Will Apple Really Make Stemless AirPods?

It can be done, but ditching those iconic white sticks seems unlikely

Key Takeaways:

  • AirPods’ iconic white stem is free advertising carried in millions of ears.
  • The stem is the perfect place for the microphones and antennae.
  • Stemless earbuds are easier to insert than you might think.
AirPods
The new AirPods Pros are at the top and the older AirPods are below.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Apple’s next AirPods Pro may come without their iconic white stems, looking more like a tiny puck that fills your ear. But while smaller is usually better with Apple, perhaps this is going too far.

It’s possible the rumor is true and Apple is making one of its tiniest computers even tinier. After all, that’s what it does. But a few moments’ thought shows that removing the stems causes way more problems than it fixes. Even sources close to Apple doubt that it’s possible.

“Integrating noise-cancellation, wireless antennas and microphones into a smaller AirPods Pro casing has proved challenging during development,” writes Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman, “which could result in a less ambitious design when the product is finalized.”

No Way

But the biggest argument against Apple ditching the stem from its AirPods Pro line is not technical at all. Like the white cables running from its earbuds in the iPod era, the white stems are iconic. If you see them, you immediately know what they are. And if you don’t know what they are, you want to find out.

AirPods’ white stems are free advertising, carried in the ears of all the cool kids. Apple might not use the stems in ads, the way it used wired AirPods in its long-running silhouette iPod ads, but they are every bit as important.

“Let’s not forget that without those stems, the iconic iEra branding disappears,” tech journalist John Brownlee told Lifewire via Twitter.

Technicalities

That’s not to say that there aren’t technical problems with removing the stems. Unlike the regular AirPods, which keep their batteries in their stems, the Pro model uses standard button cells for power. But the Pro’s stems are still packed full, housing the microphones, the H1 chip that powers them, and the antennae. The mics and the antennae benefit the most from being in the stems, because it gets them out into the open air instead of being blocked by your head.

"What I want to see them do is double down on the stems, and make them touch-capacitive so you can do things like raise and lower volume."

This can impact range. AirPods Pro have excellent range, even compared to the already-good non-pro AirPods. But stemless buds just can’t beam their Bluetooth signal as far.

“I’ve used Rowkin [earbuds] for a while, they seemed to be the “first” on truly wireless and stemless,” musician MJ Couche told Lifewire via forum post. “The range is less than the AirPods I have, but I also bought the Rowkin in 2016. I don’t remember the official supported range but I can usually be a room away from my device, anywhere from 15-20ft.”

Original AirPods in a person's ear.

If Apple removes the stems from its AirPods Pro, then it will have to find a new home for all of these parts, and also find a solution for perhaps the most important part of the stem—the remote controls.

To skip tracks, toggle play/pause, talk to Siri, or switch noise-canceling modes on the AirPods Pro, you squeeze their stems. This is far superior to the regular AirPods, which are controlled by tapping the AirPod itself. This tap booms into your ear every time you do it. The stem-squeeze is quieter, and, in use, more reliable.

The stems seem essential, then. Instead of ditching them, then, Apple could pack even more functionality inside.

“What I want to see them do is double down on the stems, and make them touch capacitive,” says Brownlee, “so you can do things like raise and lower volume.”

Fit and Fitness

Another use for the stems is purely mechanical. They make it easier to put the pods in your ears, and to get them out again. That said, those little stemless earbuds aren’t as hard to use as you might expect. Speaking again about the Rowkin pods, Couche told us that “[It’s] very easy to get them in. I use them for when I exercise now, though if I’m doing any sort of jumping they sometimes fall out.”

Will Apple make stemless AirPods? It’s almost certain that they exist in an Apple laboratory somewhere. It seems unlikely, but with Apple, you never really know.