Apple just released a new pair of AirPods—though “pods” is a misnomer.
The new AirPods Max are over-the-ear headphones, in the style of headphones by Beats, the audio company Apple acquired back in 2014. They include features that position them directly against high-end gear from Bose and Sony. And some people are already reading between the press release lines to surmise that Apple’s inclusion of spatial audio—and a bizarre, glasses-shaped carrying case—suggests these headphones are part of a long-term strategy around AR content.
They’re also $549, a wince-inducing price for the millions of customers who have grown accustomed to spending a couple hundred dollars on tiny white AirPods. Not to mention that Bose and Sony offer over-the-ear headphones with similar features for significantly less. Ben Arnold, an analyst at The NPD Group who tracks headphone sales in the US, says that the “big can” segment of the headphone market has actually declined this year, and that the average price of these kinds of headphones is around $150 now.
Still, Apple is by far the dominant player in wireless headphones, “and they have the ability to reset the pricing dynamics in a category like this,” Arnold says. “The question is, do consumers kind of follow that and see this experience as a valuable one.”
Sound and Vision
These new headphones have what Apple is calling a “custom acoustic design,” with an Apple-designed 40-milimeter dynamic driver and the company’s custom-made chips (one in each earcup). The company, unsurprisingly, is emphasizing sound quality with these, bringing many of the current AirPods features to the larger AirPods Max: adaptive sound equalization, active noise cancelation, transparency mode, and spatial audio. There are nine microphones total, which is one of the things that sets AirPods Max apart from regular AirPods; eight of these are noise-canceling microphones, and one is dedicated to phone calls and Siri commands.
And as with AirPods Pro, there are built-in positional sensors that track the wearer’s head and remap the spatial audio depending on the wearer’s movement. Optical sensors are used to determine when the headphones are even on your head; if you’re listening to music and lift one ear cup, the music will stop, similar to how music stops playing if you remove one tiny AirPod from your ear.
The cups are made of aluminum, with a single button on each ear for toggling between ANC and “transparency mode,” which lets in outside noise. Instead of touch controls, there’s a Digital Crown for adjusting volume, which looks like a larger version of the Digital Crown found on Apple Watch. (The Digital Crown can also be used to activate Siri.) One particularly nifty feature of the build are the removable memory foam cushions within the cups; Apple says these are “acoustically engineered” to seal around the ear. The headband has a stainless steel frame with a soft-touch coating and knit mesh canopy for the top of the head, which is supposed to “reduce on-head pressure.” The headphones weigh 0.85 pounds. They come in five colors: silver, space gray, pink, sky blue, and green.