When Apple launched the AirPods Max earlier this week, consumers mocked the tech giant for selling over-the-ear, wireless headphones for $549 (they’re priced Rs 59,900 in India). Since the announcement, the entire conversation has been squarely on the retail price, shifting focus from the product and the value it brings to the premium over-ear headphone segment. These extreme reactions are nothing new when a new Apple device hits the market, but in the case of the AirPods Max, people seem to have overlooked the contribution Apple has made in the audio space over the years.
Thomas Husson, VP, Principal Analyst, Forrester Research is convinced audio will be an important part of Apple’s strategy going forward. “The wireless audio headset pricing has increased and Apple is right to leverage its strong brand (and the skills acquired through the Beats acquisition) to develop a more premium product. It seems like AirPods Max will address Apple aficionados looking for a premium and top quality experience while Beats will continue to also address the competitive Android ecosystem,” he told indianexpress.com.
The AirPods Max, which combines a mix of retro and futuristic design, aren’t meant to impress audiophiles. That segment is entirely different. Instead, Apple seems to be focusing on the premium over-the-ear wireless headphones segment that is well-established but has become stagnant over time. This is the mainstream segment, where players like Bose, Sony and Sennheiser sell over-the-ear noise-canceling headphones costing in the range of Rs 28,000 and Rs 35,000. But Apple sees a potential by reimagining over-the-ear wireless headphones and putting emphasis on those areas where the competition can’t come close: seamless integration with iOS devices and computational audio.
“I don’t think the AirPods Max are better sounding headphones. They are simply more convenient and easy to use piece of wearable that people can use with all their iOS products,” said Raghav Somani, Founder & CEO at Headphone Zone, a popular online store for headphones, earphones and personal audio devices. “So is it a better sounding headphone? No. Is it a better headphone? Yes. And that to me is evidence that when Apple is looking at the audio ecosystem, they’re not looking at it traditionally as better audio, they’re just looking at it for better usability of audio products.”
Raghav cites the example of the AirPods, the truly wireless earbuds that Apple first launched four years ago. He emphasised that the AirPods were not the first truly wireless earbuds but what Apple did was establish the market for such devices that barely existed. The reason why the AirPods have been so successful is that it improved wireless connectivity and was able to create a reliable enough wireless connection between the two earbuds as well as the phone.
“Apple cracked that and Apple cracked that by having its own chip. Because of that everybody else had to play catch up. So even now, if you take true wireless earphones, from Bose, Sennheiser or even Sony, they’re using off the market chips, and they’re not close to being as good as what the AirPods are,” Somani said.
When the AirPods hit the market in 2016, the market had an extreme reaction, with some dismissing the truly wireless earbuds entirely. The AirPods’ $159 was severely criticised but when consumers started using them, the perception changed. Something similar happened when Apple introduced the AirPods Pro in-ear truly wireless earbuds for $249. Not only the AirPods Pro were expensive but it also brought features like noise-canceling, transparency mode, and spatial audio.
The popularity of AirPods Pro alongside the strong sales of entry-level wireless earbuds helped Apple establish the ‘AirPod’ brand in a matter of a few years. Apple sold over 60 million AirPods last year, making Apple’s in-ear wireless buds the most popular and successful product line.
“If you take serious audio brands, they differentiate themselves by saying that our headphones sound better. But the problem is that the vast majority of people don’t understand what these brands are trying to sell. They don’t think that better-sounding headphones are worth more money and Apple knows that very well,” Somani said.
The AirPods Max and AirPods Pro are similar in many ways but they have a different form factor. Both feature Apple’s H1 headphone chip, Active Noise Cancellation (ANC), Transparency mode, Adaptive EQ, along with Spatial audio. But the AirPods Max are designed for high-fidelity audio, with a custom acoustic design and improved software for computational audio.
It’s clear that the AirPods Max are geared for those who are willing to pay more for high-quality audio. As Somani pointed out, the emphasis is also on features like Spatial audio, an effect that makes it feel like the sound is coming from a surround sound speaker rather than from your AirPods Max. “This is not a new idea and as a concept in itself, because there are other brands which have done similar things. Apple is going to take that mainstream with the AirPods Max and you will find that people who are content creators and content providers will find it very convenient and easy to create music for consumption over 3D audio with spatial sound,” he explains.
Sankar Thiagasamudram, co-founder and CEO of Audeze which makes high-end headphones popular among audiophiles, believes the launch of AirPods Max might impact sales of over-the-ear wireless headphones from Bose and Sony but brands like his won’t be affected because they cater to a different set of consumers.
“I think that the biggest impact will be that until now Rs 30,000 headphone was considered the most premium one that you could get,” says Somani. “Now, you will find that with headphones available from Apple at Rs 59,900, both Sennheiser and Sony will be able to develop and release higher-end products to fill the space alongside Apple.” He further added that the launch of the AirPods Max will push brands like Sony, Bose and Sennheiser to improve the user experience. Somani does not think that the arrival of AirPods Max will have a negative impact on the financial health of established audio brands like Bose, because the headphones and earphones are among a tiny portion of the overall business.
Husson meanwhile believes with the announcement of AirPods Max the competition is increasing in the space for the likes of Focal or Bower & Wilkins. According to Husson, Apple also has a competitive advantage to build its own components as they do for iPhones or MacBooks.
We still don’t have clarity on how many units of the AirPods Max Apple plans to sell, or how many units the company plans to restock for this year. Currently, the first batch of the AirPods Max have been sold out in the US, with little to no information on when the situation may change. In fact, some models of the AirPods Max won’t be available until March 2021. This is not a sign of a product that is “too niche”, given how quickly the pricey over-the-ear wireless headphones have been sold out in some established markets.
For many, the AirPods Max might be sort of “overpriced” over-the-ear noise-canceling headphones, but the headset offers a sneak peek at Apple’s future products where the emphasis on audio will be a part of the core experience. The big takeaway is that a product like the AirPods Max has come from a non-traditional audio company like Apple. This indicates that Cupertino may have stronger motivations to not just grab the market share from brands like Bose and Sony but also create an entirely new segment targeting the fashion-conscious, upmarket influencers and creators with the AirPods Max.
The launch of the $549 AirPods Max shows how Apple has come a long way in the audio space, signaling that the tech giant has spared no expense in attempting to propel itself ahead of its competitors in areas that were considered weak back in the day. It took Apple years to come to the position, where it can finally demonstrate its prowess in audio tech combined with the growing use of digital technologies.
But even today, audio has been the least recognised aspect of Apple devices. Throughout the long history of Apple, the company on many occasions had to prove its affinity for audio tech, whether it was the largely ignored iPod Hi-Fi, the original HomePod, or outstanding speakers that come with the 16-inch MacBook Pro.
Fast forward to the present-day and Apple is going strong under Tomlinson M. Holman, the company’s audio director and inventor of film technologies, the Lucasfilm THX sound system. Under Holman, who has been with Apple since 2011, Cupertino has made class-leading audio products in recent years. The audio quality of speakers on the iPhones, iPads and Macs has greatly improved, thanks to Holman who is credited with developing the world’s first 10.2 sound system. The arrival of AirPods in 2016, HomePod two years later, and HomePod Mini and AirPods Max in 2020 gives us a clear picture of where Apple is headed next. Not to forget, Apple’s acquisitions of Beats and Shazam and the way the company has started to integrate them into its core products show the possible benefits of investing in the right talent at the right time.
So what next for Apple in the audio space? Will Apple move beyond smart speakers and headphones and venture into a smart TV? After all, TV is the primary screen for home entertainment.
“Apple wants to be the center of iPhone users. I think you will eventually find that if Apple wants to be a part of your phone and wants to control your home, a smart speaker has one way of doing it. But of course, television is the biggest screen at home. And they already have an Apple TV device that does that,” said Somani.