After launching two new sets of AirPods in 2019, Apple came perilously close to finishing the year 2020 with none - but finally announced the AirPods Max on 8 December, ready for a 15 December launch. Talk about cutting it fine.
The AirPods Max look great, but those with budgets below £549/$549 will still want to know what's happening with the rest of the range. When are we getting an update to the basic AirPods? How long will Apple wait before releasing version 2.0 of the AirPods Pro? And are rumours of AirPods Pro Lite just that, or will they become a reality? Leaked components do indicate that there will be two sizes of AirPods Pro, so maybe, just maybe...
In this article, we take a look at how Apple is likely to evolve the AirPods line-up in 2021, and examine the release date, price, tech specs, design changes and new features of upcoming models.
When will the new AirPods launch?
The most specific prediction we've got says the new AirPods will launch on 16 March 2021. Certainly spring 2021 is looking very likely.
Back in May 2020 Nikkei Asian Review reported that the next set of standard AirPods would be postponed until 2021 as a result of the global health crisis. A paywalled DigiTimes report also claims new AirPods will appear in the first half of 2021.
Those are all fairly old reports, but in mid-October 2020 Jon Prosser backed up the theory and made it far more specific: he says we'll see the new AirPods on Tuesday 16 March 2021.
Okay, how about “One More Thing” ?— Jon Prosser (@jon_prosser) October 16, 2020
After this November ARM Mac event, the next Apple Event (currently a digital event) will happen on Tuesday, March 16, 2021 🗓
Event headliner will be AirPods Studio (B515) https://t.co/UxqQr6je1c pic.twitter.com/oCxVhg3owb
Eagle-eyed readers, however, will have noticed that Prosser reckoned the headliner of this March event would be the AirPods Studio (the over-ear headphones which we now know are actually called AirPods Max). And they came out in December.
If he got that wrong, is the whole thing wrong? Perhaps.
But the theory still makes sense for multiple reasons. March is, quite simply, the next slot: Apple likes to announce things in June, in the autumn, and in the spring, and it's unlikely to drop anything major between now and then. On the other hand, it's frankly weird that we didn't get an update to either of the existing AirPods lines in the whole of 2020 - these are seriously popular products - and we can't see Apple holding out until June.
South Korean technology site The Elec's sources haven't got an exact date, but they suggest the first half of 2021 - so that could be March, or a least by June. Read about that report here: New Apple AirPods coming in the first half of 2021.
So maybe we should take the exact date with a pinch of salt. But March remains a good bet.
When did the old AirPods launch?
If you're curious to know when the current and previous AirPods launched, here's the release schedule so far:
- December 2016: AirPods (2016)
- March 2019: AirPods (early-2019, aka 'AirPods 2')
- October 2019: AirPods Pro
- December 2020: AirPods Max
It's tough to draw too many conclusions from that release schedule - a big gap and then a flurry of releases; the sample size is too small to extrapolate a trend - but we definitely expect Apple to keep the AirPods and AirPods Pro as two separate lines.
How much will the new AirPods cost?
AirPods pricing has been a little controversial, although this may not have been entirely fair. The basic AirPods are actually pretty reasonable by the standards of True Wireless earbuds, and the Pro models are of sufficiently good quality to justify their price.
Here's the pricing for the current range:
- AirPods with charging case: £159 / US$159 / AU$249
- AirPods with wireless case: £199 / US$199 / AU$319
- AirPods Pro: £249 / US$249 / AU$399
- AirPods Max: £549 / US$549 / AU$899
That cheapest option could disappear the next time Apple updates its range, with the wireless-charging AirPods seeing a price drop. We anticipate something like this:
- AirPods with charging case: dropped from sale
- AirPods with wireless case: £159 / US$159 / AU$249
- AirPods Pro Lite: £199 / US$199 / AU$319
- AirPods Max: £549 / US$549 / AU$899
New AirPods design
The question here is whether Apple will take the plunge and significantly change the design of the AirPods. Again, the design depends on what AirPod variant we are discussing.
There is speculation that the new AirPods 3 will combine the design of the AirPods Pro model (that launched in October 2019) with the AirPods 2 design (from March 2019).
This is likely to mean that the 'stems' of the AirPods 3 will be shorter than those of the current AirPod models, as per the Pro version. Here's what that could look like, based on leaked photos from the Chinese site 52audio:
The site also posted this X-ray image, which gives an idea of what Apple plans to squeeze into that case:
This theory is echoed by Apple analyst Ming Chi Kuo who said back in June that he expects the next-gen AirPods to share elements of their design with the AirPods Pro, but not the active noise cancellation.
Alternatively it could mean that we get new silicone earpieces, but we think the latter is unlikely. The silicone earpieces complement the noise suppression feature of the Pro models and that's unlikely to be duplicated on the cheaper models.
Black AirPods (or other new colour finish)
It's feasible that we could see a new colour option when the next set of AirPods is launched. It would be unusual for Apple to get this far into a product line without offering at least two colours. The AirPod Max, indeed, get five: Space Grey, Silver, Pink, Green and Sky Blue.
Space Grey or black is probably the most likely, but green, blue and pink are all feasible. But again, this will only happen if the next version of the AirPods Pro come out first, or if they come out at the same time as the updated version of the standard model.
Our reasoning here is that it would be strange and slightly annoying for Pro owners if they were missing out on something that was offered with the standard model.
As for the AirPods Pro, they've had their updated design for only one generation and it's therefore unlikely that this will see a major change anytime soon.
We're big fans of this design, incidentally, although we have a few reservations about the charging case: it's harder to get the Pros out than was the case with the previous models, and the hinge feels less robust. (The hinge sits along the longer edge because the Pro models are shorter and wider than before.) Perhaps Apple could tweak the case design in lieu of major changes to the earbuds themselves.
It's also said that the new AirPods Pro will come in two sizes. This claim is based on leaked components, via a tweet by Mr White:
New AirPods Pro Mabey Two Sizes Still W2 Chips 🤨 pic.twitter.com/R5MpzUrUlg— Mr·white (@laobaiTD) December 29, 2020
He refers to the image as W-chips, but it's actually the H-chips that feature in the AirPods. The components that feature in the leaked images come in two different sizes, suggesting that Apple may have two sizes of the next generation AirPods Pro in the works. Read more here: AirPods Pro 2 could come in two sizes
New AirPods features
Let's split this into two sections: the features we expect to drop down from the Pro range to the basic AirPods, and the entirely new (or at least new to Apple) features we expect to appear in the Pro range.
One new feature we are hearing about is the ability for two sets of AirPods to link up so that you can chat with your friend across a noisy room. For more information, read AirPods could gain walkie-talkie chat feature.
The Pros have only been available since October 2019; it would be a surprise for Apple to allow many of their exclusive features to appear on the baseline AirPods only a year later, which is when we expect the next launch. Active noise cancellation (ANC), for example, is virtually the Pros' signature feature, and the chances of that appearing on standard AirPods is almost non-existent - aside from the fact that it would require a redesign that we don't expect either. The same applies to the Transparency mode, which comes hand in hand with ANC.
Improved water resistance, however, could be ready for the mainstream. The Pros are rated IPX4, which Apple glosses as "water- and sweat-resistant, but not waterproof or sweatproof"; the early-2019 AirPods are not claimed to be water-resistant at all. That could see an improvement in 2020.
In addition the usually well-informed analyst Ming-Chi Kuo believes that the third-generation AirPods will use the same charging case as the AirPods Pro.
Kuo suggests that Apple intends to abandon the older case design in favour of the one used in the Pro model. The two cases are similar in appearance but the Pro case opens along the long side instead of the short one.
What entirely new features could Apple contemplate for the Pros? Well, while we're still on the subject of water resistance, that IPX4 rating leaves a fair bit of room for improvement.
The RHA TrueConnect and Creative Outlier Air headphones, which are the top two choices in our roundup of the best wireless earbuds, are both rated IPX5; the JBL UA True Wireless Flash buds are rated as a 'stormproof' IPX7.
Optical heart rate sensors have always struck us as unnecessary and uncomfortable, but some sporty users swear by them and they are offered by some rival earbuds. This is a long shot but not beyond the realms of possibility - especially if Apple can deliver them in a sleek package.
Like the AirPods Studio, the AirPods Pro could be in line for gesture-based controls. Apple has applied for a patent called Wearable Voice-Induced Vibration or Silent Gesture Sensor, which describes the use of a sensor to scan the user's face and detect minute changes in expression, and the muscular movements associated with speech even if not spoken out loud. This could be used to trigger commands, or as a biometric identification tool for improved security.
WWDC 2020 new AirPods features
One titbit that Apple did confirm at WWDC back in June is the introduction of new features coming to existing AirPods (and Beats) products in the coming weeks and months.
Automatic source switching
Currently, you have to manually select which device you want your AirPods to connect to. In a forthcoming firmware update AirPods Pro, second-gen AirPods, Powerbeats, Powerbeats Pro and Beats Solo Pro will be able to dynamically switch between device audio sources, based on which one you're using at a given moment, provided you're signed into your iCloud account on said device.
A forthcoming feature currently slated as an AirPods Pro exclusive, spatial audio brings 3D virtual surround-sound to the listening experience. Using the earbuds' gyroscopes and accelerometers, the wearer will be able to turn their head while the sources of sounds remain in place.
Better yet - when watching on supported iPads, the position of both the tablet and the AirPods Pro are taken into account to ensure the sources of sounds remain accurately positioned.
The technology supports 5.1, 7.1 and Dolby Atmos-mixed audio sources.
And on that note, it's time to wrap up: that's all the AirPods rumours fit to print.
Finally, for more information about what Apple's likely to release in the next 12 months, have a read of our guide to the new Apple products coming in 2021.