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Apple AirPods 3 release date, price, design, features and leaks

Apple AirPods 3 leak
(Image credit: 52 Audio)

The AirPods 3 is shaping up to be Apple’s next pair of earbuds. After the premium AirPods Pro and the $549, over-ear AirPods Max, the AirPods 3 would likely return a more affordable price point — though that doesn’t mean you should expect significant hardware changes from the current-gen Apple AirPods.

Some rumors have even suggested the AirPods 3 could crib features from the AirPods Pro, like Apple’s spatial audio tech. Even if other high-end features like active noise cancellation (ANC) don’t make it, the AirPods 3 could be something of an all-rounder.

There have also been rumors of an AirPods Pro Lite, though most leaks and rumors identify Apple’s next set of headphones as the AirPods 3. Some have even suggested the AirPods 3 might appear at the Apple event on April 20, though that’s not confirmed yet. For now, here’s everything we know so far, including the potential AirPods 3 release date, price, specs, features, and more.

Apple AirPods 3 release date

The COVID-19 panemic has thrown a wrench in Apple’s schedule. At one point, the AirPods 3 was listed for a 2020 release, but that obviously didn't happen. Now it looks like 2021 is the target date.

But when exactly in 2021? Prolific leaker Jon Prosser hinted at an Apple event in March, listing several products that a "reliable source" indicated would be "ready." One of these, alongside a new iPad Pro and Apple TV, was a new AirPods model. However, Prosser later tweeted that the Apple event will take place in April instead — something Apple has now confirmed, announcing an event to take place on April 20.

A springtime launch would track with multiple previous leaks. One, from South Korean site The Elec, claimed that the next AirPods would go through Apple's final testing at the end of 2020 with a view to launching in the first half of 2021.

On the other hand, well-known Apple insider Ming-Chi Kuo has also said that mass production on the AirPods 3 won't start until Q3 2021, or July at the earliest. Kuo had recently predicted a release in the first half of 2021, but this much more recent tip suggests that plans might have changed. Apple therefore announcing the AirPods 3 on April 20, months before it would be ready for sale, would be very unusual.

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

The latest word out of Asia backs up Kuo, with Digitimes reporting that the AirPods 3 have a launch window for the third quarter of this year. With September following in that range, that would let the AirPods 3 appear at the same launch event as the iPhone 13, which is expected this fall.

Apple AirPods 3 price 

AirPods 3 leak

(Image credit: Gizmochina)

The Elec's leak claims that the AirPods 3 will be 20% cheaper than the AirPods Pro, putting it 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 the AirPods cheaper might involve buying a whole new iPhone. All of those reports about the iPhone 12 not including a free pair of AirPods 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 iPhone or 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 Fortune. 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-white shell. Whatever route the company goes, the purchase is going to come at a premium.

Apple AirPods 3 design 

Apple AirPods 3 leak

(Image credit: 52 Audio)

Despite some very early rumors pointing toward a totally revamped AirPods 3 design, more recent whispers all say it will likely be based on the AirPods Pro. 

That certainly appears to be true in the above AirPods 3 photo leak from 52 Audio. This, alongside a series of matching renders the Chinese site also posted, show the inclusion of AirPods Pro-style tips. This could mean that unlike the current AirPods, you could personalize the fit of the AirPods 3 by swapping different tip sizes in and out.

However, more recent image leaks from Gizmochina and @LeaksApplePro may indicate that the AirPods 3 will stick with an open design instead of using tips. The latter in particular shows what appear to be the new AirPods design fitting into the charging case without leaving any room for additional tips.

More recently, 52 Audio also posted images that show the same design as LeaksApplePro's photos. Interestingly, the accompanying text suggests that you may be able to use the AirPods 3 with or without ear tips, though it would be strange if you needed to remove them every time you put the buds back in the charging case.

The tip issue remains up in the air, then, though shorter AirPods Pro-style stems appear consistently in leaks. An AirPods Pro-inspired design for the AirPods 3 is also the gist of The Elec's report, and MacRumors editor Joe Rossignol would agree, having tweeted regarding the next-gen AirPods bearing an identical resemblance to the AirPods Pro:

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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. 52 Audio's photo shows stalks that might be slightly longer than those of the AirPods Pro, but still shorter than the AirPods' stalks.

Counterfeit AirPods 3 models have already started appearing, using the design seen in LeaksApplePro's photos. These obviously aren't the real thing, but could give a better glimpse at what the actual earbuds might look like.

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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 will 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.

The 52 Audio report, that included an apparent photo of the new buds, said that the AirPods 3 may get active noise-cancellation to bring it more in line with the AirPods Pro. However, this contradicts The Elec's earlier report that the AirPods 3 would not have ANC.

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. Many AirPods Pro features 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. 

52 Audio also says that the AirPods 3 will hare the "pressure relief" function of the AirPods Pro, using small vents on the earbuds to release pressure that builds in your ear canal while using them. You can see these vents in the leaked photo and renders.

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 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 end up lacking ANC. 

Mockup of Apple AirTags

(Image credit: MacRumors)

Something else to keep an eye out for is possible integration with the rumored Apple AirTags. Every hint about the release of the AirTags coming out soon has proved inaccurate, but knowing how easy it is to lose true wireless headphones, a device to help find them would be very appropriate indeed.

Lastly, as originally noted in a Bloomberg report from February 2020, Apple has begun letting users set new default apps , specifically for web browsing and mail. Though the company has had to clarify that an iOS 14.5 update did not in fact let you change the default music app, we could still see such functionality carry over to the AirPods 3.This could allow 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 original and nd-genation AirPods 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 iPhone or iPad 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%

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 the aptX HD Bluetooth codec, 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 best workout headphones 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.