their early twenties or so. Perhaps it’s a birthday present, maybe the headphones were a Christmas gift – I’m just speculating here – but the AirPods Max are proving to be very attractive to the young, and seemingly affluent market, who are happy to spend (or have someone else spend) over £500 on a pair of headphones.
And it’s such a marked difference in terms of people’s expectations on what they’d spend on a pair of headphones. I’ve let my friends listen to a pair of Bowers & Wilkins Px8 headphones (RRP £599) and asked them how much they think the headphones cost. All of them felt they would cost around £200, three times less than what they cost. When it comes to electronics, people tend to think towards the cheaper end of the spectrum: DVDs instead of 4K Blu-rays, £300 55-inch 4K TVs instead of spending £1000, £50 true wireless instead of £200.
And the AirPods Max are something of a riposte to that, succeeding where the first HomePod failed – a product that’s another case of suffering from not being cheaper. Plenty of expensive headphones turned up before the AirPods Max; Sennheiser and Beyerdynamic were selling plenty of pricey wired headphones, while Bang & Olufsen and Bowers & Wilkins were not averse to charging a premium for their headphones.
But despite their pedigree and expertise in the audio market, Apple has essentially gazumped them and crowbarred open the mass market for wireless headphones. You have to give Apple lots of credit for doing that, and it helps that the AirPods have such a close partnership with the iPhone, that’s very obviously the not-so secret weapon that gives Apple an advantage.
It looks like Apple is on its way to conquering over-ear headphones as it did in cannibalising sales in the true wireless market. Who would have thought that when you could have barely found a pair for love nor money in 2020?