Apple’s AirPods Max are great headphones at an out-of-control price

Consumer headphones have been steadily rising in complexity and connectivity for a while now, with increases in price to match. Ten years ago $300 was the price for very good consumer headphones that’d last you ages, but recently Sony, Sennheiser, Bose and others have pushed the price to $500 for the latest and greatest.

But with the $899 AirPods Max, Apple may have gone too far. I have a couple of pairs of headphones in my collection that would have cost around that amount at retail, and I’ve certainly drooled over pairs that cost up to $25,000, but this is a new upper limit for “mainstream” headphones. The feature set may be impressive but, especially in the middle of a recession / pandemic double whammy, it’s hard to understand how Apple thinks a decent market of people will pay that price.

Apple's AirPods Max look unusual, sound amazing and go for $900.

Apple’s AirPods Max look unusual, sound amazing and go for $900.

The AirPods Max are spectacular headphones to be sure. Aside from the truly hideous and unprotective case, I love that Apple is taking risks with the design and changing up how headphones can look. Their aesthetic is not my taste, but it’s a space that is in desperate need of innovation, and I’m willing to take anything at this point. They also have the best on-ear controls of any headphones I’ve ever used. I was sceptical about the digital crown at first, but now I curse any headphones that don’t have one.

Unlike the regular AirPods with their glued, unrepairable parts, these aren’t destined to be garbage. For $900, I’d probably want to be able to hand them down to future generations, which isn’t really possible for Bluetooth only headphones, but at least these are fully repairable.

They also sound truly excellent. Perhaps not $400 better than the Sony WH-1000XM4s, but still extremely good, and with far more bells and whistles.

In a way, headphones are kind of like steaks. You can absolutely notice the difference between a $7 steak burger at a fast-food joint and a $40 steak at a nice restaurant, but the difference between that $40 steak and a $400 steak would probably be less noticeable for most mere mortals. It’s the same with headphones, in that $100 headphones are night and day compared to $500 headphones, but above that you start to get diminishing returns.

The included carrying pouch isn't a great look.

The included carrying pouch isn’t a great look.

So, after a year when Apple has been repeatedly praised for releasing things like more affordable iPhones, iPads and Apple Watches, as well as the extremely affordable Apple One subscription, when the world’s economy has gone to hell in a handbasket, why would the company release $900 headphones that look like something that would haunt Jony Ive’s dreams?

This wasn’t the only excellent-yet-weirdly-priced accessory Apple released late last year. The MagSafe Duo Charger is a wireless charging mat for iPhone and Apple Watch, which folds up neatly for transport, and is both efficient and aesthetically pleasing. It’s also a charger that doesn’t come with a wall plug, yet still costs a ridiculous $199.


That may still be $401 cheaper than the wheels for the $10,000 Mac Pro, so we possibly should have expected that, but again we’re talking about gear targeting mainstream consumers here, not businesses and professionals.

People are still going to buy the AirPods Max, because they’re excellent and a status symbol. Wearing mine out in public marked the first time I’ve ever had a stranger reverently ask to touch my headphones, so clearly there’s a group of people who love them. But for Apple’s first foray into over ear headphones under its own brand name, these are a weird choice, no matter how good they are.

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