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Are the AirPods Max headphones worth $549?

Airpods Max Comfort
Airpods Max Comfort (Image credit: Apple)

Apple's rumored "Christmas Surprise" turned out to be the AirPods Max over-ear active noise-canceling headphones. I offer a few points worth considering for those wondering whether Apple's newest goody is worth the admission price ($549).

The Apple premium

When Apple announced the AirPods Max on Tuesday morning, most of us at iMore did a double-take when it came to the price. After all, $549 for headphones is firmly in splurge territory for many. And yet, once I took a few deep breaths, I realized Apple probably found the sweet spot on price when you consider the rest of the market and how it operates.

First, make no mistake $549 is a lot to spend on mainstream consumer headphones. And yet, when you look at the competition and factor in the build-in Apple premium that most of us willingly accept (especially on new Apple products), it makes sense. That premium is about $200 when you consider the competition.

The industry-leading Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, for example, are $380, while the newly released Sony WH-1000XM4 is $350. Apple's Beats Studio3 Wireless are also $350, while one of my favorite noise cancelation headphones, the Master & Dynamic MW65s, are $500.

But, discounts will come

Now consider possible future discounts. While Apple is never going to discount the AirPods Max at its retail stores or online, third-party vendors almost certainly will, eventually. Consider, for example, the year-old AirPods Pro that is normally $249. During Black Friday, Walmart was selling the earbuds for $169, which Amazon quickly matched. Even during non-holiday sales periods, you can now find AirPods Pro at least under $200.

The point? At $549, Apple's giving retailers plenty of space to eventually discount the AirPods Max by $50, $100, or even $150.

How much was your iPhone?

When deciding whether to buy a pair of AirPods Max, you should also look at what you paid for your iPhone. I know, I know, headphones aren't nearly as useful as a smartphone. And yet, if you're willing to spend $1,100 for an entry-level iPhone 12 Pro Max or even $800 for a new iPhone 12, $549 doesn't sound nearly as bad.

For those with significant others, consider using the line, It's 50% less than my new iPhone, honey or *Hey, it comes in Sky Blue to match my new phone!"

Consider it a layaway

It's been less than 24 hours since Apple announced the AirPod Max, and it became available for pre-order through Apple in the United States and 25 additional countries and regions. At the time of this writing, every AirPods Max color is sold out. As such, an order placed today won't be filled for 12-14 weeks.

If you're willing to spend $1,100 for an entry-level iPhone 12 Pro Max or even $800 for a new iPhone 12, $549 doesn't sound nearly as bad.

Apple doesn't charge for online purchases until they're fulfilled. Therefore, if you're still unsure whether it's worth paying $549, look at it differently. Buy a pair today through the Apple website, then physically or mentally put back $45/week. By budgeting, by the time your order ships, it won't feel nearly as bad.

The process is also great for anyone looking to give someone an excellent Christmas gift and not pay for it ... yet. Son, here's a picture of your Sky Blue AirPods Max for Christmas. They'll arrive in March.

It's also in the ballpark

Before throwing shade at Apple for announcing $549 headphones just days before Christmas, you should also take into account other products (or groups of products) at around the same price point. These include the recently released Xbox Series X and PS, which are priced at $499 each (if you can find them), most of an iPad Air (which starts at $599) or Mac mini ($699), and more.

A solid reason to delay

On a final and more serious note, there's one important factor to consider when deciding whether it's worth spending $549 for a pair of AirPods Max. How do they sound? At this point, we don't know, although the first reviews will soon be published to answer the question.

I have no doubt the headphones will sound magical and be well-received. Until they are, however, it's a justifiable reason to wait. And yet, given the three-month turn-around on new orders, it doesn't make any difference now.

Bottom line

I'm not getting an AirPods Max review unit, but I plan to buy one at some point. I don't need a pair and deciding whether to take a plunge is definitely a first-world problem compounded by the pandemic. If you can, there are plenty of reasons to make a purchase, especially if you're an Apple fan, as are most of our readers.

And yet, there's one big reason to wait (how does it sound), which is why Christine Chan and others at iMore are waiting before leaping. And besides, discounts will eventually come for those willing to wait.

What say you? Have you purchased the AirPods Max or plan to do so? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

Bryan M Wolfe
Staff Writer

Bryan M. Wolfe has written about technology for over a decade on various websites, including TechRadar, AppAdvice, and many more. Before this, he worked in the technology field across different industries, including healthcare and education. He’s currently iMore’s lead on all things Mac and macOS, although he also loves covering iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch. Bryan enjoys watching his favorite sports teams, traveling, and driving around his teenage daughter to her latest stage show, audition, or school event in his spare time. He also keeps busy walking his black and white cocker spaniel, Izzy, and trying new coffees and liquid grapes.

13 Comments
  • I think it’s obscenely priced. I own and have owned a lot of Apple products. I will not own these. Same with HomePods. I don’t worry what others do, but I can get established products vetted by consumers and techies for $200 less. This is not a good trend for Apple.
  • Appreciate your comments and thanks for reading :)
  • I agree with you and the fact that they are already on 12-14 week backorder is purely a hype cycle. I truly hope those people aren't disappointed. I'll wait to see the steep discounts in 6 months or so. For now my AirPod Pros will do. On another note I do have a use case now to get a HomePod and I'm talking the big one not the mini. I want it to pair with my Apple TV 4K and give me a better audio quality than I have with the speakers in the TV. It's a good size room and I think it will be a much better experience.
  • Great and thanks for reading!
  • If the potential buyer cannot tell the difference in sound between a $500 headset and a $100 headset then there is no justification to buy the $500 headset. Many people CAN tell the difference and will gladly spend $1000 for a headset. The AirPods Max are apparently already sold out so claiming they are obscenely priced is just foolish.
  • Thanks for reading, as always!
  • Oh c'mon. There's no justification for that price. First, most of us subsidize our phones through our carriers. We only need to pay the tax when we get the phone, which is less than $100 in most cases. These headphones require the entire price up front. And comparing headphones to a gaming machine is absurd. You can get a great pair of headphones for $170 at Best Buy right now (The Beats Solo Pro). Has most of the same features, longer battery life, and better price.
  • Would never tell anyone how to spend their money - it's their money after all - but these aren't for me. My AirPod Pros for when I'm on the go, and my wired Sonys for when I'm anchored near my AV receiver, listening to records or CDs. But, what I will take exception to is trying to compare a set of headphones to a high-powered gaming console that can do so much more. Sorry, that's just a bad price comparison.
  • There are a number of reasons these cost what they do, and possibly some things justifying it. That there is always an Apple tax, there are computers and game consoles priced as high, they are backordered so you can save up, and there will be sales, just aren't any of the reasons.
    These have accelerometers and gyroscopes to affect spatial audio, which in itself is unique. There are 10 core H1 processors in each side dedicated to audio processing. Their integration into the Apple ecosystem is unmatched in any other. That is on top of what is likely sound, and active noise cancellation quality on par with todays best options. That remains to be seen. In any case there are legitimate reasons for the price. Justifiable is up to the buyer. Apparently many have decided that in the affirmative.
  • They "may" be worth the money. Your final point in the article is really what it comes down to - what do they sound like? Audiophiles will pay upwards of $3000 for the best sounding headphones. Really great earbuds can readily cost $300+. So, the value here really comes down to how these sound. Another big consideration is whether a potential buyer can actually tell the difference. Lots of people use the lousy earphones that have come packaged with their phones. If that is satisfactory, why would they even consider buying something at this price? Most people probably won't really be able to tell why they may (or may not) prefer the sound of something that provides truer sound reproduction. If what they value is loud along with really thumpy base, then these may not be the right ones for them. They could spend $100 or less and be satisfied, probably. These are definitely designed as a premium device and it remains to be seen whether the price is justified. Reviews will help everyone start to figure that out.
  • It is a mistake to compare these headphones to the Bose and Sony noice-cancelling headphones. These headphones have features that Sony and Bose headsets do not have. The quality of the sound, I'm going to bet is going to be better, but there's no way to know at this point. In audiophile circles, the Bose and Sony sets are not considered all that good for listening to high-quality music. You want a ridiculous price for headphones? Look at the audiophile world and you'll see headsets that cost thousands. That's the rarified air where the prices are ridiculous. Between $500 and $600 is not obscene, ridiculous, or unreasonable when you consider the feature set. High? You bet. Not for most people? You bet. But all the whining and complaining here and elsewhere is patently typical of people who have no idea what the issues are. Am I going to buy them? Maybe some day once I've had a chance to try them. I have a really nice set of headphones which cost about $400 and don't have noice cancelling. They had a phenomenal built-in DAC. (I say had because they have been missing since I packed up my desk and retired. Still hope they turn up.) So many of the complaints are just spleen venting. "It's not for me, so it's not for you either!" Horse. Hockey.
  • Well said, thank you! I have high end headphones in my studio and I’m still going to get these for their unique features.
  • I ordered a pair as soon as they came available. I’m not an audiophile but at 70 years old I am a long time fan of all Apple products. I love good design. I have several pairs of nice Sony corded headphones and the Airpod Pros. But I hate the cord and the Pros still aren’t comfortable enough for me. I like over ear headphones and I’ve been waiting for these. I’ll appreciate the sound quality and ANC but more importantly it’s the integration with my iPhone, iPad, AppleTV and Mac Mini that has me excited. And of course the comfort. I’m not rich so this is a chunk of change for me. But if I were paying a buck for every time I put them on and get enjoyment I would pay them off in no time.