Leaked photos might give us the first real glimpse at the AirPods 3

When it comes to true wireless earbuds, none are as instantly recognizable as Apple’s iconic AirPods and AirPods Pro. Apple didn’t invent this category of audio accessories, but there’s no question that the company has done more to popularize them than anyone else.

So when it comes to speculation around what’s next, there is a lot of enthusiasm for news and rumors about the Apple AirPods 3.

What kinds of features can we expect from the AirPods 3, and how much will they cost? Here’s everything we know (or think we know) so far about Apple’s next AirPods model.

Design

AirPods Small / AirPods 3

via 52audio pic.twitter.com/oxJHCO5bga

— DuanRui (@duanrui1205) November 5, 2020

What will the AirPods 3 look like? Well, according to analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, they’ll end up looking a lot like the AirPods Pro, but this could mean several things. It could mean they’ll use the exact same shape, or they may simply borrow the AirPods Pro’s silicone tips, giving them a noise-isolating design that is favored by a large majority of true wireless earbud makers.

An October 26 Bloomberg report reinforced Kuo’s prediction, saying: “The design of the updated entry-level AirPods will be similar to the current AirPods Pro, gaining a shorter stem and replaceable eartips.”

But a November 4 leak from 52Audio, claiming to reveal the first real photos of the new AirPods, shows a design that is somewhere in-between. They appear to borrow the AirPods Pro’s general size and shape, including the shorter, angled stems, but the speaker opening is not capped with a silicone eartip. Instead, it uses a slightly modified version of the design of the current AirPods, which sit just outside the ear canal, not sealed within it.

The angled stems use the AirPods Pro’s pressure-sensitive controls, not the AirPods’ motion-sensitive tap controls.

The name: AirPods 3, AirPods Pro Lite, or AirPods+

Guessing Apple’s name for its new products can be almost as much fun as guessing what they will do and how much they’ll cost. At this point in the company’s history, some naming trends are obvious. Apple enjoys giving its iPhone and iPad names that use numbers, words, and letters, e.g., iPhone 11, iPad Pro, and iPhone SE. The same cannot be said of its other products, like the Apple TV, iMac, MacBook, etc., all of which have avoided numbers to designate how new they are.

Given that pattern, we think it’s unlikely the AirPods 3 will actually be called AirPods 3. Some have speculated they could be called the AirPods Pro Lite, because of rumors that these new buds will share some features with Apple’s top-tier AirPods. But “Pro Lite” feels awkward. How can something be both “pro” and “lite”? Isn’t that an oxymoron?

We think it’s much more likely that Apple will either consider its next AirPods simply a generational update — therefore “AirPods 3rd generation” — or it will leverage the “plus” from Apple TV+, thus AirPods+.

If these new earbuds sit in between the existing AirPods and the AirPods Pro in terms of features and/or price and especially if Apple decides to keep all three in the lineup, calling them AirPods+ would make a lot of sense.

Better sound

If the AirPods 3 do end up using a hybrid design that merges the AirPods with the AirPods Pro, they will automatically offer better sound quality than the existing AirPods. A fully sealed ear canal means that the sound they produce can’t escape, and competing outside sounds can’t get in — or at least, not nearly as much as they do with AirPods’ current open-air design.

In fact, a proper noise-isolating design can be so effective at blocking unwanted sounds, you often don’t feel the need for Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) which is one of the big selling features of the AirPods Pro. Jabra’s Elite 75t and Elite Active 75t both use a noise-isolating design and they’ve got superb sound quality — although Jabra just updated both models with ANC.

On the other hand, if 52Audio’s photos are accurate, the AirPods 3 may end up offering only slight improvements to sound quality.

Some noise cancellation

While ANC is typically associated with sealed-ear canal designs, this is slowly changing. Samsung introduced the feature on its Galaxy Buds Live, which do not enter the ear canal. Granted, Samsung’s efforts in this area haven’t proven especially successful, but that doesn’t mean Apple will face similar problems.

It’s worth keeping in mind that the AirPods Pro are still among the very best ANC earbuds we’ve ever tested — Apple clearly knows a thing or two about how to do ANC well.

Bone conduction?

An Apple patent for bone-conduction audio was spotted by AppleInsider, leading it to speculate that Apple might use this technology in a future AirPods design.

Bone-conduction audio bypasses the outer ear and ear canal, feeding sounds to our inner ear by vibrating bone material in our skulls. It’s proven effective for situations where people want to maintain a high degree of awareness of the outside world (say, when working near hazards like vehicle traffic) or simply don’t want objects in their ears.

We think it’s highly unlikely that the AirPods 3 will use bone conduction, but it’s possible we might see this audio technology in conjunction with another rumored Apple product: Apple Glass.

Transparency mode

Apple AirPods Pro

However, if you create a really good seal inside the inner-ear, you risk blocking out too much sound, which is why the AirPods 3 will likely borrow another AirPods Pro feature: Transparency mode. This uses the onboard microphones to pipe a certain amount of ambient sound into your ears. It’s a boon for safety, especially in busy environments, but it can also give you better call quality by letting you hear your own voice more clearly.

Price

It can be tough second-guessing Apple on price, but we already know two things: The AirPods Pro cost $249, and the AirPods cost $159 if you buy the model without wireless charging. So any AirPods model that aims to be between these two in terms of features will have to be between them on price too.

We’re guessing that places the AirPods 3 at $199 — the current cost of a set of AirPods with wireless charging. What happens to the existing AirPods? Apple will keep them at $159, but now you’ll get the wireless charging case included at that price.

If Apple decides to simply update the base AirPods instead of creating a new product, prices will probably stay exactly where they are.

Release date

We once again turn to Kuo, whose record on these matters is typically excellent. Kuo claims we’ll see the AirPods 3 arrive in the first half of 2021, and we see no reason to argue. In fact, the October Bloomberg report backs this predicted timing.

The current pandemic situation has created challenges across the board for new product introductions, so it makes sense that Apple might want to wait — especially if it intends to introduce the AirPods Studio as rumors persistently claim it will.

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