Apple's next AirPods are looking like a mighty exciting pair of iPhone headphones. Apple didn't invent the category of true wireless earphones, but its original AirPods did very much take them mainstream. With the second-gen AirPods that arrived in 2019, Apple upped the ante even more. But with stellar offerings from the likes of Sony, Cambridge Audio, Sennheiser and Bose, there's no shortage of competition in the true wireless earbud space.
So, Apple will have its work cut out with its next pair. How will they look? Will they differ from the AirPods 2 and AirPods Pro? And crucially, when will they launch?
Let us run down the latest rumours and leaks so you can get an idea of what to look forward to...
Apple AirPods 3: release date
Revered Apple watcher Ming-Chi Kuo recently released a memo detailing everything he knows about Apple's next true wireless earbuds. And one nugget of information it contained was the likely release date.
Kuo reckons the AirPods 3 will launch in the first half of 2021. That would be about two years on from the launch of the second-gen AirPods (which touched down in March of last year), and about 18 months after the AirPods Pro, which launched late in 2019. That's pretty believable considering the jump from the original and second-gen AirPods was almost two and a half years.
If that's true, that means the 2019 AirPods will be around for a while yet. And with a successor on the horizon, look out for some tempting deals this holiday season.
Kuo has a good track record of Apple predictions - he accurately predicted the 2019 launch of the Apple AirPods Pro, after all - so when he speaks it's worth listening.
Apple AirPods 3: Price
The next-gen AirPods will sit below the AirPods Pro in Apple's two-strong AirPods stable so will be cheaper than their £249/$249 asking price.
The second-gen AirPods which they will replace launched at £159/$159 with the wired charging case and £199/$199 with the wireless charging case. We would expect the AirPods 3 to carry a similar price tag, and we wouldn't be surprised if only one case (the wireless one) was offered this time.
Apple AirPods 3: Design
If the rumours are correct, Apple's AirPods could be in for their biggest design change since launching.
According to Kuo's note, the third-gen AirPods will have a form factor and design "similar to AirPods Pro". While he doesn't elaborate, we can read a little into this - namely that the AirPods 3 will have a sleeker design with shorter stems coming from the earbuds.
They could also feature interchangeable ear tips, just like the Pros, though at this point that's far from certain.
Apple AirPods 3: Features
According to DigiTimes (via MacRumors) Apple is rumoured to be ramping up production of ambient light sensors with the intention of fitting them to future models of wireless headphones. These sensors could be used for health- and fitness-tracking features like monitoring your heart rate. Could Apple position the AirPods 3 as a more active pair of true wireless earbuds, while keeping the AirPods Pros for the audiophiles?
If so, bundling some ear fins in the box would help them stay in place while exercising. AirPods generally split opinion; some people find they fit perfectly well, while others say they're uncomfortable and drop out regularly. Apple at least acknowledged this by shipping ear tips with the AirPods Pro, to secure a better fit. Maybe it will follow suit with the AirPods 3.
Greater water resistance would also make sense. While not completely waterproof, the AirPods Pro are rated to a higher standard of water resistance (IPX4) than their non-Pro brethren. Active types love a bit of water resistance, as it means they can run in the rain and sweat profusely without worrying about all that moisture ruining their earbuds. So - fingers crossed - the AirPods 3 will at least have the same IPX4 rating as the AirPods Pro.
Could Apple give the AirPods 3 active noise cancellation (ANC) too? This is the standout feature of the AirPods Pro, and the main reason to spend extra to get them over the standard model. Therefore, we think it unlikely. If Apple did add ANC to the AirPods, it would have to add some pretty special features to the AirPods Pro - and not just Spatial Audio support - in order to justify a greater asking price.
Apple AirPods 3: Name
There has been much debate over the name of Apple's next AirPods. Will they be called the AirPods Pro Lite, as has been rumoured, or just stick with the standard AirPods name?
It really depends on what kind of proposition the earbuds end up as. All the rumours we have heard so far do point to Apple aping much of the design and features of the AirPods Pro... so AirPods Pro Lite would make sense.
But if Apple does add health-tracking skills it might well sell them as a pair for more active lifestyles, while the Pros are kept as the gold standard for audio quality. In that case, sticking with the standard AirPods moniker would be the logical way to go.