The AirPods Max are here to remind us all that Apple makes luxury tech

We’ve been waiting for Apple’s wireless headphones all year and, now the over-ear AirPods Max have arrived, we’ve discovered they’re priced at quite the Apple premium: £549.

With the huge success of the original £159 AirPods, the new £99 HomePod Mini and this year’s iPhone SE coming in at under £400, the fact that the AirPods Max aren’t competitively priced against top Sony, Bose and Sennheiser headphones might be a bit of a shock. It shouldn’t be. From what we’ve seen so far, in the design, the specs, the development details and, yes, the price, the AirPods Max are a return to the no-compromise Apple, the Apple that excels at building high quality products for, well, people with money.

The AirPods Max arrive with a stainless steel frame, knitted mesh headband and cups – so far, so Cupertino – and, on the specs side, many features familiar from the AirPods Pro. The over-ear headphones are equipped with active noise cancellation, Adaptive EQ, Transparency Mode (via three mics on each side) and Spatial Audio, using tracking to provide 5.1, 7.1 and Dolby Atmos audio that adapts with the movement of your head. They’re powered by Apple-designed 40mm dynamic drivers and its H1 chip with a battery life of up to 20 hours. (Unlike some headphones, they don’t fold into a more compact shape, though the cups do twist and there’s a delightfully strange Smart Case for some protection.)

In the long term, over-ear, noise cancelling headphones make a lot of sense, representing a clear gap in Apple’s product line-up – post-runaway success of the AirPods – and one that ties into the continued growth of its services business – including Apple Music. Here, though, Cupertino is seemingly taking the HomePod approach rather than the in-ear AirPods strategy: starting off with a high end product to get the audio and experience right then later releasing a more affordable, mainstream, model with the tech trickling down. There have already been rumours that suggest we’ll see a Sport variant of the AirPods Max, that would cost closer to £350.

At £550, Apple has some immensely stiff competition. Our WIRED Recommends best headphones are the Sony WH-1000XM4, a tremendous pair of wireless noise cancellers that cost £200 less than the AirPods Max. That said, the Sonys are comfortable but admittedly quite big and very traditional in design next to the AirPods Max’s status symbol aesthetic and luxury look and feel. Apple has the premium headphones market to content with too, going head to head with high-end options like the £700 B&O H95, with its 40mm titanium full range drivers and impressive noise cancelling.

And Beats? There’s arguably room for both lines with Beats becoming the affordable Apple audio option; the most premium Beats headphones tops out at £270 and the line-up now includes the £50 Beats Flex.

It also now appears that Beats has served as a testing ground for the tech behind the AirPods Max. Recent Beats headphones have felt more and more like Apple headphones, sporting key Apple features like AirPlay and allowing Apple to test its active noise cancelling capabilities in an over-ear design. The new Max headphones act similarly to in-ear AirPods in that you can snappily connect from iPhone to Mac to Apple TV etc.

The prospect of quick follow-ups in the over-ear AirPods series might help to explain the surprise mid December announcement. It turns out that ‘one more thing’ was actually ‘two more things’. In 2020, many companies have adopted adjusted release schedules in light of pandemic-related production delays but Apple itself has held an unprecedented three launch events over the second half of a year of economic upheaval. As Mark Gurman of Bloomberg reports, Apple appears to have made the decision to ditch some features, such as swappable bands and opting for a Digital Crown rather than touch panels, to get the AirPods Max out this year.

The AirPods Max are certainly offering a premium build and Apple fashion credentials but with little in the way of features that go beyond the AirPods Pro, it’ll all come down to how they sound. At £550, they can’t get by with audio quality and noise cancelling that’s just good enough to compete with the likes of Sony and Bose, as per the AirPods Pro. Between the mainstream headphones and the luxury options, the slightly outrageous price puts the AirPods Max in another category entirely. For Apple, though, that’s really not that unusual, is it?

The Apple AirPods Max are available to pre-order for £549 via Apple. They go on sale on December 15.

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