A history of AirPods

AirPods Pro and AirPods Max
(Image credit: iMore)

2016 was not a banner year for Apple, at least as far as the iPhone goes. The iPhone 7 felt a little flat, lacking in any real innovative features, and instead took one away – the headphone jack.

While Apple maintained it helped improve waterproofing, the jury is still out on just how much of that was true, and how much of it was to shift users to a newly announced lineup of Bluetooth earbuds – the AirPods.

Now in their sixth year, it’s hard to see them as anything less than a success, though.  AirPods in all their varieties and generation types are a much more common sight when commuting, traveling, or just visiting a local store than any of the excellent alternatives from Bose, Sony, or even Google.

With the wired EarPods (be they 3.5mm, Lightning or USB-C), on the verge of extinction, let's take a look at the history of AirPods, Apple's world-conquering audio product, from humble beginnings to the present day.

AirPods 1st Gen - Announced September 2016 

Original AirPods on an iPhone

(Image credit: Rene Ritchie / iMore)

Apple’s first stab at the AirPods, the original versions rolled out in December 2016... and were widely mocked when they debuted. People said they looked like toothbrush heads, and many decried the self-aggrandizing stance of Apple when it came to the 3.5mm jack removal from the iPhone as the company pushed people to its new earbuds.

They marked the debut of Apple’s W1 SoC, though, which helped balance battery life and connectivity, while also giving AirPods the instant-pairing feature with Apple devices that’s made them a mainstay of the ecosystem ever since.

Apple later added the option to buy a case with a wireless charging feature – the first time AirPods had moved to a non-Lightning charging method (although it was still an option).

The idea was that the company’s AirPower charging mat would charge an iPhone, Apple Watch, and AirPods at the same time – but it wasn't to be, with the failed AirPower matt ending up as a scrapped project in 2018.

AirPods 2nd Gen - Announced March 2019

AirPods 2 in a charging case against an iPhone X on a wooden table

(Image credit: iMore / Future)

AirPods were already growing in popularity thanks to their instantly recognizable design, and Apple wisely chose to keep the same look with the second generation model.

The company added the H1 chip, which added Siri via a hands-free ‘Hey Siri’ command, and meant that the AirPods could read users' messages as they arrived.

Connection strength and speed were also improved, as was battery life, making the second generation a marked step up.

AirPods Pro 1st Gen - Announced October 2019 

Someone holding the AirPods Pro in their case.

(Image credit: Future)

Apple’s AirPods Pro was revealed and released within two days, and marked a big step up on the basic AirPods thanks to the arrival of noise cancellation.

By squeezing the stems (or using the iOS interface), AirPods Pro could switch between noise cancellation and transparency mode, with the former using anti-noise to counter external audio, while the latter allows for users to hear the world around them, amplified through the onboard microphones.

Alongside featuring the ‘Hey Siri’ improvements thanks to an H1 chip, the AirPods Pro also matched the battery life of the base AirPods, although using noise canceling brought it down lower than many competitors.

AirPods Max - Announced December 2020 

AirPods Max laying flat on table.

(Image credit: Christine Romero-Chan / iMore)

In a year where we all had to stay inside our homes during a pandemic, Apple dropped the AirPods Max reveal via a store refresh, and reception was, initially at least, mixed.

The design has an industrial look that’s easy to spot among a crowd of competitors, and the first over-ear AirPods didn’t disappoint in terms of excellent audio quality and Spatial Audio support.

The $549 price point certainly stung many, though, although it’s still less than you’d pay for very, very high-end headphones. The $70 replacement cups didn’t help matters, and nor did the bizarre ‘Smart Case’ which put the AirPods Max into a low power mode instead of simply turning them off.

They’re often discounted now, and the long-awaited 2024 refresh is this writer’s most anticipated Apple product of next year.

AirPods 3rd Gen - Announced October 2021 

Airpods 3 With Case Right Earbud Lying In Front Of Case

(Image credit: Luke Filipowicz / iMore)

While the AirPods Pro saw a design change from the base AirPods to fit more of that ‘Pro’ goodness, the third-generation AirPods borrowed plenty from the Pro.

With shorter stems, the AirPods (Third Gen) added the same stem-based controls from the AirPods Pro, albeit without noise cancellation. They gained better battery life, too, while also adding Spatial Audio and Dolby Atmos support to make them ideal for watching Apple TV Plus shows.

AirPods Pro 2nd Gen - Announced September 2022 

AirPods Pro 2 on a table

(Image credit: iMore)

The AirPods Pro saw a second-generation refresh in September 2022, with improved noise cancellation given plenty of focus, especially when factoring in iOS 16’s Personalized Spatial Audio.

Much of this comes from the arrival of the H2 chip, allowing for Adaptive Transparency to adjust incoming loud audio. Apple also added a touch control for volume adjustment on the go, letting you swipe up and down on the stems to dial volume levels accordingly.

Battery life was also improved, fixing the biggest complaint about the AirPods Pro first generation. The charging case also added a speaker for Find My functionality, so it can ring a loud noise if you've misplaced them somewhere.

AirPods Pro '2.5' - Announced September 2023 

AirPods Pro case exploded

(Image credit: Ken Pillonel)

The latest AirPods update, the AirPods Pro got a pseudo-generational refresh in September 2023.

Yes, the case has a USB-C port instead of Lightning in this update, but the main change on the inside is the updated H2 chip to offer 5GHz lossless audio for reduced latency when used with the Vision Pro headset. There’s also Adaptive Audio to blend Transparency and Noise Cancelation modes, while Conversation Awareness will lower volume, reduce background noise, and raise nearby voices if you strike up a conversation — though this is a backwards-compatible feature with early AirPods Pro models.

In December 2023 Apple also began separate sales of the USB-C charging case.

What's next for AirPods?

Apple reportedly made $14.5 billion in revenue from AirPods sales alone last year — that's more than the revenue of Spotify and X, from one small arm of Apple's business. So expect to continue to see more AirPods innovation in 2024.

All eyes will be on Apple's plans for AirPods Max 2 — the suspected sequel to the only AirPods product yet to get a refresh. While USB-C charging is a dead-cert for inclusion in any future AirPods Max headphones, price, battery and spatial audio improvements could all be on the cards. It will be interesting to see if Apple can conjure a way to make the AirPods Max work seamlessly with Apple Vision Pro, bringing the company's high-end audio to its most premium device, it could be a whole new level of immersion.

Lloyd Coombes
Contributor

Lloyd Coombes is a freelance writer with a specialism in Apple tech. From his first, hand-me-down iMac, he’s been working with Apple products for over a decade, and while he loves his iPhone and Mac, the iPad will always have his heart for reasons he still can’t quite fathom.

Since moving from blogging to writing professionally, Lloyd’s work can be found at TechRadar, Macworld, TechAdvisor and plenty more.

He’s also the Editor in Chief at GGRecon.com, and on the rare occasion he’s not writing you’ll find him spending time with his son, or working hard at the gym (while wearing an Apple Watch, naturally). You can find him on Twitter @lloydcoombes.

With contributions from