AirPods: How to improve Apple’s wireless earbuds

Jason Snell:

Last week, we heard the latest report that Apple is working on updates to AirPods, the wireless headphones it introduced in the fall of 2016.

This report about forthcoming new generations of AirPods hit me in a strange way. Usually, anyone who follows Apple (or any tech company, really) has a wish list of features—realistic ones for the short term, wild dreams for the long term. But the AirPods? They emerged from Apple as a fully formed product. I don’t have a lot of complaints about them—they basically exceeded my expectations in every area, and they’re now my go-to headphones for all circumstances where I don’t need zero-latency audio (podcast editing) or to block out loud noises (flying on planes or mowing the lawn).

How do you improve a product that’s got so little to prove? I know, I know: continual improvement to its products is how Apple rolls. Let’s start by recapping the report by Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman: Apple is working on improvements to the AirPods due later this year, though some improvements might not come until later. Features include a new wireless chip, support for Siri voice activation, and improved water resistance.

Now you may be saying to yourself, wait a second, I say “Hey Siri” all the time when I’m wearing my AirPods and it activates. Here’s the secret: If your iPhone’s microphones are somewhere where they can hear you, they’ll activate. But this rumor seems to suggest that AirPods will be constantly monitoring their microphones, waiting for the trigger phrase. (What they almost certainly won’t do is actively process the commands—they’ll presumably pass those on to their paired iPhone or Apple Watch for further processing.)

Still, it takes power and custom chips to constantly be listening for an activation phrase. That probably explains the rumor about the new wireless chip, which would presumably be more energy efficient than the W1 chip in the first-generation AirPods. I’m going to guess that Apple will pack any new AirPods model with as much battery as it possibly can, but given the extremely limited size of AirPods, it’s more likely that any lost power in adding “Hey Siri” functionality would be offset by more efficient electronics.

As for splash resistance, it makes sense—AirPods are out in the world with us, and it can be rainy (and sweaty) out there. I have no idea what goes into making a product like AirPods more water resistant, but it would surely increase the reliability and longevity of AirPods if a harsh downpour or a particularly strenuous workout didn’t materially affect the electronics inside.

Beyond these changes, what does the future hold for AirPods? Where else can these (already excellent) wireless earbuds stand to improve? Here are a few ideas.