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An illustration of Apple's latest AirPod headphones.
Illustration by Abby Yang, Minneapolis College

There is no doubt that the company is the unicorn of tech, but will their expensive prices be their downfall?

Apple’s newest release is the AirPods Max, which are over-ear headphones the company claims have been “radically reimagined.” Its most talked-about aspect, though, isn’t really the tech. Rather, it’s the hefty price. The AirPods Max run for $549, which can be as much as double the price of similar noise-canceling models from other companies. In part, Apple is able to charge this price because of the brand loyalty it has created.

Unlike its counterparts Microsoft and Samsung, Apple has managed to build a level of brand loyalty rivaled by few and replicated by none. This is partially due to the “Apple ecosystem,” or the way that all of its products are integrated and cross-functional with one another. Referred to as a “walled garden” in the tech industry, the ecosystem is intentionally insular.

This loyalty and ecosystem are what give Apple the ability to succeed even in the middle of a global pandemic, which has brought supply chain issues as well as shipping delays. From June 2020 to June 2021, Apple increased its sales of the iPhone by nearly 49.8%, earning roughly $39.6 billion. They saw growth across all categories, including wearables/accessories and services. Earlier this year, Apple announced the results of its fiscal 2022 first quarter, which ended in December of 2021. Up roughly 11% from last year, they posted a record-breaking revenue of $123.9 billion.

Of course, one has to acknowledge the specs of the AirPods Max independent of the brand itself. Receiving relatively good reviews, the headphones are a worthwhile purchase for many. They come in five colors, including space gray, silver, green, sky blue and pink. They feature a 20-hour battery life, as well as tactile and automatic ear detection sensors. The canopy that composes the headband is uniquely made from a “breathable knit mesh, distributing weight to reduce on‑head pressure.” The company writes that the “beautifully anodized aluminum cups feature a revolutionary mechanism that allows each cup to rotate independently and balance pressure.”

Reviews have complimented the sound quality as well as the headphone’s noise-canceling abilities; while most of us are working from home rather than in offices, noise-canceling has no doubt become the foremost consideration when it comes to wearable tech accessories. In a head-to-head review of the AirPods Max that compared it to the Bose model, the Bose Noise Canceling Headphones 700 ($379), ​​reviewers said, “Apple has the better sound for most listeners, whereas Bose takes a more studio-like approach to sound here.” Overall, they recommend the Apple headphones. Of course, though, they write, “All of [these] features come at a cost, and one very few consumers can afford, or at least justify.”

A review from Wired opens, “Apple’s $550 headphones cost hundreds more than models from Sony or Bose, but they’re the best wireless headphones I’ve ever heard.” The review parses through the good, as well as “hiccups” in the design of the headphones. Most notably in the “hiccup” department is that the headphones do not turn off. They can only power down to low power mode, which is only activated if they are off the head for five minutes or put in the case. Reviewer Parker Hall, however, calls the case the “world’s most useless case,” due to the lack of protection it provides.

In addition, their battery life is not impressive when compared to other headphones. Hall writes that the 20-hour battery life is on average 10 hours less than what you get from high-end competitors like Sony. In regard to its redeeming qualities, though, Hall hails the noise-canceling abilities as well as the sound quality itself. He writes, “In most cases it’s as though you’re pulling a layer of wool off of other flagship noise-canceling headphones when you switch to the AirPods Max.” AirPods Max also has spatial audio abilities, which simulate object-based surround sound. They effectively simulate speakers in a 3D room. All in all, the tech is certainly impressive — and Apple is willing to bet on upcharging on it.

When the AirPods Max was announced, customers saw shipping delays of up to two months due to demand. However, the AirPods Max is not seeing the kind of sales that Apple would like. Although there aren’t specific numbers that have been released, analyst Ming-Chi Kuo predicts that annual shipments of the AirPod Max will hover at or below 1 million units shipped. To put it in perspective, that is “at most 1% of all AirPods sales in 2021.” Some equate the headphones to the HomePod, an Apple speaker that was launched in February 2018 and then promptly discontinued in 2021. Many credit the HomePod’s demise to its hefty price tag of $349. Apple has said that they have chosen to pivot their attention to the HomePod Mini, a smaller-scale version of the HomePod.

Ultimately, Apple has proved that they not only have the tech, but they also have the loyalty required to upcharge and sell it. Their most recent release may not have broken records, but the fact that they can even sell headphones for over half a grand is impressive. The AirPods Max may not be one of Apple’s success stories — but at the end of the day, they don’t need them to be.

Writer Profile

Ally Xu

Northeastern University
Design

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