Here's how the Apple AirPods Max price makes perfect sense

Here's how the AirPods Max price makes perfect sense – and spells danger for Bose and Sony
(Image credit: Apple)

We were all warned. We should've known. Leaks surrounding Apple's over-ear wireless noise-cancelling headphones suggested a high price tag, and if any brand was going to up the price ante in the headphone market, it was always going to be Apple. And so it has come to pass.

The AirPods Max are now official and priced at £549 ($549, AU$899). That's around two-thirds more than the premium wireless noise-cancelling propositions from established, class-leading brands, such as the Sony WH-1000XM4Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 and Sennheiser Momentum 3 Wireless.

Even hi-fi brands who've entered this market haven't demanded quite such high prices – note the Bowers & Wilkins PX7, Bang & Olufsen H9 and Shure Aonic 50.

So how will Apple's boldness affect the market? Will it be the green-light for these brands to go higher up the price spectrum? And can the AirPods Max justify their price? We think you might be surprised.

What's so special about the AirPods Max anyway?

AirPods Max

(Image credit: Apple)

The AirPods Max have more than just their price as a differentiator. Apple brings a set of features that simply no other brand can offer. 

Alongside the more typical wireless Bluetooth connectivity and active noise-cancellation, the AirPods Max feature the latest Apple audio technologies, as introduced in iOS 14 and for the AirPods Pro true wireless earbuds. 

There's Apple's spatial audio, Audio Sharing, the H1 chip, adaptive EQ – these features are all part and parcel of the Max's impressive specification, and will help make a genuinely unique pair of headphones, which offer Apple iPhone users performance features that no other pair of over-ear headphones can offer. Bar none.

Apple users will quite happily pay a premium for a seamless and complete Apple experience – and why not. The brand has a pulling power like no other, but it more crucially has a ready-made audience and ecosystem of features. Want the very best all-round experience for your £1000 ($1000, AU$1700) smartphone? It will no doubt be hard to argue against the AirPods Max on paper. 

Then there's the design. Apple is arguably a luxury goods business that happens to sell tech products. People buy products on sight, in every sense. No matter that Sony and co. have delivered great-looking products, there's a market for anything Apple and always will be thanks to their Jony Ive-inspired aesthetic.  

Whatever you make of that headband and those choice of colours, the AirPods Max's breathable knit mesh headband, aluminium ear cups, 'Digital Crown' multi-functional dial, and even the jacquard-textured 'L' and 'R' inside the ear cups appear to come together to create a design that has thought as much about the small things as the big. 

What about sound quality?

AirPods Max

(Image credit: Apple)

While Apple may sometimes not give the impression of caring unduly about audio quality, it normally nails this aspect too (even if there has been the occasional dud, such as the iPod Hi-Fi). 

Just take the AirPods Pro, not to mention the HomePod and HomePod Mini. All delivered class-leading sound. These products give us good reason to believe the AirPods Max sound performance will have been taken very seriously in Cupertino. You can read our feature looking inside the Apple audio labs if you want to see just how seriously Apple takes audio.

Of course for now, the jury is out on sound performance. The best-value wireless noise-cancellers out there for the money are currently the Sony WH-1000XM4, which are 40 per cent cheaper than the AirPods Max. 

Do the AirPods Max have to sound at least 40 per cent better to win our stamp of approval and top the leaderboard, then? Not necessarily, for all the reasons that make Apple products so desirable, as discussed above. But there's no denying that, for us at least, they'll need to sound really, really good. For the sake of Apple and every iOS user who values sound quality, let's hope they're up to it.

What about Bose, Sennheiser, Sony and the rest?

Sony WH-1000XM3

(Image credit: Sony)

So how will the AirPods Max measure up against existing models? And what will those brands do next? Luckily, they're in a good place - the latest Sony XM4 headphones, for example, really are exceptional and will be hard to beat, not least (but not just) for audio performance.

That said, we know that Apple has nailed wireless audio and noise-cancelling tech, see the aforementioned AirPods and HomePod, leaving the 'simple' matter of putting all this knowhow into an over-ear package as the big question mark.

Of course, we have to remember that Bose, Sony et al., are up to the third and fourth generation of models, meaning these brands have perfected their craft to deliver great sound and great features in what are now tried and tested designs. That being said, we're sure Apple is using plenty of learning from Beats, meaning this is the company's first over-ear rodeo in only the strictest sense.

Will Apple's AirPods Max ultimately tempt the likes of Sony and Bose to offer more expensive models? We're not so sure. Much as we love some of the headphones on offer, we think they will need all the points of differentiation they can muster, and keeping this lower price tag could be crucial. Not least with rumours that there is a cheaper AirPods Max 'Sport' model in the pipeline.

We'd also question the wider appetite for portable wireless headphones around the £500-£600 mark – the existing models are so good, that this higher price, without Apple's unique features, seems hard to justify at mass market volume. Still, if in a few years' time the world is blessed with even more premium and excellent wireless headphones, we will know who to thank.

Ultimately, the AirPods Max ultimately offer something with which no other brand can compete. For iPhone users wanting the ultimate audio experience, nothing can match what the AirPods Max will offer. And that's why for many people, that price may not be a problem at all – no wonder they're selling out fast already.

Becky Roberts

Becky is the managing editor of What Hi-Fi? and, since her recent move to Melbourne, also the editor of Australian Hi-Fi magazine. During her 10+ years in the hi-fi industry, she has reviewed all manner of audio gear, from budget amplifiers to high-end speakers, and particularly specialises in headphones and head-fi devices. In her spare time, Becky can often be found running, watching Liverpool FC and horror movies, and hunting for gluten-free cake.