⌘ March 22, 2024

My Wishes for AirPods (4th gen)

This isn’t a novel thing to say, but I’m a big fan of AirPods. I’ve named them as my most transformational tech product in the past, and I spend multiple hours every day with them in my ears. I’ve tried every generation of AirPods, save for AirPods Pro (2nd gen), and have more audio products scattered throughout my home than I’d like to admit.1 My daily drivers are AirPods (2nd gen). Suffice it to say, I have opinions about AirPods.

With rumors ramping up about next the generation of AirPods non-Pro, I wanted to take a moment to lay out what I’d like to see come in their next version.

In order of importance:

  1. Improved fit
  2. Tap-to-control
  3. Noise cancellation magic
  4. Improved audio quality
  5. Fitness features
  6. The rest

Improved fit

You saw above that I’m still rocking the AirPods (2nd gen) that debuted in 2019, but whose design is unchanged from the original AirPods introduced in 2016 along with the iPhone 7. Why? Because they’re the design that fit in my ears. As far as a first-generation product goes, Apple truly knocked it out of the park with AirPods. They said they studied thousands of ears to come up with the best shape to fit the most ears, and I believe them.

That said, they also made the same claim about the third-generation AirPods, the ones that gained an elongated head” to nearly match the style of AirPods Pro, and those didn’t fit my ear holes at all. I was so disappointed that they fell out with any sort of activity or chewing motion. The same goes for AirPods Pro. I’ve tried every ear tip size, third-party foam tips, and every imaginable orientation to try to get them to fit. They just don’t and the combination of discomfort and worry that they’d fall out at any moment prevented me from ever getting lost in the music or conversation getting piped through them. In-ear tips are not the answer for me, and there are plenty of us out there that I think there needs to be a non-canal-obstructing option.

And so I’ve stuck with the second-generation version which Apple has mercifully kept available for sale, I assume, because they know that the two fits cover a wider breadth of customers than if they only sold the third-generations. But I can’t imagine Apple wants to keep that original design around forever, and so I’m optimistic that the next design will fit me as well as the 1st/2nd gens do.


Here’s another thing I want to see brought forward from the second-generation AirPods to the fourth: the imprecise tapping mechanism to control media playback. For the first two generations of AirPods, a simple double-tap with your finger on the outside of the head of the earbud would play/pause the media, and a triple-tap would skip tracks. And they were configurable to summon Siri.

For the third-generation design, the stem of the earbud shrunk in size but grew in capability. Play/pause/skip was moved to a pinching gesture on the stem, as measured by a new force sensor. AirPods Pro brought volume control to the stem as well, allowing you to drag a finger up and down it to adjust volume. In my experience, the volume control is awesome and something obviously missing from prior models. But the pinching gesture is a swing and a miss.

John Siracusa did a, predictably, good job at articulating why the pinching mechanism is a regression back when it was introduced, and you should listen to his rant about it on the Accidental Tech Podcast. The tl;dl version is that you need to be more precise to grab and pinch, you run the risk of pulling the AirPod out of your ears when you grip the stem (as opposed to pushing them in with the tapping gesture), and it is a difficult gesture to accomplish with gloved or otherwise covered (dirty, soapy, etc.) hand. Oh, and it’s likewise difficult to do when the AirPods are covered by a hat like mine often are here in the northeast.

I’m sure that plenty of people have gotten used to the new gestures, so I don’t necessarily think that the pinch gesture should be removed, but bringing back tap-to-control” and introducing volume control to the non-Pro model would be big wins in my book.

Noise cancellation magic

Now we’re getting to the nice-to-haves. Apple is doing such interesting work in the noise cancellation field with AirPods Pro, that I’m, frankly, a bit jealous. I’d like to be able to tune back outside noises with cancellation, boost conversations with conversation mode, or let the AirPods do all the decision-making and just keep them on Adaptive Audio. I recognize that these features would suffer from the lack of an in-ear tip to provide passive noise cancellation along with the active version. But I also think Apple can make some headway here. And you could always turn it off if you don’t like the effect.

Improved audio quality

I think this is pretty much a gimme that Apple would tout their audio processing prowess, along with an improved physical speaker system for any new set of AirPods. But it’s fourth on my list because I’m not dissatisfied with how even my second-generation models sound. I don’t have particularly discerning hearing, so any slight change that could made in earbuds so small would likely get lost on me.2 But better is better, so let’s always keep moving sound quality forward.

Fitness features

Alright, now I’m just throwing pasta at the wall. There have been whispers of fitness tracking features coming to AirPods, and that sounds cool, I guess? If having a sensor inside my ears helps my Apple Watch to better track my heart rate or other health metrics, sure, let’s go for it! But it probably wouldn’t be a selling point for me, just an extra cool thing.

The rest

Finally, let’s not regress from any other improvements AirPods have enjoyed along their journey. USB-C should be the physical port on the charging case. The buds should have some water resistance to guard against sweat or rain when out on a run. Current battery life is plenty, but could always be improved (provided the case doesn’t have to get bigger — in fact, the smaller the case the better). Their Bluetooth standard should meet the latest specs, or maybe even adapt to use ultra wideband for a more stable and dedicated connection with larger data bandwidth. Improved microphones for phone calls and voice assistants. In short, the usual suspects when bumping up a generation.

AirPods are the gold standard in the wireless headphone industry, and they could stand on their own as a titan in the tech industry if broke out from the rest of Apple’s business. They’re a wearable product, which comes with distinct challenges regarding fit and durability. And they’re deeply personal. Most people I talk to would feel as out of place without their AirPods as they would without their keys or wallet. So a lot rides on each new generation, but I’m hopeful that the next ones will be the best yet.

  1. Although, I really should do a full write-up of my audio journey one of these days.↩︎

  2. I’m honestly not sure why I even have the higher bitrate setting in Apple Music turned on. I should experiment if I can even tell the difference there, or if I can save storage and bandwidth by dropping back to the default setting for sound quality.↩︎

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