Apple’s AirPods are among the most popular wireless earbuds on the market at the moment, offering a seamless experience unmatched by most third-party audio companies, but even great products like AirPods need an upgrade every now and again.
Following years of success with the second-gen AirPods, an upgrade is on the cards, and whispers suggest it could be a complete redesign of the AirPods we’ve come to know and love.
Here’s all you need to know about the third-generation AirPods, from release date and pricing rumours to the latest design and feature leaks.
Likely release alongside the iPhone 13
Based on AirPods Pro design
No active noise cancelling, but there could be an adaptive EQ
Could cost more, potentially £199/$199
AirPods 3 release date
So, when will we see the third-gen AirPods? An April 2020 note from well-known Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo suggested “the third-generation AirPods [would] go to mass production in the 1H21” (the first half of 2021), and many reports suggested they’d make an appearance at Apple’s April 2021 event, but that wasn’t the case.
Kuo wasn’t surprised though; he claimed in a March 2021 note that the AirPods 3 aren’t due to enter mass production until Q3 2021, going against H121 release claims – including his own.
That’s backed up by a DigiTimes report that claims various manufacturers, including Semco, LG Innotek and more, have begun shipping components for the next-gen AirPods, Apple Watch and iPhone, suggesting all three will be released later this year.
Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman also suggests a release later this year, either alongside the iPhone 13 or via press release – although we imagine Apple will go with the former, especially given the rumoured redesign.
More specifically, Twitter leaker @Dylandkt expects the AirPods 3 to debut alongside the iPhone 13 in September, and that aligns with a DigiTimes report suggesting Apple is manufacturing key parts for the upcoming buds in August, with a view to ramp up production in September.
I can confirm that the AirPods 3 will release alongside the upcoming iPhone in September.
— Dylan (@dylandkt)
July 25, 2021
Apple has since announced the ‘California Streaming’ event due to take place on 14 September at 10am PDT, or 6pm BST for those watching from the UK. With many expecting the event to focus on the iPhone 13 range, it’s more than likely that we’ll see the AirPods 3 too.
If you can’t wait for the next generation to launch, we suggest taking a look at our pick of the best true wireless earbuds available right now.
AirPods 3 pricing
Generally speaking, new Apple products tend to match the price of their predecessors – currency conversion adjustments aside – so it’s safe to assume that Apple will release the third-gen AirPods with a similar price tag to the AirPods 2 at £159/$159 (or £199/$199 if you opt for the wireless charging case).
However, The Elec claims that the AirPods 3 could be 20% cheaper than the AirPods Pro, potentially pricing the third-gen AirPods at an increased £199/$199. Could Apple ditch the entry-level AirPods? It’s possible, but it won’t be a popular move.
With the AirPods Pro priced at £249/$249, we can’t really see Apple raising the price any higher than £199/$199 regardless – it’d blur the lines between the AirPods and AirPods Pro range and Apple would have to offer serious upgrades to charge more than £200/$200 for standard wireless earbuds in 2021.
AirPods 3 design and feature rumours
AirPods Pro design
Powered by H1 chipset
No ANC, but Adaptive EQ could be available
Fitness features could be possible
We’ve long thought that the next-gen earbuds could sport the same design as the AirPods Pro, and a note from respected analyst Ming-Chi Kuo seemingly confirms it.
In several notes to investors across June and July 2020, Kuo claims that the upcoming AirPods will ditch the SMT technology for a SiP system similar to that of the AirPods Pro. SiP systems allow manufacturers to pack more components into the small form factor of the buds when compared to SMT systems.
It makes sense from a manufacturing perspective – Apple will only need a single production mold and many of the internals will be identical. While Apple introduced customisable eartips in the AirPods Pro, leaks and hands-on shots suggest that this will be the key design difference here, with the regular AirPods remaining tip-free.
This was all seemingly confirmed in a report from Chinese language blog 52Audio, which showcased a leaked photo of AirPods 3 components that look pretty similar to that of the AirPods Pro.
The report claims that the allegedly leaked AirPods shell and case components are similar, but not identical, to the design of the AirPods Pro. As seen leaked images on the site, the alleged updated wireless earbuds sport a more conical shape than the second-gen AirPods, while the redesigned windows in the bud housing are expected to house microphones, IR sensors or even serve as pressure exhaust ports like those found on Google’s Pixel Buds.
There’s also changes to the driver output hole, which looks much more circular than the oval-shaped outlet of the current AirPods, bringing it more in-line with the AirPods Pro.
The report also claims that the new AirPods will feature pressure-sensitive stems to detect pinch input, and it might feature Apple’s H1 chipset to power all the onboard smarts.
Then, months later in February 2021, the site posted more photos of the alleged AirPods 3, including both renders and real-life photos of the upcoming buds, seemingly confirming the redesign.
The leaks didn’t end there either; weeks later, in March 2020, Twitter leaker @LeaksApplePro posted more real-life images of the alleged AirPods 3, complete with AirPods Pro-esque design and pressure-sensitive stems.
— LeaksApplePro (@LeaksApplePro)
March 10, 2021
Leaker UnclePan gave us yet another hands-on shot in April 2021, so the earbuds’ design feels pretty certain at this point.
Twitter leaker @PineLeaks suggests that in addition to the new design, the third-gen AirPods will sport a charging case with an estimated 20% larger battery, which should translate to more charges from the case between top-ups, though that doesn’t necessarily mean the buds themselves will last any longer.
The leaker also suggests that while the overall sound will be similar to that of the second-gen AirPods, they’ll have noticeably better bass and improved low-end performance.
With all that in mind, we expect the AirPods 3 to sport a similar design to the AirPods Pro range, but without the inclusion of ANC or transparency mode technology. There’s no rumour on whether the AirPods 3 will feature upgraded Bluetooth 5.0 connectivity, but the fact that the AirPods Pro made the jump suggests Apple’s entry-level earbuds won’t be too far behind – especially if they do share the same design.
AirPods patents and research papers
There are whispers about the inclusion of ambient light sensors that enable health monitoring features, and there’s an AirPods-related patent that could give us a glimpse at what could be in store.
Discovered by Patently Apple, the AirPods patent details the use of built-in sensors to “gather orientation information such as accelerometer measurements during user movements” with the aim of forming “part of an AirPods system that supplies the user with coaching and feedback while evaluating user performance”.
Coaching via Siri would be a great addition for the AirPods, and it’d work perfectly with the rumoured more secure design of the upcoming wireless earbuds.
Another patent awarded to Apple hints at a more safety-oriented feature. It describes using a combination of GPS data and the headphones’ positional data to detect the users’ location, and do things like adjust volume, pause, or provide directions or safety information.
One example given in the patent suggests that the headphones could “pause or prevent audio playback” if they detect that the user is next to a road, helping them to hear traffic noise and cross more safely – though we’d worry that it would just get in the way and start muting your music every time you try to walk down the street.
Another health and lifestyle-focused feature that could be in the works doesn’t actually need any additional hardware to function. As spotted by My Healthy Apple, the Apple Machine Learning Research website hints at a possible feature of upcoming earbuds.
During research, Apple’s team found that “wearable headphones” are capable of picking up the sound of the user’s breathing pattern using built-in microphones.
That could be valuable to Apple, as in addition to potentially being able to monitor respiratory rate during exercise, Apple researchers note that it could be a “cost-effective method of tracking disease progression and cardio-respiratory fitness over time” without the need for intrusive equipment.
While the paper doesn’t specify which headphones were used, it’ll likely be a pair of AirPods, AirPods Pro or AirPods Max, and the fact that it uses hardware already present in the earbuds suggest it could come to the existing range via a firmware update as well as the AirPods 3.
Separately, there’s a rumour that Apple could use bone conduction technology for “multipath audio stimulation using audio compressors” on a future set of AirPods that could “send signals through the bones in your skull to be received by your eardrums, even when the pods aren’t inside your ear”.
It sounds a little bit too far out for the third-gen AirPods, but it’s interesting to see the kind of avenues Apple is exploring behind closed doors.