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December 9, 2020

☕ Good morning this Wednesday! Here's something that may surprise you: $549 is a lot of cash. But I'm not outraged for reasons I'll explain.

AirPods Max

Apple announced its new AirPods Max yesterday, likely the company’s last product for 2020.

It’s a brand new set of first-party, over-the-ear headphones from Apple, as has been rumored for months now.

The new cans join the space where the Bose NC700 ($339 RRP) and Sony XM4 headphones ($349 RRP) have been super popular recently, for their high-quality sound and leading noise-canceling performance.

Features:

Apple’s announcement didn’t coincide with any reviews or an event – just a quietish press release on Apple.com, where the company focused on “incredible high-fidelity audio, Adaptive EQ, Active Noise Cancellation, and spatial audio.”

  • The feature list includes a Digital Crown (like the Apple Watch) to control volume, skip, pause, answer phone calls
  • Apple’s claiming 20 hours of battery life, and details like sensors that recognize when headphones are on your head or not, “acoustically engineered” memory foam on the earcups for a good seal, and five color options.
  • There’s also an H1 chip, which performs the tasks of Bluetooth connectivity, and a Digital Signal Processor (DSP) for decoding the audio stream, and a co-processor (possibly a second DSP) for handling sensor information.

And, they’re $549:

  • There’s a lot of reaction to Apple’s pricing. A full $200 over those you’d consider competitors — and saw sales during Black Friday well under $300 — places Apple in the audiophile realm.
  • Normally, only audio pros are interested in these kinds of headphones, like the Sennheiser HD 820 that go for $2000 or so, Beyerdynamic Amiron for $500, and so on. But these are generally wired headphones for analog sound with zero-compromise.
  • Anecdotally, there’s a normal curve to audio equipment and costs, where paying more gets you a nicer, better sounding set of headphones. A $200 set will crush a $50 set, a $400 set will be a little better but the margins get smaller.
  • Apple’s carving out its own pricing realm: well above midrange and top-selling competitors, not into the high-end HiFi range ($1,000+).
  • Considering you can buy an iPhone (iPhone SE, iPhone XR) from Apple for less
  • Of course, Apple usually justifies its premiums through next-level execution, design, and quality.
  • It’s likely Android users will be able to use these as a standard Bluetooth device, missing out on the software and connectivity.
  • What’s surprising isn’t that they’ll likely be worth the money for iPhone users; it’s that Apple decided that it will be able to have a significant market share when these are a lot of money.
  • And I don’t care about this but it’s worth pointing out: no visible Apple logo anywhere. There’s a reason for that, but I don’t have the answer. Also, you get a carry case which looks sort of funny.
  • Anyway, the price tag remains divisive. $549 is a lot, but unlike iPhone upgrades, it’s a much less price-sensitive market. No one needs to buy these to get by, which is the main message here.
  • Also, Apple focused on high-end audio with the HomePod at a premium price, but struggled to unseat Google and Amazon, partly due to Siri, I’m sure. 
  • This seems different: pre-orders started and went straight to 12-14 week delays or longer for availability, meaning anyone who didn’t get in early will miss a Christmas purchase. Apple’s putting them on sale on December 15th, if there’s any to even sell.

Some elements I don’t like:

  • No analog wired option at all for sound. The compromise option is to buy a $35 lightning-to-3.5mm cable, but that’s still a digital signal.
  • And curious: Apple Music doesn’t support HD sound options, so to get HiFi audio you’ll need to stream music elsewhere, like Tidal. Not everyone cares about this …except those that like to spend at $500+ headphones? I can’t figure that out.
  • Charging via lightning cable.
  • Apple Care adds another $59.
  • Also the branding. The AirPods brand made sense for the little earbuds that go into a pod. AirPods Max, for big ol’ headphones? I get wanting to use the popular branding of AirPods but it’s a bit off? Not that it matters.

Reviews should be coming soon. Expect the price tag to be a major factor, but I’m super interested in just how good they are compared to the current Sony XM4/Bose range.

📺 Samsung’s official teasers for the Galaxy S21, S21 Plus and S21 Ultra have leaked, revealing a two-tone design, and confirmed lack of of the camera circle, January 14th date firming up (Android Authority).

📜 Samsung Galaxy S21 filing hits the FCC for certification, confirms Snapdragon 888, wireless technology support, and 4,000mAh battery (Android Authority).

📈 This OnePlus 7T deal makes it cheaper than the Pixel 4a (Android Authority).

🎶 On that note: What OnePlus co-founder Carl Pei is doing next — spoiler: something with audio, has raised $7M to make it happen (Wired).

📺 The top trending TV shows and movies in 2020, according to Google (Android Authority).

📅 Halo Infinite is now officially launching “fall 2021,” which is almost a full year after the original date for the launch of the Xbox Series X. That’s a big bad delay, but the demo from the Xbox showcase back in July was so disastrous (Craig meme!) that a huge rebuild is required (The Verge).

📈 Also, Cyberpunk 2077 pre-loads via Steam on PC have caused huge spikes in downloads, with a bandwidth record of 23.5 Tbps recorded (Twitter). Live data here (Steam).

👀 The hard-to-find PS5 and RTX 3090 have each inspired dramatic thefts, fraud, and a hijacking of a truck full of PS5 consoles in the UK (The Verge).

😬 Pornhub ends unverified uploads and bans downloads after the New York Times expose, meaning it is no longer a “tube” site (Engadget).

🔋 Bill Gates and VW-backed startup QuantumScape released data yesterday announcing its “solid state” batteries for EVs may crack significant challenges in the space: faster charging, hold more power, and lasting longer. The downside: only ready by 2024, not verified yet, uncertain manufacturing, and $/Wh unknown (The Verge).

🔓 FireEye, one of the largest cybersecurity companies in the US, says “nation-state” hackers accessed and stole its internal hacking tools. No evidence that the tools have been used, but a black day for FireEye (Reuters).

🗻 Everest gets a growth spurt as Nepal and China revise official elevation upward: now 8,848.86 meters, or 29,031.69 feet above sea level, two feet more than the previous consensus. Everest is growing naturally each year, although earthquakes and shifts can change things overnight (NPR).

🚀 Yesterday’s SpaceX Starship SN8 prototype test launch was aborted at the very last second. Next launch date could be as soon as today or tomorrow (Space).

🤔 “What is clearly a scam but is so normalized people don’t notice?” (Back to base security system monitoring, arcade games, printer ink, Scientific journal memberships… it’s a long list) (r/askreddit).

Weirdness Wednesday
Arthur VR

VR meetings are weird, but they beat our current reality, writes Wired, as a new VR app called Arthur joins the working from home app list in VR, allowing you and distant colleagues, clients, and partners, to jump on a Zoom call, but within a 3D meeting space, assuming everyone owns a VR headset.

Arthur looks pretty weird, and there are significant limitations and workarounds. 

  • For example, everyone in the meeting wears a pair of sunglasses, because otherwise everyone will be staring into each other’s dead eyes (Arthur’s founder said it, not me, and it’s hilarious that serious business meetings are held with everyone wearing sunglasses).
  • And it’s hard to jot down or type up notes, because your physical body is in use moving around the hand controllers.

But, there’s something to it! Quote: 

  • During my Arthur VR onboarding, the company’s founder, Christoph Fleischmann, just happened to “drop in” on our meeting in VR. It was no doubt planned, but the remarkably good spatial audio and the sudden appearance of this new person in my virtual world had all the markings of real-world spontaneity. I heard myself saying “nice to see you” to an avatar of another human, and meaning it.

Cheers,

Tristan Rayner, Senior Editor

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