Apple's AirPods line is a confusing mess of old and new products, and Apple doesn't seem to be doing anything to fix it

AirPods Max
(Image credit: Future)

I love my AirPods: The magic-like initial connection, the clean white cases, and the litany of features that work seamlessly with iPad, iPhone, and Mac. 

There are, however, two crucial problems with the lineup that are likely stopping would-be buyers from jumping on the AirPods tune-tune train — the pricing structure, and the befuddling array of old, new(ish), and overlapping products. That first cost-related issue may be an inescapable part of building out a premium product line. But the second issue? That’s a problem purely of Apple’s own making.

From the aging AirPods 2 and the never-updated AirPods Max, to the noise-canceling AirPods Pro 2 and its own semi-sequel USB-C case variant, the AirPods line is one of Apple’s most confusing. With rumors of new AirPods on the (slightly distant) horizon, however, Apple could have the opportunity to unify the line and make it less daunting for would-be buyers. Though it looks as if it’s going to in fact complicate the line-up further, there are a few simple steps Apple can follow to make the AirPods line-up sing once more.

Which AirPods do I even want?

AirPods Pro 2 on a mosaic table

(Image credit: Gerald Lynch / Future)

The AirPods line is all over the place, and that’s despite Apple’s intent for there to be a niche that each model fits into. Let’s see if we can work it out: First off are the AirPods 2, the cheap pair. They lack the features of the more expensive options, and you’ll often find them for less than $100 when on sale. The AirPods 3 follow, with a slightly different design and the addition of Spatial Audio — there’s a price hike too, up to $160. Then there’s the AirPods Pro 2, the final boss of Apple’s in-ear line. They cost $249, and feature noise-canceling and transparency modes. While the relatively-new USB-C case version of the AirPods Pro 2 is the most commonly found, you can confusingly still find the older Lightning case version dotted about at different retailers. Finally, there are the AirPods Max, which go over your ears rather than in them, and cost $549.

There’s some weird overlap between the features on board the AirPods, which does little to justify there being so many different model options. There are only one or two differences between the in-ear AirPods models, doing little to make them distinct. The AirPods 3 feature Spatial Audio, the only real reason you might choose them over the AirPods 2, and then the AirPods Pro add noise canceling for an extra $70. It’s that middle model that throws everything off, in the long run, and it makes it harder to work out which you should actually put your money into.

Making matters worse is that there’s a weird mix of old and new products in the line. The AirPods 2, for example, are one of the oldest products that you can still buy in the Apple Store, first coming to shelves five years ago in March 2019. The AirPods Max are slightly newer, debuting in December 2020. The AirPods 3 came out in 2021, while the most recent AirPods Pro 2 were released in September 2023 with a USB-C refresh — something the rest of the line is yet to receive.

There’s some weird overlap between the features on board the AirPods, which does little to justify there being so many different model options.Insert quote here

You can be left wondering if your shiny new AirPods are about to be out-moded by Apple the moment you buy them if you go for one of the less expensive models or even the AirPods Max. Beyond even that, the naming convention is weird. There are two AirPods models, but they look and sound different. There is only one AirPods Pro model, but they are the sequel to another version, so they’re the AirPods Pro 2nd generation with USB-C. In the same breath, the AirPods Pro 2 with Lighting connector are still available from some retailers (though ‘Lightning’ isn’t mentioned anywhere in its naming, making them harder to identify), and confounding even further is that first-generation AirPods Pro can still be found.

There are MagSafe versions of some of the AirPods, but not all of them. In some cases, you have to buy a wireless charging case separately. Then there’s the AirPods Max — the outlier of the group insomuch as they have an over-ear form factor. While they follow the traditional ‘Max is better than Pro’ Apple name usage, there is still an element of confusion as they stand out with more color options and a different shape.

All of this can leave buyers confused — go for the cheapest pair, but get a five-year-old product? What will you be missing out on? When will they be replaced? Stump up for the most expensive pair instead? But they too are now long in the tooth.

Thankfully, there is a solution, should Apple choose to take another route for the product line.

The fix to all the AirPods woes

Airpods 3 In Case Hero

(Image credit: iMore)

If Apple wants to sort its ‘confusing lineup’ problem out, it needs to unify the line and trim it down. Chop out the AirPods 3, and give customers a real reason to choose the AirPods Pro over the standard, cheaper AirPods. This is what the AirPods line should look like:

  • AirPods
  • AirPods Pro
  • AirPods Max

Rather than having a mid-range, non-Pro model of AirPods, there should be a clear product line that is released and refreshed at the same time. That would simplify things down, and give clear use cases to each model. Do you just want a pair of AirPods, and don’t need noise canceling or Spatial Audio? Pick up the AirPods. Want noise canceling? Grab the AirPods Pro. Want to show off to all your friends that you have lots of money? Get yourself some AirPods Max, and luxuriate in the best sound quality Apple’s audio department can muster.

The trouble we’ve got now is that Apple doesn’t seem to want it to look like this. If you’ve been keeping up with the AirPods release rumors, you’ll have some idea of what I’m talking about. According to Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman, there are going to be three new AirPods models launching later this year, joining the existing AirPods Pro 2.

The most affordable pair are going to have improved comfort, USB-C charging, and a potentially sub-$100 price tag from the start. These are to replace the aging AirPods 2, bringing a new design and extra features. Some are going so far as to call them ‘AirPods Lite’. The second new pair is going to be what Gurman calls a ‘mid-tier’ option, which will bring the same improved fit and USB-C port, but add noise canceling to the mix, which will make them sit uncomfortably close to the feature set offered by the still-present AirPods Pro 2, which are currently not rumored to be refreshed this year.

Want to show off to all your friends that you have lots of money? Get yourself some AirPods Max, and luxuriate in the best sound quality Apple’s audio department can muster.

Even more interesting is that these two AirPods have the same internal model number, only changing with a (E) or an (M) at the end. There’s no news or rumor about what the naming convention might be either, but doubtless, it will confuse things further.

The new AirPods Max 2 are the third rumored new pair, and they’re going to stay at the top of the tree, and we don’t have much of an idea of what they’re going to look like or how big (or not) the update is going to be. We’re expecting better noise canceling and a USB-C port on the bottom.Rather than following what I believe a sensible three-tier line-up as I detailed above, the line-up, as currently rumored, will look like this instead:

  • New budget AirPods 
  • New mid-range AirPods
  • Old AirPods Pro 2
  • New AirPods Max 2

You’ll notice that this doesn’t make the line any less confusing, or any easier to decipher. If nothing else, it continues Apple’s current four-pair lineup — again, at worst not giving much of a reason to choose the mid-range option, and at best muddying the choice between mid-range and AirPods Pro 2 . Apple isn’t fixing the problem, but neither is it making it worse; it’s merely keeping it going.

The Apple lineup problem

AirPods 2 Wireless Charging Case standing on table with gold iPhone XS behind

(Image credit: iMore / Future)

This is not a problem that’s unique to the AirPods, mind you. The iPad lineup is just as confusing, with new iPads coming in dribs and drabs, not setting each model far enough apart to justify there being so many options. Working out the best iPad for you is easily as hard as working out which AirPods to buy.

What’s sad is that with the upcoming launch of new AirPods (albeit one that is months away) Apple has the opportunity to fix things — although it seems like it won’t.

Tammy Rogers
Senior Staff Writer

As iMore's Senior Staff writer, Tammy uses her background in audio and Masters in screenwriting to pen engaging product reviews and informative buying guides. The resident audiophile (or audio weirdo), she's got an eye for detail and a love of top-quality sound. Apple is her bread and butter, with attention on HomeKit and Apple iPhone and Mac hardware. You won't find her far away from a keyboard even outside of working at iMore – in her spare time, she spends her free time writing feature-length and TV screenplays. Also known to enjoy driving digital cars around virtual circuits, to varying degrees of success. Just don't ask her about AirPods Max - you probably won't like her answer.

  • Annie_M
    Interesting take on the array of AirPods line! I don't find it confusing, but that's just me! :D
  • Just_Me_D
    Did I miss something? There’s the AirPods, AirPods Pro and AirPods Max. What’s confusing about them?