It's a good thing I don't gamble, because I would have put plenty of money on AirPods 3 being announced alongside the iPhone 13 at the September Apple Event, and I would have lost it, and then been unable to afford to buy the new AirPods whenever they do come out.
The whole event went but with nary a mention of headphones, and my hope for them to be a "One more thing" faded into the background as Tim Cook waved me away at the end, like an unwanted guest being carried away by his security people.
But the reason I'm so certain AirPods 3 must be imminent isn't just there's been so many leaks about them and this much smoke must mean quite the fire… it's also that there's a big hole in Apple's current strategy for Apple Music, and it's shaped exactly like upgraded AirPods.
Apple brought lossless music and Dolby Atmos 3D music to its Apple Music service at the same time, but didn't really bother to make it easy to listen to lossless. None of Apple's headphones support lossless Bluetooth connections, for example.
But Apple has gone all-in on Dolby Atmos, with the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max both including a feature called Spatial Audio, which is their way of delivering Dolby Atmos music and movies in true 3D sound – the sensors inside them detect the movement of your head, and factor this in to create a pretty stunning 3D soundscape.
Apple has talked a big game over Spatial Audio. Apple's services chief Eddy Cue was asked by Billboard (opens in new tab) what the next generation of music will be, and he said "There’s no question it’s not going to be lossless". Whereas he described Spatial Audio as a "game-changer".
In iOS 15, Apple is even making it so that it's not just Dolby Atmos music tracks that get the 3D effect – the iPhone will convert regular stereo songs into a new 3D soundscape. It's really going all-in on people loving Spatial Audio.
The problem? Nothing can be a game-changer if it's not affordable to the mainstream. Apple's Spatial Audio is only available in its high-end headphones, and not in the current affordable AirPods. If Apple wants Spatial Audio to be thing that make people jump from Spotify or Amazon Prime Music to Apple Music, it needs to make sure that buying the actual headphones isn't the prohibitive factor, otherwise people will never even know what they're missing.
When you look at the puzzle that Apple has almost finished putting together, it seems very clear that the last piece has upgraded AirPods with Spatial Audio sensors in.
Compared to AirPods Pro, they probably won't include the noise cancellation, and their audio quality might be a little lower overall, but as long as Apple can make them come in at roughly the £150/$150 price point that AirPods sold at while becoming the dominant wireless earbuds… well, they'll have a huge hit on their hands, right?
So AirPods 3 didn't appear at this event, but I don't think we've been reading the leaves wrong when we predict them – they'll surely be released before Christmas, and will be one of the hottest buys of the season. But for now, we'll have to keep waiting to see when the era of Spatial Audio will truly begin…