AirPods 3 design change could see Apple borrow Pro tech

Apple is planning to change how it builds its wireless earbuds, a shift that could make a big difference to AirPods 3 which are expected to arrive in 2021. The design shakeup could see the new AirPods borrow features from their more expensive AirPods Pro siblings, as well as embrace a different aesthetic for the first time since the entry-level 'buds were launched.

While the capabilities of the AirPods have changed since Apple first released them back in late 2016, the exterior design has stayed the same. The bright white casing and long stems are less divisive in their appearance than they once were – through a combination of familiarity and rival earbuds-makers borrowing some of the AirPods cues – though Apple itself revamped the look for the AirPods Pro in 2019.

Despite adding features like active noise cancellation and IPX4 water resistance, AirPods Pro are physically smaller than regular AirPods. They feature a markedly shorter stem, that also includes a touch-sensitive button that can be squeezed to control playback, noise cancelation, or trigger Siri. Part of the reason that was all achievable was down to the internal construction of the AirPods Pro hardware.

AirPods use a surface mount technology (SMT) construction for their electronics, whereas AirPods Pro use system-in-package (SIP) construction. The latter is usually denser and can fit more complexity into a smaller overall package. However it can be more expensive to manufacture.

Come the AirPods 3, though, Apple intends to switch from SMT to SIP, at least according to TF Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo. In a note released to investors this week, Apple Insider reports, Kuo suggests that the next-generation entry level AirPods 3 will indeed adopt SIP electronics, and reap the benefits in things like overall size.

The new wireless earbuds aren't expected to be announced until the first half of 2021, and exact features are still uncertain at this stage. While the AirPods Pro use an Apple H1 chipset for processing things like ANC, they also require other hardware like extra microphones. AirPods 3 could still skip active noise cancellation in the name of retaining distinguishing features for the more expensive earbuds.

Still, it might allow AirPods 3 to include a button control, avoiding the requirement to use spoken commands, or Apple could opt to fill the space with bigger batteries and thus extend the runtime of the earbuds. Several wireless earbud rivals have launched in recent months boasting significantly longer listening time from a charge.

There's still some time to wait before we find out for sure, and it's likely that the final specifications are still being decided on ahead of AirPods 3's release. Before then, we'll see features like optimized charging for existing AirPods arrive with iOS 14, which is set to land this fall.