What AirPlay 2 Means for Your Listening Setup
Apple has finally released the AirPlay 2 framework for streaming audio and video on a wi-fi network to compatible devices. Announced just about a year ago at Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference, then delayed along with the HomePod, the first device to fully leverage this protocol, AirPlay 2 was released last week as part of iOS 11.4. It is not, however, available on macOS yet, nor on iTunes for Windows, and presumably a Mac update should follow soon.
If you're used to using AirPlay, you won't notice much of a difference, but there are some changes under the hood that should make your listening better. Here's an overview of how AirPlay 2 works.
iTunes has long been able to stream to multiple AirPlay devices, but AirPlay 2 brings this ability to the iPhone and iPad. You can now select two or more devices available on your wi-fi network and send music to them. Tap the AirPlay icon on any now playing screen, or, in Control Center, tap the small AirPlay icon on the playback widget. (On the Apple TV, swipe down from the top of the screen, then swipe to Audio to access these controls.)
AirPlay 2 devices show a circle to the right of their names; the other devices in the list are older AirPlay compatible devices. To start streaming audio, tap a device; if it's an AirPlay 2 device, a check mark fills the circle. Note that you can adjust the volume for each device independently.
AirPlay 2 promises "perfect sync" between devices when you stream to more than one speaker. In the past, streaming from iTunes, the device may have been out of sync, depending on your network. AirPlay 2 increases the amount of music that is buffered, helping ensure that music stays in sync, and preventing glitches or dropouts.
AirPlay 2 is also independent of other audio on the device that you use to stream. If you get a phone call, for example, the audio will not stop, which could be annoying if you're streaming from your phone to an AirPlay speaker in another room during a party.
Since AirPlay 2 features a buffer that can be up to several minutes, you can start playing music and continue playback when the device you used to initiate the music is no longer on the network. I tried this with Apple Music on my iPhone: I started playing some music, then put the phone into airplane mode, and it continued playing, but only to the end of the song. You cannot, however, tell a device to buffer an album or playlist.
AirPlay 2 also supports a stereo pair of HomePods. In the above screenshot, you can see that Bedroom shows two HomePods. I have these devices set up as a stereo pair in my bedroom, and when I send music to them, AirPlay 2 manages the right and left channels, instead of playing the same merged mono signal through both devices.
It's worth noting that while I found the sound from a single HomePod to be mediocre for much of the music I listened to, I'm greatly impressed by the results of a stereo pair of these devices.
You can use Siri on an iOS device to control AirPlay 2 playback. For example, I can say, "Play some Grateful Dead in the bedroom," and Siri will start playing music on my HomePods. You could also say, "Play Frank Sinatra's It Was a Very Good Year on all speakers," and even tell Siri to play one type of music on one speaker, and different music on another.
Other devices on a network will see what's playing on your AirPlay 2 speakers and be able to control playback and volume. Unfortunately, while you can set a password on an Apple TV to prevent people from streaming to the device, you cannot do this with an AirPlay 2 speaker. So you may find your kids playing around with their iPhones or iPads and stopping the music you're listening to, or changing what's playing. Other users can also add music to the Up Next queue, if they have an Apple Music subscription and have iCloud Music Library turned on. I have not been able to test this, as I don't know anyone else who has an Apple Music subscription nearby.
It's worth noting that this is not without issues. While it works fine when streaming music or podcasts from an iOS device, or even streaming the audio from a movie viewed in the TV app, I was unable to get audio to stream correctly when watching video on apps such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, or Plex. With Netflix and Plex, the apps told me I didn't have enough bandwidth to stream the movies, whereas I got no sound at all streaming with the Amazon app. Since AirPlay 2 is a system framework, I'm surprised this was a problem; it suggests that apps need an update to fully support it.
What if you already have some AirPlay speakers; will they be able to use AirPlay 2? This protocol is currently compatible with the Apple TV 4th generation or later, and with the HomePod. While AirPlay 2 is backward compatible with all AirPlay speakers, their use with the new protocol will require firmware updates from their manufacturers. AirPlay 2 speakers not only need to manage audio playback, but they also need to be compatible with HomeKit, Apple's framework for home automation products. Apple has published a list of some speakers whose manufacturers have announced coming upgrades. It seems that not all AirPlay devices will be upgradable, due to limitations of memory or the devices, and it's not clear how many hardware manufacturers will want to make the upgrade.
AirPlay 2 is a solid update to a protocol that has been around for many years (remember AirTunes?). It offers some interesting features, and should resolve the problems that many people encounter with latency and dropouts, but only on devices that are updated to support this framework. If you have a third-party AirPlay speaker, it may be some time before its manufacturer provides support, if at all.
Kirk McElhearn writes about Macs, iPods, iTunes, books, music and more. As a Senior Contributor to Macworld for more than 15 years, he has written hundreds of articles, including the Ask the iTunes Guy column and the Hey Apple, Fix This! column. He is also a regular contributor to the Mac Security Blog, TidBITS, as well as several other web sites and magazines. He is co-host of The Next Track, PhotoActive, The Committed, and The Intego Mac Podcast.