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AirPods – can they get ANY better in 2023?

Across the range, AirPods are great already, but there is a promise of more to come

AirPods Pro 2
image courtesy of author

A big part of the Apple pie

AirPods are important to Apple, make no mistake about it.

Looking at figures from a year ago, you can see just how significant they are. As at December 2021, the AirPods side of Apple’s business, alone, was worth $240 billion. Netflix, the entire company, was valued at $260 billion. That gives you some context of just how indispensable the sales of AirPods are to Apple.

Growth too has been consistent. In 2018, there was a growth of the AirPods business of 82%, 2019 saw it grow by 90.6% and in 2020, it witnessed a further growth of 65.6%. As for the actual number of units shipped, in Q1 of this year alone, Apple sold 19.3 million units. So, all-in-all, this range of in-ear, and over the head, headphones represents a pretty crucial part of Apple’s annual business plan.

Keeping them fresh

Those figures will tell you why Apple are keen to invest time and effort in to AirPods, and make sure they keep them on-point, fresh, and relevant.

First released in 2016, alongside the iPhone 7, they were an immediate hit. It only took two years for AirPods to become Apple’s most popular accessory.

At this year’s September event, in what turned out to be the last event of the year from Apple, we saw the release of AirPods Pro 2. Met with universal praise, it seems that through the course of 2023, Apple may be set to update some other models in the current line-up.

To the max

The premiere pair of AirPods, the Max, are now two years old. At £549, they are the most expensive pair of AirPods in the range….and now the oldest. Released two years ago, there have been no new designs since day one. So, are changes finally coming?

Bloomberg reported, back in early summer, that new colours are in the pipeline. Their thoughts, back then, were that Apple had only just caught up with demand for AirPods Max, so a new design was not imminent.

Even if there are to be no major design changes, some form of updates would be welcomed. An area that requires urgent attention is that of sweat and water resistance. Many wearers of AirPod Max report that they are worried about any kind of moisture getting in them. Most will never wear them outdoors, in case of rain damage. Apple needs to look at a way of sealing these headphones better, to help justify their hefty price.

With the upcoming changes coming from the EU regarding charging headphones, the current lightning port will have to give way. There are two options, of course, with MagSafe being the first. I know magnets, and aluminium doesn’t play too nicely together, so, potentially, placing the magnet in the case may be an answer. The other route they could take is to use USB-C as well as, or instead of, MagSafe.

We understand that Apple is very heavily invested in developing a new, higher quality Bluetooth codec, in particular for AirPod Max. The Low Complexity Communication Codec, or LC3 for short, will be able to transmit at much lower bitrates without dropping the audio quality we currently see with Bluetooth’s standard. And, as a failsafe, with USB-C capabilities, the option to listen to lossless audio, when cabled-in, presents itself as an option as well.

And then…then there is that awful excuse of a case. It has to used to place them in a low power mode, but surely a better, more protective design can be found?

AirPods 4 – any news?

AirPods 3 are only a year old, and are at the lower end of the price range of AirPods, too. Nonetheless, the original AirPods remain hugely important to Apple.

The base AirPods do not currently feature Active Noise Cancelling or any form of Transparency Modes. AirPods 2 remain on sale, but the later version, resembles, far closer, the look of AirPods Pro. AirPods 3rd generation, unlike their far more expensive brother, does have IPX4 sweat and water resistance.

I’d assume, rather than release a 4th gen of these AirPods, simply to meet the new EU charging requirements, we will see Apple selling a USB-C case instead, for your existing AirPods 3rd gen. But, there is no urgency for that, as this pair are already sold with a MagSafe ready case.

If Apple does go the 4th gen route, then it is more than likely that we’d see the H2 Chip being used in them, and that they too would support both Bluetooth 5.3 and the LC3 codec.

Best product of the year?

We have been spoiled, by another great year of releases from Apple, but possibly, for my money at least, ahead of the Watch Ultra, comes AirPod Pro II , as being the product of the year from Apple.

Everybody, but everybody who has reviewed them has given them a glowing write-up, and fairly so. I still recall the evening I first popped mine for the first time. I A/B’d them, comparing them in the same listening environment, to my AirPods 1st generation. My pair were only about three months old, so were still as good as new. The audio difference, throughout the range, was a massive jump forward. It was clear, that although they didn’t differ greatly on the outside from the original pair, something very clever was going on inside them.

The most significant change is that H2 chip – that, along with the all-new, drivers and amplifiers in AirPod Pro 2. That combination results in crisp, clear highs, scooped out mids, and a deep, rich bass. Apart from the sound it helps to deliver, the H2 chip is also responsible for new computational algorithms, that create a stunning noise-free, listening environment. Processing the inputs from both outward, and inward facing mics, the H2 chip takes noise-cancelling to another level – and don’t forget, these are in-ear earbuds! It’s almost impossible to prove the claim that the ANC is 2X as good on these, as their predecessors, but I’d be inclined to believe it.

Couple all of that clever stuff, with Adaptive Transparency and the touch controls on the stems, is what led me to say, that these are possibly the Apple product of the year for me. At £249, they represent fantastic value for money, too.

Like the other pairs, they will have to lose the lightning port on the case, but they, again, are ahead of the EU curve, as they have already made the case MagSafe ready on AirPods Pro 2.

So, is there anything they can improve upon with AirPods Pro 2? Not really, but, if I was pushed, there are a couple of minor, very minor things.

They are already sweat & water-resistant, and have an amazing battery life. If they could continue to work on the fit, that would be good. My old, original pair of AirPods, still fit the best. Once those were in, you never had to touch them again, or fiddle with them. Even with the new, small pair of silicone tips, AirPods Pro 2, still work their way loose. I don’t know if it is the shorter, stubbier stem, but fit remains a battle.

I don’t even know if a lossless listening experience is possible via Bluetooth, but if it is, then that would be a great option box to tick. Don’t get me wrong, the audio is already remarkable, but I’ll take any improvements they can offer me. And another tiny improvement could be in the swipe, volume control. It’s a great step forward, but it remains fiddly, even after over two months of constant use.

I would not expect any new AirPod Pro for a little while though. I think that Apple can afford to rest on their laurels for a year or so yet, after what they gave us with this year’s series of updates.

Wrapping up

Although Apple is perilously close to confusing the AirPods range, as it stands, it’s just about forgivable. I think it may be sense for them to drop the AirPods 2nd Gen soon, leaving the entry pair then being the 3rd generation.

Now, with the backlog cleared up on AirPods Max, it seems the smartest money would be on a new pair in 2023. If they sort out the sweat and water ingress issues, I think I may finally succumb, and give them a go.

With the holiday season fast approaching, though, if you are looking for a great gift, any of the AirPods in the range should make someone very happy and content this Christmas or Thanksgiving.

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