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AirPods Max: the unjustifiable price of Apple's headphones is a moot point

Bildschirmfoto 2020 12 08 um 15.33.56
© Apple

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"Oh no, another expensive Apple product. Quick, quick, I have to go on Twitter and explain how Apple's AirPods Max wireless over-ear headphones aren't worth its exorbitant price of £549."

There, it's out, you feel better? Can we move on? Because more than the price, it is the very nature of the product that Apple has just launched that should be a problem. Cupertino's announcement of the release of his first Bluetooth headset with ANC has, unsurprisingly, got people talking.

As with each launch of an Apple product, one is entitled to the traditional outcry of the anti-Apple, the paragons of the quality-to-price ratio, the singers of the anti-system in short, those who know and who are not blinded by the marketing tricks of the evil Apple. Let it be clear, I totally disassociate myself from this.

Calm down, calm down. I am not going to fall into the absurd and try to defend the FIVE HUNDRED AND FIFTY POUNDS price of the AirPods Max! For a non-audiophile, yes non-audiophile headset, this price is simply undefendable. But is that really surprising? Did you really fall down when you saw this number? Of course not.

The Apple AirPods Max are too expensive, naturally

For years now, part of the technosphere has been slowly killing itself by each year describing the derisory prices that it costs to have the honour of accessing Apple's sacrosanct user experience. At least that's the case for most mainstream journalists and consumers. I mean those who aren't lucky enough to have a colourful office with Philips Hue and whose setup costs more than three months rent for me.

I myself have long been fascinated by Apple's ability to push its customers' budget limits, and have had undoubted success in persuading them that its products are so indispensable that they are worth the price, whatever it may be. It's a real feat that all the other Android manufacturers, erected as false idols defending consumers, certainly envy without admitting it.

"Ooh, Antoine, calm down. NextPit is not your diary", I would have repeated myself over and over again by writing this mood post that is so therapeutic. But that was before. Before I didn't give a damn about Apple's pricing policy.

And I'm not talking about the kind of feigned indifference you show when you get beaten 5-0 on FIFA for the third time in a row, or the kind you try to preserve your smothered pride after flunking out of a bar. No, I'm talking about such indifference that if I had to draw a straight line on a blank piece of paper, I would use my electrocardiogram to rule when I announced the AirPods Max.

apple airpods max overpriced sony bose
Between the two of them, the excellent Sony WH-1000XM3 and Bose NCH 700 are a lot cheaper new than Apple's AirPods Max. / © NextPit

Who cares about the price of 550 quid, forgive the crude language. But I mean it. Who among Apple's most fervent critics would have wanted to buy these headphones anyway? And who among these same critics would have the honesty and hindsight to appreciate an Apple product if the manufacturer ever started to offer reasonable prices? Not many people, I'm sure. The iPhone SE 2020 or the iPad 8 are proof of that.

Apple users, often laughed at as pigeons or sheep, remain for the vast majority technophiles and sensible consumers. I know much more incensed Android fans. It's no surprise, extremism is on both sides. These consumers, who love what Apple produces and want to buy these new headphones, have never had to question their attachment to the brand as much as when the AirPods Max were announced.

Apple's prices are all high, but not all unjustifiable

I am invoking these Apple users, not to taunt or trigger them. I am not anti-Apple, nor pro-Apple. And I have long understood that value for money is not as important when buying an Apple product.

Despite everything, and especially in Europe where how much money you have is a taboo subject, we must justify ourselves. Persuade yourself and persuade others that you have made a profitable purchase or at least a wise purchase and that you have not been fooled - a kind of intellectual gymnastics that many Apple fans have to accomplish more than any other technophile.

For the iPhone, the key argument is the proven and hardly questionable power of Apple's Bionic chips that outperform the Android competition in terms of performance. Or the intuitiveness of iOS, which, while not as complete and versatile as Android, has the merit of being more optimised and better supported as new Apple smartphones come on the market.

AirPods have set a trend and above all a format that has been adopted by all manufacturers, consolidating a product range that was a niche only just over three years ago. The AirPods and their Pro version are no longer the best true wireless headphones on the market today, but they remain an ultra-solid reference and the best choice if you have an iPhone.

I could also sing the praises of the Apple Watches which, with WatchOS, are one step ahead of watches connected under WearOS. But you get the point. For every Apple product, there is at least one valid argument that, in the eyes of a brand enthusiast, justifies paying a higher price than the competition.

But is this the case with the AirPods Max? As is and in my opinion, no. No more than the four-pack of wheels for the Mac Pro at £699 or the Pro Stand at £949.

androidpit wwdc 2019 331
The Apple Mac Pro stand and its sweet price of £949. You forgot about that one, huh? / © Apple

The AirPods Max have only their price to burn

This is not the first time that headphones have been sold for more than 500 quid worldwide. Sennheiser and Sony offer headphones for Hi-Res listening at over a thousand pounds. Other brands dedicated to audiophiles such as Rosson or Focal and others do not hesitate to reach even more stratospheric sums.

Even in consumer audio, the Montblanc MB01 headphones that I tested were sold for €595 on release. At the same time, the Shure Aonic 50 headphones that I also tested are much more audiophile on paper than the AirPods Max, and sold for €400.

And that's kind of the problem with the AirPods Max. On paper, this headset has nothing spectacular in its spec sheet that would justify its price. The AirPods Max feature the same adaptive equalization, active noise reduction, transparency mode and spatialized audio as the AirPods Pro, as well as the H1 chip and the Apple Watch's "digital crown" wheel.

What is the killer-feature? HD audio codecs? Impossible to know since the technical details given by Apple are, as always, meaningless. Seriously, I made some less enigmatic rebuttals in elementary school. The AAC codec (which was not invented by Apple) has its merits since it is among the least energy-consuming but it remains a "lossy" format that compresses the signal. It is probably the one that the AirPods Max will use.

apple airpods max specs sheet
Space audio with head tracking is crystal clear. / © (screenshot)

Add to this the fact that Apple Music, THE service that could have been used as a selling point for AirPods Max, does not offer Hi-Res in its catalogue. Why then, launch a pair of headphones allegedly for audiophiles?

All we know is that the AirPods Max feature a "40mm dynamic driver designed by Apple that delivers rich, deep bass, precise midrange and clean, clean high-frequency extension so every note can be heard."

There's nothing innovative about this and it sounds more like something a tester who has never touched an audio product in his life would write to shine in society. Wow, Apple's headphones offer an audio signature that faithfully reproduces sound across the entire frequency range. Thankfully, this isn't a feature, it's a prerequisite for any audio product worthy of the name.

apple airpods max false promise
High fidelity audio and "the magic of AirPods", a contradiction in terms. / Screenshot © Apple

So let me get this straight. We have an "audiophile" headset which doesn't offer an HD audio codec. So, most users don't know the difference between SBC, AAC, aptX/HD or LDAC anyway since they listen to their music in mp3, an already basic compressed format.

We have a proprietary "audiophile" headset whose proprietary music streaming service does not offer Hi-Res tracks. Either way, most users don't care as they listen to their music via Spotify, which streams in mp3, an already basic compressed format. And there's nothing stopping you from importing your own CD-quality tracks to your iPhone.

We have an "audiophile" headset that offers no manual EQ but adaptive EQ, already available on the AirPods Pro released a year ago and three times cheaper.

I think I can stop there. The real problem with the AirPods Max is not the price. The real problem is Apple's promise to deliver an audiophile pair of headphones that are supposed to deliver a high-fidelity experience with "the magic of AirPods".

My eyes bleed when I read this. I hope I'm wrong and can test them to see if my ears also bleed...

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Antoine Engels

Antoine Engels
Senior Editor

Black belt in specs sheet analysis. OnePlus fanboy in (slow) remission. Average estimated reading time of my articles: 48 minutes. Tech deals fact-checker in my spare time. Hates talking about himself in the 3rd person. Dreams he was a gaming journalist in another life. Doesn't get the concept of irony. Head of editorial for NextPit France.

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  • Rusty H. 33
    Rusty H. Dec 11, 2020 Link to comment

    Apple can charge whatever they desire. Consumers can either pay it, or get something else. But, considering their success with overcharging (in my opinion) and the money they make, apparently some consumers see it as a value.

    marco sarli