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Although you can pretty much mark your calendar when it comes to new iPhone releases, it’s still hard to predict timelines for many of Apple’s other products, and perhaps the most inscrutable of all are its AirPods, which don’t seem to have settled into any kind of routine quite yet.
After all, as popular as Apple’s iconic wireless earbuds have become, the reality is that we’ve only seen the company release three versions in the past five years, plus the newest AirPods Max headphones (which are kind of in a category by themselves).
For over two years, from late 2016 to early 2019, AirPods referred to only a single product, and that continued to be the case when the second-generation AirPods appeared in March 2019, since these directly replaced the originals. It wasn’t until the fall of that year that Apple shook up the lineup with the introduction of the AirPods Pro, and then dropped the AirPods Max almost out of the blue a few months ago in a big pre-Christmas surprise.
So, while we’ve been hearing rumours for years on what Apple is up to with its AirPods, it’s clearly almost impossible to predict release timelines based on this information. Reports of Apple working on over-ear headphones go back to 2018, and throughout most of that year we heard reports that Apple was working on new AirPods with health monitoring features — something that still hasn’t materialized.
It’s always seemed plausible that Apple has these kinds of features in development, but it’s likely that analysts and leakers have picked up information on Apple’s research and development efforts without any context for timing, leaving many to assume that these features were right around the corner, rather than part of Apple’s longer-term plans.
The AirPods Roadmap
Now, a new report from Bloomberg seems to have enough inside information to offer up a fairly detailed roadmap of what’s coming to the AirPods lineup over the next year or so.
Citing “people with knowledge of the matter,” Bloomberg lays out the following timeline for updates to the entire AirPods lineup over the next 12-16 months:
- Third-Generation AirPods: Fall 2021.
- Second-Generation AirPods Pro: Sometime in 2022.
- AirPods Max: Not currently in development.
While these dates don’t quite line up with some of the more optimistic predictions we’ve heard, it’s fair to say that rumours of a spring release have already been proven wrong. While Apple could arguably still debut something at WWDC next month, we think that’s extremely unlikely, particularly since reliable analysts like Ming-Chi Kuo have said they haven’t even entered mass production yet.
In addition, Bloomberg also offers some insights into what we can expect from these future AirPods, with a couple of interesting twists.
Thanks to some leaked images we already have a pretty good idea of what the next version of the standard AirPods will look like, and they generally line up with what we’ve been hearing since last fall.
Basically, we’re expected the third-generation AirPods to have a shorter stem with a design that looks much closer to the AirPods Pro, but omits the replaceable silicone ear tips. Bloomberg notes that they’ll also naturally come with a new case design for the smaller size.
However, it appears that the design will be the most significant change in the next AirPods, as we’ve heard little about actual new software-level features. They’re almost certain not to get Active Noise Cancellation, which will remain an exclusive feature of Apple’s more expensive AirPods. Most of the recent reports have also suggested we won’t see any major improvements in battery life either.
‘AirPods Pro 2’
Apple’s next-generation AirPods Pro look like they’re going to be a much bigger deal, however, with Bloomberg saying that Apple will finally be including some of the health sensors we’ve been hearing about for almost three years now.
It appears that the focus of the updated motion sensors will be on fitness tracking rather than health monitoring, however. While Bloomberg doesn’t go into any more details, previous reports have suggested the AirPods could include heart rate monitoring capabilities and possibly even a blood oxygen sensor.
As far as the design goes, Bloomberg reiterates its previous report from last fall that Apple is working on a “smaller design that eliminates the stems,” while also confirming that the new look is actually going to make its debut on the Beats Studio Buds that are “planned to be announced next month.”
As we mentioned yesterday, it’s a rather odd move for Apple to debut such a radical new design on a Beats product before it comes to its flagship AirPods, but then again it’s not like this look hasn’t already been done by competitors like Samsung. More importantly, however it also adds more weight to the idea that the second-generation AirPods Pro are going to be something even more special — particularly if we’re going to have to wait until next year to see them.
Next-Gen AirPods Max?
Unfortunately, Bloomberg has some sadder news for those who may have been hoping for a new version of Apple’s AirPods Max. According to its sources, there is no second-generation version of the AirPods Max in the works right now. At most, Apple is considering launching its premium headphones in a few more colour variations at some point down the road.
Of course, this doesn’t mean we’ll never see a new version of the AirPods Max — merely that they’re not going to be arriving anytime soon. This throws a pretty big bucket of cold water on rumours that Apple had a higher-quality version of its headphones in the works for its new Apple Music Lossless Audio, although it still doesn’t rule out the possibility that Apple is working on a much better codec that could come to the existing AirPods Max via a firmware update.
However, since the AirPods Max are still selling very well — the report notes that Apple has only recently caught up with demand — it’s hard to imagine why Apple would bother putting in the time and effort for a new version so soon. At this point it’s becoming clear that Apple’s AirPods are on a much longer refresh cycle.