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Apple AirPlay 2: Here’s everything you need to know

When it comes to listening to music wirelessly, most people think of Bluetooth. It’s built into just about every smartphone on the planet, and a huge number of tablets, desktops, and laptops have it too. But if you own Apple hardware, you need to know about a Bluetooth alternative that works over Wi-Fi, called Apple AirPlay 2.

AirPlay 2 does a lot more than Bluetooth: It lets you send both audio and video to a growing variety of devices such as TVs, speakers, Apple TV boxes, Macs, and home theater receivers, all sans wires. If you own more than one AirPlay 2-compatible audio device, you can stream your music to just one of them, some of them, or all of them without losing synchronization. If that sounds cool to you, stay with us. We’re going to point out all of the exciting features of AirPlay 2 and show you how to use it.

Keep on reading to learn everything you need to know (and probably some stuff you don’t) about Apple AirPlay 2.

What is AirPlay anyway?

iPhone with the AirPlay control panel screen on it.

Originally debuted in 2004 as AirTunes, AirPlay is Apple’s proprietary, wireless protocol suite designed to allow users to “throw” audio and video signals from one “sender” device to one “receiver” device. Streamed content can include music, video, photos, and screen sharing, all of which retain their metadata when sent via AirPlay.

Sender devices include Windows computers running Apple Music, iOS devices (iOS 4.2 or higher) including iPhones, iPods, and iPads, and Mac computers running MacOS Mountain Lion or later (depending upon the processor).

Receiver devices include Apple’s AirPort Express routers, Apple TVs, Apple’s HomePod speakers, Mac computers with Monterey MacOS installed, and a wide variety of supported third-party wireless speakers. You can even turn wired speakers into receivers with devices such as the Belkin SoundForm Connect audio adapter. The third-party adapter plugs into any speaker with an optical or 3.5mm audio input and allows for one-tap AirPlay pairing. It will set you back $99, but hey, it’s cheaper than a new set of AirPlay-capable wireless speakers.

AirPlay also lets you “mirror” the screen of an iOS/iPadOS/MacOS device to an Apple TV, so that you don’t end up with a group of people huddling around a tiny screen just to see a map, photo, video, etc.

What does AirPlay 2 do?

Apple AirPlay 2 devices.
Apple

Announced in 2017, AirPlay 2 builds on the original AirPlay feature set and lets you exert more control over AirPlay devices through Apple’s HomeKit platform.

With AirPlay 2, you can stream music to multiple AirPlay 2-compatible speakers simultaneously, creating a true multiroom streaming system. Under the original AirPlay, only one could be used at a time.

Because AirPlay 2 receiver devices are recognized by HomeKit, you can use Apple’s Home app to label these AirPlay 2 devices and add them to rooms and scenes, which can then be automated. For fans of Apple’s Siri voice assistant, this is a big deal because Siri can control any devices that HomeKit recognizes.

Once you’ve labeled an AirPlay 2 speaker as “living room” in the Home app, for example, you can tell Siri to play music on that speaker just by asking for it: “Hey Siri, play Weird Al Yankovic in the living room.” Initially, this only worked with an Apple Music subscription, but Apple has been adding support with Deezer being a recent addition. Spotify is less certain: After some back and forth, Spotify has said that AirPlay 2 support is in the works, but there’s no timeline for enabling it.

If you own two of Apple’s HomePods or HomePod minis, you can use AirPlay 2 to set them up as a stereo pair.

Another perk for Apple Music subscribers is that they’ll be able to take advantage of Apple’s decision to offer its entire 90-million-track library in lossless audio. Beginning in June of 2021, users have been able to choose between CD-quality 16-bit/44.1kHz, 24-bit/48kHz, and hi-res 24-bit/192kHz formats.

Right now, AirPlay 2 only officially supports the lowest lossless tier of 16-bit/44.1kHz, but there’s plenty of speculation that this could be expanded to the 24-bit/48kHz tier as well, given that Apple has promised to make the HomePod compatible with lossless audio soon. Doing so is important: None of Apple’s wireless headphones are compatible with these formats. In fact, right now there are no Bluetooth headphones or earbuds that are capable of supporting lossless audio, though this will eventually change.

AirPlay 2 can also be used to control streaming video, and on many more devices than just an Apple TV. Smart TV models from Samsung, LG, Vizio, Toshiba, and Sony are now AirPlay 2-compatible, as are all Roku TVs and select 4K-capable Roku player devices. Compatible models will show up in your AirPlay control panel as available receivers for both audio and video content. If your AirPlay 2-compatible TV is connected to a home theater sound system, that system is now a de-facto AirPlay 2 speaker. For some people, this will mean they no longer need an Apple TV device at all — especially as many of these same TVs will be getting Apple’s TV app too.

Other devices that support AirPlay 2 include multiple soundbars, smart thermostats like Ecobee’s, and other smart speakers.

AirPlay 2 is baked into iOS, iPadOS, and MacOS, so whether you are using an iPhone, iPad, or computer, you’ll have full control of playback.

Does AirPlay work on all my Apple devices?

Latest version of Safari in MacOS Monterey.

AirPlay 2 is baked into iOS, iPadOS, and MacOS, so whether you’re using an Apple mobile device or computer, you’ll have full control of audio playback. The same goes for the Apple TV and Apple TV 4K streaming devices. Apple’s tvOS 11, which launched in fall 2017, turns your Apple TV into a “sender” device for audio, so if you’re playing a movie on Apple TV, you can turn every AirPlay 2 speaker in your home into an expanded home theater sound system — a handy feature for those without a dedicated soundbar or 5.1 home theater system.

With the MacOS Monterey update, Apple has also added the ability to AirPlay directly from another Apple device, like an iPhone or iPad, directly to your Mac. This can be used to show media on a larger screen if you want to share it with an audience, among other purposes. This MacOS support is only available on Mac models sold within the last few years, but works on MacBooks, iMacs, the Mac Mini, and the 2017 iMac Pro. MacOS Monterey also added a number of capabilities including the upcoming SharePlay, Live Text options, and more.

How is AirPlay 2 different than Bluetooth?

Amazon Tech Deals Anker SoundCore mini Super-Portable Bluetooth Speaker

AirPlay and AirPlay 2 work over a Wi-Fi wireless connection. This requires that all AirPlay devices be on the same Wi-Fi network, connected to the same Wi-Fi router. Unfortunately, it also means that AirPlay will not work when you’re away from your home or office unless you have a portable travel router that you can use to create a temporary Wi-Fi network.

But because AirPlay uses Wi-Fi, it’s capable of a higher quality of streaming audio than Bluetooth. It can also send video, something Bluetooth has not been designed to accommodate.

Bluetooth, on the other hand, can be used anywhere you’ve got a media device and a speaker that are both Bluetooth-enabled. Bluetooth wireless range is less than Wi-Fi and has a harder time penetrating walls and other obstacles. It can’t support video, but it does enable more audio features than AirPlay or AirPlay 2 at this time.

You can use a Bluetooth speaker as a speakerphone if it’s got a mic, and some will let you create stereo pairs over Bluetooth. There is no way at the moment to create separate groups of Bluetooth speakers and play different music to each device.

What works with AirPlay 2?

AirPlay-compatible Sonos One speaker on a kitchen counter.

As previously mentioned, the list of AirPlay 2 sender devices is fairly short, comprising mostly iOS devices (they’ll need iOS 11 or later) and Mac computers (MacOS 10.13 or later) — it won’t work on any devices made before 2011.

The list of receiver devices, on the other hand, is growing rapidly, and by our count includes many brands of wireless speakers and A/V receivers, plus a growing selection of TV brands (if you don’t count Roku TVs, which are offered by several different manufacturers). AirPlay 2 has been expanding its reach in the streaming world as well, thanks to Roku device support.

Here are just a few of the companies that already support AirPlay 2 on some of their products:

  • Amazon Omni and Fire TV
  • Bang & Olufsen
  • Bluesound
  • Bose
  • Bowers & Wilkins
  • Definitive Technology
  • Denon
  • Devialet
  • Ecobee
  • Libratone
  • Marantz
  • McIntosh
  • Naim
  • Pioneer
  • Polk Audio
  • Roku
  • Sonos
  • Sony
  • Vizio

As you might expect, this is likely just a small fraction of the companies that plan to add Airplay 2 support to their products eventually. Plus, some existing apps and products can be updated to support AirPlay 2, in addition to newly developed apps and products. A recent example comes from Bose, which added AirPlay 2 to its SoundTouch wireless speakers, some of which are now six years old.

So, if you have some swanky, Wi-Fi-enabled B&W speakers, don’t throw them out the window just yet!

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