Apple introduced the third-generation AirPods nearly two years ago, raising questions about what the company may have in store for the fourth version of the device.
The design of the original AirPods persisted through two generations, so the redesign introduced with the third-generation in 2021 may be likely to stick around with the fourth version of the device. There are still at least seven plausible new features that seem likely to come to the next-generation AirPods
Many of the changes and improvements introduced with the third-generation AirPods originated on the first-generation AirPods Pro. As such, it seems likely that many of the upgrades coming to the fourth-generation AirPods will be shaped by the second-generation AirPods Pro.
One of the key aspects the next-generation AirPods are likely to bring over from the second-generation AirPods Pro is the H2 chip. Both the second- and third-generation AirPods currently feature the H1 chip.
Apple says the H2 chip provides an "exceptional acoustic experience" when paired with a new low-distortion audio driver and custom amplifier in the AirPods Pro. The AirPods Pro offer richer bass and clearer sound across a wider range of frequencies partly due to the computational audio improvements facilitated by the H2 chip, so similar enhancements seem highly likely to come to the fourth-generation AirPods.
There could also be improvements to Personalized Spatial Audio, faster pairing and device switching, and persistent battery information thanks to the H2 chip.
In the AirPods Pro, the H2 chip is accompanied by Bluetooth 5.3 connectivity. Many of Apple's products now feature Bluetooth 5.3, so the fourth-generation AirPods are highly likely to receive this upgrade. Bluetooth 5.3 offers faster and more reliable connectivity with Bluetooth accessories, as well as improved power efficiency, which can contribute to longer battery life.
Longer Battery Life
The H2 chip is more power efficient than the H1 chip in the second- and third-generation AirPods. In the AirPods Pro, the H2 chip and Bluetooth 5.3 provide an additional hour and a half of listening time with Active Noise Cancellation enabled compared to the previous generation. Applied to the standard AirPods, this could translate to a battery life increase from five hours to around six and a half hours.
It is also possible that the AirPods could gain touch-based volume controls like the AirPods Pro. To turn the volume up or down, users simply place their thumb on the stem of either AirPod and use their index finger to swipe up or down on the small touch control area.
That being said, Apple could regard on-device volume controls as a high-end feature reserved for the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max, meaning that the fourth-generation AirPods could still miss out on this feature.
Find My Improvements
The MagSafe Charging Case is also likely to get several improvements to integrate more deeply with Find My. The second-generation AirPods Pro introduced two key features in this area: The U1 chip for Precision Tracking and a built-in speaker.
Currently, your iPhone or iPad can help guide you to their location in the Find My app, but this is a limited experience on the current model, simply indicating whether or not they are nearby. The U1 chip would allow your iPhone to show an arrow pointing in the specific direction of your AirPods, an approximate distance telling you how far away they are, and even a message saying if they are located on a different floor.
Similarly, you can currently play a sound on your AirPods to help you find them, but this is played through the earbuds. If the earbuds are inside the charging case, it is likely the sound will be quite muffled. With the latest AirPods Pro, Apple added a speaker to the charging case itself, allowing users to more clearly hear a location alert from their AirPods, and even locate the case when it is separate from the earbuds. An identical speaker could come to the standard AirPods in their next iteration.
It is also worth noting that the lanyard loop on the AirPods Pro doubles as an antenna for the U1 chip, so this small feature could also be coming to the next-generation AirPods if they do offer Precision Tracking.
Apple Watch Charger Compatibility
The third-generation AirPods can charge via MagSafe, a Qi wireless charger, or a Lightning cable. With its latest AirPods Pro model, Apple added the ability to use an Apple Watch charger as an additional charging method.
Apple does not seem to regard charging technologies as "Pro"-exclusive features, so, as a basic utility, it seems likely that this added charging method will come to the fourth-generation AirPods to provide even more versatility.
By the time the fourth-generation AirPods launch, the entire iPad and Mac lineups, at least four iPhone models, and the AirPods Pro, will feature a USB-C port.
Bloomberg's Mark Gurman believes all AirPods models and Apple accessories will switch from Lightning to USB-C by 2024. Unlike the second-generation AirPods Pro, Apple is not expected to launch a USB-C MagSafe Charging case for the third-generation AirPods. As such, it seems almost certain that the fourth-generation AirPods will feature a USB-C port instead of Lightning.
There have been no specific rumors about the release date of the fourth-generation AirPods, but late 2024 to sometime in 2025 currently seem like the most plausible time frame. Apple released its three AirPods generations in 2016, 2019, and 2021. The two AirPods Pro models were released in 2019 and 2022, while the AirPods Max were introduced in 2020. No new AirPods models are expected to launch this year, but 2024 and 2025 are likely to see several refreshes to the product line.
Gurman's timeline for switching to USB-C suggests that the fourth-generation AirPods could launch sometime in 2024, but the EU law that requires Apple to switch the AirPods to USB-C only applies to new models, meaning that Apple isn't obliged to release any new AirPods by a certain date.
Apple is rumored to be planning to launch a low-cost version of the AirPods for just $99 between the second half of 2024 and the first half of 2025. By the second-half of 2024, the third-generation AirPods will be three years old, meaning that an upgrade could start to be overdue around that time.