After months of speculation and rampant rumors, Apple has finally launched its own over-ear headphones in the form of the AirPods Max. The product was just the latest open secret floating around the Cupertino giant’s orbit in a year of leaks and early reveals.
There is no doubt the AirPods Max headphones are interesting, with their premium features and wallet-gouging $549 price tag. Yet I cannot help but feel Apple is repeating a similar mistake — and it has everything to do with that price.
No, it’s not that the AirPods Max are overpriced; there’s a very big difference between “overpriced” and “expensive,” and Apple is hardly slapping an outrageous price on a pair of budget cans. These are powerful headphones, and if you are in the market for something high-end, you will likely love them.
In reality, Apple’s grave mistake is that the $549 version of the AirPods Max is the only version available. If you’re like me, and you feel weird sticking earbuds deep into your ear canal, or if you want something with comfy pads to envelop your lugs, Apple offers you only one choice: Drop over half a grand on the latest and greatest. Nowhere is there a more affordable over-ear alternative, at least not from Tim Cook and friends.
A return to bad old habits
If this all feels familiar, well, that’s because it is. Apple made exactly the same mistake when it launched the first HomePod in 2018. Sure, the speaker sounded fantastic, looked smart, and connected to your other Apple kit like magic. But at $349 it was simply too expensive for most people, and even the Apple faithful — who are well used to paying a premium for their gear — balked at the price. Early sales were dismal.
In contrast, rivals like Amazon and Google offered a range of speakers tailor-made for different segments of the market. Amazon had the Echo Studio down to the Echo Dot, while Google’s offerings ranged from the Home Max to the Home Mini. These companies understood that not everyone can afford the most premium product; Apple did not.
Yet here we are, two years later, and Apple apparently hasn’t learned a thing. Why? It comes down to one key factor: mindset. Apple always wants to make the best product in a category, and if that means a thing will be expensive, so be it. Despite the ravings of pundits, Apple does not care one iota about being first — it cares about being the best.
That is great if you want a quality product that will last ages, but it means Apple goes in high and often forgets to offer a more affordable alternative until it’s too late. We saw that with the HomePod, where the company is now desperately playing catch-up to Amazon and Google by releasing the HomePod Mini. And it looks like we could see history repeat itself with the AirPods Max.
It took two years for Apple to realize its HomePod mistake and release a smaller, more affordable version (and hey, it’s not like we weren’t asking for one). Hopefully, it has learned from this experience — and the chastening dominance of its rivals — and has a pared-back version of the AirPods Max in the works. Whatever they are called (AirPods Max Mini? Surely not), they need to arrive soon.
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