It wasn’t long ago that wireless speakers were something that many people avoided. With tinny sound, mediocre signals and even worse battery life, they simply couldn’t compete with wired options. As mobile devices have made it easier to pocket our entire music collection or watch movies poolside, the demand for better wireless options has spurred a wave of improvement.
Now, you can enjoy wireless audio that rivals that of dedicated home entertainment systems or other high-quality speakers. AirPlay is one of the innovations that have helped lead the charge for high-fidelity wireless audio options. Pioneered by Apple, the technology offers one of the best listening experiences currently available.
If you’re looking for an AirPlay speaker but don’t know where to start, The Informr is here to help!
What is AirPlay and How Does It Differ from Bluetooth?
Most of the original wireless speakers used Bluetooth technology to transmit audio. While this works well--especially with newer devices--it has some major limitations. The two biggest limitations are transmission distance and audio quality. Limited to a range of about 30 feet, you can’t expect to move all over the house or yard with a Bluetooth speaker. In addition, you’ll find that in most cases, audio quality is slightly diminished.
AirPlay addresses both of these concerns. By using your Wi-Fi network to transmit audio, you can stream to a speaker anywhere on the network, providing much greater flexibility in enjoying your audio. The audio is also transmitted in a lossless format. This means that you don’t lose any quality from the original file. AirPlay also allows for multi-room speaker setups. This lets you choose which speaker you’d like to stream to, making it simple to control audio all over the house or out on the patio at the push of a button.
Will AirPlay Work with My Devices?
There was a time when AirPlay only worked with Apple products, such as the iPad, iPhone and Apple TV. Today, apps and software make it easy to connect to AirPlay speakers using virtually any device with a wireless adapter. Options include Android apps, PC software and more. Each option will connect with the speaker a little differently.
AirPlay Speaker Basics
Now that you know that AirPlay speakers are for you, it’s time to dig into some of the details of what makes one speaker better than another. While a fair portion of picking the right speaker is a matter of personal preference or budget, these details are an easy way to start limiting options.
AirPlay speakers are available in a variety of sizes to fit any use that you might have. Most fit into one of three categories:
Compact: These small speakers are great for offices or other tight spaces. They often use a rechargeable battery instead of plugging into the wall to provide added mobility. Unfortunately, the Wi-Fi requirements of AirPlay mean that they are only as portable as your Wi-Fi coverage. If you’re looking for portable speakers that you can use virtually anywhere, a Bluetooth speaker might be a better choice.
Sound quality in compact speakers is surprisingly good, though if you’re looking to feel the bass from your favorite tracks, you might need to look in the next category.
Hi-Fi: Upgrading from the compact designs, the hi-fi models often include larger speakers and increased bass response. However, this increased output requires increased power so most models will need to be connected to a power outlet. Those that do support a rechargeable battery will only offer enough power to run for 6 to 8 hours at a time. Many will easily fill a room with thumping bass, making these a great choice for home audio or movies under the stars.
Stereo and Multi-Room Speakers: While size is great for portability, it comes at the cost of overall sound quality. Stereo and multi-room AirPlay speakers feature all of the quality and power of a home theater system with the convenience of wireless connectivity. Managing multi-room speaker systems usually requires a specialized mobile app or software on your computer. However, once you understand how it works, it is hard to beat the audio quality and convenience of taking your movies or music with you from room to room.
Pairing and Usage
Instructions for connecting your AirPlay speakers to your network will vary slightly by model. In most cases, the process is simple and involves a series of button presses to activate the speaker and a quick setup application on your PC, Mac or mobile device. Once you have the speaker connected to your network, streaming audio is as simple as tapping the AirPlay icon in any supporting app and choosing the name of your speaker from the list of detected devices. While pairing might seem intimidating, you typically only have to repeat the process if you change your network layout or buy a new router.
AirPlay Speakers - What You Need to Know
Find the Perfect Fit for Your Intended Use
One of the biggest considerations to make when choosing a speaker is its size. This will not only impact where you can place the speaker but its sound quality and cost as well. Sizes range from the super portable Libratone Zipp to the cabinet-style JBL Authentics series.
Smaller models are perfect for travel, taking to the office or rocking out in the dorm room. The weight of some larger models makes them less than ideal for toting around. Once you’ve found the perfect spot for your speaker, it won’t move often, so spending a little more to find a speaker that matches the design and decor of your space is worth it.
Powering Your AirPlay Speakers
AirPlay speakers typically rely on rechargeable internal batteries or connection to a standard wall outlet. However, you might find some that can use traditional disposable batteries as well. When choosing a power source, it's best to consider where you intend to use it.
If you’re looking for something portable, but plan to return to a location where you can charge it regularly, a rechargeable battery is probably the best option. If you plan to take longer excursions, being able to swap in fresh batteries will allow for longer runtime but greatly increase the cost of keeping your speakers running.
Do You Really Need Those Fancy Features?
Speaker makers love to make long lists of features in product descriptions. While some are useful, having a bunch of features that you won’t use most likely means you’re paying too much for your speaker. These are a few of the most common options on AirPlay speakers today:
Bluetooth: Many AirPlay speakers also include Bluetooth connectivity. If you’re looking at smaller speakers, this will allow you listen to music in places where there is not a Wi-Fi access point. If the price difference is small, this feature is definitely worth having, if only for the flexibility it provides.
NFC: This feature allows your speakers to connect to supporting devices by placing them next to each other. While not a major feature for AirPlay, due to its Wi-Fi connectivity, it is handy to have if you are ever using the speaker in Bluetooth mode. However, it is merely a convenience.
Charging docks: If you’re planning to use your speaker in an office or bedroom, having a charging dock might help to reduce cord clutter and provide a convenient way to keep your mobile device charged. Adapters are available for most docks to convert to popular connection types, including Apple’s Lightning port and the mini-USB found on other devices.
Voice controls: While voice controls might sound handy, reviews for many devices touting the feature are hit or miss. Most AirPlay speakers are easily controlled using mobile apps or computer programs such as iTunes. This means that voice controls might be more hassle and expense than they are worth. Be sure to check reviews if you plan to use this feature.
Multi-room systems: Multi-room systems create a network of AirPlay speakers that make it simple to broadcast audio throughout your home or business. While dedicated sets might offer a better balance for home theater usage or create a unified look, many AirPlay-supported apps and programs allow you to control multiple speakers even if they are not a set. However, in many cases, a set of speakers is cheaper than purchasing each individually. If you plan to expand your system, comparing prices and planning might net significant savings.
Pricing AirPlay Speakers
In most cases, AirPlay speakers cost a little more than their Bluetooth counterparts. However, the added sound quality and increased range are well worth the price. If you’re already invested in Apple products, the tight integration with Mac OSX and iOS might also justify the price increase.
Decent AirPlay speakers start around $100. Near that price point, you’ll find options such as the popular Logitech UE Air, the G-Project G-Boom and the Philips Fidelio SoundAvia. You’ll find many more options as you near the $200 to $500 bracket, with big names such as JBL, Bowers & Wilkins and Klipsch entering the market. Popular models include the Wren V5AP and Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air. Upgrading further, with prices up to $1000, you’ll find the JBL Authentics L8, Sony SRS-X9 and Polk Audio Woodbourne series.
What Type of Airplay Speaker is Best for Me?
So you now know what to look for, what to expect to pay and have a good overview of how AirPlay speakers work. All that is left is to figure out the exact model that’s right for you. If you’re still unsure, these tips can help limit your options further.
Club hopper and bass junkie: Whether you’re dancing to dubstep or thumping the latest hip-hop anthem, you can’t get enough punch in your bassline. You’ll probably find the upper-tier models, such as the JBL Authentics L8 or Bowers and Wilkins Z2. If you’re looking for something portable, the G-Project G-Boom has shocked reviewers since its release with its power and clarity.
Classical or acoustic music lover: These types of music require clarity in the high end of the audio spectrum while still allowing the bass notes to fill the room. Reviewers love the Wren V5AP for its clarity and soundstage. If you have a little more room in the budget, the Bowers and Wilkins Zeppelin Air is a favorite as well. Looking for a budget-conscious option? The Logitech UE Air is consistently rated high in the low-$100 price range.
Athlete and on-the-go listener: Whether you’re looking for a little music to fuel your workout or want to enjoy your music on a family camping trip, you’ll be looking in the smaller end of the spectrum. Picking up a speaker with a rechargeable battery is recommended and the addition of Bluetooth will help in areas where AirPlay isn’t feasible. Popular options include the Libratone Zipp or the Bang & Olufsen Beolit 12.
Gamer, movie enthusiast or audiophile: You want to hear every note, feel every rumble and feel like you’re in the front row of the movie theater or music hall. You’re also willing to spend accordingly. For you, there is a range of high-end options available. The JBL Authentic L16, while pricey, is a consistent favorite of many reviewers. There is also the Samsung Wireless Audio Dock with its wide soundstage and powerful speakers. Finally, the Polk Audio Woodbourne is a stylish AirPlay speaker that offers a natural sound that has no problem filling the room.
And there you have it! Everything you need to know to go out and find the perfect AirPlay speakers for the home, office or on the road! If you have any questions, we’re always happy to help at The Informr. Just drop us a line, hit us up on social media or ask a question in the Airplay Speakers Q&A forum!