This line bears repeating: In 2016, Apple deleted the 3.5mm headphone jack. Those jerks. But, at the same time, Apple also introduced AirPods. Making them magnificent jerks.
Rather watch than read? Hit play on the video above!
They went on to become one of Apple's best products in years, cutting the strings on the truly wireless headphone category and jumpstarting a generation of memes. And, as anyone raised on the internet knows, memes are the true measure of any cultural success.
In March of 2019, Apple released second-generation AirPods with the H1 chip, voice-activated Siri built-in, longer talk time, and an optional inductive charging case.
They made an already great product better, but it's also fair to say they took longer to come out than some people expected and they still lacked features some people had been hoping for.
So, as is always the case, the exact minute after we get something new, all our attention turns to what's next.
In this case, AirPods 3.
AirPods 3: The rumors
Mark Gurman, writing for Bloomberg on February 22, 2018, after outlining the then still upcoming AirPods 2, added this about AirPods 3:
A subsequent model for as early as next year is planned to be water resistant, they added, asking not to be identified discussing private product plans.
The idea for the water-resistant model is for the headphones to survive splashes of water and rain, the people said.
Water resistance is a big deal. While many of us, myself included, have used our AirPods out in the rain and sweated them up through all types of workouts, without any real ingress protection, it's only a matter of time before damage accumulates, starts affecting performance, or kills the pods completely.
How big a challenge gasketing and sealing up everything inside something so small, and preserving it through the salt baths that are our sweat, I don't know. But adding just that kind of protection will cut one of the few invisible strings still holding AirPods back, especially for more precipitous climates and for more grueling activities.
Gurman and Bloomberg returned to AirPods on June 26, 2018:
The Cupertino, California-based company is working on new AirPods with noise-cancellation and water resistance, the people said. Apple is trying to increase the range that AirPods can work away from an iPhone or iPad, one of the people said. You won't be swimming in them though: The water resistance is mainly to protect against rain and perspiration, the people said.
The company has also internally discussed adding biometric sensors to future AirPods, like a heart-rate monitor, to expand its health-related hardware offerings beyond the Apple Watch, another person said. The current AirPods will be refreshed later this year with a new chip and support for hands-free Siri activation, Bloomberg News reported.
Noise canceling is also a big deal. I'm paranoid, so I hate the idea of being cut off from the world around me. When I use noise-canceling headphones like Bose, I typically only use one side at a time. But, for people way better adjusted than me, noise cancelation is incredibly important.
The current AirPods are great if you want to walk or run outside and not be surprised by any cars or bikes. Not so great if you want to cancel out the noise plane, train, or bus noise, to being able to study or work effectively at school or on the job. Especially in the era of open, communal offices.
But, active noise canceling, as opposed to just noise isolation, does increase power draw, and in something as tiny as AirPods, it'll be interesting to see how Apple balances adding a new, hungry feature like that, with maintaining as much battery life for listen and talk time as possible.
Biometrics would be an even bigger deal. As the Apple Watch starts to take on more of the iPhones jobs, like cellular connectivity, it's reasonable for AirPods to take on some Apple Watch jobs, like health sensors. Not only would that let you work out — and maybe even one-day stream music and podcast, see my previous video on that, link in the description — with even less tech on you than a watch, it would open the door for heart rate based authentication even without a Watch.
Like I mentioned in my iPhone XS re-review, voice-activated Siri is great with AirPods, until it tells you need to unlock your iPhone first. If the AirPods could also project authentication to iPhone, like Watch does for Mac, problem solved.
Gurman also added rumors of an expanded product line:
There are over-ear headphones coming from Apple, too. Those will compete with pricey models from Bose Corp. and Sennheiser. They will use Apple branding and be a higher-end alternative to the company's Beats line. Apple originally intended to introduce the headphones by the end of 2018, but has faced development challenges, and is now targeting a launch as early as next year, the people said.
Buds are good. Buds are great. But for many people, for many occasions, you still can't beat the cans. Although Apple still owns the much more expansive Beats line, and we've already seen them announce the H1-driven PowerBeats Pro that are in-and-around the ear, and no doubt there'll be more where that comes from, it makes sense to expand the Apple-proper lineup as well.
Wearables aren't just an increasing part of Apple's revenue, they'll be a significant part of the company's future.
Aaron Lee and Willis Ke, writing for Digitimes, the randomly accurate rumor blog, on April 24, 2019:
To meet challenges from rivals, Apple and its supply chain partners are looking to raise the bar by adding new features to AirPods 3, including the noise cancellation function.
The sources said that noise cancellation is not a new technology, but a technology hard to harness. On the one hand, semiconductor devices can hardly work without suffering electromagnetic disturbance, and on the other hand how the structural design of the noise forward feedback microphone can be done well to achieve harmonious operation with other devices is a great challenge for designers and assemblers.
Kuo Ming-Chi, supply chain information exfiltrator extraordinaire, also on April 24, 2019, via MacRumors:
We expect Apple will likely launch two new AirPods models in 4Q19 at the earliest. One is the all-new form factor design at a higher price. The other's outlook and price will be the same as the current model's. A common internal design factor of these two new AirPods will be to abandon the current "SMT+RFPCB" design and change to adopt the SiP design instead for improving assembly yield rates, saving internal space and reducing cost.
SiP is System-in-package, it's what the Apple Watch uses to cram even more components into even less space than the SoC, or system-on-a-chip and additional, connected components used in bigger devices like phones and tablets.
It's unclear if the new, more expensive form factor Kuo references is the over-the-ear headphones Mark Gurman talked about last year, or simply a more premium in-ear design.
Having multiple AirPods in the same year is a risky strategy, though. It will satisfy people who held off on AirPods 2 because they were still lacking features like water resistance or noise canceling, but it'll piss of people who didn't hold off, because there's nothing humans hate more than feeling like they don't have the latest and greatest. Worse than waiting too long is feeling rushed along.
Apple did replace the iPad 3 with the iPad 4 only 6 months later, but that's because the iPad 3 GPU was untenable. Even releasing the Vega Pro MacBook Pro only a few months after the initial update caused wicked side eye from people who'd already made their purchase.
AirPods 3: The potential
Given what we got and didn't get with the second generation AirPods, and beyond the rumors, there are a few other features that would go a long way to making the next AirPods even more next-gen.
More physical controls are high on many people's lists. Apple has already added different options for the accelerometer tap on existing AirPods, and let you split the controls so tapping one AirPod can do something different than tapping the other.
Direct volume control, though, still isn't available. So, maybe Apple could add a capacitive layer to the circumference, similar to what was just added to Apple Pencil 2 to switch tools, then maybe you could swipe up to increase and swipe down to decrease volume, and it would be one less reason to reach for your Watch or iPhone any more.
Also, one size really hasn't fit all, and for anyone who wants to use AirPods but can't because of the fit, that's a real let down. My own ears have been mangled by a decade of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, so while the left one fits perfectly, the right one is always a little looser. I don't know if Apple could tweak the shape or the material to hit an even wider range of people, or if it could go to or offer an in-ear alternative for those who really need it, but something. Because, as I've said before, AirPods really should be for everyone.
Also, sure, the color. PowerBeats Pro are coming in black, ivory, navy blue, and moss green, but AirPods are still only available in classic, iconic iPod white. There's a lot of cachet in that color, but in the age of iPhone XR, it also seems limited.
If the new, high-end AirPods stick to white, maybe a newly, more accessibly priced set of AirPods could get their Apple-chromatic on?
Maybe other sensors as well, beyond just heart rate. An altimeter makes a lot of sense for workouts.
AirPods 3: Pricing and Release Date
AirPods, despite the second gen taking a little longer, still seem bound to the iPhone. So, the September 2019 iPhone event seems like the next best time to see new AirPods. If not then, March 2020 would be a year after AirPods 2, and that might end up making even more sense.
Pricing could go up to support the added, more expensive features. Apple originally sold AirPods as close to cost as they could, giving up margin to help push the technology. Yeah, I know a lot of people still found them expensive, but you weren't paying for the sound. You were paying for all the truly wireless technology and sensors packed inside. No regular, wired headphones have anything like that.
And that's why I'm hoping if Apple does go up to the premium end with AirPods, they also do what they did with iPad, and match it with new, lower end models as well. That way, people who want the best audio and fullest feature set can get it, and those who just want really great wireless can get that for less.
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