When it comes to true wireless earbuds, none are as instantly recognizable as Apple’s iconic AirPods and AirPods Pro. Apple didn’t invent this category of audio accessories, but there’s no question that the company has done more to popularize them than anyone else.
So when it comes to speculation around what’s next, especially now that the AirPods Max are here, there is a lot of enthusiasm for news and rumors about the Apple AirPods 3, or, as many are now calling them, the AirPods Pro Lite.
What kinds of features can we expect from the AirPods 3, and how much will they cost? Here’s everything we know (or think we know) so far about Apple’s next AirPods model.
— LeaksApplePro (@LeaksApplePro) March 10, 2021
According to analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, the next AirPods will end up looking a lot like the AirPods Pro, and a photo published by LeaksApplePro on Twitter seems to confirm this. The photo shows a set of iconic white earbuds that have a very similar shape to the AirPods Pro but apparently lack the Pro’s white silicone eartips. The charging case also appears slightly taller than the one that comes with the AirPods Pro.
The pictured earbuds, if they are in fact the real McCoy, confirm what Korean blog The Elec claimed in 2020 — that the new earbuds are designed for “Those who like the shape and fit of AirPods Pro but don’t use noise canceling will be potential customers.” The lack of silicone eartips is a strong reason to believe the new AirPods won’t have ANC.
The angled stems also appear to borrow the AirPods Pro’s pressure-sensitive controls, which would replace the current AirPods’ motion-sensitive tap controls.
The name: AirPods 3, AirPods Pro Lite, or AirPods+
Guessing Apple’s name for its new products can be almost as much fun as guessing what they will do and how much they’ll cost. At this point in the company’s history, some naming trends are obvious. Apple enjoys giving its iPhone and iPad names that use numbers, words, and letters, e.g., iPhone 11, iPad Pro, and iPhone SE. The same cannot be said of its other products, like the Apple TV, iMac, MacBook, etc., all of which have avoided numbers to designate how new they are.
Given that pattern, we think it’s unlikely the AirPods 3 will actually be called AirPods 3. Many have speculated they could be called the AirPods Pro Lite, because of their similarity to the AirPods Pro from a design point of view. But “Pro Lite” feels awkward. How can something be both “pro” and “lite”? Isn’t that an oxymoron?
We think it’s much more likely that Apple will either consider its next AirPods simply a generational update — therefore “AirPods 3rd generation” — or it will leverage the “plus” from Apple TV+, thus AirPods+.
If these new earbuds sit in between the existing AirPods and the AirPods Pro in terms of features and/or price and especially if Apple decides to keep all three in the lineup, calling them AirPods+ would make a lot of sense.
Initially, it was thought that the AirPods 3 would use the AirPods Pro’s silicone tips, thus automatically offer better sound quality than the existing AirPods. A fully sealed ear canal would have meant that the sound they produce can’t escape, and competing outside sounds can’t get in. But an open design without a direct seal to the ear canal has limitations on how good it can sound.
The Earin A-3, which launched earlier this year, proves that these open designs can sound better than the current AirPods, but it’s unlikely they will sound as good as the AirPods Pro.
Some noise cancellation
While ANC is typically associated with sealed-ear canal designs, this is slowly changing. Samsung introduced the feature on its Galaxy Buds Live, which do not enter the ear canal. Granted, Samsung’s efforts in this area haven’t proven especially successful, but that doesn’t mean Apple will face similar problems.
It’s worth keeping in mind that the AirPods Pro are still among the very best ANC earbuds we’ve ever tested — Apple clearly knows a thing or two about how to do ANC well.
Nonetheless, The Elec’s report, which quotes a Korean supplier that claims to be making part of the chipset hardware for the next AirPods, says that these new earbuds won’t have any type of noise cancellation.
Bone-conduction audio bypasses the outer ear and ear canal, feeding sounds to our inner ear by vibrating bone material in our skulls. It’s proven effective for situations where people want to maintain a high degree of awareness of the outside world (say, when working near hazards like vehicle traffic) or simply don’t want objects in their ears.
We think it’s highly unlikely that the AirPods 3 will use bone conduction, but there’s a chance we could see this audio technology in conjunction with another rumored Apple product: Apple Glass.
Transparency mode works very well on the AirPods Pro — it’s arguably one of their best features. But you only need a transparency mode if the design of an earbud does a good job of passively isolating outside sounds. Without silicon sleeves, it’s doubtful that the AirPods 3 will need a transparency mode, but that doesn’t mean Apple won’t include one anyway as there are still benefits even with an open design like better call quality by letting you hear your own voice more clearly.
It can be tough second-guessing Apple on price, but we already know two things: The AirPods Pro cost $249, and the AirPods cost $159 if you buy the model without wireless charging. So any AirPods model that aims to be between these two in terms of features will have to be between them on price too.
We’re guessing that places the AirPods 3 at $199 — the current cost of a set of AirPods with wireless charging. Coincidentally, that’s exactly the price predicted by the Korean supplier that spoke to The Elec, who said they will be priced “20% less” than the AirPods Pro. What happens to the existing AirPods? Apple will keep them at $159, but now you’ll get the wireless charging case included at that price.
If Apple decides to simply update the base AirPods instead of creating a new product, prices will probably stay exactly where they are.
The one thing all sources so far seem to agree on is that Apple’s new earbuds will surface in 2021. Kuo, whose record on these matters is typically excellent, claims we’ll see the AirPods 3 arrive in the first half of 2021. Bloomberg backs this predicted timing, as does The Elec.
Well, here we are, nearing the end of the first quarter of the year, which means we could see Apple announce its new true wireless earbuds pretty much any time between now and the end of June. Apple’s WWDC typically takes place in June each year, but given that this event has traditionally been all about Apple’s software and its developer community, we don’t think the company will wait that long to release the AirPods 3.