Apple's AirPods headphones - which dropped without a huge amount of interest in 2016 - hit some kind of inflection point round about 2018, and suddenly became the hot thing. (One member of the Macworld team puts this down to a wave of memes. The rest of us are too old to understand.) This was handily timed for the 2019 updates, as the second-gen and then Pro versions of the AirPods launched to a newly receptive public and sold like the proverbial hot cakes.

It's often the second version of a product that tells you if it's going to work or not, and it's now reasonably clear that the AirPods are going to be more iPad than AirPower. And successful products get sequels.

Where next, then, for the AirPods? In this article, we discuss one possibility, which is the AirPods Pro Lite, a slightly contradictory-sounding combination of luxury and value. Let's talk about what's likely to happen.

When will the AirPods Pro Lite come out?

We haven't got a firm date for the AirPods Pro Lite. The latest rumour said they would be released in 2020. But as Apple's November event came and went without featuring audio products, 2021 appears more likely.

The source of the 2020 rumour is Digitimes (subscription required), which on 12 February published a report, based on supply-chain sources, assessing likely Apple releases for the calendar year 2020; AirPods Pro Lite get a mention in there, alongside new versions of the Apple Watch, iMac and iPad. And mention is the word - the vast majority of the article deals with supply chain logistics and the impact of the COVID-19 virus.

"Apple, maintaining partnerships with supply chains in both Taiwan and China, may have its Taiwanese partners handle more production of new-generation iPad, Apple Watch, AirPod Pro Lite and iMac devices to be released later, as the epidemic has raised risks of raw materials supply shortages and shipments disruptions."

If that isn't underwhelming enough, it's important also to recognise that this is not an official brand designation: it's just a placeholder term the report writers are using to indicate that something is coming that will sit between the second-gen AirPods and the AirPods Pro.

What makes the AirPods Pro Lite different?

Again, we don't know for sure, and can only speculate. But it's reasonable to assume that at least some of the Pro upgrades will be missing, and the price will be lower to match.

The biggest upgrade from AirPods to AirPods Pro was the inclusion of active noise cancellation (ANC), and it would be a shame to lose that. We also got soft eartips in multiple sizes, and if you want to keep ANC you have to keep the eartips in order to ensure a good seal. Conversely, the eartips are in our view a bit of a faff, and we wouldn't want them if they weren't necessary for ANC.

What else is there? Improved audio quality and IPX4 water resistance, and a slightly stubbier design.

Weighing up the options, the most plausible midway point between AirPods and AirPods Pro is the newer shaft design and water resistance, but discarding the replaceable eartips and ANC. Whether Apple could deliver the improved audio quality without the tight fit is debatable.

But we could yet be surprised: Apple may produce a third distinct design for the Lite version. More probably, we're sorry to tell you, is that we will be disappointed, and that the devices which Digitimes refers to as the AirPods Pro Lite are actually just the third version of the vanilla AirPods, and that they will offer only incremental upgrades over the second-gen models.

How much will the AirPods Pro Lite cost?

At time of writing the AirPods cost £159/$159, or £199/$199 if you want the wireless charging case, while the AirPods Pro cost £249/$249. The AirPods Pro Lite will fall somewhere between; £229/$229 seems a reasonable bet.

For more information about what Apple will launch in 2021 read: New Apple products guide to what's coming out in 2021

Further reading

If you're keen to hear the latest rumours about Apple's 2020 plans, the best place to start is our big yearly roundup: New Apple products predictions 2020. But more specific thoughts on the Apple headphones we'll be getting this year can be found in New AirPods 2020 rumours, which looks at more conventional follow-ups to the 2019 releases, and StudioPods rumours, which analyses speculation that Apple is going to release a pair of over-ears outside its usual Beats branding.

Those interested in the current range should take a look at our roundup of the best AirPods deals for the latest bargains.