The negative noise around Apple’s AirPods Max is unwarranted, here’s why

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The AirPods Max were rumoured for almost more than a year, but when they dropped last month surprisingly, as always, their launch created a storm. Some would argue it is a storm in a teacup but regardless, its INR 59,900 pricing led to comparisons with the current cream of wireless active noise-cancelling headphones which obviously make it look quite dastardly. As always most haven’t understood the Apple brand and what these ultra premium headphones represent. In fact, most of the critiques are also coming from quarters that don’t necessarily understand premium audio and their bar is quite limited to wireless active noise cancelling headphones. Apple’s product philosophy clearly isn’t reflective of that something that can be found across a slew of products the Cupertino-based company has made across the years.  

AirPods Max are expensive by design 

When compared to some of the best selling expensive consumer headphones from the likes of JBL and Sony, especially the WH-1000XM4s, the AirPods Max are almost double the price. But, for those unaware, this is not the end of the segment. There are many niche and premium audio brands that offer headphones that cost upwards of a lakh of rupees, and most of them are neither wireless nor have active noise cancellation. 

For instance, the Sennheiser HE1’s are the world’s most expensive headphones that cost upwards of INR 35 lakhs and they can’t be used portably. Most of the expensive headphones are targeted towards the audiophiles, who, for perfection in terms of sound quality are more than willing to spend a premium not only on the headphone but also amplifiers, DACs, high resolution players and even vinyls . 

Another crowd that is willing to pay high prices is the crowd that cares for ease of use. The AirPods have already proven to be the most user friendly wireless earphones when paired with an Apple product and the same will be true of  the AirPods Max. The success of the AirPods has been underpinned on the integration with Apple’s galaxy of gadgets and now increasingly services. The AirPods Max is aimed at a more discerning consumer who cares for the quality of sound. 

The AirPods Max also leverage technologies that Apple has been developing for the last decade. Computational audio and adaptive EQ may sound like “meh” marketing terms but if you see what Apple has achieved with its audio stack in the last 3-4 years, the hype is real. The HomePods for instance are the best sounding smart speakers thanks to adaptive EQ that understands the spatial positioning of itself in the context of the acoustics of the room it is in. The AirPods Pro adds spatial audio into the mix like the AirPods Max. MacBooks, iPhones and iPads are class leaders in loudspeaker quality and microphone quality. And generally, across the board, even if the AirPods haven’t achieved a standard in build quality, Apple’s gadgets are usually the most well built when compared to other products. 

A lot is also being made out of the absence of a lighting to 3.5mm cable and support for a high-resolution CODEC like LDAC. But many forget that AAC, a codec developed by Apple comes shockingly close at lower power levels and adding a cable on some level dissuades the user from using the AirPods Max wirelessly, which kind of defeats the point. And if and when people do get the ridiculously priced $35, it integrates a DAC which also provides even better audio quality via a wired connection which shouldn’t be surprising as wired audio is always better from wireless audio. 

In such a way, the AirPods Max creates a new category for an audio product that marries Apple’s legendary simplicity of use, its leverage of its own ecosystem and premium build quality over what may even be perceived to be a slight enhancement over the aural and noise cancellation experience. The combination is a potent one when the Apple brand is also considered which creates a new product category. 

People don’t understand the way Apple iterates products 

Apple has always been known to create new price and product categories. It has been doing this for decades ever since Steve Jobs came back to the company. It did it with the first iMac, then did it again with the iPod which was more expensive than other portable audio players, then it again did it with the first iPhone which lacked features like 3G and MMS at the time and was way more expensive that Microsoft’s them CEO Steve Ballmer scoffed at the idea of the iPhone. History repeated itself again with the first MacBook Air and iPad as well. More recently, there are clearer examples of this strategy. 

AirPods

When launched in 2016, Apple announced the AirPods after claiming ‘Courage’ behind the reason it removed the headphone jack from the iPhone 7. As always, this move was frowned upon and many people even made memes because of the stems on the AirPods that dangled almost like an alien’s ear. 

Four years down the line, the AirPods are a benchmark when it comes to true wireless earphones and, were single-handedly the cause for the true-wireless revolution. In fact, they are the best selling earphones in the world. 

Not only has every consumer electronics brand tried to replicate Apple’s product and technology, they are yet to come close to the experience the original AirPods provided back in 2017. Apple has marched ahead with AirPods 2 and then AirPods Pro in 2019 and then AirPods Max in 2020. 

Apple has gone horizontal with the positioning of the AirPods — at the entry point it has slightly reduced the price of the entry point, but is now extending the range with over the ear headphones, the first one being what we assume to be the most premium avatar of these. Likely, there will be cheaper less premium AirPods Max model which has also been rumored which will be closer in price to more traditional wireless active noise cancellation headphones. 

iPhone X

More famously Apple shook up the market which unveiled the iPhone X in 2017 at a price INR 99,990. This was almost a 30 per cent increase in the price of the iPhone. Some were awestruck with the design, but, for most, the $1000 price was the sticking point. 

But AGAIN 3-years down the line, almost every flagship is expensive, the latest Samsung flagship costs $1400, Huawei too has moved above the $1000 mark and, even the flagship killer has become a $900 affair. Sure, some of these rival products aren’t as expensive in India and the iPhone remains more expensive in India, but if you look at the price globally, Samsung and Huawei’s phones are now more expensive than the iPhone. In India, because of the non-localisation of manufacturing, Apple runs into pricing hurdles but everywhere else where the tax is not as hefty a flagship iPhone is cheaper than a competing Android flagship. 

If anything, Apple has brought down the price of a premium full-screen flagship phone which is married with a killer camera and battery life. The iPhone XR, iPhone 11 and iPhone 12 all are great examples as in day to day use, these three phones would do better than the average Samsung flagship that costs the same amount as a flagship “pro” iPhone. 

One can expect the same with the AirPods Max. Like mentioned above, think of the AirPods Max as the iPhone X, and then there will be a model which will be more like the iPhone XR, a couple of thousand rupees cheaper. 

iPad Pro (2015)

Perhaps the most perplexing moment of Apple’s hyper iteration came in 2015 when they launched the first iPad Pro, with the Apple Pencil, something Steve Jobs had sworn the company would never do. A tablet with a price of INR 68k? This was crazy because at the time Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 could be had for little more and would give one a true balance between a desktop class computer and a portable tablet like experience that the original iPad had pioneered. This was something stuck in the middle of nowhere. 

But as the years progressed, it didn’t only encourage other Windows and Android manufacturers to join the bandwagon, but also it improved by leaps and bounds itself that by 2019 with iPadOS, the iPad Pro line was more powerful than 90 per cent of the laptops sold with better battery life, accessories and apps available. In fact, it is so powerful that its processor technology is at the heart of the new M1 MacBooks which are shaming all of the Windows ecosystem powered by Intel, AMD and Qualcomm silicon. 

Again, Apple has also gone horizontal with the iPad Air line and even the standard iPad which can be had for very affordable price points providing a better entry level computing experience than most Windows based notebooks or Chromebooks. This has been even vindicated by the Apple iPad sales figures in 2020 during the pandemic. 

While we cannot ignore the fact that the AirPods Max are not everyone’s cup of tea and, for those looking for value for money, their money is well spent elsewhere. But, we should also remember, expensive does not equal overpriced. 

Here’s what will happen with the AirPods Max: 

  1. They will be the best sounding wireless headphones with active noise cancellation. 
  2. Their active noise cancellation technology will be better than even the Sony’s. 
  3. They will have features that no-one else has; computational audio, spatial audio, adaptive EQ. This is already a fact. 
  4. They will have a higher grade of build quality. Stainless steel, aluminium, mesh cups with magnetic and the mesh headband are proof enough. Most headphones are made out of plastic. 
  5. They will be the simplest ones to use thanks to Apple’s synching technology and the digital crown.They also don’t have an on and off switch which is good and bad. 

All these are things that Apple ought to charge a premium for but their India price of INR 59,990 because of import duties and GST is a little excessive. Also is the outlandish bra-like case. However, everything that has been stated above has been certified by most YouTube reviews and reviews on international tech blogs. If you think about how Apple operates, even if you look at the Mac line of computers and see the prices of the newer M1 powered Macs, now they look very enticing compared to their Windows competitors thanks to the amount of performance it is able to extract from its own proprietary tech. 

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