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 in the second half of 2021
- Based on AirPods Pro design, complete with silicone eartips
- 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 suggests "the third-generation AirPods will go to mass production in the 1H21" (the first half of 2021).
A follow-up note from Kuo in July 2020 reiterated the expected release date, and shed a little more light on what to expect - more on that later.
If that wasn't enough, a separate DigiTimes source also claims that Apple is aiming for an H121 release, with manufacturers in Vietnam recently gearing up for production. That's also echoed by a December 2020 report from The Elec, claiming that the H121 release is on track.
More recently, YouTuber Luke Miani claims (via AppleTrack) that Apple will launch the third-gen AirPods possibly alongside the rumoured Apple Music Hi-Fi tier via press release on Tuesday 18 May. It's not unheard of - Apple announced the iPad Pro 2020 range via press release - but given the rumoured redesign, we'd be surprised if Apple didn't make a song and dance about the new buds so we'd take this with a pinch of salt.
If not on 18 May, then when will we see the buds?
Kuo suggested in a March 2021 note that the AirPods 3 aren't due to enter mass production until Q3 2021, going against all previous H121 release claims - including his own.
That's in line with a March 2021 Digitimes report that suggests "supplier ASE Technology is packaging and testing optical sensors" for the next-gen AirPods. Given the fact that the supplier has only recently kicked off the testing stage, it's likely that the AirPods aren't ready for prime time just yet.
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 Pro design
- Powered by H1 chipset
- No ANC, but Adaptive EQ could be available
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 in the leaked image 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.
Leaker UnclePan gave us yet another hands-on shot in April 2021, so the earbuds' design feels pretty certain at this point.
With that being said, 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.
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.
There's even 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.