With so many different reports and rumours, the landscape for Apple’s wireless earbuds has turned into a confusing labyrinth of possibilities. This is likely due to the fact that Apple is almost certainly working on multiple iterations of the wireless earbuds, so it’s sometimes difficult to pick out which rumours refer to which product.
The original AirPods were of course released in late 2016, and remained a best-seller for over two years, even amidst many rumours that new features were coming, ranging from “Hey Siri” support and wireless charging to waterproofing, new gripper coatings, new color options, and even health monitoring. When Apple’s second-generation AirPods finally arrived in March, they brought only two of these features with them, but were visually indistinguishable from the prior version. Further, while it seems natural to call this latest version the “AirPods 2” it’s also worth keeping in mind that this is not Apple’s name for them; much like the company’s iPad and iPod touch devices, the product name remains “AirPods” with a “second-generation” designation being basically a footnote.
However, even days prior to the release of the newest AirPods, multiple sources were suggesting we wouldn’t actually see them released until the fall. So it perhaps wasn’t all that surprising when a report surfaced last month that Apple was indeed working on another AirPods update for later this year. In fact, the rumour suggested that Apple wasn’t working on just one, but actually two products: An iterative “AirPods 3” update, along with a higher-end “AirPods Pro” model.
Current AirPods Aren’t Going Away
Even at the time, however, it seemed odd to us that Apple would be ready to replace the second-generation AirPods only a few months after their release, and now a new report from Digitimes verifies this with the suggestion that the “AirPods 3” will actually be another column in Apple’s lineup of wireless earbuds. According to the report, suppliers are not only maintaining, but actually increasing shipments of a specific component used in current AirPods that is not expected to be used in future models. With Apple’s AirPods still selling like hotcakes, that’s not surprising.
If true, this means that Apple has no plans to discontinue the second-generation AirPods anytime soon, meaning that any new AirPods that come out later this year are going to be sold alongside the current version, and therefore will almost certainly come with a higher price tag.
Little is known about what the next generation of AirPods will look like. The only specific feature noted in the earlier report was that Apple is working on adding Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) — a feature that has long been the domain of larger on-ear headphones and would therefore be a landmark addition for small earbuds like the AirPods.
ANC may actually be enough to justify a higher price tag by itself, however, since there’s lots of precedent in the consumer headphone market for ANC and non-ANC versions of headphones that are otherwise identical sold alongside each other. In this case, Apple’s newest AirPods may basically be “AirPods ANC” (although we’re pretty confident Apple will come up with a more clever name).
However, it’s also likely that the ANC version of AirPods may require some more fundamental design changes to accommodate the microphones and other hardware required to support noise cancellation. We also suspect Apple would need to rethink the design to add more passive noise isolation features as well, since there’s no point in actively cancelling outside noise that’s already getting past the earphones themselves — although for all we know Apple could be working on some really advanced and unprecedented acoustical engineering tricks.
While it’s sounding more and more like ANC will be the headline feature, piecing together other reports that haven’t yet come to fruition, it also seems possible that the next-generation AirPods could gain other smaller design changes, such as new coatings and multiple color options, and perhaps even ultra-fast charging.
There’s also still the rumour of the looming “AirPods Pro” to consider, a model that is said to be coming in an “all-new form factor” and probably an even higher price tag. While the report comes from the extremely reliable analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, he also notes a wide enough launch timeframe to suggest that these might not come this fall, but could be as late the first quarter of 2020, which could place them into next March or April.
Again, it’s difficult to separate all of the different rumours — three months ago, many of us were hoping that the second-generation AirPods would be a lot more than they turned out to be. However, if Apple is indeed working on a premium and redesigned “Pro” version of its AirPods, these seem like the most likely version to include the new health monitoring features that Apple is said to be working on.
With Apple’s wearables category now bringing in as much money as its iPads and Macs, and Apple still struggling to make them as fast as they can sell them, there’s little doubt that AirPods are making a ton of money for the company. Apple’s original AirPods never stopped selling well, even two years after they debuted, so Apple has no incentive to replace the second-generation version anytime soon; it really does make much more sense for the company to expand the lineup to try and capture an even higher end of the earphone market.