Along with the entire iPhone 13 lineup that’s expected to debut at Apple’s California streaming event next week, it looks like there’s a good chance we’ll see Apple actually show off a new version of AirPods for the first time in five years.
While it’s hard to pin down any kind of release cycle for Apple’s earphones, it’s fair to say that they’re due for a refresh. After all, it’s been two years since the second-generation AirPods showed up with “Hey Siri” support and wireless charging, but it’s also been five years since Apple had anything meaningful to say about its headphones at an actual event.
In fact, despite two generations of AirPods, new higher-end AirPods Pro, and the premium AirPods Max over-ear headphones, Apple has never given stage time to any of its headphones beyond the very first AirPods, released in 2016.
That could change this year, however, with rumours suggesting Apple will announce its third-generation AirPods, more colloquially dubbed “AirPods 3”, alongside the iPhone 13 and Apple Watch Series 7 at next week’s event.
Even if that doesn’t happen, however, all signs point to the new AirPods arriving this month. Apple could still choose to slip them out more quietly via a press release, as it’s done with almost all of its other AirPods, but they’re coming either way. Read on for 7 things we’re expecting to see in this year’s new AirPods.
A New In-Ear Design
We’ve been seeing leaked images purporting to show the AirPods 3 since last November, and combined with information from reliable sources like Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman, we have a pretty good picture of what the new AirPods will look like.
Expect shorter stems and a look that has more in common with Apple’s AirPods Pro. This will include a larger in-ear shell for better passive noise isolation and possibly a better fit. Don’t expect to see the Pro’s Active Noise Cancellation features, however.
While some early rumours suggested Apple would also add replaceable ear tips, more recent renders — and a plethora of Chinese counterfeits allegedly based on leaked specs from Apple — have cast some doubt on that.
A New Wireless Charging Case
While the second-generation AirPods introduced support for wireless charging, this was in the form of an optional upgrade. The entry-level $159 AirPods included the same wired charging case as the original 2016 ones, while $199 would get you a Qi-compatible charging case that could be dropped onto any charging pad.
There’s some debate about how necessary wireless charging truly is for an accessory that offers 24 hours of listening time, but there’s no doubt it’s convenient, and it’s where the iPhone world is headed.
Therefore, it’s safe to say that we can expect the wireless charging case to come standard, much like it does with the AirPods Pro. This will also simplify the product lineup, since there will only be one model of standard AirPods to choose from.
Based on the new design of the earbuds themselves, the AirPods charging case will also likely morph into something closer in style to that of the AirPods Pro. Leaked images and renders show it coming in at around the same height, but slightly narrower in width.
A New ‘H2’ Chip
Apple’s second-generation AirPods ushered in a new generation of Apple’s wireless headphone chips, with an H1 chip replacing the W1 that was found on the original AirPods and most of the company’s Beats-branded wireless headphones.
The H1 chip was notable for adding “Hey Siri” support to the earbuds, among other things, and it eventually found its way into Powerbeats Pro, Beats Solo Pro, Powerbeats, and of course, the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max.
However, there’s a good chance the 2021 AirPods 3 will follow in the footsteps of their second-gen predecessors in being the first to introduce Apple’s next-generation “H2” chip.
To be fair, we don’t know for sure that Apple will call it the “H2” chip — the transition from W1 to H1 caught us by surprise two years ago — nor even whether it will bring any significant new features to the table.
The few rumours we’ve heard suggest that Apple is simply trying to reduce its size and make it faster and more power-efficient, rather than focusing on user-facing improvements.
Force Touch Controls
Instead of buttons, current AirPods use tap-based controls that rely on the accelerometers within the earbuds. It’s not a bad idea, but we’ve always found it a bit awkward, and we suspect Apple agrees.
The AirPods Pro introduced Force Touch style controls in the stems, which require you to squeeze rather than tap to perform various functions. With a new stem design coming to the AirPods 3, it’s likely this new control style will come over as well.
Pressure Relief System
Since the new AirPods are expected to fit more tightly within your ears for better sound, they’re going to need to borrow another innovation from the AirPods Pro, with vents to equalize pressure within the ear.
This hasn’t been a problem with current AirPods, since they don’t really create a pressure seal for most users. Some with smaller ears do find that they’re uncomfortable to wear for longer periods of time. Pressure relief vents should help fix that across the board.
Improved Battery Life
Rumours about what kind of battery life the AirPods 3 will bring have varied widely, with most suggesting that we don’t see any significant improvements — at least in the earbuds themselves.
However, leaker Max Weinbach recently shared that the new charging case will have a 20% larger battery, while the battery inside the AirPods will be similar in size to that in the AirPods Pro.
If true, this will likely translate to slightly longer run times from recharging batteries in the case, although we’re expecting the normal 5 hours of listening time from the AirPods themselves between in-case charges. To be fair, that’s probably more than enough for most users, especially if you’ll get more charges from the case.
Better Sound Quality
We’re not expecting any sound improvements this year in terms of the drivers or audio processing, although the better in-ear design will probably result in a much better listening experience.
Some reports have suggested that the new AirPods could improve on the lower-end, with more bass, but this could also just be a function of improved passive noise isolation resulting from the earbuds sealing properly into your ear canals.
That said, we’re hoping that Apple at least includes Spatial Audio support this year, especially now that Apple Music has added Dolby Atmos mixes to its catalog. iOS 15 will be adding positional stereo audio for AirPods Pro and AirPods Max users, and tvOS 15 will bring Spatial Audio for the Apple TV, so it’s a great time for the standard AirPods to join the listening party too.