Apple’s AirPods–which dropped with a bit of controversy and little interest back in 2016–hit some kind of inflection point around 2018, and suddenly became the hot thing. This was handily timed for the 2019 updates, as the 2nd-gen and then Pro versions of the AirPods launched to a newly receptive public and sold like the proverbial hotcakes. Then came the AirPods Max in late 2020, the 3rd-generation AirPods in 2021, and the 2nd-gen AirPods Pro in 2022.
Where next, then, for the AirPods? In this article we will look at all the different AirPods, evaluating when Apple might next update them and the new features that could arrive with the next generation. We’ll also discuss rumours that Apple is set to launch a new cheaper AirPods Lite—or AirPods SE—category.
Update September 12: Despite rumours that Apple would launch new AirPods on 12 September, it only updated the 2nd-gen AirPods Pro with a USB-C charging case. They were launched alongside the iPhone 15, Apple Watch 9 and Watch Ultra 2.
Will there be new AirPods in 2023?
There are currently three types of AirPods: The standard AirPods, the AirPods Pro, and the AirPods Max. While Apple doesn’t update each category of AirPod on a yearly basis, it does tend to introduce a new set of AirPods each year. Taking a look at when each model was last updated can give us some clues as to when the new ones could arrive.
September 2016: 1st-gen AirPods launched, released in December 2016.
March 2019: 2nd-gen AirPods launched.
October 2019: 1st-gen AirPods Pro launched.
December 2020: 1st-gen AirPods Max launched.
October 2021: 3rd-gen AirPods launched.
September 2022: 2nd-gen AirPods Pro launched.
Based on the above it would be logical to conclude that AirPods Max are next on the list. Now more than two and a half years old the AirPods Max cannot play Apple’s lossless audio, which is an omission that needs to be rectified. The technology to achieve this may not yet be available though.
Did we see new AirPods at the iPhone event in September? Sort of. As the iPhone 15 moves from Lightning to USB-C, Apple also took the opportunity to launch the AirPods Pro (2nd generation) with MagSafe Charging Case (USB‐C). The only change to the AirPods themselves was a slightly improved IP54 water-resistance rating.
There have also been rumors that Apple plans to launch new AirPods Lite or AirPods SE headphones for some time, and in January 2023 analyst Ming-Chi Kuo described these as “more affordable AirPods (with Apple targeting a price of $99)”.
AirPods Lite: Rumors and release date
Earlier in January 2023 analyst Jeff Pu also referenced Apple’s plans to introduce the AirPods Lite, a cheaper version of the standard AirPods. Like Kuo, he anticipates a price of $99. He added that Apple has no plans to update any of the current AirPods, so the AirPods Lite may be a way to stimulate interest in the existing lineup.
However, these new headphones may not arrive in 2023. Kuo had suggested we might have to wait until 2024 for this new AirPods category. In January 2023 Ming-Chi Kuo tweeted a series of comments and predictions related to Apple’s AirPods business, including a reference to the budget set of AirPods. However, he suggested that they may not ship until the second quarter of 2024 or even 2025.
Hopefully, the wait for new AirPods won’t be that long though. Code in iOS 16.4 apparently referenced new AirPods with the model number A3048. What isn’t clear is which AirPods this code relates to. It could be a new pair of AirPods Max as there a code for a case was also identified in the iOS update which could be a code for a new Smart Case.
If, as rumored, these new AirPods are priced around $99 then they are likely to have budget features. For an idea of what to expect we could look to the 2nd-gen AirPods, which are still on sale but likely to be supplanted by the new budget model. Another comparison could be with the Beats Flex (Beats is a subsidiary of Apple).
We really hope that the wait isn’t that long for this rumored AirPods Lite launch.
AirPods Max 2: Rumors and release date
By the winter of 2023, the AirPods Max will be three years old and due an update.
In May 2022 Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman wrote in a newsletter that new AirPods Max could be imminent. He wrote: “Look out for an AirPods Max refresh with new colors (and, we hope, a price drop—$550 is absurd for those headphones)”. No update arrived in 2022, and, as per Ming-Chi Kuo’s tweet above, the new AirPods Max may not arrive until the end of 2024 at the earliest.
AirPods (4th-gen): Rumors and release date
The third-gen AirPods arrived in October 2021. That update came two and a half years after the second generation launched. We could be waiting until 2024 for an update to the AirPods, although there could be an even longer wait if Kuo is correct and the new Max and Lite models won’t launch until 2024 or 2025.
We could see an update to the 3rd-gen AirPods if Apple adds USB-C charging to the case.
AirPods Pro (3rd-gen): Rumors and release date
The second-gen AirPods Pro arrived in September 2022. That update came three years after the first generation launched. On that time scale, we could be waiting until 2025 for a proper update to the AirPods Pro, but the wait could be even longer.
Before the third-gen AirPods Pro arrive Apple did introduce a new version of the second-gen with a USB-C port on the charging case (rather than Lightning) alongside the iPhone 15.
How much will new AirPods cost?
The AirPods and AirPods Pro are unlikely to see a price change, although the prices outside the U.S. may be adjusted at some point, as Apple has done with every other product.
Apple’s current pricing structure for its headphones is as follows:
Apple Earbuds $19/£19
AirPods 2nd-gen $129/£139
AirPoids 3rd-gen (Lightning) $169/£179
AirPoids 3rd-gen (MagSafe) $179/£189
AirPods Pro 2nd-gen $249/£249
AirPods Max $549/£549
The AirPods Max may see a price cut, based on Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman suggestion above–although that seemed to be more of a hope than an indication.
The idea that Apple will sell cheaper AirPods, has been knocking around for years. They have generally been referred to as the AirPods Lite and are expected to compete with sub-$100 earbuds. Ming-Chi Kuo refers to $99 as the price target for the AirPods Lite. This compares to the AirPods 2, which are still sold by Apple for $129/£139. It is likely that if Apple introduces the AirPods Lite it will stop selling the older AirPods as a budget offering. Apple’s desire to offer AirPods at this price point would allow it to compete at the lower end of the market. They would effectively be the SE offering for the AirPods, similar to Apple’s Apple Watch SE and iPhone SE.
We have a round-up of the best wireless earbuds if you’d like to consider alternatives to AirPods.
New AirPods specs and features
There are a few limitations that Apple may be addressing with new AirPods.
One area ripe for improvement is the ability to play Apple’s hi-res lossless audio, which the company introduced in June 2021. Bluetooth headphones–including all of Apple’s AirPods–aren’t capable of playing audio at this resolution.
Apple will no doubt be looking for a way to bring this technology to the AirPods Max. The AirPods Max, despite their high price, aren’t currently capable of playing Apple’s hi-res lossless audio. An update in 2023 did bring some capacity to play high-res audio on these headphones if they are used in the wired format. Users can plug in the AirPods Max via the Lightning to 3.5mm audio cable and enjoy better quality sound, but Apple indicates that “Given the analog-to-digital conversion in the cable, the playback will not be completely lossless.”
With Apple adopting USB-C instead of Lightning across all its product categories, due to a ruling in the European Union, every AirPods case could change to USB-C. However, for now, only the 2nd-gen AirPods Pro have made the switch.
Analyst Ming-Chi Kuo tweeted in March 2023 suggesting that Apple would introduce a version of the second-generation AirPods Pro later in 2023 with a USB-C charging case. He indicated that the third-gen of the standard AirPods will not get this USB-C update.
Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman (in a Power On newsletter from October 2022) expects all three AirPods models to move to USB-C by the end of 2023 though. However, Gurman in July 2023 signaled that the company may be prepared to wait a little longer for the non-standard models.
The AirPods Pro, Gurnam said, will stick to their current release cadence, which means the next model, presumably with a USB-C connection, may not arrive until the fall of 2025.
The Apple Watch already incorporated a temperature sensor, used primarily for the ovulation tracking feature. Apple is said to be keen to build in body temperature measurement features to its earbuds, the ear canal is being a better and more accurate source of such data than a Watch.
According to Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman, Apple is working on adding a temperature sensor to a future set of AirPods. However, we may have to wait a little longer as Gurman isn’t convinced that this will be ready for the fourth generation.
Bloomberg’s Gurman believes that hearing health is going to be an area of AirPods innovation, writing in March that Apple’s looking at the “ability to get hearing data of some sort.”
In a report in July, Gurman predicted, a “new hearing test feature that will play different tones and sounds to allow the AirPods to determine how well a person can hear. The idea is to help users screen for hearing issues.”
The current AirPods Pro models already have Conversation Boost and Live Listen that go some way to turn them into semi-hearing aids.
An Apple patent describes a way that motion sensors inside AirPods could aid Crash Detection. There have been reports of the iPhone and Apple Watch triggering emergency calls, so it is likely Apple will have to mitigate against this happening with the AirPods.
This article originally appeared on Macworld.com
Audio, Home Audio