The end of 2020 is in sight - which is a relief to many - and we've gone an entire year without a new set of AirPods. After getting two of them in 2019, it's been something of a disappointment.
But we're fairly sure that barren run is going to end soon. In fact Apple's current range - the basic AirPods, the AirPods with wireless charging, and the AirPods Pro - looks like expanding still further with the arrival of AirPods Studio over-ear headphones and maybe even a set of AirPods Lite.
In this article, we take a look at how Apple is likely to evolve the AirPods line-up, and whether there will be a replacement for the base offering or if the company will discontinue them and reduce the price of the wireless-charging models. We cover the release date, price, tech specs, design changes and new features of upcoming models.
When will the new AirPods launch?
We expect new AirPods to come out in spring 2021 - very likely March.
We should point out now, as we wrote above, that more than one new set of AirPods is expected, and it's likely that they will launch at separate times. The AirPods Studio, for example, were understood to be in production earlier this year and should be nearly ready to go.
But that 'nearly' is doing a lot of work, because the current consensus is that all of the new AirPods will have to wait until 2021.
The highly respected analyst Ming-Chi Kuo said back in July that there wouldn't be any new AirPods this year, and as early as May Nikkei Asian Review reported that the next set of standard AirPods might have to 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 Jon Prosser backed up the theory and made it more specific: he says we won't see the new AirPods until 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
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
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
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 Studio: £399 / $399 / AU$649
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.
Twitter user Fudge released a short video showing a version of the product with white covers.
Watermark-less white.— Fudge (@choco_bit) September 16, 2020
I did say they looked a bit worse IMO pic.twitter.com/AiYNMyfktR
The headphones are described as follows: a HomePod-style mesh material on the headband and ear cushions; covers in anodised aluminium (available in various colours); and a steel frame holding the headphones together. There's a Lightning connector on the underside of one cover but no 3.5mm audio jack. A version in leather is also expected.
An adjustment to the design is not the only change potentially coming to the AirPods. In 2019, there were rumours that Apple would launch a black set of AirPods, so it's feasible that we could see a new colour option.
It would be nice to get a second colour option, for one thing (we feel Space Grey is most likely, with Product Red a strong second choice), although again this will only happen if Apple does the standard and Pro AirPods at the same time and can, therefore, offer this for both. It would be strange and slightly annoying for Pro owners if they were missing out on something that was offered with the bog-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.
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. Read: AirPods could gain walkie-talkie chat feature
According to leaker L0vetodream, the AirPods Studio will feature the U1 chip, which first appeared in the iPhone 11 Pro. The U1 is currently used for better positioning of devices during AirDrop data exchange, but the chip could also determine how the user has put the ear cups on and then use this information to send the left stereo channel into the left ear and the right channel into the right.
The U1 chip may also be useful for finding lost AirPods using Apple's Find My app.
It could also be used to correctly determine the position of the headphones on the head and make gesture control more precise.
An Apple patent published in July but granted back in February 2020, describes the use of gesture controls as a way of handling media playback such as play, pause and volume up and down. A swipe down towards the ground could lower the volume, while a swipe "forward" could jump to the next song, for example.
These gesture controls could be adapted to the way the owner wears the headphones. So if the headphones were worn further back on the head they would be smart enough to recognise a swipe down, even though it's now at a different angle to the device.
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.
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.