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
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.
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 so it’s a great feature for parties.
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 stream anything from BBC iPlayer radio shows to Spotify if you so wish.
Quality’s great too: AirPlay uses lossless transmission, and any music format natively supported by iTunes (including high-performance Apple Lossless files) works seamlessly. Whatever you’re playing, whether it’s audiophile-quality lossless media or heavily compressed, you’ll benefit from both interference-free wireless transmission and superlative control over all of your music.
Here are some great apps to try:
Think of AUPEO! as the smarter way to listen to radio. Like Last.fm, it provides both artist and genre-defined continuous feeds of music, making it perfect both as a background companion to your day, and as a hassle-free way of discovering new artists. You use Love, Ban and Skip controls to both moderate the music being played and progressively customise the service. Go for the Premium paid-for version which ups the quality to 192kbps and cuts out the adverts for £5 a month.
• Band Of The Day
This gorgeous magazine-meets-music app is the spiritual antipode of the all-you-can eat approach of services such as Napster and Spotify: instead of serving up hundreds or even thousands of new tracks each day, Band Of The Day focuses on just one performer, or group of performers, each day. You get the full in-depth treatment though: review, background biographies, videos and more, plus the option to buy the content you like if you so wish.
• BBC iPlayer Radio
The mighty iPlayer rightly attracts a lot of attention for the diversity and quality of its video content, but often its audio aspect gets overlooked, which is a real shame. If you can’t be bothered with trawling through the world’s internet radio stations, the searchable catalogue of genre-based content on the iPlayer should be more than enough to satisfy. There’s a huge range of listening choice on offer, with everything from contemporary and classic music through to comedy, drama and lectures on tap.
This enthusiast-driven and comparatively inexpensive (69p) app allows iOS devices to support a far wider range of audio formats, including FLAC and OGG Vorbis. Its performance is excellent so long as you steer clear of the inbuilt equaliser options (which can be easily bypassed), and it does a fair job of bringing in album artwork and metadata even from fairly obscure audiophile recordings. The only real criticism of note is the interface, which is a bit haphazard – but worth persevering with.
• Golden Ear
Although pricey (£5.49) Golden Ear is widely regarded as the gold standard for lossless music replay on your iOS device. It’ll support up to 24-bit/96kHz lossless files, handles a wide range of formats (including FLAC) and provides a slick, professional-looking user environment, with decent album art access plus some useful playlist themes. As with Capriccio, it’s simple to load up using iTunes File Sharing.
Rdio is threatening to encroach on Spotify’s territory: you get 320kbps music streams (as with Spotify); access to millions of songs (as with Spotify) and the interface is, if anything, even cleaner and easier on the eye. It’s no surprise that following Rdio’s lead, Spotify has abandoned its previous insistence on a Facebook-driven sign-up to its Premium service.
Comfortably the most popular streaming app, Spotify’s only vice is that it takes a little fiddling to get it stream over AirPlay (expand the album art, and you’ll see the AirPlay icon, which is otherwise hidden). Quality’s good for a system of its type, and the music library is vast, with over 19 million tracks now available. You can stream over Wi-Fi or 3G, or download up to 3,333 tracks to your iOS device’s hard device.