Just a few years ago, wireless speakers were something that many people avoided.
With tinny sound, mediocre range, and even worse battery life, they simply couldn’t compete with wired options.
The demand for better wireless options has spurred a wave of improvements and 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 helped lead the charge for high-fidelity wireless audio options.
Pioneered by Apple, the technology offers one of the best listening experiences currently available.
But what is AirPlay? How does it differ from Bluetooth and other options? What do you need to get started?
We'll answer all these questions and more in this guide. Let's get started...
Editor’s Note: This post has been updated for 2018.
In this guide...
What is AirPlay and How Does It Differ vs. Bluetooth?
Voila! Wireless audio...
While Bluetooth works well -- especially with newer devices -- it has some major limitations and hassles though.
Limited to a range of about 30 feet, you can’t expect to move all over the house or yard with a Bluetooth speaker. The connection is direct between your mobile device and the speakers. And, in most cases, limited to only one connection at a time.
In addition, you’ll find that in most cases, audio quality is slightly diminished.
Unless you have a new device and higher-end speaker with aptX or aptXHD support, there's a good chance that Bluetooth is compressing your sound -- flattening bass, distorting highs, and generally just muddying up sound quality.
Then there's the hassle of pairing.
While it's supposed to work effortlessly after the first time you pair your device, this isn't always the case. And instructions to pair things work a little differently on every phone, tablet, or laptop out there.
Sure, this might be a minor complaint. But when you just want to listen to your music or dig into the latest podcast on your list, minor annoyances impact the experience. And over time, they add up.
Apple introduced AirPlay to address 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.
Since you're not bound to a 30 foot circle, you can broadcast your favourite tracks throughout the home or office without the need for a bunch of wiring or complicated audio hardware configurations.
The audio is also transmitted in a lossless format. This means that you don’t lose any quality from the original file -- assuming that your source is of good quality.
While you might not notice a huge difference streaming on low quality with Spotify, feed your AirPlay speakers a 320kbps MP3 stream or FLAC audio and the difference is night and day.
Still, the AirPlay standard had one glaring limitation -- you need a Macbook to have the most control over your audio experience. Most phones were limited to a very basic set of controls.
And even with a Macbook, you're still limited in how you can group speakers or manage multi-room audio.
But that's about to change...
What is Airplay 2?
Airplay 2 provides all of the control previously reserved for Macbooks to your mobile device on any device running iOS 11.4 or MacOS 10.13 Higher or higher.
Of course, as with most Apple technologies, you'll find the best integration with other Apple products. This includes a sizable range of iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, and Apple TV models.
New features of AirPlay 2 include:
- The ability to create speaker zones to play audio in specific rooms or locations from any compatible device.
- Select support for stereo pairing to provide true stereo sound without the hassle of wires as well.
- Group playlist management, allowing multiple people or phones to add songs and media to the playlist -- a great addition for parties or families.
- Enhanced buffering technology that provides smoother playback with less skipping and dropped connections.
- New and improved Siri commands and controls for easier hands-free operation.
Unfortunately, AirPlay 2 isn't coming to all standard AirPlay speakers. Some will support software updates to make older AirPlay speakers AirPlay 2 compatible.
So if you want guaranteed support for this newer version, you'll need to be sure the speakers you buy support AirPlay 2 instead of the older AirPlay standard.
But the good news is that a whole range of speaker manufacturers have already pledged support for AirPlay 2 -- including Sonos, Polk Audio, Bose, Beats, Bang & Olufsen, Denon, Marantz, and Bowers & Wilkins.
Apple offers a long list of AirPlay 2 speakers. However, it appears that it might be out of date.
Denon, Sonos, and Marantz have already released software updates for some of their devices to bring AirPlay 2 compatibility to AirPlay models.
We'd recommend checking with the manufacturer if you own -- or are considering buying -- an AirPlay speaker and want to know if it will support AirPlay 2.
How Does AirPlay Work?
Using Airplay and Airplay 2 is simple.
The first thing you'll want to do be sure you're connected to the same network as your speakers.
Simply drag down the notification bar on your iOS device to bring up your quick settings.
Then you'll tap your audio settings for the current audio playing or streaming from your device.
You'll see playback controls followed by a list of AirPlay and AirPlay 2 devices on your network.
You can easily tell the difference based on how the item looks on the list.
AirPlay 2 devices will have a circle check toggle on the right while standard AirPlay devices will not.
Note: While you can still stream to AirPlay devices, you can only stream to one at a time. This means you cannot mix and match AirPlay and AirPlay 2 speakers at the same time. If you're looking for multiple speaker audio, you'll want to stick to a single AirPlay version.
Will AirPlay Work with My Devices?
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.
For Android, we recommend AllCast. While there's a free version to trial it and be sure it works, it includes a 5 minute streaming limit. So to really use it, you'll need the premium version. Fortunately, it's affordable and well worth the price in our opinion.
For PC streaming, we recommend TuneBlade. You'll run into a similar set of limitations -- however, it works well enough to justify the one-time purchase price.
AirPlay Speaker Basics
Now that you know what sets AirPlay apart as a feature, let's dig into some of the factors 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 favourite 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 hi-fi models can 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 AirPlay 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.
AirPlay 2 speakers simplify the process, allowing you to control everything directly within iOS without the need for other apps.
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.
Planning to Buy an AirPlay Speaker? Consider These Points
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.
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 run time 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 you cannot find 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 while you listen. 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.
The one exception to this is the Siri integration in AirPlay 2 speakers. Siri is backed by the cloud computing power of Apple. This means it has a better accuracy and a far greater list of control options than most built-in voice command features you'll find. Still, unless you know you'll use it often, it's not a must-have feature.
Multi-room systems: Older AirPlay speakers often used specialized apps and software to help you build a network of speakers. But they still ran into limitations on what you could stream and where you could listen.
With AirPlay 2, any combination of AirPlay 2 speakers can become a multi-speaker or multi-room system. Just pair them in the AirPlay settings as you see fit and enjoy!
This provides the best level of flexibility in terms of adapting the audio experience to your available space and intended usage. But it comes with the added cost of multiple speakers.
So this is largely personal preference. If you have a need for multi-room audio, AirPlay 2 speakers offer an obvious benefit here.
Pricing AirPlay Speakers
In most cases, AirPlay speakers cost 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.
You’ll find many more options as you near the $250 to $500 bracket, with big names such as JBL, Bowers & Wilkins, and Klipsch entering the market. Popular models include the Wren Sound V5US, Libratone Zipp, Apple HomePod, and JBL Authentics L8.
Recommendations: 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 bass line. You’ll probably find the upper-tier models, such as the JBL Authentics L8 or Bowers and Wilkins Z2.
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 favourite as well.
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, RIVA RWA01, or the Bang & Olufsen Beolit 15.
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 favourite of many reviewers. There is also the Samsung Wireless Audio Dock with its wide soundstage and powerful speakers. Finally, the Naim Audio Mu-so Qb Wireless Speaker System is a stylish AirPlay speaker system that offers a natural sound that has no problem filling the room with its 5 speakers and 300 watts of power.
AirPlay vs. Chromecast: What's the Difference?
Both technologies work similarly. However, Chromecast is an Android alternative. It is important to note, however, that they are not compatible with each other despite accomplishing similar goals.
Also, while it's a bit confusing, Google uses the term Chromecast to describe both the act of streaming using their standard AND the little puck-like device that you stream to.
So streaming Netflix from your phone to your smart TV is "chromecasting" but you can also stream it to your Chromecast.
If you're using an iOS device, there are still options to stream to a Chromecast. If you're using an Android device, you can still stream to AirPlay.
But if you're looking for the most streamlined and configurable experience, we recommend sticking to the Wi-Fi audio standard that matches your phone or tablet.
Does Airplay work for Windows?
With the right apps, you can stream audio from Windows to an AirPlay speaker. For playing games or watching movies, TuneBlade is a popular option for streaming from a Windows PC or laptop to an AirPlay speaker. If you're simply looking to stream music, you can use iTunes to stream to an AirPlay speaker from Windows.
What is AirPlay Mirroring?
Unlike Bluetooth, AirPlay isn't limited to audio streaming. It can also stream video.
AirPlay Mirroring allows you to stream files from a Mac or iOS device to an Apple TV or other AirPlay-enabled media streamer. While outside the scope of this guide, it is a handy feature for showing off your latest snapshots of the kids or streaming video from your Macbook to your TV.
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 a comment below or ask a question in the Airplay Speakers Q&A forum!
 Pocket-lint: Apple AirPlay 2 vs AirPlay: What’s the Difference?
 Macworld: AirPlay 2 FAQ: What It Is, How It Works, and Which Devices Support It
 iMore: Airplay 2 FAQ: Everything You Need to Know!
 What Hi-Fi: Apple AirPlay 2 – Everything You Need to Know
 Digital Trends: Apple AirPlay 2.0 Explained: Here’s Everything You Need to Know
 Heavy: 5 Best AirPlay Speakers: Your Buyer’s Guide (2018)
 The Ambient: The Best AirPlay 2 Speakers: A Guide to What’s Available, and What’s Yet to Come
 CNet: Best AirPlay Speakers for 2018
 iMore: Best Speakers That Support AirPlay 2
 Crutchfield: Wireless Speakers and Audio Buying Guide