AirPlay sets your music free. It’s the missing link between your smart devices and your stereo, a cable-free connection between the tunes you love and the hi-fi system able to make the very most of them.
Unlike previous generations of wireless transmission technology – the original version of Bluetooth, for instance – AirPlay uses lossless transmission, ensuring good quality. Any music format natively supported by iTunes works seamlessly and whatever you’re playing, you’ll benefit from both interference-free wireless transmission and superlative control over all of your music.
AirPlay was inspired by the smartphone revolution, and in particular by the mould-breaking impact of Apple’s seminal iPhone. In truth, the iPhone wasn’t the first capacitive touchscreen smartphone when it launched in 2007 – the LG Prada had got there first. All the same, everything changed once Apple, already so fundamentally involved in digital music delivery via its iTunes platform, ignited the touchscreen revolution.
Since then, touchscreens of all shapes and sizes have fundamentally changed the way we interact with all our portable devices, and in particular, the way we buy and browse our digital music. Combine a touchscreen iPod, an iPad or an iPhone with internet access, and you’ve an amazingly powerful tool for discovering new music or revisiting old favourites, All you need to complete the experience is some form of audio system to replay that downloaded, ripped or streamed content.
And that’s where Apple AirPlay comes in. Why would you want to confine your iPod, iPad or iPhone to a dock or shackle it via a cable to your hi-fi? Clearly, it’s more desirable to keep that brilliantly tactile music-control interface where it belongs, within easy reach – especially if the alternative is to rely on the far more basic and restrictive remote handsets supplied with most hi-fi kit. Simply put, AirPlay lets you keep your smart devices where they’re most useful – to hand – while wirelessly transmitting the music and other media they contain to compatible hi-fi and AV components. And even if you don’t own some form of smart device, AirPlay has a role to play: it can transmit music from your computer’s iTunes library (and in some cases, from other sources too) to AirPlay-compatible audio systems. You’ll enjoy just the same wireless convenience, if not, perhaps, quite the same level of tactile interaction.
AirPlay evolved from AirTunes, Apple’s 2004-vintage wireless music transmission system. This was designed to allow Mac owners to distribute their iTunes music around their homes using Wi-Fi, plus compatible devices such as Apple TV or an AirPort Express receiver.
How do you use it?
Launched in 2010, AirPlay expands on AirTunes in a variety of ways. First, it’s supported by a wider variety of Apple devices; while AirTunes could only stream from a computer, AirPlay is also available on iPods, iPads and iPhones. Second, it’s been made available for use in so-called ‘third-party’ devices. Previously, you could only send your AirTunes information to another Mac or to an Apple AirPort product, but now you use AirPlay to beam your music to a wide range of compatible hi-fi components, including speaker docks such as the Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air. And third, AirPlay streams more than just music. Use it with an Apple TV and you can wirelessly beam TV shows and films – including high-definition video – plus your photos. Even when used as part of a music-only system, it’ll deliver album art plus artist, title and album information.
Setting up an AirPlay system is straightforward. It piggybacks on existing Wi-Fi and Ethernet networks: to ensure control over your content, you simply need to ensure that both your sending device – such as your iPad – and your receiving component are connected to the same network. You can connect multiple AirPlay-compatible receiving components too – so for example, you could have an Apple TV in your living room, and a Zeppelin Air in the kitchen. Both units must receive the same information at the same time – unlike other wireless multiroom systems, such as Sonos – but it’s still a great feature for parties. That said, Apple TV isn’t the best-performing option for pure music reproduction (its digital audio output is fixed at 48kHz, so it must upsample CD-derived music files from 44.1kHz to 48kHz first): if you want a more audio-orientated Apple streamer, the AirPort Express (which will replay music in its original 44.1kHz form, without upsampling) is a better bet, even if it does without the video capabilities of the Apple TV. On the other hand, there’s always the option of buying another Bowers & Wilkins component instead…
So that’s what it does: what can you do with it?
When used via iOS-based portable devices, the answer is almost anything that involves sound: since iOS 4.3, the technology has been opened up to third-party apps, so now, you can use AirPlay to stream anything from BBC iPlayer radio shows to Spotify if you so wish. If you’ve opted for an Apple TV in your system – notwithstanding that audio issue we’ve just mentioned – you can also use AirPlay to stream video from your iOS device to your TV, the only limitation being the restrictions imposed by some broadcasters (such as Sky) on wireless video distribution.
Move away from iOS devices to desktops or laptops and you’ll find some Mac users are restricted solely to iTunes content via AirPlay. However, those lucky enough to have newer computers running the latest version of Mountain Lion will enjoy the same level of flexibility as iOS-based portable devices.