AirPods: How wireless earbuds became a status symbol

AirPods have been around since December of 2016, and while they were not an instant hit, their popularity has exploded. Every time I walk around campus I am guaranteed to run into someone with AirPods in and I only really started noticing a large user base during this school year. For $159 you receive wireless earbuds, a charging case, and respect from other people. Several memes have highlighted this “respect” phenomenon that comes with owning AirPods, many of which essentially state that if you own them, you are probably better and richer than anyone around you who does not. 

While these memes just seem like harmless jokes, I actually feel the pressure of needing to own AirPods because it feels like everyone around me has them. I have not made the switch yet, and for some reason every time I pull out my wired Apple headphones, I feel some sort of shame come over me. These earbuds were simply created to follow the technological progression of wireless devices, yet they turned into a symbol of wealth and trendiness, both of which are very much in line with Apple as a brand. I have never been an Android user, but I can imagine that Android owners must feel somewhat self-conscious in a world filled with iPhones. To this day, people still make jokes about not wanting to text other people without imessage, even though at the end of the day phone are just phones. People proudly flaunt their iPhone Xs, MacBooks, and Apple Watches, but AirPods take “tech flexing” to a whole new level. I think this is the case because AirPods are so visible and prominent when people wear them compared to other Apple products, and they are still not completely widespread. We do not really do a double take when we see iPhones because so many people own them already, but because AirPods have not entirely replaced every single headphone, we tend to notice them more. When you see someone wearing AirPods, you make the realization that they are essentially hanging $159 from their ears. As crazy as that sounds, these earbuds have created a visual cue for how much money someone has. 

At the end of the day, you are paying for pieces of plastic, a wireless experience, and positive acknowledgement from others. Compared to other wireless earbuds, AirPods are certainly not the best in terms of sound quality and battery life, as seen in the chart below. 

Many people have also complained that after an hour or so of using them, they tend to hurt their ears because there is no cushion on the part that goes into the ear. Several other competitors have emerged that are arguably better in terms of sound quality and battery life, such as the RHA TrueConnect True Wireless Earbuds, Jabra Elite 65t and Sport True Wireless Earbuds, and Sony WF-SP700N Noise-Cancelling Earbuds. 

As discussed in one of the Twitter posts, Samsung also came out with their own wireless earbuds called the Galaxy Buds. They are water resistant, utilize tap controls, and are iOS/Android compatible. For $20 cheaper, they also charge wirelessly, unlike AirPods. Due to the tighter seal that the Galaxy Buds have compared to AirPods, critics have noted that they have a much better sound quality because you hear less of your surroundings. 

Many reviews demonstrate that Galaxy Buds perform better than AirPods, but AirPods continue to blow them out of the water. Apple users are so loyal to the brand that even with a cheaper and better alternative, they will continue to buy AirPods over Galaxy Buds. Especially with rumors of a second version of AirPods releasing this year, the likelihood of people switching over to different brands will decline. Apple continues to dominate, even if they do not come out with the best products, because of the loyalty and prestige that comes with the brand. I would have never thought that earbuds would make me feel self-conscious, yet every time I walk through campus with wired headphones I feel judged. It is crazy to me that a brand can make other people feel shameful or embarrassed because they do not own the latest and greatest, yet Apple has done just that through several avenues. All of my major devices are Apple products, so I never really felt this disconnect from my peers, until now. This topic made me realize that people tend to prioritize reputation and appearance over quality when it comes to certain types of technological devices. This seems so backwards considering the price tag that we pay for these devices that we use heavily and daily. 

What do you guys think? Will the AirPods fad eventually die out and people will realize they should buy better alternatives, or will users continue to stay loyal to what they know and love? 

10 comments

  1. I find the explosion of AirPods so interesting, because it seems to me that people are choosing to spend the extra money to make the switch with absolutely no prior knowledge of the actual quality and/or functionality. It’s so crazy how far of an impact that ‘meme culture’ can have on consumer purchase intentions. Personally, I prefer my Bose wireless sport headphones for running, and my regular old Apple headphones for everything else. Long term, I think that the current version of the AirPods, or even a slightly cheaper, downgraded version of them will be what Apple includes with the purchase of a new phone. At that point the product will no longer carry the capacity to mark an individual as wealthy or command respect. So I guess in that way, I guess I would definitely consider this just a fad.

  2. As silly and absurd as this may sound, I totally agree that AirPods have become a status symbol. When they first came out, I remember being one of the many people on the Internet who claimed how ridiculous they looked, and how I would never spend $159 for them. But slowly but surely, its popularity and usage gained incredible momentum, and my perspective shifted immediately. They went from looking ridiculous to trendy, and the temptation to purchase them was REAL. After interning in New York City this past summer and seeing people with AirPods at every corner I turned, I caved and purchased them the following weekend. I don’t think they necessarily make me feel wealthy or superior, but rather in tune with relevant trends. The memes certainly play a huge role. It’s free advertisement for Apple! It’s funny though because as I was reading your blog about how Samsung came out with cheaper, higher-quality wireless earbuds, I still don’t think I would make the switch. The brand image between Samsung and Apple is so distinct. I’m definitely a loyal Apple user. Although I am aware that Apple doesn’t manufacture products with the highest quality, I think the reason why I keep going back is because of the compatibility and functionality among all Apple products. It’s just more convenient for me that way. But at the end of the day, a trend is a trend. It’s ephemeral and constantly evolving. I assume that once people discover the newest and best next thing, it’ll only be a matter of days before AirPods become “so yesterday.”

    1. I completely agree! I don’t think AirPods will die out because people will realize they should purchase the cheaper and better alternative regardless of AirPods’ social status, but just because Apple will come out with something new. I think I mentioned this in our Twitter discussion, but I learned in a Luxury Marketing class last semester that Apple has really mastered the idea of “affordable luxury.” $159 headphones are in no way cheap, but a lot of middle/upper-middle classers can technically afford them. And because they offer a little excursion into the world of “rich people” (who don’t think twice about purchasing AirPods), others will absolutely purchase them. It’s the same reason people buy a Louis Vuitton wallet or keychain if they can’t afford a big handbag — even just a taste feels better than being totally left out of that world. As AirPods continue to become more ever-present, they will eventually loose their air of superiority, and having them will just be about fitting in (remember when the iPhone itself was a status symbol??). Then, the next newest Apple product will become the thing that sets the “rich people” apart. It’s a constant cycle and Apple has it down cold.

  3. dilillomelissa · · Reply

    People are all about what is trending, especially when it comes to Apple. I am in the same boat as you as not biting the bullet quite yet with getting a pair. I do think, however, after graduation and I’m back in the work world, I’ll probably cave. I used my head phones way more when I was working than I do now and I assume I’ll go back to those ways. People who use Apple are going to keep using Apple most likely. I surely know that there are better products out there, but there is something about the recognition of Apple. I doubt I’d even do a comparison of competitors when it comes time for me to buy. I currently use my Beats wireless headphones because I got them for “free” when I purchased my MacBook Pro for Business School. I’m interested in seeing what others have to say on this topic!

  4. Loved reading about your thoughts on this! I was literally having a conversation earlier today with my parents trying to explain to them what made the AirPods so special and I was using those exact memes as an example of how they are a status symbol. I also don’t have the AirPods myself. The traditional Apple headphones have never fit right in my ears so I know the AirPods would end up being uncomfortable for me to wear as well, but even despite that I have still caught myself wanting a pair as I look around campus and feel like those of us who don’t have them are quickly becoming the minority. I want to say that these will just be a fad but the customer loyalty people feel to Apple is so strong that I’m sure that whatever comes along to replace it will be another Apple product. They have such an unbelievable hold on the market it continually amazes me.

  5. The memes surrounding airpods are everything to me. It’s like the whole internet collectively got together and decided to make these headphones the next fad. It’s interesting as you note that they did not come out this year or even last, yet it is only in recent months that they have really exploded as a trend. They’ve been out since 2016, but I don’t think I saw one person with them during 2017, and now you can’t walk around campus without seeing them. The BC Facebook pages are flooded with posts of people losing one of the pods somewhere on campus, and hoping someone has found them. It’s interesting that they became so desirable after being on the market for more than a year. I look around and realize that I am the only one in the elevator or in the library with headphones still with wires! I don’t think I will be buying them anytime soon, but I’m curious if airpods are here to stay?

  6. I honestly don’t understand this at all. People complain about how expensive they are, how uncomfortable they are, how they constantly fall out of your ears, and yet people still buy them. What’s the appeal? The sound quality isn’t great, they’re not waterproof, and they don’t charge wirelessly via the phone like Samsung’s. Personally, I’m a big fan of the style with the wire between them since that lets me hang them around my neck while I walk around. Maybe I’m just old, but no quantity of memes is going to get me to buy a product I don’t believe in.

    If anyone’s interested, these are what I use: https://www.amazon.com/SoundPEATS-Bluetooth-Headphones-Sweatproof-Earphones/dp/B074THH5Q2

    They’re under 30 bucks, the sound quality is more than decent, the passive noise cancellation is excellent, they have touch controls so I don’t need to take my phone out of my pocket to pause music, they come with a variety of tips/buds in different sizes so they’re super comfortable,and I love the built-in magnets.

  7. I think this speaks volumes about Apple’s brand. It’s similar to the research that shows that Samsung phones perform much better than iPhones, yet people continue to chose Apple despite better tech and prices. But much to your point, the memes 100% have an impact on the adoption of this trend – I actually tweeted about this very topic a few weeks ago, so it’s nice to see a more in depth analysis confirm and add to what I was thinking

  8. I love this sentence “For $159 you receive wireless earbuds, a charging case, and respect from other people” though I would argue people are looking for validation rather than respect.

    The trend of meme driven marketing is very interesting also. I’d argue that a significant majority of the success of both Juul and Fortnite also came from the Instagram and Twitter posts that not only created a significant amount of consumer awareness but also created some serious FOMO. I’d never heard of either before seeing the memes. It will be interesting to see if brands will start trying to create their own ‘meme marketing’ going forward, similar to the whole Egg thing that we heard about in the class presentations.

    Also as an aside I think Apple is such a compelling marketing phenomenon. The brand value that they have seems unprecedented, though I think the majority of their brand strength might be limited to the US.

  9. I thought part of the point of airpods was that you COULD hear background noise, so safer to keep them in when walking, etc.? I’m waiting for v2.

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