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, needless to say, there is a lot of enthusiasm for news and rumors about the Apple AirPods 3.
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.
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 e.g. 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. Some have speculated they could be called the AirPods Pro Lite, because of rumors that these new buds will share some features with Apple’s top-tier AirPods. 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 decided to keep all three in the lineup, calling them AirPods+ would make a lot of sense.
What will the AirPods 3 look like? Well, according to analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, they’ll end up looking a lot like the AirPods Pro, but this could mean several things. It could mean they’ll use the exact same shape, or they may simply borrow the AirPods Pro’s silicone tips, giving them a noise-isolating design that is favored by a large majority of true wireless earbud makers.
An October 26 Bloomberg report reinforced Kuo’s prediction, saying, “The design of the updated entry-level AirPods will be similar to the current AirPods Pro, gaining a shorter stem and replaceable ear tips.”
If the AirPods 3 do end up using a hybrid design that merges AirPods with AirPods Pro, they will automatically offer better sound quality than the existing AirPods. A fully-sealed ear canal means that the sound they produce can’t escape, and competing outside sounds can’t get in — or at least, not nearly as much as they do with AirPods current open-air design.
In fact, a proper noise-isolating design can be so effective at blocking unwanted sounds, you often don’t feel the need for Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) which is one of the big selling features of the AirPods Pro. Jabra’s Elite 75t and Elite Active 75t both use a noise-isolating design and they’ve got superb sound quality — although Jabra just updated both models with ANC.
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 it’s possible we might see this audio technology in conjunction with another rumored Apple product: Apple Glass.
However, if you create a really good seal inside the inner-ear, you risk blocking out too much sound, which is why the AirPods 3 will likely borrow another AirPods Pro feature: Transparency mode. This uses the on-board microphones to pipe a certain amount of ambient sound into your ears. It’s a boon for safety, especially in busy environments, but it can also give you 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. 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.
We once again turn to Kuo, whose record on these matters is typically excellent. Kuo claims we’ll see the AirPods 3 arrive in the first half of 2021, and we see no reason to argue. In fact, the October Bloomberg report backs this predicted timing.
The current pandemic situation has created challenges across the board for new product introductions, so it makes sense that Apple might want to wait — especially if it intends to introduce the AirPods Studio as rumors persistently claim it will.