The Case for Cheaper AirPods Max

What if you just don’t like stuff in your ears?

Key Takeaways

  • If you want AirPod features in over-ear headphones, it’s going to cost you.
  • Even audiophiles might balk at $550 for Bluetooth cans. 
  • Unfortunately, Apple has a history of failed, overpriced audio gear.
The original AirPods Max with AirPods and AirPods Pro.

Akhil Yerabati / Unsplash

What was Apple thinking when it priced the $550 AirPods Max?

AirPods are a sensation. They sound great, they could hardly be more portable, and they offer all kinds of deep integrations with iPhones and iPads that other headphones can’t even hope to match. But they’re not for everyone. For hearing-aid users, people who can’t or hate putting things in their ears, AirPods are out, and the over-the-ear Max model is more expensive than many audiophile headphones.

Is there a place in Apple’s lineup for some lower-priced on-ear AirPods?

"I’ve used both over-the-ear headphones and ear-bud style headphones and think that each style has its place. But I fully agree that $550 for the AirPods Max is crazy, and I don’t think it’s a great move by Apple," JP Zhang, software developer and self-declared audiophile, told Lifewire via email. 

The AirPod Advantage

AirPods offer some significant advantages over all other headphones, wireless or wired. First, pairing is simpler. You just open the lid on the charging box, and the nearest iPhone or iPad automatically spots them and asks if you want to pair. 

And it gets better from then on. Pairing with one device also pairs it with all other devices you own, and (in theory) the AirPods automatically switch to whichever device you’re currently using. You can customize the various tap and squeeze controls, and Siri can read out messages and (in iOS 15) app notifications.

"I fully agree that $550 for the AirPods Max is crazy, and I don’t think it’s a great move by Apple."

And like many Apple features, you don’t notice how useful they are, and how integrated they have become, until you stop using them. I have a great pair of Sony noise-canceling headphones, for example, but I never use them with my iPad, as un-pairing and repairing with my iPhone is too much of a pain.

And yet, to get these excellent features, features that Apple surely wants everybody to enjoy, you either have to opt for in-ear AirPods, or shell out more than half a grand.

Over vs In

Over-ear headphones may not be as portable as in-ear, but they are better in many other ways. They can be more comfortable (although maybe not on a hot summer’s day), and you can wear them with hearing aids or in place of in-ear buds, if you can't wear those for medical or comfort reasons. And they also sound better. Bigger headphones mean bigger speaker drivers, which means more air moved and more bass.

"Over-the-ear headphones are better for more authentic audio replication. They almost always have a wider frequency response, and that’s why I enjoy them for most of my music listening. They also do a far better job of noise-canceling over earbud-style phones," says Zhang. 

There’s also space for bigger batteries, and you can add actual physical controls that don’t boom when you tap or squeeze them. The AirPods Max have a digital-crown-like knob for volume control, for example, and my Sonys work by swiping on the outside of the ear cups.

Closeup of the volume control on AirPods Max.

Matt Birchler / Unsplash

Personally, I like the convenience and integration of earbuds, but prefer the comfort of over-ear designs. That means I have to look elsewhere, because $550 for a pair of headphones is too much, especially when I already own much cheaper models that sound better.

Capitulation

The good news is that there is precedent for Apple giving up and going cheaper. The even better news is that these precedents are audio products. 

Exhibit A is the HomePod. Technically incredible, it looked and sounded great. But it cost way too much. People are used to getting their smart speakers for under $100. To get the most out of the HomePod, you had to buy two, and at almost $700 for the pair, few people were going to do that.

Was the HomePod popular? It launched in 2018 and Apple discontinued it this past March. Even then, stock was still available for three months. And it wasn’t new stock, either. In those last few months, the leftovers that Apple struggled to get rid of were launch stock, manufactured in 2017-18.

Apple also scored a miss with the iPod Hi-Fi, a great-sounding boombox-style speaker with a 30-pin iPod dock in the top. That too cost $349 at launch in February 2008 and was discontinued in September 2007.

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