New Apple AirPods Studio headphones: should Bose and Sony be quaking in their boots?

Apple may have left it too late to conquer the over-ear noise cancelling headphones market

Apple over ear noise-cancelling headphones (not pictured)

Apple over ear headphones have been rumoured for literally years now and here they are again, this time with a name: Apple AirPods Studio. Unlike the Apple television, big headphones have never seemed like an unlikely thing for the brand to do. In fact more people ask, 'why hasn't Apple made noise cancelling, over ear headphones yet?' rather than 'why would they?' The answer probably lies partly in boring stuff to do with manufacturing and shipping costs, but also with the fact that there are already formidable rivals in the noise cancelling headphones (over ear department). 

It's also worth noting that Apple's success with AirPods has driven true wireless to be the most lucrative and contested part of the headphones market. 

It's also also worth noting that Apple owns Beats by Dr Dre, and that launching a pair of over-ears would put it in direct competition with its own subsidiary. Especially if Apple called it AirPods Studio, as Studio is the name Beats uses for its flagship over-ear headphones. So let's assume it won't actually be called Apple AirPods Studio.

Anyway, however you look at it, the rumour of premium Apple headphones has never gone away and it's now resurfaced thanks to this leak of a sketchy-looking icon. 

AirPods Studio icon

(Image credit: 9to5Mac/Apple)

It's not the most conclusive evidence of Apple making over-ear headphones admittedly, but let's go with it.

Picture this, but over your ears

Apple AirPods have been a huge success, despite looking like their old buds with the wires sawn off

Contrary to popular belief, there were quite a few true wireless earbuds before the AirPods, but it's Apple's that have become omnipresent, and driven the current boom in that sector. 

A spokesperson from one headphones brand told me a few years ago that every other headphones brand felt obliged to have a pair on the market because Apple had entered the true wireless fray. Another more recently told me that true wireless now made up way more than 50% of the headphones market – in terms of both revenues and units sold – and Apple owned far more than 50% of that chunk. 

In other words, the over-ear market that most premium headphones brands relied on has had its foundations gnawed away by AirPods, and now they are obliged to fight over the scraps left in the true wireless market.

Premium, over-ear, wireless, active noise-cancelling (ANC) headphones were the biggest thing – often literally – in headphones in terms of the money to be made. No surprise there: they usually start at about $250/£250. 

If Apple could achieve similar dominance in the over ear noise cancelling headphones sector, the profits would be at least comparable to what they make from AirPods. They would not necessarily be greater than those profits, because the cost of manufacturing and shipping premium noise cancelling, over ear headphones is considerably higher than those for earbuds.  

Up to now premium over ears have been the preserve of Bose with the QuietComfort 35 and NC 700, and Sony with its WH-1000X series – including the best of breed WH-1000XM4. Bowers & Wilkins, AKG, Marshall and Beats by Dre have also made noise cancelling headphones that have done very well with critics (including T3) and the public.

Big as those brands are, however, none can really compare with Apple. It already has massive headphone market penetration (albeit solely with in-ear buds up to now) and its brand awareness and reserves of moolah are beyond compare. 

Nobody knows better than Apple how to design and market 'affordable premium' product – ie: quite expensive but not luxury – to a mass market. 

Consider this, too: Beats By Dre's Studio 3 Wireless is a great-sounding pair of Beats headphones with arguably the best ANC of anyone in that market, at least until the arrival of Sony's WH1000XM3. Its styling was very Beats though. With updated electronics from Apple, motion/accelerometer controls à la AirPods Pro, built-in Siri and a redesign as attention grabbing yet familiar as iPhone 12, and mega-success could be assured.

You might say, 'but why would Apple want to take market share from a brand it owns?' And I imagine they would say, 'it's a dual-brand strategy' – increasing overall market share, even if it's at the cost of one or both brands. Or maybe they just forgot about Dre. Who knows?

The only possible problem for Apple? This is not a small market that they can move into and immediately grow by releasing an improved/more chic version of what was already out there. That's their usual MO, but affordable premium ANC headphones is already a fairly mature market with multiple very high quality products on offer. 

Apple's stab at a Sonos killer with the HomePod was something less than a triumph. It sounds good and looks good, but it never quite seems to have taken off.

If Apple had leapt into this market a few years ago, it could have dominated it totally. Perhaps understandably it decided to go with true wireless and the AirPods instead. 

Even so, any brand that makes noise cancelling, over ear headphones must be feeling a bit twitchy right now. 

• That picture at the top is not a pair of Apple headphones, in case you were wondering. It's a generic shot courtesy of Getty Images.