The old Apple AirPods design needs to go – here’s why

(Image credit: Future)

The Apple AirPods are perhaps the most iconic true wireless earbuds on the planet, popularizing the fledgling form factor when they were released in 2016. 

Four years on, and the world of true wireless earbuds has been transformed. Now, these totally untethered earphones can offer audio quality to rival the best over-ear headphones, with extra features like noise cancellation, gesture controls, and low-latency Bluetooth connectivity. 

In other words, true wireless earbuds have never been better, and that’s in no small part down to Apple’s own innovations in the field of personal audio. Most recently, the company announced that the noise-cancelling AirPods Pro would be getting Dolby Atmos spatial audio, tracking the motion of your head and your device, to ensure that the audio always appears to originate from the correct position.

However, there’s one aspect of Apple’s true wireless earbuds that are long overdue an upgrade: the design. Despite upgrading the AirPods in 2019 with its new H1 headphone chip (allowing for faster pairing times and a hands-free Hey Siri feature), the design remained unchanged .

And, with the AirPods 3 reportedly on the way in 2021 (or perhaps even 2020 if we’re lucky), it’s the perfect time for Apple to break away from the look of the original 2016 AirPods

What’s wrong with the Apple AirPods design anyway?

Before we go into the various reasons that Apple should do away with the design of the original AirPods, it’s important to note that it did serve the company well – very well, in fact. 

After all, the original AirPods are arguably the first true wireless earbuds to really capture the public’s attention, convincing many of us to cut the cord for good. 

They still dominate the market today. In 2019, Apple commanded an enormous 50% of the true wireless earbuds market share, eclipsing well-known audio brands like Sony, Bose, and Sennheiser. 

That’s partly down to the instantly recognizable design of the Apple AirPods – when you think of a pair of true wireless earbuds, chances are that you conjure up an image of Apple’s earphones, with their all-white plastic casing and long ear stems. 

It’s a design that took inspiration from the wired Apple EarPods, which come free with iPhones (at least, for now they do), and is therefore an already well-known and trusted look. 

Simply removing the wire connecting both earbuds to each other and to your phone seems like a no-brainer for a company that wanted to encourage possibly hesitant buyers into the world of truly wireless listening.

That design, while recognizable, isn’t perfect, and it could hold Apple back if it chooses to implement it once again with the AirPods 3. 

(Image credit: Future)

Goodbye, long stems

One of the most derided aspects of the original AirPods is their long ear stems that protrude from your ears when you wear them. 

These ear stems may have allowed for the implementation of touch-sensitive controls, but as the AirPods Pro have proven, these controls don’t require a huge footprint to work. 

On the AirPods Pro’s far shorter ear stems, you’ll find a capacitive force sensor; squeeze this and you can activate noise cancellation or Transparency mode, as well as skipping and pausing your music.

Plus, innovations in system-in-package electronics (SiP), means that you can squeeze an awful lot more tech into smaller devices. It’s a technology used by the AirPods Pro, and it’s rumored that it will be utilized once more for the AirPods 3 – so, with no mechanical need for those long ear stems, there’s nothing stopping Apple from getting rid.

Better fit leads to better sound

The design of the original AirPods had a decidedly ‘one size fits all approach’, which ultimately led to issues with noise isolation, as well as causing some users to feel as though their buds were never fully secure in their ears.

This was rectified with the AirPods Pro, which came with silicone eartips in a range of sizes. 

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.

That increased passive noise reduction could also be a much-needed feature in the AirPods 3, which are rumored to eschew the noise cancellation smarts of the AirPods Pro. 


The TicPods 2 Pro (pictured) take design inspiration from the AirPods. (Image credit: Mobvoi)

Beat the copycats

The success of the AirPods meant that a huge number of copycat true wireless earbuds flooded the market in the years following their release – and while many of these alternatives are pretty good in their own right, many more are poor imitations of the original ‘Pods. 

Where respected audio brands like Sony, Cambridge Audio, and Sennheiser have opted for stemless designs, cheaper brands like JLab, Xiaomi, and Mobvoi have taken inspiration from Apple, leading to an influx of poor-sounding AirPod dupes. 

It may be a side effect of Apple’s success, but this influx could lead to a perception that the original AirPods design looks, well, cheap – and may be associated with earbuds that just aren’t that good. 

AirPods Pro

The AirPods 3 could look like the AirPods Pro (pictured). (Image credit: Future)

When will we see the AirPods 3?

With over a year having gone by 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.

For a while, we had hoped that the Apple AirPods 3 would be released in 2020, but recent comments from industry analyst Ming-Chi Kuo suggest we may be waiting a while longer – speculating that the next-gen AirPods would start mass production in early 2021, with a new AirPods Pro model arriving in 2022 too (via AppleInsider). 

According to 9to5Mac, the prolific Apple analyst believes that Apple "will continue to sell second-generation AirPods through this year’s holiday season", replacing the popular true wireless earbuds with the AirPods 3 "in the first half of 2021". 

In any case, we’re hoping for a big update to the design, and that’s been backed up by a prediction from Kuo. Kuo, who has made a number of correct Apple predictions in the past, says that the AirPods 3 will "adopt a compact system-in-package (SiP) solution similar to AirPods Pro", in a research note obtained by MacRumors.

That means the original AirPods design could truly be ditched for good – and we think that would be a really smart move from Apple.

Olivia Tambini

Olivia was previously TechRadar's Senior Editor - Home Entertainment, covering everything from headphones to TVs. Based in London, she's a popular music graduate who worked in the music industry before finding her calling in journalism. She's previously been interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live on the subject of multi-room audio, chaired panel discussions on diversity in music festival lineups, and her bylines include T3, Stereoboard, What to Watch, Top Ten Reviews, Creative Bloq, and Croco Magazine. Olivia now has a career in PR.