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AirPlay 2 - Apple's big move into multi-room - is now live. But how does it work, and what devices can you use it on? We answer these questions and more...

AirPlay 2 is finally here. After a whole year of waiting - it was first announced at World Wide Developer Conference (WWDC) 2017 last year - Apple has finally made AirPlay 2 available to the public.

What's the big deal? WWDC 2017 featured a wave of new innovations, but for hi-fi enthusiasts, one of the most important was the company’s move into multi-room audio. The new version of AirPlay technology - aptly named AirPlay 2 – will offer multi-room streaming across Apple's own and other manufacturers' speakers, giving Apple a foothold in the mainstream audio market.

Will it be worth the long wait? We hope so. But what are the benefits of upgrading to AirPlay 2? Which manufacturers and devices will use it? And if you already own a first-generation AirPlay product, can it be updated or will you need to buy a new AirPlay device? We have all the answers…

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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, providing 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 got our first glimpse 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 to AirPlay. It also allows Apple's HomePod smart speaker to connect to other AirPlay 2-supporting speakers (such as the Sonos One) as well as setting two HomePods up as a stereo pair.

However, as a wireless protocol, many feel it is some way behind Bluetooth or Chromecast.

How does it work?

AirPlay on iOS 10

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 individually and as a group. 

As long as they are AirPlay 2-compatible, you’ll be able to connect speakers from different manufacturers together, giving you more versatility regarding the products you want to use when setting up your multi-room system.

MORE: Apple Music vs Spotify – which is better?

More after the break

Which Apple products will have AirPlay 2?

Any Apple device that supports iOS 11.4 will also get AirPlay 2:

iPhone

iPad

iPod touch

It’s assumed MacBooks and other Mac computers will also support AirPlay 2 as part of an update to the current MacOS High Sierra operating system, but we'll confirm when MacOS Mojave comes out this fall.

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Who's supporting AirPlay 2?

There is already a long list of well-established hi-fi manufacturers signed up to AirPlay 2.

NaimBoseBang & OlufsenDevialetDynaudioBowers & WilkinsBluesound, LibratoneDenon and the Apple-owned Beats were all name-dropped at WWDC 2017.

While some companies have already announced that they will offer AirPlay 2 updates to existing products (see below), we don't yet know whether all brands will be offering new products with AirPlay 2 as one of its main (or even sole) streaming features.

Sonos will support AirPlay 2, but is restricting its AirPlay 2 capability to its newer products, such as Play:5Playbase, One and new Beam, and promises it will be available in future Sonos products. The update will arrive later this year.

Denon and Marantz have also announced they will support AirPlay 2 in their new 2018/2019 line-up of AV receivers, as well as the Denon CEOL N10.

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Can AirPlay products be upgraded to support AirPlay 2?

For most products, there will be a software update to update existing AirPlay speakers to AirPlay 2.

Bang & Olufsen has confirmed it will be offering over-the-air AirPlay 2 updates to its speakers (new and old) in August and September. The supported products are the Beoplay M3, M5, A6, A9 mk2, BeoSound 1, 2, 35, BeoSound Essence mk2, BeoSound Core, BeoSound Shape (via BeoSound Core) and BeoVision Eclipse (audio only).

Naim has announced its latest line of Uniti products - Uniti Atom, Uniti Star and Uniti Nova - will be updated to support AirPlay 2 "in parallel with Apple’s launch timings".

Libratone has announced an update will be available to its Zipp and Zipp Mini speakers in September, but not for its AirPlay-connected Diva soundbar or some other older products.

And a post on Bose's community forum says it is "actively collecting information to answer inquiries about AirPlay 2 and HomeKit".

So, it seems likely your existing hardware will require an update. We'll let you know when we have more details about which products will be affected.

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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 iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone X all support Bluetooth 5. It isn't likely to 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 acts 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.

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When can I get AirPlay 2?

AirPlay 2 is available now on Apple devices. You simply need to download and install the latest iOS 11.4 software on your Apple smartphone or tablet. HomePods should update automatically, as long as auto updates are enabled in the Home app. You'll need a second HomePod to get the benefits of the stereo pairing (and multi-room) features, naturally.

We're certain other manufacturers will update their systems in due course now that AirPlay 2 is finally here - although we’ll keep you up to date as we receive more information.

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