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It’s a safe bet that we’ll see an update to Apple’s higher-end AirPods Pro this year, but if the latest reports are true we may be getting more than just a major redesign, with at least one source suggesting that this could be the year Apple takes it AirPods to the next level.
When they debuted in late 2019, the AirPods Pro already redefined the true wireless earbuds market, with premium features like Active Noise Cancellation and an in-ear design not previously seen on such small earbuds.
So, it may not be all that surprising that Apple aims to do the same with the second-generation of its AirPods Pro, with well-known analyst Ming-Chi Kuo telling investors that Apple plans to make them the first earbuds to support Apple Lossless audio, as well as packing in the sort of health sensors we’ve been hearing about for a couple of years now.
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Kuo also mentioned the possible inclusion of health sensors in December, although at the time he suggested that they could be more fitness-oriented, covering things like motion tracking for workouts. However, in this week’s investor note, Kuo hinted at more health monitoring features, although he was a bit vague on whether these would make it into this year’s AirPods Pro.
AirPods Pro Lossless Audio
Kuo’s comments about support for the Apple Lossless Audio Codec (ALAC) are new, however, although they shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. As we noted last week, Apple is clearly aiming to break beyond the current limitations of Bluetooth, and while it’s not entirely clear how it plans to do this with the AirPods Pro, we have absolutely no doubt that Apple is working on it.
Notably, however, what Kuo is talking about here isn’t simply a better Bluetooth codec, like LDAC, aptX Lossless, or the AAC Scalable to Lossless (AAC-SLS) extension. Although it seems like AAC-SLS is the direction Apple would most likely go in if it were to try to get near-lossless quality over Bluetooth, Kuo’s sources say that Apple plans to blow right past that and go straight for the full Apple Lossless Audio experience.
ALAC is what Apple uses to stream Lossless Audio over AirPlay 2, which in turn runs over Wi-Fi. While on the surface this could suggest that Apple may plan to use Wi-Fi in the second-generation AirPods Pro, that’s not necessarily the only way that the company could go. In fact, standard Wi-Fi technology is poorly suited to the kind of point-to-point connections used by headphones.
However, there are other Wi-Fi standards available that could be suited to this purpose, including 802.11ay, which Apple has reportedly been working on. The downside to any of these approaches, however, is that Apple would create a situation with the AirPods Pro where Lossless Audio would only be supported from the very newest devices that also support the same obscure or proprietary wireless standards.
It’s worth noting that Bluetooth technically does offer the bandwidth to support ALAC, as the codec uses lossless compression that allows it to deliver lossless quality at bitrates as low as 500kbps. The same is true with Qualcomm’s new aptX Lossless codec, which, unlike Sony’s LDAC, is supposed to provide audio streaming that’s bit-for-bit identical to the source — which is the very definition of “lossless audio.”
So, if Qualcomm can do it, then it’s fair to say that Apple can pull this off as well. The problem, however, is that this still requires the kind of Bluetooth bandwidth that’s available only under nearly perfect conditions.
That means very close proximity between the AirPods and the source device, and nothing else in the area that could cause interference. That second part can be a bigger challenge, considering that Bluetooth runs in the same 2.4GHz spectrum as everything from Wi-Fi networks and cordless phones to microwave ovens and garage door openers.
It seems unlikely that Apple will ditch Bluetooth entirely from any version of the AirPods, as they still need to remain compatible with older iPhones and other Bluetooth devices. However, it’s not hard to imagine Apple working to improve or extend the existing Bluetooth protocols to better deal with interference and range issues.
At the end of the day, however, it’s hard to imagine that anybody will be able to hear true lossless audio quality on the AirPods Pro. While pushing the bitrates above the current 256kbps AAC could certainly make a difference for some folks, there’s a law of diminishing returns as you actually approach the threshold of true lossless audio.
So, if Apple does truly deliver ALAC on the next-generation AirPods Pro, we’re going to have to chalk this one up to a combination of marketing and a certain level of “because they can” engineering on the part of Apple’s Acoustics Team.
Charging Case Find My + Speakers
Kuo notes that the second-generation AirPods Pro will also include some more practical improvements, to be found in the charging case.
Firstly, it looks like Apple will finally add full AirTag-like capabilities to the AirPods case. We’ve been suspecting this would come for a while, but despite the ability to use Find My with AirPods in iOS 15, they’re still more limited than a standalone AirTag.
According to Kuo, the next AirPods Pro will address this, right down to including a set of speakers in the AirPods case so that they can emit a sound to help users find them. This lines up with some of the leaked photos we’ve seen, which show speaker grilles at the bottom of the case.
Contrary to some speculation that suggested that Apple might allow the AirPods Pro case to actually play music, it’s much more reasonable to assume that these will be used exclusively for sounding alerts, although these may not be limited solely to Find My tracking.
[The information provided in this article has NOT been confirmed by Apple and may be speculation. Provided details may not be factual. Take all rumors, tech or otherwise, with a grain of salt.]