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Apple AirPods 4 rumors: Expected release date and what we want to see

The next AirPods may be lighter on the wallet.
By

Published onMarch 8, 2024

A hand holds a Apple AirPods (3rd generation) case with the earbuds in place and embedded sensors in view.

The Apple AirPods are some of the most popular wireless earphones, and Apple’s shown no signs of slowing down. Industry experts and enthusiasts are clambering to see what the Apple AirPods 4 will be like. All signs indicate two new versions: an affordable and a higher-end set of stemmed pods.

Here’s everything we know about the AirPods 4.

Will there be an Apple AirPods 4 series?

Ming-Chi Kuo's tweets regarding the AirPods Max 2 and more affordable AirPods.
Ming-Chi Kuo

We will almost certainly see the AirPods (4th generation) come to fruition. Apple has sunk a lot of energy into its AirPods, and the efforts have paid off. Apple’s Wearables Home and Accessories category continued to outpace its Mac and iPad categories’ sales in Q4 of 2023.

Additionally, Mark Gurman reported in October 2023 that Apple plans to overhaul its AirPods line next year. In this, Gurman notes that Apple plans to phase out its second and third-generation AirPods in favor of two fourth-generation AirPods. These will be priced similarly to the currently available versions. However, one will act as an affordable alternative, while the other will boast a higher price point and more comprehensive feature set. Gurman emphasizes that these changes and revamped designs will come before an upgrade to the AirPods Pro in 2025.

Ming-Chi Kuo, a reliable industry analyst, shared earlier this year that Hong Teng may take over AirPods assembly from GoerTek. Regardless of who assembles Apple’s earbuds, it seems guaranteed that Apple will release the AirPods 4. Analyst Jeff Pu shared with 9to5Mac that the next-gen AirPods will be called the AirPods Lite. While it is currently difficult to know how these new AirPods will be branded, it does appear that the AirPods 4 will offer a more affordable version than previous generations.

What is the most likely Apple AirPods (4th generation) release date?

The Apple AirPods Pro Gen 2 and the Apple AirPods Gen 3 sitting across from each other with their cases open on top of a wooden surface.
Apple usually reserves its earbud announcements for the fall.
  • Apple AirPods (1st generation): December 13, 2016
  • Apple AirPods (2nd generation): March 20, 2019
  • Apple AirPods (3rd generation): October 26, 2021
  • Apple AirPods Pro (1st generation): October 30, 2019
  • Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation): September 23, 2022

Due to changes in manufacturing partners, Kuo believes that the AirPods 4 may not ship until the second half of 2024. This seems accurate, given that Gurman also states in his Bloomberg piece that Apple’s entry-level buds are coming in 2024. However, we may have to wait until the first half of 2025. While this seems like a long time, there were two years and three months between the AirPods 1 and AirPods 2 release dates. Furthermore, there were two years and seven months between the AirPods 2 and AirPods 3. If Apple follows this schedule, announcing the AirPods 4 in early 2024 would make sense.

Unfortunately, there was no mention of the AirPods 4 at Apple’s “Wonderlust” event in September 2023 or CES 2024.

What features and specs could the Apple AirPods (4th generation) have?

A masculine person wears the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) against a blue background.
The AirPods 3 require you to say, “Hey Siri,” or reach for your phone to change volume. We hope that changes with the AirPods (4th gen).

A lower price point for the affordable version of the AirPods 4 would yield a more spartan feature set than the AirPods 3. Based on this knowledge and Apple’s usual trends, here’s what we’ve pieced together about the AirPods 4.

Design

Mark Gurman points out that Apple is planning to update the design of the AirPods 4 and its accompanying charging case. Gurman predicts the company’s next-gen earbuds will wear a design that blends the aesthetic of the AirPods 3 and AirPods Pro 2. Both versions of the AirPods 4 are expected to adorn shorter stems and an improved fit. However, it is unlikely that either will provide replaceable ear tips like the AirPods Pro 2. Also, like other AirPods, we expect the AirPods 4 will come in white and have an unsealed fit with contoured stems. We should also see force-sensor controls for adjusting playback and fielding calls.

Apple might not include wireless charging on the budget version of the AirPods Lite.

If Apple goes the more affordable route, it could forgo premium tricks like automatic ear detection and head tracking for spatial audio. Automatic ear detection pauses content when you remove the AirPods and resumes it when you insert them. Head tracking enhances Apple’s Spatial Audio, adjusting the surround sound effect as you move your head. This can make movies sound more immersive, but I’ve never considered it a central selling point of any AirPods.

The AirPods Pro 2 with water droplets on them.
Lily Katz / SoundGuys
The AirPods Pro 2 (pictured) have the same IPX4 rating as the AirPods 3.

We may also see Apple ditch wireless charging from the budget version of the AirPods 4 to accommodate a lower price. Regardless, the company is expected to swap out the case’s Lightning port for a USB-C charging port like the AirPods Pro (2nd Generation.) The EU declared that all applicable electronics must have a USB-C charging port by December 28, 2024.

No matter the price of the AirPods 4, the earbuds should retain the same IPX4 water-resistant rating as the AirPods 3 before them. This rating is essential for athletes and daily listening — you never know when a spring shower will start. Ideally, the AirPods 4 case will keep its IPX4 rating, but this seems like a toss-up if Apple takes cost-cutting measures.

Software features

The AirPods Pro 2 and an iPhone 12 mini in pairing mode.
Lily Katz / SoundGuys
Like the AirPods Pro 2 and AirPods before them, the AirPods 4 will have some Apple-exclusive features.

Nobody loves a tightly controlled ecosystem more than Apple. We bet the AirPods 4 will have some Apple exclusives like auto-switching between devices under the same iCloud account. Battery optimization and Find My access should also feature, although these will likely be reserved for the higher-priced version.

There’s a chance the AirPods 4 will house the newer H2 chip instead of the older H1 chip. If so, we could see improvements like greater energy efficiency and processing power for some features Apple unveiled during WWDC 2023. The H2 chip could power Personalized Volume on the AirPods 4. Personalized Volume will learn your listening habits based on the volume levels you manually enable in specific environmental settings. Once it knows your preferences, the earbuds will make the appropriate adjustments on the fly.

Apple also mentioned Conversational Awareness and Adaptive Audio at WWDC 2023. We don’t expect to see these on the lower-tier version AirPods 4 because they are features that augment noise canceling, which the standard AirPods don’t have. However, it is predicted the higher-end version of the AirPods 4 will boast noise canceling, opening the door to Adaptive Audio.

Sound and call quality

A chart shows the AirPods (3rd generation) frequency repsonse relative to the SoundGuys Consumer Curve, showing the buds have a severely under-emphasized sub-bass response.
Bass is always poor with unsealed earphones, but Apple’s AirPods (3rd generation) buds do a decent job down to around 50Hz.

Since the AirPods 4 will likely have an unsealed fit, we expect they will under-deliver on sub-bass frequencies, like the AirPods 3. However, Apple is said to be addressing and improving the sound quality of its next-gen upgrade.

The AirPods have never been the earbuds to buy for the best sound quality. However, Apple’s Adaptive EQ should reappear on the AirPods 4. This adjusts the low and midrange frequencies in real-time to account for an inconsistent fit. Adaptive EQ works at all times, regardless of the operating system.

If the AirPods 4 have an unsealed fit, they will likely sound similar to the AirPods 3.

If Apple wants to remain budget-friendly, it’s unlikely that the AirPods 4 microphone quality will be better than the AirPods 3. Most TWS earphones in the $100 range have mics that sound okay in quiet environments but fail to suppress background noise well. To understand how the AirPods 4 mics may sound, listen to our AirPods 3 demos below.

Apple AirPods (3rd generation) microphone demo (Ideal conditions):

Apple AirPods (3rd generation) microphone demo (Street conditions):

Apple AirPods (3rd generation) microphone demo (Windy conditions):

How much might the Apple AirPods 4 cost?

A hand pinches the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) charging case to display its plain white exterior and minimalist indentation.
The AirPods 3 wireless charging case looks just like the wired-only case.
  • Apple AirPods (1st generation): $159
  • Apple AirPods (2nd generation) with Charging Case: $159
  • Apple AirPods (2nd generation) with Wireless Charging Case: $199
  • Apple AirPods (3rd generation) with Charging Case: $169
  • Apple AirPods (3rd generation) with MagSafe Case: $179
  • Apple AirPods Pro (1st generation): $249
  • Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation): $249

According to Ming-Chi Kuo, the AirPods 4 could be Apple’s most affordable AirPods and cost $99. Jeff Pu concurs that the AirPods 4 (aka AirPods Lite) could compete with more affordable earphones. However, Mark Gurman predicts Apple’s flagship earbuds will price similarly to their predecessors. The higher-tier version will likely adopt a slightly inflated price tag.

This would be a big changeup for Apple as its most inexpensive AirPods debuted at $159, which for most people is not cheap. Today, you can grab the AirPod 2 with Charging Case (Lightning only) for $89 at Amazon. The AirPods 3 ($195 at Amazon) and AirPods Pro 2 ($239 at Amazon) regularly fluctuate in price.

Apple AirPods 4: What we want to see

A hand holds one of the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) to the ear of a head simulator.
We use a Bruel & Kjaer 5128 artificial head to perform isolation and frequency response tests, as seen here with the AirPods.

Knowing the AirPods 4 look set to offer some of Apple’s first budget wireless earbuds, I’m adjusting my expectations. Here’s what I hope to see included with the next AirPods.

Longer battery life

Even if Apple cuts the price of the AirPods 4, I’m still hoping for better battery life. The AirPods 3 have an official battery life of six hours with Spatial Audio off, and the AirPods 3 exceeded this in our testing. For our standard test, we play constant music peaking at 75dB(SPL) until the batteries fully deplete. Under these conditions, AirPods 3 lasted six hours and 21 minutes. It seems within reason that the AirPods 4 may last closer to seven hours with Spatial Audio disabled.

USB-C charging

The Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) charging case with its Lightning input and speaker.
Lily Katz / SoundGuys
The AirPods Pro 2 case (pictured) has a Lightning charging port like other AirPods cases.

Apple could skate by with a Lightning charging port on the AirPods 4 case if the buds hit the shelves before December 28, 2024. However, it appears that Apple plans on getting ahead of the curve by adding USB-C charging to its next-gen AirPods (including the AirPods Max 2.) This would make the most sense as Apple’s AirPods Pro (2nd Generation) already support USB-C charging, and the move is inevitable anyway. Plus, USB-C charging may get Android users to consider the AirPods 4 seriously.

Improved durability

A greater IP rating will push the AirPods 4 ahead of other budget-friendly earphones. Ideally, I’d like dust resistance incorporated into the next AirPods — something Apple has never done with its wireless buds. Upgrading the AirPods 4 with a dust-resistant build would make them more appealing to active listeners who chalk up their hands before exercising or live in desert climes.

Frequently asked questions

There is little doubt that Apple is already in the process of updating its AirPods line. This is especially true, given the company’s Wearables Home and Accessories category continued to outpace its Mac and iPad categories’ sales in Q4 of 2023. I fully expect the AirPods 4 to launch sometime in 2024.

Apple is likely to bring updates to its AirPods, AirPods Pro, and AirPods Max headphones in 2024 and 2025. These expectations are backed up by trusted industry analysts Ming-Chi Kuo and Mark Gurman. However, there was no mention of new Apple audio products at CES 2024 and Apple continues to be tight-lipped about its next-gen upgrade.

The Apple AirPods (3rd generation) are cheaper than their Pro-series counterparts because they sacrifice high-end features like Apple’s newest H2 chip, active noise canceling, and loud bass profile. However, they are excellent open ear headphones and make a handy companion for those who enjoy retaining situational awareness while listening to music.

Except for the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live ($89 at Amazon) and a few others, open ear headphones rarely come equipped with active noise canceling. While Apple may decide to implement ANC into its more expensive AirPods 4 model, the cheaper alternative will likely sacrifice this feature to retain a more affordable price tag.

The AirPods Lite may not make it to market until mid-2024. If you want AirPods now, we recommend paying for the AirPods 3.

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