AirPlay 2: Everything we know about Apple’s upgraded wireless audio streaming feature

AirPlay 2 is coming soon to iOS after being previewed at WWDC earlier this summer. While we haven’t tested AirPlay 2 yet, the upcoming feature has a lot of promise. AirPlay 2 enables multi-room audio playback, works with Apple TV, and compatible speakers will work with HomeKit and Siri.

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What is AirPlay?

AirPlay is Apple’s wireless media streaming technology that lets you send media from Apple devices to compatible speakers and Apple TVs. For example, you can play a song or podcast episode from your iPhone to an AirPlay speaker wirelessly over Wi-Fi.

AirPlay differs from Bluetooth because the range can be as great as your Wi-Fi network and there’s less pairing involved, but third-party AirPlay speakers typically suffer from latency during playback and audio playback can be interrupted by a phone call. AirPlay has been convenient but not perfect.

AirPlay originates back to 2004 when it was called AirTunes and only worked with audio from Apple apps. AirTunes evolved into AirPlay as we know it today back in 2010, and added Screen Mirroring a year later.

AirPlay 2 Features

As its name suggests, AirPlay 2 will be the first major upgrade for audio streaming in seven years. AirPlay 2 allows for a much higher level of buffering so audio can keep playing even if you leave Wi-Fi range, take a phone call, or record a video. This should also help significantly with general latency during playback that has resulted in skipped audio when using third-party AirPlay speakers.

AirPlay 2 also enables multi-room audio playback from iOS. You could previously pull off multi-room audio playback using AirPlay from iTunes on a Mac or PC, but the feature wasn’t possible from iPhone and iPad. With AirPlay 2, any compatible iOS app will be able to wirelessly play audio to multiple speakers simultaneously with controls for managing multi-room audio playback right in Control Center.

Speakers that work with AirPlay 2 will also appear in Apple’s Home app alongside HomeKit accessories like connected light bulbs and smart thermostats. AirPlay 2 hasn’t been publicly available yet, so the full extent of what this means beyond playback access is still unclear, but HomeKit support for speakers could be really cool for home automation.

HomeKit lets you create scenes and automations so you can control multiple accessories with a single command or trigger. Adding music control to your Party Night scene that already controls lighting would be impressive, but it’s unclear how connected speakers will be to other HomeKit accessories for now.

What we do know is that Home app support extends Siri control to AirPlay 2 speakers including multi-room audio playback so you can tell Siri on your iPhone, iPad, or Apple TV to play Jazz Radio in the Kitchen and Living Room using just your voice.

AirPlay 2 Speakers

The AirPlay speaker market has never thrived in part due to higher costs and subpar performance, but AirPlay 2 will hopefully resolve the latter issue. Apple has already announced a number of speaker makers committed to making AirPlay 2 speakers: Bang & Olufsen, Naim, Bose, Devialet, Dynaudio, Polk, Denon, McIntosh, Marantz, Bowers & Wilkins, Libratone, Definitive Technology, and BlueSound will all work with AirPlay 2 through future products.

Apple TV – and Apple TV 4K-connected speakers will also be AirPlay 2 speakers when the feature launches.

Apple’s upcoming HomePod speaker which has Siri built-in will be the first dedicated AirPlay 2 speaker to hit the market next month, and Apple-owned Beats will also be making AirPlay 2 speakers in the future.

Sonos, which has long offered its own solution to wireless multi-room audio playback, has also announced that it plans to support AirPlay 2 sometime next year with its existing speakers already on the market today. As a Sonos customer with two Sonos Play:1‘s and a Sonos One and Sonos Play:5 speaker, I can’t wait for my existing speakers to become satellite speakers to the HomePod and targets for AirPlay 2 from iOS and tvOS.

Availability

AirPlay 2 was announced as part of iOS 11 over the summer but didn’t ship with iOS 11.0 in September. iOS 11.2 beta already includes early signs of AirPlay 2, but the feature doesn’t appear fully featured just yet. Apple has promised that HomePod, which is the first AirPlay 2 speaker, will launch sometime in December however, so we can likely expect AirPlay 2 to be available before the end of the year.

Apple also provides an AirPlay 2 audio API for developers to build support for improved streaming and multi-room audio playback in their apps. This means the feature won’t be limited to just Apple Music and Apple Podcasts, but apps like Spotify and Overcast may not support AirPlay 2 at launch.

Apple also showed off a new Apple Music feature called Shared Up Next as part of its AirPlay 2 announcement at WWDC. Shared Up Next will allow multiple people to add to a single Now Playing playlist in Apple Music. This feature hasn’t launched yet either, so it’s possible we’ll see it debut with AirPlay 2 in iOS 11.2 before the end of the year.


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