When will we see the Apple AirPods 3? With nearly two years having passed since the last iteration of Apple's true wireless earbuds, the AirPods (2019), there are naturally already murmurs of another updated model coming our way.
According to Bloomberg, which spoke with people familiar with the plans, the AirPods 3 could include motion sensors for fitness tracking and integration with Apple Fitness Plus, along with noise reduction.
As well as reports claiming that a third iteration of the Apple AirPods are definitely in development (along with the second generation of the Apple AirPods Pro), we've also heard rumors that components for the earbuds are already being shipped to manufacturers.
While there were rumors of the Apple AirPods 3 crashing into the market before 2020 was out, they never materialized – and now everything is pointing to a 2021 release.
Apple's 2021 iPhone 13 launch event came and went with no mention of the AirPods 3, contradicting speculation that they would be released. Instead, we saw the new iPad, new iPad mini, Apple Watch 7, and iPadOS 15.
What are they? A new version of the Apple AirPods.
When will they be released? Possibly on September 14 (that's today).
How much will they cost? Likely similar to the current AirPods.
Since the original Apple AirPods launched in 2016, the true wireless earbuds have dominated the headphones market, becoming an icon of the company’s slick design customs and user-friendly technologies.
They weren’t perfect, though – and in 2019, the upgraded AirPods (or AirPods 2, if you will) were furnished with Apple’s H1 chip, which brought with it faster pairing times, longer battery, and a cool hands-free ‘Hey Siri’ feature.
These second-gen true wireless earbuds were a definite improvement upon their predecessors – but they were still easily eclipsed by the likes of the Sony WF-1000XM3, the Cambridge Audio Melomania 1, and Apple’s own AirPods Pro in 2019.
While we're still waiting for official confirmation from Apple that it will be launching the AirPods 3 this year, here's everything we know so far, plus a wish list of all the features we want to see from the company’s next true wireless earbuds.
Apple AirPods 3 release date
While we have a few ideas about the specs we might see with the new earbuds, an official AirPods 3 release date still eludes us. We thought we might see them at the iPhone 13 launch event on September 14, but we were left disappointed.
We still think they'll be released before 2021 is out, though.
In May, Bloomberg said the AirPods 3 were in development in May and will be announced before the end of 2021.
Noted Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo also said that the company will start producing new AirPods models in the ‘third calendar quarter of 2021,’ according to an investor report seen by AppleInsider.
The same rumors align with further reports in June, claiming several Apple suppliers had begun shipping substrate components (aka circuit boards) for various upcoming Apple products, including the AirPods 3.
As for new AirPods Pro earbuds, Japanese blog MacOtakara had alleged that the AirPods Pro 2 would arrive in April 2021 alongside the iPhone SE 3 – though neither appeared at the company's Spring Loaded Apple Event in April.
The latest Bloomberg’s sources are hinting at a 'Fall' release (that's September-November), which suggests we'll see the AirPods Pro 2 before the year is out - but we're hedging our bets, and think 2022 is more likely.
Apple AirPods 3 price
The Apple AirPods 3 are expected to be cheaper than the AirPods Pro, which cost $249 / £249 / AU$399, possibly costing the same as the current AirPods (2019) with Wireless Charging Case.
That would set their price at $159 / £159 / AU$249. Saying that, it's possible that they could be more expensive, particularly if Apple adds more premium features like active noise cancellation and support for Spatial Audio.
Whether there will be a cheaper version with a standard (non-wireless charging case) remains to be seen – though with Apple's focus on wireless charging with the iPhone 12, it doesn't seem likely.
Apple AirPods 3 design
Images of what could be the upcoming wireless earbuds have surfaced online, potentially giving us a good look at the next Apple earbuds.
The images were posted to Twitter by LeaksApplePro, and show off what looks like a pair of AirPods with shorter stems, backing up previous rumors that the next AirPods would take some style cues from the noise-cancelling AirPods Pro.
Nice pic.twitter.com/2PJdCd2hEnMarch 10, 2021
These renders look very similar to the photos posted by LeaksApplePro, as well as previous images leaked by 52Audio in late February.
The image backs up some of the previous rumors we've heard about the Apple AirPods 3, including the fact that they'll sport shorter ear stems like the Apple AirPods Pro.
Based on the photographs, it doesn't look like the new AirPods will have silicone eartips like their noise-cancelling siblings, though a render provided by 52audio shows what looks like detachable silicone eartips included with the buds. Giving users the option to swap the tips in and out would certainly appease fans of both the original AirPods and the newer AirPods Pro.
Aside from catering to more ear-sizes, silicone or foam eartips provide a better seal, and therefore superior noise isolation, and passive noise-reduction – making your music sound better, while simultaneously preventing the entire world from earwigging on your favorite songs.
52audio also claims that the true wireless earbuds will feature similar pressure-relieving air vents to make the earbuds comfortable to wear for long periods, and will sport touch-sensitive controls.
The charging case appears to be more like what you get with the original AirPods, rather than the more rectangular case provided with the AirPods Pro, though there is now an LED battery indicator on the front.
According to TF International Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, who has made a number of correct Apple predictions in the past, the AirPods 3 will "adopt a compact system-in-package (SiP) solution similar to AirPods Pro", in a research note obtained by MacRumors.
As electronics manufacturer Octavo Systems explains, system-in-package "integrates multiple Integrated Circuits (ICs) along with their supporting passive devices into a single package", as opposed to cramming lots of components into one piece of silicone.
In other words, it allows for product-makers to create smaller devices, and it's a technique that was used by Apple in its creation of the AirPods Pro.
The AirPods Pro are significantly smaller than the original AirPods, with shorter ear stems – that's in spite of the wireless earbuds packing in active noise cancellation technology and a new Dolby Atmos spatial audio feature, which requires an inbuilt gyroscope and accelerometer.
The latest Bloomberg’s sources also suggest the AirPods 3 will look like the AirPods Pro – though won’t pack the same noise-cancelling features.
Apple AirPods 3 features
While many of the AirPods 3 rumors have focussed on the design of the new earbuds, there's been lots of speculation on the kind of features we can expect to see when they're finally launched.
A focus on fitness
Apple is apparently planning to fit ambient light sensors to future versions of the AirPods – sensors which could make them much more useful as health monitoring devices, akin to the best fitness headphones in the world.
A report in DigiTimes (via MacRumors) passes on information from the Apple supply chain that production of these ambient light sensors is being ramped up, quite possibly to get ready for some brand new wireless earbuds.
There are a lot of dots to join here, and there isn't necessarily just one way to join them – but that said, it would make a lot of sense for Apple to want to boost the fitness tracking capabilities of future AirPod models, much as it did with the Apple Watch.
Apple has also recently been awarded a number of new patents, one of which suggests that the next AirPods could come with a nifty feature for fitness fans.
According to Patently Apple, the patent describes AirPods that use inbuilt sensors to "gather orientation information such as accelerometer measurements during user movements".
The true wireless earbuds could then communicate via Bluetooth with an iPhone, and "may form part of an AirPods system that supplies the user with coaching and feedback while evaluating user performance of a head movement routine or other exercise routine".
This could be particularly useful for exercises like yoga, with the AirPods providing realtime feedback on a user's head tilts, poses, and stretches. We've also heard that the AirPods 3 will come with Apple Fitness Plus integration, which would make sense if they do come with these clever sensors.
The latest fitness feature we've heard about is the ability for AirPods to track your breathing rate.
As well as allowing AirPods users to track their respiratory rate during exercise, this feature could help users to track disease progression and general fitness over time, without the need for obvious medical monitoring equipment.
Future Apple AirPods – including the rumored AirPods 3 and AirPods Pro Lite – could automatically pause or lower the volume of your music if they detect hazards in your surroundings, according to a patent granted to the company on August 11.
The patent describes a pair of true wireless earbuds that are capable of adjusting their audio output based on the user's activities and location, including "adjusting audio volume, stopping or preventing audio from playing, providing feedback, directions, encouragement, advice, safety information, instructions, and the like".
Using a combination of GPS data from a smartphone or smartwatch and positional data from the earbuds themselves, the patent describes how future AirPods could help users stay safe while near busy roads:
"As one non-limiting example, the sensing device may determine that the wearable audio device engages both ears and that the user is at a side of, or on, a road."
The earbuds would then "pause or prevent audio playback" through the speaker adjacent to the road, allowing you to hear traffic while still listening to music through the other earbud.
Speed data, presumably taken from a built-in accelerometer in the AirPods themselves, could also be used to keep cyclists safe, by pausing music when the speed is above a certain threshold.
Active noise cancellation
Whether the AirPods 3 will come with ANC is unclear right now. As we mentioned, Ming-Chi Kuo has suggested that the AirPods 3 will look most like the AirPods Pro, with silicone eartips and a sleek look, which could lend itself to noise-cancelling smarts.
However, recent Bloomberg reports indicate that the AirPods 3 will mimic the AirPods Pro in aesthetic only (i.e. they won't boast the same audio features).
52audio has said that support for active noise cancellation is likely, and it's certainly possible if the earbuds do take their design cues from the AirPods Pro, however MacRumors editor Joe Rossignol has speculated that the AirPods 3 will simply be a cheaper version of the AirPods Pro with noise cancellation removed – which follows what we're hearing from Bloomberg.
The latter has hinted at noise reduction, at least, as opposed to total cancellation – a little like the original Amazon Echo Buds.
Another feature that 52audio has deemed likely is Spatial Audio. Apple’s Spatial Audio is the company’s answer to Dolby Atmos for Headphones, designed for the AirPods Pro and the AirPods Max over-ear headphones.
It takes 5.1, 7.1, and Dolby Atmos content and applies directional audio filters, placing sound in a 3D sphere.
What’s unique to Spatial Audio though, is that it uses the built-in accelerometers and gyroscopes inside Apple’s earbuds and headphones to track the position of your head, as well as the position of your iPhone or iPad.
That means that, when you watch films on your iPhone or iPad, the sound will always be placed correctly based on the action on the screen – so, if you turn your head or shift your device, it will still sound as though the sound is coming from the screen.
While some outlets have predicted touch-sensitive controls like the AirPods Pro, it's possible the AirPods 3 will make use of more futuristic methods. In 2020, Apple was awarded a patent that described some of the cool features we could see in future AirPods models, including the ability to control the true wireless earbuds with futuristic 'in-air gestures'.
The patent, which was spotted by Patently Apple, describes how in-air gestures – for example hovering a hand over the AirPods – could work alongside the touch controls already employed by the AirPods Pro, allowing you to trigger different actions.
Another patent has since described AirPods that could automatically pause or lower the volume of your music if they detect hazards in your surroundings.
Better battery life
According to Bloomberg, Apple is looking to improve the battery life of the AirPods, which currently comes in at a rather meagre 24 hours. We certainly hope this the case – though if 52audio is to be believed, the onboard 5-hour battery life provided by the buds themselves won't be increased, with any improvements possibly only applying to charging case.
True wireless earbuds like the Lypertek PurePlay Z3 (Tevi) have shown that cutting the cord doesn’t have to mean sacrificing your battery life – and there’s really no need for the AirPods to only be offering a measly five hours of playback in 2021.
Apple AirPods 3: what we want to see
Better sound than the AirPods 2
The AirPods (2019) were an improvement upon their predecessors in terms of connectivity, but the sound remained exactly the same as the originals – and that audio technology is now four years old.
They have a lively, powerful presentation, although they can sound slightly harsh when it comes to higher-frequency sounds, and they aren’t the bassiest earbuds on the market.
There’s no reason why Apple couldn’t take a cue from these companies and really develop the sound of their earbuds, with more accurately-tuned drivers for improved bass response and rolled-off trebles – after all, the company has proved it possible with the AirPods Pro.
Hi-res audio support
Now that Apple Music offers hi-res audio at no extra cost to subscribers, we'd like to see Apple update its own hardware so that its capable of delivering lossless audio.
Right now, all AirPods models only support the AAC codec when connected to an iOS or iPadOS device, whereas the new lossless Apple Music format is encoded in ALAC. In short, without ALAC support built into the headphones, the AirPods aren't capable of transmitting hi-res audio.