Are Apple’s AirPods Max headphones really worth $549? Never say never

Apple’s long-awaited over-ear noise-canceling headphones, the AirPods Max, are now a real product you can buy. And if you act quickly, you might even get them before December 25. But that assumes you’re willing to pay Apple’s heart-stopping price of $549. That’s not just a lot of money; it’s more than $150 over and above what Bose charges for its Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 — a flagship set of active noise canceling (ANC) headphones with a very similar set of features.

Has Apple priced itself out of the market? When you compare the AirPods Max to current competitors, you could be forgiven for saying so. But we’ve been here before. It’s still remarkable to me that folks are willing to spend up to $200 for the second-gen AirPods, when the market is saturated with true wireless earbuds that do more, sound better, and cost way less.

And yet, the AirPods are insanely popular, and prove that when it comes to the Apple faithful, it’s never been just about price. Here’s why Apple might not have any trouble selling loads of the AirPods Max.

More than just a spec sheet

Apple Airpods Max
Apple

If you simply compare the AirPods Max to either the $350 Sony WH-1000XM4 or the $380 Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 based on features and specifications, it’s easy to conclude that the AirPods Max are horrendously overpriced. Unless Apple has somehow managed to massively up the ante on both sound quality and ANC over these two superb products, there isn’t enough reason to pick the AirPods Max on features alone.

But Apple products have never relied exclusively on features and specs. Consider the iPad. When Steve Jobs debuted Apple’s first tablet, skeptics (myself included) noted that it was basically a really large iPod Touch. Other than a bigger touchscreen, what was there to get excited about? But my first 10 minutes of using a friend’s iPad erased any such doubts. Holding it, tapping the icons, swiping around within the apps — by the time I had to hand the iPad back to my friend, I was totally sold.

Looking at the images and the descriptions of the AirPods Max leads me to think that there will be a similarly impossible-to-quantify aspect to using these headphones. The unique mesh “canopy,” as Apple refers to the headband material, could provide levels of comfort previously unavailable in a set of full-size headphones. The choice of aluminum for the earcup covers — a material that is normally used sparingly on wireless headphones because of interference issues — could give the AirPods Max a level of luxury that their mostly plastic-based competitors can’t match.

The stainless steel sliders — likely one of the big contributors to the headphones’ relatively heavy weight — might move with a degree of precision that inspires awe. At the same time, the pivot mechanism that connects the sliders to the earcups, which Apple has predictably described as “revolutionary,” may indeed offer a customized fit the likes of which we have never seen in a set of headphones so far.

Then there’s the digital crown. I’m so used to seeing it perched on the side of my Apple Watch that it looks incongruous and out of place atop the right earcup of the AirPods Max. It’s easy to mock this design choice as Apple sticking a watch on the side of your head. But it’s worth pointing out that one of the best elements in headphone design in recent years was Microsoft’s use of the ANC dial on its Surface Headphones and Surface Headphones 2. If the digital crown proves as satisfying to use, it could be a big part of making the AirPods Max highly desirable.

Computational audio is a wild card

Apple Airpods Max
Apple

I’m not going to sit here and tell you that the AirPods Max are worth $549 because they have the headphone equivalent of a Mercedes car door thunk, though that’s clearly what Apple is going for. But if their performance in the audio and ANC spheres is truly compelling — or even, dare I say it, transcendent — then we might have to at least acknowledge that the AirPods Max are worth their sky-high price even if we wish it weren’t so.

What are the odds of this being the case? Right now, I’m leaning toward 60/40 in favor of these headphones providing a truly awesome listening experience. Apple’s AirPods Pro are not be the best-sounding true wireless earbuds you can buy. But they sound so much better than the regular AirPods, it’s tempting to think that Apple genuinely understands what it takes to create an audiophile-grade set of headphones from a hardware point of view. The real question is: To what extent has the company’s exploration of so-called computational audio given it a leg up over Bose and Sony, two companies with incredibly deep experience in designing acoustic excellence?

I haven’t yet heard the HomePod mini, the only other computational audio product Apple makes, but our Smart Home reviewer John Velasco was mightily impressed, going so far as to say that he could replace his soundbar with a pair of the $99 spherical speakers. If computational audio can make a tiny speaker like the HomePod mini sound far better than its size suggests, I can only imagine what’s possible when you apply that same software wizardry to an intimate (and expensive) product like the AirPods Max.

This is just the beginning

Apple AirPods Max in five colors
Apple

Is it possible that Apple has overshot the mark with the AirPods Max pricing? Absolutely. When the HomePod originally debuted at $349, it was praised for its sound, but jeered for its price. At the time, it was hard to defend spending that much on a smart speaker when Sonos, Bose, and others were making products that sounded almost as good, with many more features, for a lot less money.

To its credit, Apple responded by eventually lowering the price of the HomePod, a move followed by the introduction of the highly affordable mini. We could see history repeat itself with the AirPods Max. Should they turn out to be amazing, but not so amazing that publications like Digital Trends think the price is justified, Apple may decide to bring its cost down. The company is likely ready to do exactly that if buyers don’t flock to the buy button in the numbers it’s hoping for.

At the same time, the AirPods Max represent the company’s first foray outside in-ear headphones, and it has chosen the larger, over-ear design for its new flagship. But there’s every reason to think we’ll see an on-ear version next (AirPods Plus?), at a lower price, but with similar features, just like the HomePod mini.

At this point in Apple’s history, with product prices that have sometimes defied all logic and expectations (ahem, Pro Display Stand), we’re used to a certain amount of sticker shock from the Cupertino, California, company. The AirPods Max continue that tradition. But there’s another Apple tradition to remember: Sometimes its products are every bit as magical and revolutionary as the company — and price tag — suggests.

The iPad taught me a lesson in judging a product before experiencing it. I sincerely hope the AirPods Max prove to be yet another case of more than meets the eye.

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