Apple announced a new set of AirPods at its Unleashed event tonight. It's been years since the last update (the AirPods 2 came out in March 2019!), and Apple's earbuds were looking increasingly unappealing compared to newer rivals. But by partially bridging the gap to the AirPods Pro these might just be worth the wait.
The new earbuds, which the company is referring to as "third-gen AirPods" rather than AirPods 3 or any other new branding, get an all-new design and a range of new features. The price is higher too, but you've still got the option of buying the previous models - which drop in price to celebrate the new launch.
Here's everything you need to know about the new AirPods for 2021.
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New AirPods design
As expected, the standard AirPods for 2021 adopt many of the design conventions of the more expensive AirPods Pro, including their shorter stems and horizontally aligned charging case.
(This bridging of the gap between standard and Pro, which applies to the feature set as well as the design, may widen again when Apple launches the second-gen AirPods Pro. But that isn't expected until 2022.)
Apple says the contoured design of the new earbuds "delivers sound directly to your ears", which is surely the point of all headphone design. We'll put this to the test once we've got review samples.
There's a 'force sensor' for controlling playback, just as on the AirPods Pro, with one, two or three presses, or press and hold, triggering different actions. (The AirPods 2 are much less versatile, offering just double taps.)
But we don't get the Pros' detachable/replaceable silicone eartips, which were widely expected to make the journey down the range. That may impact on the effectiveness of noise isolation, which remains passive in any case - the AirPods do not get the Pros' flagship active noise cancellation feature.
Specs & features
The focal point for Apple's announcement in terms of features was support for Spatial Audio, which was previously available on the AirPods Pro but not the AirPods 2. They also offer Adaptive EQ.
In terms of specs, Apple says it's boosted battery life by an hour, which is now 6 hours for the earbuds alone (up from 5); add on the four additional charges made possible by the charging case and the company claims a total life of 30 hours (up from 24).
We're intrigued to note that the AirPods 3 also have a higher estimated battery life than the AirPods Pro. The Pros are expected to last a total 24 hours, like the AirPods 2, although Apple hedges this by saying "up to" for the AirPods 3's 30 hours and "more than" for the 24 hours claimed for the other two. Perhaps they're all a little closer than Apple would like us to think.
The new AirPods also offer speedy charging, although it isn't entirely clear how this improves on the previous model. You can put them - or the AirPods Pro - in the charging case for just five minutes and gain an hour of listening time; the figures quoted for the AirPods 2, by contrast, are 15 minutes and three hours, which feels morally the same, although perhaps we've missed the point.
(How much battery life would the AirPods 2 gain from 5 minutes of charging? We'll have to test that for ourselves.)
Incidentally - and in one of the few surprises of the announcement - the charging case is equipped with Apple's MagSafe magnetic standard, so it will lock on to the sweet spot of a wireless charging pad (assuming it's also MagSafe-compatible). On the company's comparison page Apple says this also applies to the AirPods Pro, but we assume this is a retrospective upgrade applying to the cases supplied with any AirPods Pro bought from now on; we've never managed to get the case that came with our Pros back in 2019 to attach to a MagSafe pad.
The new AirPods are both sweat- and water-resistant, Apple says, with an IPX4 rating for both the earbuds and the case. As our colleagues on Tech Advisor explain, that translates into protection against "water splashing against the enclosure from any direction". That's splashing, not immersion: don't take them swimming.
It's far from the highest rating for liquid resistance (the second digit can go as high as 8 on commercial products and occasionally even as high as 9), but it's an improvement on the second-gen AirPods, which did not have an IP rating at all. (That doesn't mean they were completely lacking in protection, merely that Apple didn't put them through the testing process.) And it brings the standard AirPods in line with the AirPods Pro, which are also IPX4... at least for now.
New AirPods price
The third-gen AirPods cost £169/$179, and sit alongside the second-gen AirPods, AirPods Pro and AirPods Max. Apple didn't discontinue any headphones tonight, even though the previous set of AirPods came out early in 2019. They get a small price cut, though.
Here's the new set of prices:
- 2nd-gen AirPods: £119/$129
- 3rd-gen AirPods: £169/$179
- AirPods Pro: £239/$249
- AirPods Max: £549/$549
And here's how that compares to the pricing before tonight's event. You'll notice that in the UK at least, both the AirPods 2 and the AirPods Pro get a cut, although the latter drops by just £10.
- AirPods (2nd gen), charging case: £159/$159
- AirPods (2nd gen), wireless case: £199/$199
- AirPods Pro: £249/$249
- AirPods Max: £549/$549
You can buy the new AirPods direct from Apple but there will soon be cheaper offers from other retailers. We'll compile these in our guide advising where to buy the AirPods 3, and in our roundup of the best AirPods deals.
Orders for the new AirPods begin today (18 October); during the event Apple would only say that they will become available next week, but the company has since clarified that shipping and onsale availability begin on Tuesday 26 October.