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Apple AirPods 3 price, release date, specs and leaks

Apple AirPods 3
(Image credit: Regan Coule/Tom's Guide)

The Apple AirPods 3 could be Apple's next pair of headphones, following the immensely successful Apple AirPods 2, the noise-cancelling Apple AirPods Pro and the over-ear AirPods Max. But could we see the newest version of the standard AirPods adopt some features from its more expensive stablemates?

Just as the 2nd-gen AirPods did, the AirPods 3 may introduce all-new features, but there's plenty from the AirPods Pro that would make for great upgrades: active noise cancelling and Spatial Audio, to name just a couple. Or could it become another Apple product that has been rumored for a while: the stripped-down AirPods Pro Lite?

We won't know for sure until Apple announces the AirPods 3 itself, but in the meantime, there's no shortage of intriguing leaks to sift through.

Here’s the lowdown on the Apple AirPods 3 so far, including the AirPods 3 potential release date, price, specs, features, and more.

Apple AirPods 3 release date

The COVID-19 outbreak has thrown a wrench in Apple’s schedule. At one point, the AirPods 3 was listed for a 2020 release, but with the recent launch of the AirPods Pro Max, it became pretty evident that we won’t see the wireless earbuds until 2021 at the earliest.

The most recent leak, from South Korean site The Elec, claims that the next AirPods should go through Apple's final testing at the end of 2020 with a view to launching in the first half of 2021.

This tracks with a previous, if much more specific leak from Twitter user LeaksApplePro, who wrote that the AirPods 3 are on track for a March 21 launch. If an anonymous Twitter user with a mixed track record of correct rumors doesn't fill you with confidence, the tweet also squares with an October 2020 Bloomberg report, claiming that the new earbuds could get announced as soon as 2021

Furthermore, in a research note seen by MacRumors that was issued to investors, well-known Apple insider Ming-Chi Kuo suggested that there would be no new in-ear AirPods release in 2020. His current prediction has the AirPods 3 coming, once again, in the first half of 2021. So the rumors seem to be focusing on one particular part of the calendar.

Kuo also believes that Apple plans to clear its current stock, which has been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Apple AirPods 3 price 

AirPods Pro

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Tom's Guide)

The Elec's leak claims that the AirPods 3 will be 20% cheaper than the AirPods Pro, putting them at $199 according to the latter's current pricing. That's actually quite the hike up from the $159 AirPods 2, which might disappoint anyone hoping that their direct follow-up would sHare a similar MSRP.

What's more, the only way to get them cheaper might involve buying a whole new iPhone. All of those reports about the iPhone 12 not including a free pair of EarPods turned out to be true (except for Apple fans in France), which experts believe is part of a bigger strategy. Excluding them is said to naturally drive sales of the entire AirPods collection. Should that be the case, speculation leads us to believe that Apple will launch some type of AirPods promotion to coincide with any future iDevice (iPhone, iPad) launches.

In addition, there is talk of Apple rolling out a payment plan service for the AirPods and all other upcoming Apple products, as reported by Bloomberg. This would allow customers to purchase the AirPods 3 “over monthly installments via its Apple Card credit card,” with costs split up “over several months with interest-free payments.”

Pricing could also vary based on what new specs Apple stuffs inside the AirPods 3’s porcelain shell. Whatever route the company goes, the purchase is going to come at a premium.

Apple AirPods 3 design 

AirPods Pro

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Tom's Guide)

Despite some very early rumors pointing towards a totally revamped AirPods 3 design, more recent whispers all say they'll likely be based on the AirPods Pro. That means shorter stalks and swappable silicone tips, though not necessarily the same features.

That's the gist of The Elec's report, and MacRumors editor Joe Rossignol would agree, having tweeted in March regarding the next-gen AirPods bearing an identical resemblance to the AirPods Pro:

Well-known Apple insider Ming-Chi Kuo backed up Rossignol’s tweet by suggesting the buds will have a form factor “similar to AirPods Pro,” per a research note obtained by MacRumors. This rumor, in turn, was corroborated by a Bloomberg report in October that also claimed that the AirPods 3 will have the shorter stems of Apple's high-end earbuds.

The most compelling proof, though, is some actual photographic evidence. 52studio posted a picture purporting to be the AirPods 3, and they feature the same exterior design as the AirPods Pro -- complete with the silicone eartips.

There is also the chatter, backed up by The Elec's report, about Apple using a similar system-in-package (SIP) design found in the company’s ANC wireless earbuds, allowing the H1 chip and noise-cancelling circuitry to fit into a more compact design. Let’s say this is true, then also add black microphone vents, longer sound ports, and the small indented “force sensor” at the bottom of each stem to the list. Now that Apple has become a more environmentally friendly brand, there’s also the possibility that the AirPods 3 may be manufactured from recyclable parts, much like the AirPods Pro. 

Apple leaker Fudge also posted an image on Twitter showing a new audio test tool that is supposedly being sent out to service providers for testing AirPods. Close observation shows it attached to the bottom of “a new iPhone holder,” right where the phone mics are located. This creation is rumored to cut down on needless AirPods services like deep cleaning. Fudge claims the tool is only made for the current AirPods models, but for all we know, if true, this could very well be a prototype tool for the AirPods 3.

AirPods Pro

(Image credit: Apple)

Unfortunately, there are no solid rumors suggesting the AirPods 3 will ship with sweat or water resistance. This is a feature currently exclusive to the AirPods Pro and not even included on the ultra-premium AirPods Max, so again, taking naming conventions into account, it’s unlikely the AirPods 3 come with IPX4 certification.

Something else that hasn’t generated much buzz is color availability. Must we settle for Apple White a fourth time around? At this point, it’s looking more like a hard yes, though Apple might want to rethink its strategy. A leak spotted by Android Police shows HTC has a truly wireless model in the works that boasts the same long-stemmed silhouette as the AirPods, and a glossy black finish. Since the Powerbeats Pro is now available in eight exciting colors, the AirPods 3 could only benefit from more shades like Gold, Pacific Blue or any of the other enticing iPhone 12 colorways.

Apple AirPods 3

(Image credit: Image Credit: EverythingApplePro)

Apple AirPods 3 specs and features

While details remain unconfirmed, we’re seeing more leaks and reports from experts who believe Apple may make some significant improvements to its next-gen buds.

At the same time, you probably shouldn't expect every feature introduced by the AirPods Pro to trickle down to the AirPods 3. The Elec specifically states that, for instance, the AirPods 3 won't have the active noise cancellation of its higher-end sibling.

What, then, can be expected in terms of upgrades? We believe any major features the AirPods 3 take on are likely to come as part of future iOS 14 updates. The latest features announced for the AirPods Pro could feasibly be carried over to the AirPods 3, including Dolby Atmos support and Spatial Audio to create a more cinematic experience. Add automatic switching to the list as well, which will automatically change the audio input based on the Apple device you’re using via iCloud account.

Two other features that seem like givens are Headphones Accommodation for amplifying soft sounds and frequency adjustments, and Hearing Health, which has been updated to send notifications when listening to music that’s too loud. 

Reports of Apple testing a range of health features on future AirPods models date back to 2019, though nothing came of it. Could we see some of these on the AirPods 3? Industry sources recently shared with DigiTimes that ambient light sensors (ALS) could be integrated into the next-gen AirPods, allowing them to monitor heart rates and specific health conditions. If true, this would make the wireless earbuds a suitable fitness-tracking alternative to the Apple Watch.

AirPods Pro

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

It’s also worth noting that Apple recently won over 60 patents; Patently Apple has breakdowns of the more intriguing ones for the AirPods and MacBook Air. One patent shows an AirPods model with sensors that can “gather orientation information” and “supplies the user with coaching and feedback” during workout routines, which would be beneficial for exercises like Yoga when performing poses, stretches, and head tilts.

Then there’s the latest rumor (via AppleInsider) of Apple potentially using bone conduction technology for “Multipath audio stimulation using audio compressors" on future AirPods. In short, the feature would employ bone conduction transmissions that, in theory, could “send signals through the bones in your skull to be received by your eardrums, even when the pods aren’t inside your ear.” It sounds a bit too ambitious for us, but hey, you never know with Apple.

Going back to Rossignol’s tweet, the AirPods 3 may have the same sound quality as the AirPods Pro, which insinuates the buds will have Adaptive EQ support even if they lack ANC. 

Mockup of Apple AirTags

(Image credit: MacRumors)

Something else to keep an eye out for is possible integration with the rumored Apple AirTags. Hints that the Tile-like AirTags would be revealed in November came to naught, but knowing how easy it is to lose true wireless headphones, a device to help find them would be very appropriate indeed.

Lastly, a Bloomberg report from February claimed that Apple is heavily considering letting users set third-party apps as their default options on iPhones. That means instead of using the company’s Safari browser and Mail app, you’ll be able to use other popular services like Google Chrome and Gmail right off the bat. This could also carry over to the AirPods 3, allowing user-friendly features like “Hey Siri” and Announce Messages to operate more seamlessly with non-Apple programs.

Apple AirPods 3 battery and charging case

Apple AirPods 3

(Image credit: Xhakomo Doda)

Everyone’s biggest complaint about the AirPods is battery life. The AirPods 1 and 2 offer only 5 hours on a single charge, while the AirPods Pro is rated lower at 4.5 hours; ANC takes up a lot of juice. The charging cases for all three models provide the same amount of playtime: 24 hours. There are no reports that suggest these numbers will change regarding the AirPods 3. 

Our guess is that battery life will remain between 4.5 to 5 hours on a single charge. Boo. LeaksApplePro stated that the AirPods Pro 2 would have “better battery life,” so if there’s any legitimacy to that claim, Apple may be working on a way to increase playtimes on the AirPods 3 as well. Wireless charging also sounds like a guarantee, especially since Apple has released Qi-based wireless charging cases for its latest models.

iOS 14 introduced new features that improved battery management such as notifications and Optimized Battery Charging. The former sends a reminder via pop-up message on your iDevice to charge your AirPods, while the latter was developed to learn your daily charging routine and waits to finish charging past 80 percent until it’s necessary; experts say you can preserve battery health over time by preventing a lithium ion battery from charging to 100 percent.

Apple AirPods 3

(Image credit: USPTO)

Apple’s quick charging feature seems like another given. The AirPods 2 offers three hours on a 15-minute charge, whereas the AirPods Pro performs similarly, netting users 1 hour of playtime on a 5-minute charge. While effective, we feel Apple needs to take a page out of Beats’ playbook, and utilize the Powerbeats Pro’s Fast Fuel feature, which gives you slightly more playtime within the same charging time: 1.5 hours on a 5-minute charge and 4.5 hours on 15 minutes.

As per Apple Insider, Kuo’s latest report stated the AirPods 3 would adopt cheaper and less complex battery technology. This would save Apple on battery unit costs. There is even talk of Apple replacing the “existing rigid-flex PCB solution” in the current iPhones with a combination of "flexible printed circuit boards" and the SiP used in the AirPods Pro, per DigiTimes. This could allow for longer lasting 5G phones with larger capacity batteries that might also affect the AirPods 3’s battery life in a positive way.

As for the charging case, nothing has been leaked or revealed. However, a patent spotted by PatentlyApple shows what looks to be MagSafe AirPods, which shows hints of how charging may work on future AirPods (possibly the AirPods 3). The patent illustrates a thin folio that magnetically snaps onto the back of an iPhone and holds the AirPods, serving as a more portable-friendly charging solution. The description is pretty vague, but states that this version of the AirPods would have “a magnet that emits an external magnetic field that is detectable by a magnetic field sensor [read: MagSafe].” It also states that the “accessory device may include an inductive charging coil designed to supply power to the internal power supply.”

MagSafe AirPods Patent

(Image credit: PatentlyApple)

This would make total sense for future AirPods models, as Apple is pushing its ecosystem of MagSafe charging and accessories hard right now, as seen during the iPhone 12 unveiling. Rumors of Apple adding a MagSafe charger to the iPhone 13 are heating up, leading us to believe that the technology may progressively roll out onto other flagship Apple products like the AirPods 3.

One rumor shared by Trusted Reviews has the next-gen AirPods charging case coming with integrated speaker connectivity. The publication cites a 2017 patent detailing and illustrating a charging case that’s designed to send “media to a non-wireless output device connected to the case.” This would likely be achieved through the H1 chip, letting music be streamed on the AirPods, then transmitted to a speaker.

Another patent discovered by Patently Apple shows Apple working on a new “bistable hinge” for the AirPods Pro case, which could potentially apply to the AirPods 3 or the similarly-rumored AirPods Pro 2. That means the case may have a cap that snaps into position to keep the lid securely shut, which would be an upgrade, as the magnetic lid on the current AirPods cases is flimsy as hell.

What we want from the Apple AirPods 3

Where do we begin? The AirPods series as a whole is due for some aesthetic, high-tech and practical upgrades. Seeing how Apple finally caved into some consumer demands with the AirPods Pro (e.g. ANC, integrated ear tips), there’s a chance that the AirPods 3 receives similar, if not better treatment. Here’s what we have on our own wish list.

Adaptive EQ and aptX HD: While far from a game-changer, the AirPods Pro’s adaptive EQ does enhance sound, even if by a small margin. That doesn’t mean Apple can’t improve it on the AirPods 3. Its inclusion, along with aptX HD, which the Sony WF-1000xM3 is rumored to be receiving an update for and allows for wireless streaming of Hi-Res Audio codecs, would make a huge difference.

Longer battery life: Competitors like the Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus (11 hours) and Apple’s very own Powerbeats Pro (9 hours) offer double the playtime. It’s time to catch up.                                                                                                     

Noise cancellation: Yes, this is currently looking unlikely, but after bringing ANC to the AirPods Pro, it would be disappointing to not get any form of noise cancellation on the AirPods 3. Jabra somehow managed to add active noise cancellation to the Elite 75t series via over-the-air software update, so if it's not included at launch, Apple needs to consider something similar - or program the AirPods 3 with superb passive noise reduction, much like Jabra did with the Jabra Elite 75t.

Fitness-tracking sensors: Companies like Jabra have engineered their sport workout earbuds to double as one of the best fitness trackers. We know Apple is all about having its consumers adopt their ecosystem, which means investing in their entire suite of products (e.g. iPhone, Apple Watch), but having an activity monitor built into the AirPods 3 would be an awesome secondary option for avid exercisers who forget to charge their smartwatch before hitting the gym.

More accessories, please: Bundled ear tips made such a huge difference in fit for the AirPods Pro, and while they would do the same for the AirPods 3, Apple needs to expand its accessories lineup with some other unique extras. For starters, let’s get some ear hooks packaged with the buds. We’ll also take a nice leather cover to style and protect the fragile charging case.

An iPhone 13/AirPods 3 bundle: Since the iPhone 12 launched, we haven’t heard of any plans for Apple to bundle its next-gen smartphones with any AirPods, let alone a future model. Well, there’s always the iPhone 13.