Apple's original HomePod was overpriced, and that doesn't bode well for AirPods Max

Posted:
in iPod + iTunes + AppleTV edited March 17
Audiophiles connected to the Apple ecosystem loved the original $350 HomePod for its best-in-class sound, but casual consumers passed on the pricey speaker, ultimately leading Apple to discontinue the hardware. That's probably a bad sign for the $550 AirPods Max -- here's why.




Apple officially announced last Friday evening East coast time that it was discontinuing the original HomePod, and will instead focus on the HomePod mini. The timing of that announcement was no coincidence -- late on a Friday is when companies typically dump news they are somewhat embarrassed about, hoping that very few people will see it after they sign out of work and kick off their weekend.

For a company that has seen so much success, the HomePod was a rare misstep, focused on a premium-sounding speaker that quite literally blew away the competition in sound quality, but at a price. Others in the space, like Amazon and Google, found more success with cheaper smart speakers more focused on being a personal assistant than an amazing sound system.

Ultimately, Apple was forced to go cheaper as well, and found a way to do so without significantly compromising sound quality in the form of the $99 HomePod mini. At that price point, the HomePod mini is less of an investment for consumers, and more of an impulse buy. Buyers have responded accordingly, and Apple is following the market trends by discontinuing the original HomePod.

Of course, Apple has another premium audio product on the market -- one that launched a few short months ago. What could the discontinuation of the HomePod tell us about the future of the AirPods Max?




Stop me if you've heard this one before

When the AirPods Max debuted in late 2020, reviewers praised the $549 headphones for their clever design, attractive aesthetics, and amazing sound quality. They weren't as sold, however, on the reliance on Apple devices, nor the high price.

It was the same story in early 2018, when the first HomePod debuted carrying a $349 price tag. Reviewers praised the sound of the HomePod, driven by an array of seven tweeters, but many felt that the price didn't justify upgrading over a cheaper Sonos One.

Just over a year after the first HomePod launched, Apple cut the price by $50 to $299, reflecting tepid demand from the broader non-audiophile segment.

Like the HomePod, the AirPods Max are also tightly integrated into the Apple ecosystem. This makes the AirPods Max dead simple to use for an iPhone owner, but problematic for anyone on Android.

At the very least, the AirPods Max have a leg up on the HomePod in that department -- the HomePod does not work with Android at all, while AirPods Max can be used with non-Apple Bluetooth devices (though Android users will lose some key features, like spatial audio support, or automatic switching between devices).

And also like the HomePod, the AirPods Max seem squarely aimed at the audiophile market.

Another thing that the AirPods Max may ultimately have in common with the first HomePod is competition from Apple itself -- rumors have suggested that a cheaper "sport" version of the AirPods Max may be in development. It's possible that, like the HomePod mini, consumers could gravitate toward a more affordable option, if Apple were to release one.




I'm still rooting for the AirPods Max

Full disclosure: I own two full-size HomePods, and a HomePod mini, and I like them all. Most of our staff has at least one, and most have multiples. I wish Apple didn't discontinue the larger HomePod, though if sales were poor, I certainly understand why.

I'm also very interested in the AirPods Max. I own a pair of Master & Dynamic MW65 headphones, which retail for $499 -- only $50 cheaper than the AirPods Max. I'm most definitely in the target market for AirPods Max.

The main thing that has held me back from considering Apple's top-tier headphones is lack of full support with Apple TV. I have a nice surround sound system that I use with my Apple TV, and it would be nice to use the spatial audio capabilities of the AirPods Max to get simulated surround sound when watching with headphones. Unfortunately, that's not possible with the hardware found in the current Apple TV 4K, and I can't see myself spending $549 until the Apple TV hardware gets a refresh to add support.

But I also realize I am not like most consumers, who would balk at the idea of spending $550 on headphones for home theater use and music listening. For many of them, Apple's entry-level AirPods earbuds are perfectly fine -- as is the $159 price.

Even for those who want over-ear wireless headphones, Apple offers Beats. And it's likely many consumers would find the $200 Beats Solo3, which are wireless and sport Apple's W1 chip, to be a much better value.

Not all hope is lost

Even if the AirPods Max were to follow the exact same trajectory as the original HomePod -- that is to say, sold and widely available for three years before ultimately being discontinued -- that's not really a bad thing. Plenty of audiophiles will purchase and enjoy their premium Apple headphones with no reservations.

Also, discontinued doesn't mean dead. Apple discontinued the original HomePod without declaring the product "end of life." That means it will likely see software updates for months and years to come, with Apple standing by those who invested in its first-generation smart speaker.

As any AirPort Express owner using their device as an AirPlay 2 receiver can tell you, Apple has a pretty good track record of long-term support in the niche audio space.

The AirPods Max feel like a passion project developed by audio engineers at Apple who are adamant about pristine sound quality.

They also feel like a product that is destined to be one-and-done -- released to the masses, but never receiving a second-generation upgrade, ultimately serving as a stepping stone for something that is more affordable, and more in tune with the needs of the broader market.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 44
    kiehtankiehtan Posts: 23member
    I love Apple products. I’m fully invested in the ecosystem, but I wouldn’t pay $350 for a HomePod, I did happily purchase  two at $250 each; and would likely have purchased more in the future. 

    As for the AirPods Max? Same deal. I’d never pay $550 for these. I’d pay $350, maybe $400. But that’s a big maybe. 

    Like the HomePod, these are probably amazing sounding products (I’ve never used them), and there is certainly a market for them. But, I feel Apple
    often gets a little too greedy and shoots too high. $700 for set of MacPro wheels anybody? 
    chemengin1roundaboutnowmike54beowulfschmidt
  • Reply 2 of 44
    eightzeroeightzero Posts: 2,607member
    Did Apple ever declare the original Apple Watch Edition that went for $14k in gold as "end of life?" Wonder how many of those are still in service. 
  • Reply 3 of 44
    JWSCJWSC Posts: 874member
    As long as Apple continues to iterate the AirPods Max with additional capabilities, improved connectivity perhaps in the non-Apple ecosystem, and reducing the price a little with each iteration, then the product will survive.  What Apple cannot do is leave them to whither on the vine as they did with the HomePod.

    “Do, or do not.  There is no try.”
    forgot usernamewatto_cobra
  • Reply 4 of 44
    JapheyJaphey Posts: 504member
    eightzero said:
    Did Apple ever declare the original Apple Watch Edition that went for $14k in gold as "end of life?" Wonder how many of those are still in service. 
    I wonder how many were sold in the first place?
    chemengin1muthuk_vanalingamwatto_cobra
  • Reply 5 of 44
    JapheyJaphey Posts: 504member
    kiehtan said:
    I love Apple products. I’m fully invested in the ecosystem, but I wouldn’t pay $350 for a HomePod, I did happily purchase  two at $250 each; and would likely have purchased more in the future. 

    As for the AirPods Max? Same deal. I’d never pay $550 for these. I’d pay $350, maybe $400. But that’s a big maybe. 

    Like the HomePod, these are probably amazing sounding products (I’ve never used them), and there is certainly a market for them. But, I feel Apple
    often gets a little too greedy and shoots too high. $700 for set of MacPro wheels anybody? 
    Totally agree. That’s the reason I ultimately returned mine. They did sound amazing, but I have no frame of reference since they were my first foray into high end headphones. As such, $550 was hard for me to justify. I plan on waiting for a good Black Friday sale to revisit them…at $400-$450 I’m a buyer. 
    kiehtanchemengin1
  • Reply 6 of 44
    dymmasdymmas Posts: 13member
    I have two HomePods. They sound great in my living room as a stereo pair and for setting cooking timers! I’m not concerned that they have been discontinued as AirPlay will be around for a long time. 

    AirPods Max on the other hand... I bought to see if the experience aligned with the price. In my opinion it didn’t, so they were returned.

    What the other AirPod products excel at is convenience and accessibility at the expense of exceptional (but nonetheless still good) sound quality. AirPod Max sacrifices convenience (that case, the clamping force and the weight!) for pretty good, but not exceptional, sound quality. 
  • Reply 7 of 44
    StrangeDaysStrangeDays Posts: 11,105member
    Still bummed about the HP announcement. I have two as a stereo pair, and two minis. The HPs are quite good for our modest home theater, and sounded better than the Sonos Beam soundbar we tested. I had hoped they'd be gaining in functionality, not losing... Thought it might be nice if minis could be used as rears, etc. Guess I'll hang on to them until whenever.
    forgot usernamewatto_cobraurahara
  • Reply 8 of 44
    The price was only a problem because it couldn’t replace a home stereo in major listening spaces. At this quality of system, it had to be the only speaker in the room. If Apple found a way to offer Bluetooth, TV (other then Apple TV), and game system support it would have been very successful. Even if they had to somewhat compromise the computational audio features in these situations to reduce latency. I absolutely love my Homepods, but I only have them in the bedroom and dining room where they don’t need to replace another system.

    The AirPods Max will integrate with everything, so they might not suffer the same fate. However a lower end Beats-like $250 model would certainly be more popular.
    edited March 17 forgot usernameqwerty52
  • Reply 9 of 44
    aderutteraderutter Posts: 436member
    I don’t think AirPods Max are aimed at audiophiles.
    Audiophiles sniff at computational audio and laugh at the idea of bluetooth being good enough for their ears.

    Airpods Max are aimed at people invested enough in the eco-system that care enough about audio quality that they will pay the price of entry but don’t care enough about neutrality to count them out.

    I could be in the target audience for TV and movies (I have spent this amount on a pair of IEMs for example) - but I would want something special in return for sacrificing audio neutrality. A new AppleTV with Spacial Audio support could be just that thing to count me in.
    entropysCloudTalkinchemengin1
  • Reply 10 of 44
    I have both a HomePod and AirPods Max.  The sound quality and their build quality is superb, so money reasonably well spent for me.  I decided it was worth affording them. The price is quite punchy and only time will show how long they last. 

    HomePod is pitched at a different market from the Alexa and similar models being mainly for music and sounds, rather than a smart speaker which is of little interest to me.

    Similarly with AirPods Max, I wanted top quality sound which is what I have.
    pdnoble
  • Reply 11 of 44
    entropysentropys Posts: 2,844member
    If it was an ecosystem thing enhancing interactivity features (eg features like spatial audio on Apple TV, multichannel support across HomePods and HomePod minis would have been a marquis thing right out the gate). But they are not. With these devices Apple is driving ecosystem lock in with services exclusivity.

    Not smart with a stratospheric price. Limited functionality, enormous price. What a great strategy.

    also it is time for at least a USD$50 price drop on Airpods 2 and Airpods pro too. the competition has practically caught up at a lower price .  Release the next gen and drop the price on the current one, or don’t release the next gen and drop the price, just drop the price!
    AI_lias
  • Reply 12 of 44
    entropysentropys Posts: 2,844member
    HomePod is pitched at a different market from the Alexa and similar models being mainly for music and sounds, rather than a smart speaker which is of little interest to me.
    Apple has just proven such a market doesn’t exist. At least not at this price point.
    chemengin1
  • Reply 13 of 44
    rcfarcfa Posts: 944member
    HomePods weren’t overpriced. The shoddiest bookshelf speakers, an wimpy amp, and a BT Receiver or an AirPort Express cost a lot more.

    The problem was Apple’s marketing. Should have sold it in pairs as an AppleTV accessory, rather than as single speakers. Anyone who cares about sound wants stereo, and the ability to use two as stereo pair and in conjunction with an AppleTV was utterly under communicated.
    keithwforgot usernameStrangeDaysurahara
  • Reply 14 of 44
    MisterKitMisterKit Posts: 403member
    Homepod was not overpriced at all. It was underappreciated. Apple overshot.

    joeljrichardsJWSCjony0urahara
  • Reply 15 of 44
    MisterKitMisterKit Posts: 403member
    I don't think that an uneducated ear can tell the difference between a $100 speaker and a $1000 speaker.
    jony0
  • Reply 16 of 44
    Mike WuertheleMike Wuerthele Posts: 6,094administrator
    eightzero said:
    Did Apple ever declare the original Apple Watch Edition that went for $14k in gold as "end of life?" Wonder how many of those are still in service. 
    It went end of life with the series zero.
    forgot usernamemuthuk_vanalingamjony0urahara
  • Reply 17 of 44
    keithwkeithw Posts: 55member
    I have 2 Home Pods and like them very much, but as speakers, never for Siri.  They may have been overpriced, but you got something in return.  What's really crazy is the $1000 stand for the Pro Display XDR.  I have my display mounted to a $42.55 stand from Amazon. Works just fine.
    forgot username
  • Reply 18 of 44
    charlesncharlesn Posts: 124member
    The HomePod was not overpriced. Many high end audio companies sell HomePod-type portable speakers with price tags that leave HomePod in the dust. And I'm sure HomePod sales leaves them in the dust. So why do those speakers continue to be manufactured while HomePod is EOL? Simple. When a company is the size of Apple, a consumer product like the HomePod has to sell in huge volumes that justify its existence in the product line. Another way of saying it: the HomePod likely sold in enough volume to make it a hit at most companies. Just not at Apple. For this reason, I think the question about the future of AirPods Max is a valid one. Top Apple analyst Kuo sees them selling less than a million units this year and accounting for only 1% of AirPods shipments. 

    Now that I've owned APM for a while, I also find them an odd fit in the Apple "wearables" category. Their weight makes them much less than ideal as go-to headphones for use outside the house. Plus, their unmistakable appearance and well-publicized high price tag are like putting a sign that screams "Steal Me!" on your head. For these reasons, I'm finding that I only listen to my APM at home. 
    keithwforgot usernameStrangeDaysGG1jony0TRAG
  • Reply 19 of 44
    joeljrichardsjoeljrichards Posts: 23unconfirmed, member
    As a HomePod die-hard, I will say the big difference is that HomePod never sold out. The Airpods Max were impossible to buy at almost any price for weeks—some colors are still backordered. So even if high demand doesn't continue, there is a bigger market than Apple expected and that's a good sign.

    I'm not an audiophile but as someone who works in (or adjacent to) the audio field, neither product is outrageously priced—if you compare them to other audio-first offerings. Those markets are very niche—too niche in the case of OG HomePod which sold well for a wireless speaker but terrible for an Apple Product. The Max will sell well because consumers will justify the fashion statement as long as the Max is better than all (or most) other ANC, wireless, over-the-ear headphones. 

    Honestly the HomePod was too new, too innovative. It solved a problem no one knew they had, even after it was gone. The Max are a shade above mediocre. They won't be a home run, but they'll be a consistent base hit for the foreseeable future. 
    keithw
  • Reply 20 of 44
    cpsrocpsro Posts: 2,771member
    kiehtan said:
    $700 for set of MacPro wheels anybody? 
    The wheels cost $400 pre-installed and are well worth that price. Just get them when ordering the system.
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