On Headphones and Long-Term Waiting
When Apple announced the AirPods Max, my first thought was, “It’s about damn time!” I had been waiting for over four years for this particular product to be released.
Love at First Listen
The original AirPods released back in 2016 remain, to this day, one of the best items I have ever purchased. They opened the door to playing media and taking phone calls anywhere and everywhere, unobtrusively and with ease. If you’ve used similar completely wireless headphones, you know that it’s not an exaggeration to say that the lack of wires1 is a total game-changer. With the special sauce that Apple added for easy pairing and using with multiple devices, and it’s no wonder that they were back-ordered for months. I used my pair every single day and beat the crap out of the batteries until they barely held a charge. It’s a great product.
But they also left me wanting. AirPods are perfect for casual listening on the go, but there are many times that I listen to music with large headphones to be immersed in it or to block out the world for focus. I had experienced the greener grass and now found any headphones with wires to be inordinately annoying. I could no longer tolerate the limited range and experience of Bluetooth headphones that lack the W-series (now H-series) chips found in AirPods.
Enter the Beats Solo3 Wireless
They’re perfectly fine. But fine in the way that you tell someone, “I’m fine,” when you actually mean, “I’m bad, but I don’t want to complain.” A pair of Beats Solo3 Wireless headphones arrived along with my MacBook as the perk of Apple’s back-to-school promotion. The Solo3 headphones are compact, have decent sound quality, and provide the same magical experience of pairing and extended range as the AirPods. And that exhausts their good qualities.
The Solo3 headphones sit on top of the ears, which, for me, are uncomfortable — but tolerable — from the moment I don them. The way they sit on top of the head makes them distractingly painful on the crown of my head after an hour or so of wearing them. That lack of comfort coupled with their inability to block external sound (unless I crank the music way up, which is terrible for my already poor hearing) meant that they have never earned a place near the AirPods in my heart. I knew I wanted a pair of over-ear headphones with the feature set of the Solo3 pair, but they didn’t exist.
Until they did exist with the arrival of Beats Studio3 Wireless. By the time they finally came out, however, the Beats brand had lost its allure. I was wary of their comfort level and the design didn’t appeal to me. Eventually, the Bose QuietComfort and Sony WH-1000 series headphones became mainstream and I was sorely tempted. I tried them all on at every opportunity and marveled at their comfort. Pair after pair sat in my Amazon cart. I lusted after, but never succumbed to, the “Buy” button.
You see, I thought it inevitable that Apple would follow up the runaway success of AirPods with larger fist-party headphones. “I’m sure it’ll happen this year,” I’d tell myself. “I can wait just a little longer.” Noise cancelation became a must-have feature, and the quality that Apple pulled off with the AirPods Pro was another game-changer.2 But my white whale remained ever-elusive.
So, it should come as no surprise that when the AirPods Max finally dropped, unceremoniously through a press release, that I would buy them. Rumors of the launch of “AirPods Studio” (as they were colloquially known3) had waxed and waned, but my desire for them had never wavered. Over time, Apple had earned its place as a leader in audio quality, so I had little doubt that they would sound great. Yet, I did not instantly make the purchase. Because, oh my, that price.
Worth the Wares?
In my heart, I had known that these headphones would cost more than the roughly $350 that similar pairs from the likes of Sony and Bose cost. But I had fooled myself into thinking that $400 would be the appropriate price. At $400 I would have bought AirPods Max sight unseen and sound unheard. At $550, I was given pause. I wanted them dearly, but would they be worth it?
In my head, I had already spent the $350 years ago when I decided that over-ear headphones were in my future. I had waited and saved for that purchase. Another $200 is a significant amount — but — there are no other options with the Apple-centric feature set for which I had waited. I couldn’t spend $350 on lesser headphones now while knowing that what I actually wanted finally exists.
It turns out that the high sticker price was the motivation I needed to finally try to sell a few of my unused items. I’d also kept my pair of Beats Solo3 in great condition, and lost no sleep in saying goodbye to them. I’ve made up more than half of the cost of the AirPods Max so far, which helps take the edge off the pain of that price tag.
In the end, Apple had me where they wanted. They created features that I convinced myself that I had to have. They had me hanging for years while watching other options enter the market. They made staying within the Apple ecosystem even more enticing with iOS 14. Then they charged a premium for the AirPods Max.
But damn if they don’t sound, look, and feel like $550. Money well spent, and time waited with no regrets.
Of both the tangled and yanked variety. My old earbuds would tangle the instant I put them in my pocket. While wearing them, I’d endlessly and painfully catch the wire on desk corners and door handles. You know the experience, I’m sure.↩︎
I tried the AirPods Pro too. But I couldn’t last even a day with them. Their sound was amazing and the noise canceling was impressive, but the combination of in-ear tips and the noise cancelation made my head dizzy. I sold them to a friend who loves them.↩︎
And which I still think is a more elegant, and ultimately better, name for such an elegant product.↩︎