After much speculation, Apple today quietly announced the first over-ear headphones with an Apple logo on them. The AirPods Max cost $549/£549 and are thus at the very top of the headphone segment; in the consumer electronics sector, they are certainly even closer to the very top. But can Apple's headphones stand up to strong competition from Bose, Sony, and Sennheiser?
Under the name 'AirPods Pro Studio', rumours had been circulating from time to time in the past weeks. And while many experts had hoped for the unveiling of Apple's first over-ear headphones as part of the presentation of new iPhones, Apple turned its back on the 2020 keynote craze shortly before the turn of the year and decided to quietly launch the new star headphones via a simple press release and on its homepage.
The AirPods Max have obviously fallen into the colourful paint pot that must have appeared in Cupertino after Jony Ive left as head of design. Just like the new iPad Air or the colourful iPhone 12 series, Apple's new over-ear headphones come in five different colours: silver, space grey, pink, green, and sky blue.
The woolly milk pig in the Apple product portfolio
If we look at the press photos of AirPods Max, we see a discreet, light, almost delicate design language. The earpieces seem to be inspired by Apple's matte aluminium fetish, which we recognize in the shape of the frame on iPhone 12 and again as a unibody on the iPad Air 2020. But on closer inspection, the AirPods Max seem to have more in common with other successful concepts of the juicy past. Especially on the press photo (1) below, we clearly recognize the rose gold version of the Apple Watch in profile - including crown and button.
Yeah, you got that right: Apple's over-ear headphones come with an Apple Watch crown, among other things for adjusting the volume, activating Siri, or controlling music playback. Another picture (2) is reminiscent of the cloth around the speaker of the Apple HomePod. The ear pads are covered with rather coarse-fibred material (Apple calls it "knitted mesh"). Bet the headband feels exactly like Apple's silicone bands for the Apple Watch.
Can Apple justify this price?
Audiophiles will want to know for sure: do the headphones sound good or just look good? Apple wants to emphasize hi-fi sound in its marketing campaign, which is supposed to make a wide frequency range and "a wealth of details audible" through "specially developed drivers". Strangely inappropriate in view of the price and the audiophile consumers targeted by this, a look at the "data sheet" of the headphones seems inappropriate. Apple does not provide any data about the driver and only writes:
- Apple-designed dynamic driver
- Active Noise Cancellation
- Transparency mode
- Adaptive EQ
- Spatial audio with dynamic head tracking
So we have to be patient with what various broken YouTubers are doing with the headphones, which will probably be delivered before Christmas.
Apple is also incorporating its H1 headphone chip into each ear cup to eliminate delay and connectivity issues, and the sound will also benefit. Eight microphones are used for active noise cancellation, while another three microphones are used for voice pickup. Also interesting, Apple uses the following sensors to detect movement:
- Optical sensor (each ear cup)
- Position sensor (each ear cup)
- Case-detect sensor (each ear cup)
- Accelerometer (each ear cup)
- Gyroscope (left ear cup)
Apple, we need to talk about this expensive bra
The included case turns off the headphones when you stow the AirPods Max in it, but the 'Smart Case' of the Apple AirPods Max could easily pass as a "funny" SM handbag in the swingers club, where two Apple logos in the right two places would have made the joke perfect. Instead, when we look at the smart case, I reverently remember my granny's old support bra, which has been roaming the attic for 36 years. But the longer I look at this ominous, unprecedented headphone case, the more impressed I am. Apple, at last you can recognize on the street who the rich kids are, grandma's bra or not.