Apple’s 2017 WWDC (World Wide Developer Conference) featured a wave of new innovations - one of the most important to hi-fi enthusiasts is the company’s move into multi-room audio. This is through a new version of AirPlay technology - aptly named AirPlay 2 – which arrives as part of the latest update from Apple’s iOS 10 operating system to iOS 11.
So what are the benefits of upgrading to AirPlay 2? Which manufacturers and devices will use AirPlay 2? And if you already own a first-generation AirPlay product, can it be updated or will you need to buy a new AirPlay device? Read on for all the answers…
What is AirPlay?
Before getting into AirPlay 2, it's worth looking back at the original AirPlay. Launched in 2010 as part of iOS 4 (around the time of iPhone 4), AirPlay was a way to stream audio, video, and photos wirelessly to Apple TV - and eventually, to dedicated audio products.
It was built on Apple’s 'AirTunes' software from 2004, which was predominantly used to stream audio from iTunes to AirPort Express - so you could wirelessly listen to music across your home network from your Apple device.
Content would travel over your wireless network, rather than via Bluetooth, but it proved quite difficult to get a product set up. Those early products also didn’t have the most stable connection, and music would often drop out.
Updates to AirPlay made it a lot simpler and more reliable, and - as long as your Apple device is on the same wi-fi network - music can be streamed to it at the tap of a button.
MORE: Best AirPlay speakers
What is AirPlay 2?
We saw our first glimpses of AirPlay 2 at WWDC 2017. The main focus of the update is on streaming music from your iOS device to more than one product.
This is Apple's first real move into multi-room technology, and also the first major update in recent years to AirPlay. As a wireless protocol, many feel AirPlay fell by the wayside a while ago in comparison with Bluetooth or Chromecast.
How does it work?
AirPlay on iOS 10
From what we saw at Apple’s presentation, AirPlay 2 will offer the ability to stream music wirelessly to, and between, compatible speakers on the same wi-fi network. This is through the Control Centre on iOS devices, an Apple TV box, or iTunes.
You can define where in your house the speaker is located, using labels such as ‘Living Room’ or ‘Kitchen’. From there, you can control which speakers are playing music at any time, both invidivually and as a group.
As long as the speakers are AirPlay 2-compatible, you’ll be able to connect speakers from different manufacturers together through this system, giving you more versatility regarding the products you want to use when setting up your multi-room system.
More after the break
Which Apple products will have AirPlay 2?
Any Apple device that supports iOS 11 will also get AirPlay 2:
- iPhone X
- iPhone 8 Plus
- iPhone 8
- iPhone 7 Plus
- iPhone 7
- iPhone 6S Plus
- iPhone 6S
- iPhone 6 Plus
- iPhone 6
- iPhone SE
- iPhone 5S
- 12.9in iPad Pro (first generation)
- 12.9in iPad Pro (second generation)
- 9.7in iPad Pro
- 10.5in iPad Pro
- iPad (fifth generation)
- iPad Air 2
- iPad Air
- iPad mini 4
- iPad mini 3
- iPad mini 2
- iPod touch (6th generation)
It’s assumed MacBooks and other Mac computers will also support AirPlay 2 once they are updated to the MacOS High Sierra operating system on 25th September.
Who's supporting AirPlay 2?
There is already a long list of well-established hi-fi manufacturers signed up to AirPlay 2 - Naim, Bose, Bang & Olufsen, Devialet, Dynaudio, Bowers & Wilkins, Bluesound, Libratone, Denon and the Apple-owned Beats were all name-dropped at WWDC.
Apple's recently announced wireless smart speaker with Siri built in, HomePod, will also feature the technology.
Can AirPlay products be upgraded to support AirPlay 2?
For some products, there will be a software update to update existing AirPlay speakers to AirPlay 2.
Libratone has announced an update will be available later this year to its Zipp line, but not for its AirPlay-connected Diva soundbar or some other older products.
A post on Bose's community forum says it is "actively collecting information to answer inquiries about AirPlay 2 and HomeKit. Please stay tuned for more info."
It seems likely your existing hardware will require an update, and we'll let you know when we have more details about which products will be affected.
What are the alternatives?
The main competitor to AirPlay 2 is Bluetooth, especially if Bluetooth 5 offers single-source-to-multiple-devices functionality.
However, the newly announced iPhone 8, 8 Plus and iPhone X all support Bluetooth 5. It likely won't rival AirPlay 2's multi-rooming skills, but it's nice to have both streaming choices in the new handsets.
Then there's Google's Chromecast technology. If you’re using a Chromecast Audio stick or a Chromecast video device, you can stream content from iOS and Android products to your hi-fi devices. Some products also have Chromecast built-in, so you won't need an external Chromecast device.
While it works slightly differently from AirPlay - your phone or tablet acting as a remote while the speaker plays the file from the Internet, rather than the audio being sent over the Internet from your smartphone - there are third-party applications that will let you Chromecast local audio from your phone to the speaker.
When can I get AirPlay 2?
AirPlay 2 will come with the update to iOS 11, which is available to download on compatible Apple products now.
We expect other manufacturers to update their systems in due course - likely closer to the December launch of the Apple HomePod - although we’ll keep you up to date as and when we receive more information.