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This is not a review of Apple’s new AirPod Max headphones

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I’ve had Apple’s AirPod Max headphones for less than 24 hours, so there is no way I would attempt to write a review of any sort. But I do have some of those oh so popular these days “first impressions” to share. Mostly on build quality, but I’ll throw a few first listen thoughts at you too.

These are thoughts that I have now that may change or get reinforced as I continue to evaluate them over the next week or so. So consider the below a sort of draft review that I’m publishing my early notes on. A ‘proto review’.

First, they’re gorgeous. The earcups are beautiful. The band is incredibly sturdy. The netting feels like a high-end piece of furniture. The stems are very well done, with a precision pull out mechanism that acts like a precision milled car piston. 

The netting, the ear pads, the clever (though now somewhat common) magnetic centering and clasp. The tuck and roll of the earcup covers providing an invisible seam as they attach to the body. The single piece of aluminum each of the ear cups is made of. How high quality is the build here? Like, this shouldn’t ship for $550 high. Judging from materials execution alone, the AirPod Max feels like it should be more expensive if anything. 

There is a tradeoff here that I feel I must mention even in this early review, though: These things are heavy. If you do not like heavy headphones, do not buy the AirPod Max. They are intense, definitely demand being listened to while sitting essentially straight up or leaning back (if you’re actively walking around the house picking up kid’s clothes and toys from the floor, for instance, they tend to want to shift forward from their own weight). These clock in at 386g — over 100g heavier than a pair of Beats over ears. If you have very high end headphones, you may be expecting this kind of weight, most people I think will not be. More on this as I keep using them and trying out adjustments.

There is also a distinct dearth of articulation present here. The piston-style extruding earcups are clever and have wow factor, but there is a limited spring back style articulation of the cup itself which means no folding them inward on themselves like the Bose QCII or Sony MX headphones are capable of. Hence that case I guess.

The controls are fine so far, the crown feels almost exactly like an Apple Watch crown, with maybe slightly more tension. The Siri functions work totally fine, either with a long press of the crown or a ‘Hey Siri’. The earcups have precision detection of position so you can pause by simply lifting one cup.

Taking the headphones off and setting them down turns them off, there is no power button. This feels super natural and nicely Apple-ey. Just put them on to use and take them off to stop.

They charge from any power brick though none is included. Apple says that you’ll get 1.5 hours for 5 minutes of charging but there is no overall fast charge. It’s basically two hours with any USB brick no matter the wattage.

The lack of an included 3.5mm cable means that you have to add $35 to the price to get to a place where you’re comparing these with a Bose or Sony option for seat-back systems on planes and general capability. Speaking of travel…

The lack of real folding options on these, the material in the netting and the pretty definitive ‘one way’ these are meant to articulate means that I do not see these being a regular travel companion for me, on initial pass. Oh, and the case is just as ridiculous as it looks. Sorry. The construction here is just as dodgy as the MagSafe Duo. It feels cheap, and like it will dirty easily, not exactly what you want from a ‘travel case’. And it looks like a butt.

The sound is impressive. Don’t worry about this being in the Beats region of a bass-heavy crowd pleaser. Though there is plenty of low end, this is a more nuanced affair, with crisp delivery across the spectrum. I’ve watched movies, listened to music and had phone conversations, all sounded great. The spatial audio feature, for one, is greatly improved by the larger drivers and enclosed environment. Audio panning and positioning from Atmos content is very cleverly done and if you’re watching from an iOS device it really does feel like you’re in a large sound environment with a strong center positioning at the screen. They feel like you’re listening in a room with no headphones on at all, it is really beyond impressive.

Ok, that’s it for now, more as I continue to check them out. Shortly: super high quality, very heavy, sound solid so far.

For those of you interested, I will test latency with a corded setup but I haven’t been able to yet.

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Hard-coded key vulnerability in Logix PLCs has severity score of 10 out of 10

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Hard-coded key vulnerability in Logix PLCs has severity score of 10 out of 10

Enlarge (credit: Rockwell Automation)

Hardware that is widely used to control equipment in factories and other industrial settings can be remotely commandeered by exploiting a newly disclosed vulnerability that has a severity score of 10 out of 10.

The vulnerability is found in programmable logic controllers from Rockwell Automation that are marketed under the Logix brand. These devices, which range from the size of a small toaster to a large bread box or even bigger, help control equipment and processes on assembly lines and in other manufacturing environments. Engineers program the PLCs using Rockwell software called Studio 5000 Logix Designer.

On Thursday, the US Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Administration warned of a critical vulnerability that could allow hackers to remotely connect to Logix controllers and from there alter their configuration or application code. The vulnerability requires a low skill level to be exploited, CISA said.

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EC roundup: BNPL startups, growth marketing tips, solid state battery market map, more

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When I needed a new sofa several months ago, I was pleased to find a buy now, pay later (BNPL) option during the checkout process. I had prepared myself to make a major financial outlay, but the service fees were well worth the convenience of deferring the entire payment.

Coincidentally, I was siting on said sofa this morning and considering that transaction when Alex Wilhelm submitted a column that compared recent earnings for three BNPL providers: Afterpay, Affirm and Klarna.

I asked him why he decided to dig into the sector with such gusto.


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“What struck me about the concept was that we had just seen earnings from Affirm,” he said. “So we had three BNPL players with known earnings, and I had just covered a startup funding round in the space.”

“Toss in some obvious audience interest, and it was an easy choice to write the piece. Now the question is whether I did a good job and people find value in it.”

Thanks very much for reading Extra Crunch this week! Have a great weekend.

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
@yourprotagonist

As BNPL startups raise, a look at Klarna, Affirm and Afterpay earnings

Pilot CEO Waseem Daher tears down his company’s $60M Series C pitch deck

Smashing brick work with hammer

Image Credits: Colin Hawkins (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

I avoid running Extra Crunch stories that focus on best practices; you can find those anywhere. Instead, we look for “here’s what worked for me” articles that give readers actionable insights.

That’s a much better use of your time and ours.

With that ethos in mind, Lucas Matney interviewed Pilot CEO Waseem Daher to deconstruct the pitch deck that helped his company land a $60M Series C round.

“If the Series A was about, ‘Do you have the right ingredients to make this work?’ then the Series B is about, ‘Is this actually working?’” Daher tells TechCrunch.

“And then the Series C is more, ‘Well, show me that the core business is really working and that you have unlocked real drivers to allow the business to continue growing.’”

Can solid state batteries power up for the next generation of EVs?

market-maps-battery-alt

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

A global survey of automobile owners found three hurdles to overcome before consumers will widely embrace electric vehicles:

  • 30-minute charging time
  • 300-mile range
  • $36,000 maximum cost

“Theoretically, solid state batteries (SSB) could deliver all three,” but for now, lithium-ion batteries are the go-to for most EVs (along with laptops and phones).

In our latest market map, we’ve plotted the new and established players in the SSB sector and listed many of the investors who are backing them.

Although SSBs are years away from mass production, “we are on the cusp of some pretty incredible discoveries using major improvements in computational science and machine learning algorithms to accelerate that process,” says SSB startup founder Amy Prieto.

 

Dear Sophie: Which immigration options are the fastest?

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Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Dear Sophie:

Help! Our startup needs to hire 50 engineers in artificial intelligence and related fields ASAP. Which visa and green card options are the quickest to get for top immigrant engineers?

And will Biden’s new immigration bill help us?

— Mesmerized in Menlo Park

 

Why F5 spent $2.2B on 3 companies to focus on cloud native applications

Dark servers data center room with computers and storage systems

Image Credits: Jasmin Merdan / Getty Images

Founded in 1996, F5 has repositioned itself in the networking market several times in its history. In the last two years, however, it spent $2.2 billion to acquire Shape Security, Volterra and NGINX.

“As large organizations age, they often need to pivot to stay relevant, and I wanted to explore one of these transformational shifts,” said enterprise reporter Ron Miller.

“I spoke to the CEO of F5 to find out the strategy behind his company’s pivot and how he leveraged three acquisitions to push his organization in a new direction.”

 

DigitalOcean’s IPO filing shows a two-class cloud market

Cloud online storage technology concept. Big data data information exchange available. Magnifying glass with analytics data

Image Credits: Who_I_am (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Cloud hosting company DigitalOcean filed to go public this week, so Ron Miller and Alex Wilhelm unpacked its financials.

“AWS and Microsoft Azure will not be losing too much sleep worrying about DigitalOcean, but it is not trying to compete head-on with them across the full spectrum of cloud infrastructure services,” said John Dinsdale, chief analyst and research director at Synergy Research.

 

Oscar Health’s initial IPO price is so high, it makes me want to swear

I asked Alex Wilhelm to dial back the profanity he used to describe Oscar Health’s proposed valuation, but perhaps I was too conservative.

In March 2018, the insurtech unicorn was valued at around $3.2 billion. Today, with the company aiming to debut at $32 to $34 per share, its fully diluted valuation is closer to $7.7 billion.

“The clear takeaway from the first Oscar Health IPO pricing interval is that public investors have lost their minds,” says Alex.

His advice for companies considering an IPO? “Go public now.”

 

If Coinbase is worth $100 billion, what’s a fair valuation for Stripe?

Last week, Alex wrote about how cryptocurrency trading platform Coinbase was being valued at $77 billion in the private markets.

As of Monday, “it’s now $100 billion, per Axios’ reporting.”

He reviewed Coinbase’s performance from 2019 through the end of Q3 2020 “to decide whether Coinbase at $100 billion makes no sense, a little sense or perfect sense.”

 

Winning enterprise sales teams know how to persuade the Chief Objection Officer

woman hand stop sign on brick wall background

Image Credits: Alla Aramyan (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

A skilled software sales team devotes a lot of resources to pinpointing potential customers.

Poring through LinkedIn and reviewing past speaker lists at industry conferences are good places to find decision-makers, for example.

Despite this detective work, GGV Capital investor Oren Yunger says sales teams still need to identify the deal-blockers who can spike a deal with a single email.

“I call this person the Chief Objection Officer.

 

3 strategies for elevating brand authority in 2021

Young woman standing on top of tall green bar graph against white background

Image Credits: Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images

Every startup wants to raise its profile, but for many early-stage companies, marketing budgets are too small to make a meaningful difference.

Providing real value through content is an excellent way to build authority in the short and long term,” says Amanda Milligan, marketing director at growth agency Fractl.

 

RIBS: The messaging framework for every company and product

Grilled pork ribs with barbecue sauce on wooden background

Image Credits: luchezar (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

The most effective marketing uses good storytelling, not persuasion.

According to Caryn Marooney, general partner at Coatue Management, every compelling story is relevant, inevitable, believable and simple.

“Behind most successful companies is a story that checks every one of those boxes,” says Marooney, but “this is a central challenge for every startup.”

 

Ironclad’s Jason Boehmig: The objective of pricing is to become less wrong over time

On a recent episode of Extra Crunch Live, Ironclad founder and CEO Jason Boehmig and Accel partner Steve Loughlin discussed the pitch that brought them together almost four years ago.

Since that $8 million Series A, Loughlin joined Ironclad’s board. “Both agree that the work they put in up front had paid off” when it comes to how well they work together, says Jordan Crook.

“We’ve always been up front about the fact that we consider the board a part of the company,” said Boehmig.


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At TC Early Stage, we’ll cover topics like recruiting, sales, legal, PR, marketing and brand building. Each session includes ample time for audience questions and discussion.

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With $62.5M in debt financing, Road Runner Media puts digital ads behind commercial vehicles

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If Southern California-based Road Runner Media succeeds, you’ll start seeing a lot more ads while you’re driving.

That’s because the startup is placing digital screens on the back of technicians’ vans, delivery vehicles, buses and other commercial vehicles. Those screens can show both ads and serve as a brake light — according to founder and chairman Randall Lanham, the brake light functionality is required if you’re putting a sign on the back of a vehicle.

“The way we look at it, we are a digital brake light,” Lanham said. Yes, the brake light is showing ads, but “the driver touching the brakes interrupts the ad.” (The sign can also indicate turns, reversing and emergency flashers. You can see a mock-up ad in the image above, and real footage in the video below.)

To pursue this idea, Lanham (who described himself as a “recovering attorney”) enlisted Chris Riley as CEO — Riley’s experience includes several years as CEO of PepsiCo Australia and New Zealand. And the company announced this week that it has secured $62.5 million in debt financing from Baseline Growth Capital.

The idea of putting ads on moving vehicles isn’t new. There are, of course, ads on the tops of taxis, and startups like Firefly are also putting digital signage on top of Ubers and Lyfts. But Riley said Road Runner’s ruggedized, high-resolution LCD screens are very different, due to their size, quality and placement.

“[Taxi-top ads] don’t have the color, the brilliance, the clarity,” he said. “We can run a true video ad on the screen.”

Riley also said the ads can be targeted based on GPS and time of day, and that the company eventually plans to add sensors to collect data on who’s actually seeing the ads.

As for concerns that these big, bright screens might distract drivers, Lanham argued they’re actually attracting driver’s eyes to exactly where they should be, and creating a brake light that’s much harder to ignore.

“Your eyes are affixed on the horizon, which is what the [Department of Transportation] wants — as opposed to on the floor or the radio or directly off to the left or right,” he said. “That’s where your safest driving occurs, when your eyes are up above the dashboard.”

In fact, Lanham said he’s “very passionate” about the company’s mission, which in his view will make roads safer, and is creating a platform that could also be used to spread public service messages.

“We have the ability to retrofit any vehicle and make it safer on the highways,” he added. “I really, truly believe that we will save lives, if we already haven’t.”

The company says it already has 150 screens live in Atlanta, Boulder, Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles, with plans to launch screens in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. in March.

 

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