Apple's rumored AirPods 3 didn't make an appearance at the company's California Streaming event, but Apple's next-gen earbuds could still debut this year, possibly at Apple's October event. (Here's how to watch Apple's Unleashed event live today and everything we could see like a new MacBook Pro.) Over the years, for some of us, AirPods have become an essential tool for work, school and other parts of life. Lots of other excellent Bluetooth earbuds exist, but AirPods are still impressively instant and have good microphones. Plus, being able to swap from one ear to another has helped me extend battery life by one-earing my way through long meetings.
The second-gen AirPods are almost two years old, while the AirPods Pro are over a year old, and have continued to evolve. Apple added spatial audio in 2020, and the massively expensive AirPods Max headphones arrived with a different proposition (I prefer small earbuds, not big headphones), so what will the AirPods 3 bring? And what do I even want? For me, it's mostly about better connection.
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AirPods Pro Lite buds could shift all AirPods to the Pro look
Some reports say that the third-gen AirPods will look like the Pros, minus the active noise cancellation and spatial audio features. Which means they'll have shorter stems and have replaceable ear tips in different sizes.
I appreciate the AirPod Pro design and its less visible look, but I have mixed feelings about the ear tips. The deeper in-ear tips feel more sealed off for better noise blocking, but I appreciate the easier and more pass-through-friendly design of the originals for casual call monitoring. Maybe Apple will split the difference somehow.
Read more: AirPods vs. AirPods Pro: Should you spend the extra $80?
A pair of "AirPods Pro Lite" earbuds could also end up being more expensive than the second-gen AirPods, which isn't ideal at all. Maybe they'd deliver better sound or better battery life to make the possible price bump worth it.
I want AirPods to device-swap even more effortlessly
Apple's iOS 14 and Big Sur OS updates have helped AirPods autoconnect to Apple devices faster, but I still find that I have to double-check that AirPods are paired during a Zoom or FaceTime. Sometimes I also encounter bugs that disconnect the AirPods, too.
I don't just want to switch to whatever device I'm using, though: I want to actively switch as I multitask, or even blend sources. I look at my phone, laptop, even a TV at the same time. I'd love to tap-select to swap, or maybe even use my head orientation as a way for the AirPods to somehow sense what device I'm using. Apple's latest devices have U1 chips that can spatially recognize where other Apple devices are. New AirPods could maybe make use of this more, too. Keep in mind, even the expensive AirPods Max don't have a U1 chip, so less expensive AirPods aren't likely to, either... but it's an interesting thought.
Or I'd even love a way to mix sources (a feed from my laptop, video from my iPhone). Apple already mixes ambient outside noise with one audio source via Transparency -- could it go further? Or could Apple adopt more intelligent audio analysis of ambient noise and adjust the sound to boost treble or bass or spoken voices?
What about AirPods fitness features?
Apple just launched its own Fitness Plus workout subscription service, which requires an Apple Watch. AirPods are an important piece of the Apple Watch-music-workout triangle, but so far the AirPods' built-in tap controls are pretty limiting, and lack positional awareness.
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Adding more shortcuts or tap gestures for workouts and activity monitoring could be smart, and would it be possible for AirPods to recognize when you're starting to run or exercise? The AirPods Pro have gyros and accelerometers that could unlock more movement and positional awareness. Next-gen AirPods Pro might push into this territory more, but hopefully the third-gen AirPods will, too.
It's unlikely that Apple will add actual health-tracking sensors, like step counting or heart rate, to the AirPods. But the Apple Watch and AirPods should form even more of a symbiotic pair. Heart rate and fitness readings, maybe even deeper watch control with AirPod commands. But it should be noted that ears are a pretty good place to measure heart rate.
We'll know more about AirPods 3 later this year, probably
I wouldn't hold off on getting AirPods now, but keep in mind that new models should be coming sometime before the end of 2021. According to his Power On newsletter, Bloomberg's Mark Gurman expects the AirPods 3 to arrive before the end of the year. Gurman's speculation follows a report from DigiTimes that says the AirPods 3 have entered mass production, and should arrive later this year.
Battery life, audio performance and fitness are logical places to focus on. But I hope the updated earbuds find a way to be better, more reliable connect-to-everything wearables, too.
For more, you can take a look at how the AirPods compare with the AirPods 2 and the AirPods Pro. You can also check out CNET's list of budget-friendly AirPod alternatives.