Apple tipped to fix its confusing AirPods lineup with two revamped AirPods 4 models – one toting ANC

Apple AirPods Pro in someone's hand
(Image credit: Shutterstock / Fadhli Adnan)

If you want the best AirPods Apple has to offer and hang the cost, the answer is simple: Apple AirPods Pro 2 for the win. But what if your budget doesn't stretch to AirPods Pro 2 money? What then? 

Do you go for Apple's entry-level $129 / £129 second-gen. earbuds – regularly called the AirPods (2019) for chronological clarity – or would the newer AirPods 3 (which arrived in 2021 for $179 / £169 / AU$279) be a better bet? 

According to Mark Gurman's latest missive, the consumer doesn't know. In his most recent Power On newsletter, the noted Bloomberg reporter and long-time Apple tipster claims the third-gen AirPods have been "somewhat of a dud with consumers", because while they look similar to the AirPods Pro (and remember, Apple's first-gen. 2019 AirPods Pro are no longer sold by the Cupertino giant), they don’t seem to offer the headline-grabbing features to make them $50 better than the $129 second-generation 2019 AirPods.

When flummoxed would-be Apple AirPods buyers turn to some of the best noise-cancelling earbuds not made by Apple, to get comparable features (and in some cases better, higher-res codec support) without the ice-white Apple premium, Tim Cook's behemoth loses precious revenue. 

Apple's solution? According to Gurman (who has a high hit rate with these things), the company plans to release two new fourth-generation non-Pro AirPods models – so effectively, two AirPods 4 propositions. We're talking updated designs, redesigned cases and USB-C charging. The more expensive of the two will, says Gurman, include active noise cancellation, thus bringing that feature to a lower price point – and since the AirPods 3 don't feature ANC, to a non Pro-suffixed Apple earbuds product for the first time.

Analysis: Apple is right to shake things up – but where's the AirPods Max 2? 

Apple AirPods Max sølv

What about the AirPods Max 2 though, Apple?  (Image credit: Apple)

Apple's reported plans to clarify its confusing earbuds lineup by releasing two AirPods 4 options at different price-points (effectively replacing the AirPods 2019 and AirPods 3) is definitely a step in the right direction, especially if it brings noise-cancellation to a sub $200 / £200 / AU$300 price-point. That being said, it's hardly the headline news Apple fans want. 

What of the hotly-anticipated AirPods Pro 3? No promises from Mark Gurman there, although we had low expectations on seeing those any time soon. After all, the inaugural AirPods Pro arrived on October 30, 2019, so there was a three year gap between first-gen and second-gen AirPods Pro iterations. With that in mind, 2025 might be a better bet for the AirPods Pro 3, sadly.

But what of the AirPods Max 2 though? Surely there's some news of an update on Apple's 2020 over-ears? Sadly – and effectively reiterating his previous prediction –Gurman says Apple is planning to breathe life into the model by trading in the Lightning charger for USB-C and potentially adding new colors in 2024. And that's an outcome we recently said would be a disaster for Apple's expensive over-ears

Look, 2023 has not been an easy year for any of the big hitters (see Sonos' plans for an Arc 2 after cutting jobs), but with some of the best over-ear headphones now boasting improved perks such as Snapdragon Sound for aptX Adaptive higher-resolution audio, compatibility with your home wireless audio system (see the Bowers & Wilkins PX8 for this) and multipoint to non-Apple devices, which you won't get with the AirPods Max, it doesn't seem enough. Apple needs to think fast to stay relevant – particularly when HED Unity's lossless audio wi-fi enabled headphones arrived in April, thus proving it can be done. 

Meanwhile, Apple's Vision Pro mixed reality headset may actually hit shelves in January. It is both an astounding piece of engineering and Apple's biggest gamble yet – and time will tell whether it emerges victorious, especially when Meta's new VR headset looks decidedly like its successor… 

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Becky Scarrott
Senior Audio Staff Writer

Becky is a senior staff writer at TechRadar (which she has been assured refers to expertise rather than age) focusing on all things audio. Before joining the team, she spent three years at What Hi-Fi? testing and reviewing everything from wallet-friendly wireless earbuds to huge high-end sound systems. Prior to gaining her MA in Journalism in 2018, Becky freelanced as an arts critic alongside a 22-year career as a professional dancer and aerialist – any love of dance starts with a love of music. Becky has previously contributed to Stuff, FourFourTwo and The Stage. When not writing, she can still be found throwing shapes in a dance studio, these days with varying degrees of success.