Apple’s AirPods headphones – which dropped without a huge amount of interest in 2016 – hit some kind of inflection point round about 2018, and suddenly became the hot thing. (One member of the Macworld team puts this down to a wave of memes the rest of us are too old to understand.) This was handily timed for the 2019 updates, as the second-gen and then Pro versions of the AirPods launched to a newly receptive public and sold like the proverbial hot cakes. Then came the AirPods Max in late 2020, the third generation AirPods in 2021 and the second-gen AirPods Pro in 2022.
Where next, then, for the AirPods? In this article we will look at all the different AirPods, evaluating when Apple might next update them and the new features that could arrive with the next generation. We’ll also discuss rumors that Apple is set to launch a new cheaper AirPods Lite – or AirPods SE – category.
Will there be new AirPods in 2023?
There are currently three types of AirPods: The standard AirPods, the AirPods Pro and the AirPods Max. While Apple doesn’t update each category of AirPod on a yearly bases, it does tend to introduce a new set of AirPods each year.
- September 2017: 1st-gen AirPods launched
- March 2019: 2nd-gen AirPods launched
- October 2019: 1st-gen AirPods Pro launched
- December 2020: 1st-gen AirPods Max launched
- October 2021: 3rd-gen AirPods launched
- September 2022: 2nd-gen AirPods Pro launched
Based on the above it would be logical to conclude that AirPods Max are next on the list. Now more than two years old the AirPods Max cannot play Apple’s lossless audio, which is an omission that needs to be rectified. The technology to achieve this may not yet be available though.
Instead of updating the AirPods Max in 2023 Apple may instead introduce a new AirPods category. There have been rumors that Apple plans to launch new AirPods Lite or AirPods SE headphones for some time. In January 2023 analyst Ming-Chi Kuo described these as “more affordable AirPods (with Apple targeting a price of $99)”.
Earlier in January 2023 analyst Jeff Pu also referenced Apple plans to introduce the AirPods Lite, a cheaper version of the standard AirPods, with a price starting at $99. He added that Apple has no plans to update any of the current AirPods, so the AirPods Lite may be a way to stimulate interest in the existing line up.
However, Kuo had suggested we might have to wait until 2024 for this new AirPods category.
Hopefully the wait for new AirPods won’t be that long though. Code in iOS 16.4 apparently references new AirPods with the model number A3048. What isn’t clear is which AirPods this code relates to. It could be a new pair of AirPods Max as there a code for a case was also identified in the iOS update which could be a code for a new Smart Case.
AirPods Lite release date
In January 2023 Ming-Chi Kuo tweeted a series of comments and predictions related to Apple’s AirPods business, including a reference to the budget set of AirPods. However he suggested that they may not ship until the second quarter of 2024 or even 2025.
We really hope that the wait isn’t that long for this rumored AirPods Lite launch. With most AirPods launches happening in the fall we hope to see them arrive in September 2023 alongside the iPhone 15.
AirPods Max 2 release date
By the winter of 2023 the AirPods Max will be three years old and due an update.
In May 2022 Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman wrote in a newsletter that new AirPods Max could be imminent. He wrote: “Look out for an AirPods Max refresh with new colors (and, we hope, a price drop – $550 is absurd for those headphones)”. No update arrived in 2022, and, as per Ming-Chi Kuo’s tweet above, the new AirPods Max may not arrive until the end of 2024 at the earliest.
AirPods 4 release date
The third-gen AirPods arrived in October 2021. That update came two and a half years after the second generation launched. We could be waiting until 2024 for an update to the AirPods, although there could be an even longer wait if Kuo is correct and the new Max and Lite models won’t launch until 2024 or 2025.
We could see an update to the 3rd-gen AirPods if Apple adds USB-C charging to the case.
AirPods Pro 3 release date
The second-gen AirPods Pro arrived in September 2022. That update came three years after the first generation launched. On that time scale we could be waiting until 2025 for an update to the AirPods Pro, but the wait could be even longer.
Before the third-gen AirPods Pro arrive Apple may introduce a new version of the second-gen with a USB-C port on the charging case (rather than Lightning). That is according to Ming-Chi Kuo and the update could arrive in the third or fourth quarter of 2023.
How much will new AirPods cost?
The AirPods and AirPods Pro are unlikely to see a price change, although the prices outside the U.S. may be adjusted at some point, as Apple has done with every other product.
Apple’s current pricing structure for its headphones is as follows:
- Apple Earbuds $19/£19
- AirPods 2nd-gen $129/£139
- AirPoids 3rd-gen (Lightning) $169/£179
- AirPoids 3rd-gen (MagSafe) $179/£189
- AirPods Pro 2nd-gen $249/£249
- AirPods Max $549/£549
The AirPods Max may see a price cut, based on Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman suggestion above–although that seemed to be more of a hope than an indication.
Ming-Chi Kuo refers to $99 as the price target for the AirPods Lite. This compares to the AirPods 2, which are still sold by Apple for $129/£139. It is likely that if Apple introduces the AirPods Lite it will stop selling the older AirPods as a budget offering. Apple’s desire to offer AirPods at this price point would allow it to compete at the lower end of the market. They would effectively be the SE offering for the AirPods, similar to Apple’s Apple Watch SE and iPhone SE.
We have a round up of the Best wireless earbuds for iPhone and the best wired headphones if you’d like to consider alternatives to AirPods.
New AirPods specs and features
There are a few limitations that Apple may be addressing with new AirPods.
One area ripe for improvement is the ability to play Apple’s hi-res lossless audio, which the company introduced in June 2021. Bluetooth headphones–including all of Apple’s AirPods–aren’t capable of playing audio at this resolution.
Also likely to get an update is the lightning port on the AirPods charging case. With Apple about to adopt USB-C instead of Lightning across all its product categories, due to a ruling in the European Union, Apple has to move away from Lightning and it’s thought that the 2023 iPhones will have USB-C ports instead of Lightning, for example. The AirPods look set to follow this trend.
Every AirPods case could change to USB-C, according to a tweet from analyst Ming-Chi Kuo in August 2022.
Kuo followed this tweet up in March 2023 suggesting that Apple will introduce a version of the second-generation AirPods Pro later in 2023 with USB-C charging case. He indicated that the third-gen of the standard AirPods will not get this USB-C update.
Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman (in a Power On newsletter from October 2022) expects all three AirPods models to move to USB-C by the end of 2023 though.
The AirPods Max, despite their high price, aren’t currently capable of playing Apple’s hi-res lossless audio. An update in 2023 did bring some capacity to play high-res audio on these headphones if they are used in the wired format. Users can plug in the AirPods Max via the Lightning to 3.5mm audio cable and enjoy better quality sound, but Apple indicates that “Given the analogue-to-digital conversion in the cable, the playback will not be completely lossless.”
Apple will no doubt be looking for a way to bring this technology to the AirPods Max.
There has been talk of cheaper AirPods for some years now. Initially the rumors pointed to AirPods Pro Lite, with a Digitimes report (subscription required) in February 2020 claiming such Apple earphones were coming in 2020.
AirPods Pro Lite would be a contradictory-sounding combination of luxury and value. It seems more likely that the AirPods Pro Lite referred to by that report were the AirPods 3, which arrived at the end of 2021.
If, as rumored, these new AirPods are priced around $99 then they are likely to have budget features. For an idea of what to expect we could look to the 2nd-gen AirPods, which are still on sale but likely to be supplanted by the new budget model. Another comparison could be with the Beats Flex (Beats is a subsidiary of Apple).
If you’re keen to hear the latest rumours about Apple’s 2023 plans, the best place to start is our roundup: New Apple products 2023.
Those interested in the current range should take a look at our roundup of the best AirPods deals for the latest bargains.