The $899 cost of the AirPods Max is high, but if they’re built more for audiophiles than consumers, they feel like a bridge between the two categories, and that might justify the price.
I’ve reviewed a lot of headphones, and folks that know me in the tech review space typically know me as “the headphone guy”. That’s long been what I’ve been called, even before I started Pickr.
It’s not a bad name to have, and it comes from a place of love, I’m sure. You see I love headphones. Not just using them, but explaining them. I love the technology and how it brings something as remarkable as music and a recorded voice, and wraps your head in it. I love sound in general, but headphones allow everyone’s unique ears to experience that sound the way only their unique ears can experience it.
Headphones are a remarkable gadget, and the technology is only getting better.
Between the constant use of neodymium, improved wireless communications over Bluetooth, new wireless compression standards from Qualcomm and Sony, not to mention the impressive streaming technologies, audio processors, and better designs overall, headphones are one of those technologies that continues to better, and that’s great news for the customer.
However there are two main types of customer in the headphone space, and that’s where things can get tricky.
Consumer vs Audiophile
In one corner, there’s everyone: the consumer.
The consumer is you, it’s me, it’s your parents and kids and friends and everyone you can think of. They’re the people that want great quality audio at a price that makes sense and won’t drain the bank too much. They want audio to be friendly and lovely, and they want it to work well with their Spotify and Apple Music and YouTube Music accounts, with practically zero fuss because they just need headphones to work.
That is almost every pair of headphones you can find in retail and online.
In the other corner, there’s the audiophile, and they’re a different breed altogether.
They want their headphones to be bigger, built with larger drivers, bigger spaces, and an approach to make the audio sound, well, bigger. More like a loudspeaker, actually.
Folks buying audiophile headphones typically find models from brands that aren’t always in the consumer space, such as Astell & Kern, Audeze, Aedle, Beyerdynamic, Bowers & Wilkins, Focal, Fostex, while familiar players such as Sennheiser and Sony pop up there, as well. And they’ll arrive with a litany of terms that read as pure marketing jargon to most, but can change the way the sound is heard, including planar magnetic, bio-cellulose or titanium drivers, Fluxor elements or maybe something with the name “Fazor”, open and closed backs, wooden casing, and so on and so on. There’s so much going on in audiophile-grade gear that you’d be excused for not knowing everything.
It’s all extra for most people, but it costs extra, as well, adding to the price and making audiophile headphones a more pricey purchase. Often starting around the $700 mark and pushing into $3000, $4000, and $5000 ranges, audiophile headphones are by most consumer standards, expensive, some might call crazy.
And yet, it’s a totally different game altogether. People pay these often exorbitant prices because the sound quality tends to better, skipping out on features consumers want such as noise cancellation, and replacing it with a larger headphone with an open-backed design, a different driver style, and an approach that needs an amp to work. Few audiophile headphones even tackle noise cancellation, which is why it was so interesting to see Denmark’s Dali try last year.
Now it’s not alone, and it comes from a headphone that feels like it’s blending audiophile-grade sound with a focus on technology normally removed from these category. It might be why the Apple AirPod Max price is perfectly skewed to audiophiles.
Are the AirPods Max made for audiophiles?
The more we listen to the AirPods Max, the more we’re focused on a factor that we just can’t get over: the way the volume works.
In audiophile headphones, it’s incredibly common to be allowed to drive the volume up, and not feel like the overall amount of sound is so overwhelming that it’s bombarding your ears, that it’s going to make you go deaf if you listen to the audio that loud. There’s essentially more headroom for you to listen with, and that’s good. You can get detail without the volume being pushed all the way, but you can also focus on some of the extra detail in other ways if you do manage to push it up.
You should always keep headphone (and speaker) volume at a level that’s not going to make you feel sick, queasy, or inundated with so much sound that it hurts your ears, but the point is that audiophile-grade headphones typically support that style of volume: lots of it, and it won’t hurt your ears the same way as other headphones might.
Bizarrely, that’s what we noticed in our AirPods Max review, and the more we use them following it: the volume has so much to work with. We can pick up detail when the volume is down, and we can pick up a little more with a solid amount of notable bass when the volume is up. All the while, our ears aren’t suffering. It’s wild.
It’s likely this comes from Apple’s approach to an amplifier, how the H1 chips work, and the extra little magnet-based motor working in each headphone to control distortion, with this marriage of parts adding to a design of a headphone less like a headphone, and more like a loudspeaker. Some might consider that the holy grail of headphone design, since audiophile headphones are often trying to package up the quality you get of a loudspeaker into a pint-sized portable format.
It also means that Apple’s headphones may well be purchased by consumers — by anyone — but the audio quality is more aligned to how audiophile headphones are designed and how they work, and that means the price could well be justified. Somewhat, anyway.
How do you justify the cost of the AirPods Max?
One of the biggest questions we keep being asked is how anyone — how Apple, notably — can justify the cost of the AirPods Max, a question that comes down to a combination of R&D and marketing. Apple can set whatever price it wants, of course, and not just for its headphones, but for everything it makes.
How do you justify the near-$2K minimum cost of the iPhone 12 Pro Max? There’s great hardware there, premium design and materials, and people will pay for it. And people are paying for it, which is a point worth making. The phone is selling, which is the point.
So how do you justify the $899 Australian cost of the AirPods Max? Through much the same reasons, but we suspect Apple isn’t targeting consumers the same way here.
While Apple will never comment on this (we asked, just in case), charging $899 for a pair of wireless noise cancelling headphones that perform like a pair of loudspeakers is exactly the sort of concept you can see audiophiles diving into, especially if they’re more accustomed to paying over a thousand dollars for a pair of headphones that lacks noise cancellation in the first place. For them, that sort of thing is chump change, and much like how you might have no problem buying high fashion handbags or shoes, or spend an enormous amount of money on a car or BBQ, they can justify big headphone purchases, too. Everyone has different wants and needs.
The volume and level of amplifier power makes us feel like the AirPods Max may well be pitched at everyone, but audiophiles feel more like they’re in the range of these headphones, and that’s not a bad thing. While the $899 cost of the AirPods Max seems expensive to consumers, to audiophiles, it’ll be closer to downright affordable, and so $899 may well be more value-driven than you might expect.