It’s been a tough few years for the global economy. We’ve had major political upheavals, a major transnational war and, in case you missed it, a mass pandemic that brought most of the globe to a grinding standstill. Times are harder than they’ve been in a while, with many consumers feeling the pinch as a cost of living crisis looms large for many.
With Apple’s annual iPhone launch event just around the corner on September 12th, many would-be customers are surely hoping for products that are easy on the pocket rather than simply pleasing to the eyes or ears. Whether it be the new iPhone 15, Apple’s Macbooks, wireless AirPods or smartwatches, getting your hands on anything stamped with that iconic image of a piece of half-bitten fruit doesn’t come cheap.
This seems odd, especially in the current audio market. To date, the cheapest product that Apple markets is the HomePod Mini at £99 / $99, an impressively modest sum considering the host of clever things it can do. With lossless and spatial audio support, a smart AI assistant in Siri and great sound for its size and type, the Mini is proof that Apple can make great products on a budget. We like it so much it’s even a 2022 What Hi-Fi? Award winner.
The HomePod Mini is even cheaper than any of its AirPods, which seems astonishing in today’s vast wireless earbuds market. Even the current AirPods don’t fall so low, with the basic AirPods (2019) model tested at £159 / $159 (and now available for around £139 /$100, while the flagship ANC-toting AirPods Pro 2, that are due to get a host of improvements, cost £249 / $249 / AU$399.
While it’s a fair price for a great pair of five-star earbuds at this premium level, it seems odd that Apple hasn’t considered targeting the cheaper end of the market at the same time. Sony, for instance, competes with the AirPods Pro 2 with its excellent new WF-1000XM5 earbuds, yet the Japanese audio powerhouse also caters to tighter budgets with the cheap and cheerful WF-C500 (£89 / $79 / AU$149) and the fantastic, ANC-capable WF-C700N (£100 / $120 / AU$200).
The likes of Jabra and JBL (and many, many others) offer wallet-friendly buds, too, while certain manufacturers specifically target low-cost models at discerning consumers (see Earfun, for example). Why don’t Apple do the same? We’ve heard rumours of a pair of AirPods Lite wireless earbuds that would retail for under £100 / $100, and I’d love to see the market shaken up by Apple’s entry at the lower end. The company has the resources and know-how to do it, as the HomePod Mini clearly demonstrates, so what’s to stop it taking influence from the sound crafted by the AirPods 2 and transposing it into a budget pair of buds with, say, fewer features and slightly lower-grade build quality?
The same goes for the mega-brand’s line of wireless over-ears headphones, too. Apple currently only makes one pair of over-ear wireless headphones in the shape of the fantastic AirPods Max, and while we’re anticipating a Max 2 sequel to those very premium, five-star performers, it would be great to see Apple develop a model that comes in a little cheaper, ideally to rival Sony WH-1000XM5 wireless over-ears or similar offerings from Bose or Sennheiser in the £250-£350 ($250-$350) price range.
These more budget products, incidentally, could drop that premium, Apple-exclusive feel in favour of the cheap and cheerful styling and aesthetic of the HomePod Mini. One of the other things the What Hi-Fi? Team continues to love about the Mini is its variety of bright and colourful options (yes, even the orange finish), and, considering the AirPods Max also comes in some fetching hues, it’s a shame that the rest of Apple’s audio products have remained rather plain.
I was, admittedly, a tad disappointed to see the larger HomePod 2 arrive this year in just two basic black and white colours. Even the iPhones come in a range of attractive hues, and it would be great to see an element of that fun injected into the AirPods line, say, providing a chance to pep up the slightly tired Apple all-white aesthetic while serving a new corner of the customer base at the same time.
Perhaps Apple isn’t keen on devaluing the brands and model lines that it already has, or maybe it isn’t comfortable straying from a now-iconic and oft-repeated design. Or, maybe it simply feels that it couldn’t keep costs down sufficiently to make the idea of cheaper headphones or wireless earbuds economically viable. But considering the calibre of the HomePod Mini, which offers excellent performance and value for money, I think Apple is missing a trick here.
The world, now more than ever, needs innovation at the softer end of the cost spectrum. The more Apple competes, the more the market should be forced to adapt (as we’ve seen in the light of more high-end models from Focal, B&W and Mark Levinson following the AirPods Max), and while nobody wants to see a one-company monopoly, competition may be a good thing in the long term on behalf of consumers.
The unveiling of the rumoured AirPods Lite would be welcomed at this year’s September event, as would any products that give customers more cost-effective alternatives to Apple’s premium, pricier products. The likes of Sony and Bose are already leading the way – time for Apple to join the party.
Read our Apple AirPods Pro 2 review
These are the best cheap wireless earbuds
Read our review of the HomePod Mini