As you may have heard, production has started on AirPods Studio, Apple's rumored set of over-ear wireless headphones. If we assume that this is the case, we're likely to see AirPods Studio relatively soon, perhaps as soon as WWDC 2020, which kicks off on June 22.
We've been hearing about over-the-ear headphones coming directly from Apple (rather than the company's Beats subsidiary) for a while now, and I'm excited that they're almost here. I see it as the end of the first phase of the AirPods era, where AirPods go from being Apple's wireless earbuds to being an audio product line.
We don't know the exact reason that Apple decided to even start making AirPods, but as outside observers, we can make guesses. From the outside, it looks pretty simple: Apple was removing the headphone jack from the iPhone and wanted to give people a simple-to-use wireless earphone option that it could also sell for a decent profit. In this way, the AirPods were a bit of an incidental product.
Of course, that 'incidental product' was the result of a lot of hard work, and it shows. Pairing was dead simple, audio quality was pretty good, as was battery life. Like a lot of people, I fell in love with my AirPods almost immediately.
But subsequent AirPods releases have almost felt like they were addressing the shortcomings of the first-generation AirPods. The second-generation earphones added "Hey Siri" support, as well as an option for a case with wireless charging. AirPods Pro, though not a replacement for either the first- or second-generation earphones, are a refinement of the initial design: smaller, actually in-ear buds with a more secure fit, and active noise cancellation (ANC).
The AirPods Studio would be the first time that Apple branched away from the initial idea. Where current AirPods all feel like refinements of the first model, AirPods Studio (which again, haven't even been announced) represent a deliberate departure, an attempt to make something new for Apple. And I think that this move means that AirPods are starting a transition from accessory to product line.
Holes in the lineup
Once AirPods Studio are available, Apple will have a basic lineup of wireless personal audio products available: a set of earphones priced for "most" people (though Apple could do better on that front), the more advanced earbuds with ANC, and a set of over-ear, noise-canceling headphones.
It's a lineup. But it is a basic lineup. There are some holes that Apple could fill. And while you might wonder why Apple would do that when it owns Beats, I would remind you that it owns Beats, and released AirPods anyway. A lot of the technology in AirPods may have made its way to Beats products, but Apple clearly wants its name and branding on headphones, or it probably would have just stopped at AirPods Pro.
But what holes could Apple fill? Well, first, not everyone likes earbuds or earphones. Many find them uncomfortable. At the same time, most people won't want to shell out the $350 or so that's rumored to be the price for the over-ear AirPods Studio. So why not some lower-cost over-ear or on-ear headphones? Maybe Apple could do a version without ANC, and a version with ANC, as Beats already does.
On the smaller end of things, I think Apple could make a sport-specific set of in-ear headphones along the lines of the Powerbeats and Powerbeats Pro: meant to stay more securely in your ear, better battery life, and with an even better eye towards water and sweat resistance than current AirPods.
Apple could take AirPods in a few other directions, but now that it's moving past small earbuds, I think a further expansion is almost inevitable. There was a recent report that says that Apple eventually means to phase out Beats entirely at some point, and if that's the case, it would be smart to introduce AirPods products that are analogous to the wireless headphones that Beats already makes.
While Apple might not offer every type of product that Beats does (for instance, don't expect any wired models from Apple, and I'd put my money on only one pair of on-ear headphones), it can do more to broaden the AirPods line and offer products for a variety of different needs. Apple's usually a company that likes to make only a few of a type of product. But when it comes to something to wear, the company might need to be a little more flexible.
I'm excited for what the future of AirPods could bring, and what Apple might already be working on. Whether it's a set of on-ear headphones for everyday use or an even better set of noise-canceling earbuds, I can't wait to see (and hear) what's coming next.
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