After launching two new sets of AirPods in 2019, Apple came perilously close to finishing the calendar year 2020 with none - but finally announced the AirPods Max on 8 December, ready for a 15 December launch. Talk about cutting it fine.
Still, that leaves the basic AirPods (last refreshed in March 2019) likely to go two and a half years between updates, while the AirPods Pro (from October 2019) could be even longer by the time Apple gets round to it. This is bizarre behaviour for some of the company's most successful ever products.
With the AirPods and AirPods Pro looking old and somewhat inadequate compared to newer rivals, it's high time for Apple to update them. But how long will we have to wait until Apple releases the AirPods 3 and the AirPods Pro 2? And will the rumoured AirPods Pro Lite ever become a reality?
In this article, we take a look at how Apple will evolve the AirPods line-up in 2021 and 2022, and examine the release date, price, tech specs, design changes and new features of upcoming models.
Which AirPods will launch next?
Apple makes three types of AirPods. There's the AirPods (available with or without a wireless charging case), the AirPods Pro and the AirPods Max.
The next AirPods to be updated are the basic AirPods. They are likely to become colloquially known as the AirPods 3, or third-gen AirPods, and should be with us before the end of 2021. The second-gen AirPods Pro (or AirPods Pro 2) will probably arrive midway through 2022.
The AirPods Max are the newest and most expensive AirPods, and the least in need of an update. They may get a refresh towards the end of 2022, but don't bank on it.
AirPods 3 release date
Following disappointment at WWDC 2021 in June, the summer months have seen increasing evidence for an autumn AirPods launch.
Bloomberg's Mark Gurman predicted in the subscriber edition of the 1 August Power On newsletter that we should: "Look for Apple to debut its new low-end AirPods this fall, around the same time as the next iPhones." Read: AirPods 3 to launch with new iPhone.
In late June, DigiTimes reported that at least seven of Apple's suppliers had begun the preliminary stages of production. And in July, Nikkei Asia reported that full production would begin in August, ahead of a September or October launch.
This aligns with previous information from analyst Ming-Chi Kuo that we can expect the third-generation AirPods to launch this autumn.
AirPods Pro 2 release date
It looks like we've got a longer wait for the next version of the AirPods Pro, which most sources don't expect to drop until well into 2022.
In a May 2021 Bloomberg report, Mark Gurman suggests that the second-generation AirPods Pro will not launch until 2022. Ming-Chi Kuo concurred with this prediction in an investor note released in June.
Why are the new AirPods Pro delayed until 2022? We don't know the answer to that question, although a lot of products are being delayed at the moment due to global component shortages and COVID-related restrictions.
AirPods Max 2 release date
The AirPods Max are by far the most recently launched of Apple's AirPods range, which means they're the least overdue for an update. (The fact that they cost so much also means customers are unlikely to be willing to update as often as they would for cheaper earbuds.)
We wouldn't expect new AirPods Max until near the end of 2022, and quite possibly well beyond that. Remember that they were released in December 2020, and that the other AirPods have gone well over two years between updates.
However, there may be other announcements related to the AirPods Max before the next version comes out.
With the arrival of Hi-Res audio for Apple Music subscribers, for example, it seems likely that the AirPods Max (and AirPods Pro) will get an update to support Hi-Fi audio - it could be a software update rather than a hardware update. We may also see new colours for the AirPods Max - a Bloomberg report indicates that Apple is considering offering additional colour choices.
New AirPods price: 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 (aka AirPods 3)
- AirPods Pro: £249 / US$249 / AU$399 (aka AirPods Pro 2)
- AirPods Max: £549 / US$549 / AU$899
New AirPods design: What will the new AirPods look like?
The question here is whether Apple will take the plunge and significantly change the design of the AirPods: the evidence is mounting that it will.
Again, we'll need to discuss the various AirPods models separately.
There's been a lot of speculation that the new AirPods 3 will take their design cues from the AirPods Pro.
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:
This theory is echoed by Apple analyst Ming Chi Kuo who said back in June 2020 that he expects the next-gen AirPods to share elements of their design with the AirPods Pro, but not the active noise cancellation.
And Bloomberg's Mark Gurman also believes that the new AirPods will have shorter stems, as per his May 2021 report mentioned above.
The site Gizmochina has also posted renders of the new AirPods design, which it says come from suppliers:
We may also get new silicone ear tips, as on the AirPods Pro. The silicone earpieces complement the active noise cancellation feature of the Pro models, which is unlikely to be duplicated on the cheaper models, but silicone tips would still achieve better passive isolation.
You can see what this would look like in this image leaked by the site 52audio:
Chinese site 52audio also posted this X-ray image, which gives an idea of what Apple plans to squeeze into the new case:
AirPods Pro 2
As for the AirPods Pro, they've had their updated design for only one generation so you might assume that they won't see a major change anytime soon. However, Bloomberg's Mark Gurman believes that the new AirPods Pro will have no stems!
He said in a May 2021 report that the new AirPods Pro may not feature shafts, following a similar design to the Beats Studio Buds, which are set to launch in June.
It would make sense for the AirPods Pro 2 to gain a new design if the rumours are true that the AirPods 3 will look more like the AirPods Pro.
We're actually big fans of the current design though, 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 (if not for the AirPods Pro then for the AirPods if they are to adopt this design).
It's also been claimed that the new AirPods Pro will come in two sizes for the first time. This prediction is based on leaked components, and was made 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 so we assume that's a mistake. 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 on this story here: AirPods Pro 2 could come in two sizes.
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.
Speaking of new colours, according to Bloomberg's Mark Gurman, Apple may launch new colour versions of the AirPods Max.
New AirPods features
We're going to split this into three sections: the completely new hardware features coming in the next AirPods Pro; the new hardware features in the next version of the basic AirPods (most of which are likely to have first appeared in the Pro range); and the new features coming to existing AirPod earbuds via software updates.
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 sport-loving 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.
It would be a surprise for Apple to allow a lot of the AirPods Pro exclusive features to appear on the baseline AirPods, especially if (as expected) the new version of the basic AirPods comes out before the new AirPods Pro. It will difficult to sell the Pros if most of their features are available on a cheaper device.
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.
But we do think Apple will allow a few of the Pro features to diffuse to the standard AirPods. Improved water resistance, for example, 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.
An Amazon listing for what appears to be the third-gen AirPods seems to feature a speaker cutout close to the Lightning port. The existing charging case doesn't sport a speaker, suggesting Apple could be implementing one as a way to help locate a lost charging case with a chime in a similar way to lost iPhones, Apple Watches and AirTags.
New features via software updates
Like the iPhone, the AirPods sometimes get new features via free software updates, rather than a costly hardware upgrade. (You can now beta-test these new features ahead of launch, although the process at the moment is rather difficult and risky, and we wouldn't recommend it.)
While we didn't get new AirPods at WWDC, for example, Apple did reveal that the current line-up was gaining new features such as Conversation Boost, a feature designed to reduce ambient noise on calls for the AirPods, AirPods Pro, and AirPods Max.
iOS 15 will also allow AirPods to announce notifications with Siri, so you don't have to look at the text on your phone screen to know what your notification is.
For those conscious about security, the Find My app will become integrated with AirPods Pro and AirPods Max, meaning that the headphones will create a chirping sound if you're in close proximity through using Bluetooth. You can also see how close you are to the location using Proximity View. In addition, the Separation Alert will alert you if you leave your AirPods behind.
Another new feature we're 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.
Lastly, with Apple announcing its plans to start streaming all the music on Apple Music in lossless high-res audio, there are calls for Apple to update the AirPods so that they can actually support this audio standard. Yes: Apple's AirPods cannot play lossless audio! Not even the AirPods Max can take advantage of the new high-quality audio on Apple Music. Read more here: AirPods Max, HomePod don't support Apple Music's Lossless Audio.
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.
Main image supplied by 52audio.