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    What AirPlay 2 Means for Your Listening Setup

    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.) 

     

     

    airplay1-jpg.jpg

     

     

    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. 

     

     

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    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. 

     

     

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    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. 

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Kirkheadsmall1.jpg

    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 BlogTidBITS, as well as several other web sites and magazines. He is co-host of The Next TrackPhotoActiveThe Committed, and The Intego Mac Podcast.

     




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    I did a bit more digging on this, as streaming audio through the phone is my pet peeve. It appears that AirPlay 2 as of right now doesn't really help and requires the phone still be heavily involved with playback in most cases.

     

    The HomePod can stream right from the cloud under certain circumstances, but all other audio routes through the phone. Spotify and Tidal have had this nailed for years by sending audio straight from the cloud to the playback device. 

     

     

    For the geeks, here is a link to a developer video and PDF.

     

    https://developer.apple.com/videos/play/wwdc2017/509/

     

    509_introducing_airplay_2.pdf

     

     

    Paging @DarwinOSX - It seems AirPlay 2 still requires the phone pretty heavily. Do you have any other information?

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    One possibility is that Apple rolls the HomeKit functionality into the Apple TV - or the HomePod itself - which could serve to free the iPhone (or iPad) from the equation. But that would require specific apps that are downloaded to either device, and the Apple TV makes a lot more sense for that. There have been suggestions over the years that the Apple TV might become a home hub, but, to be honest, it's a bit expensive for that. If you have a HomePod, it would make a lot more sense for that to be a hub. I'm sure they could make it so apps on the HomePod display on an iOS device. But that all gets a bit confusing, not knowing what is where. 

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    3 minutes ago, kirkmc said:

    One possibility is that Apple rolls the HomeKit functionality into the Apple TV - or the HomePod itself - which could serve to free the iPhone (or iPad) from the equation. But that would require specific apps that are downloaded to either device, and the Apple TV makes a lot more sense for that. There have been suggestions over the years that the Apple TV might become a home hub, but, to be honest, it's a bit expensive for that. If you have a HomePod, it would make a lot more sense for that to be a hub. I'm sure they could make it so apps on the HomePod display on an iOS device. But that all gets a bit confusing, not knowing what is where. 

     

     

    I'm not totally sure what you are saying but Apple TV already acts as a HomeKit hub.  So does the HomePod.

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    The problem is lots of devices can serve as HomeKit "hubs," but it's not clear what any of them do other than centralize a somewhat limited interface for controlling devices. The HomePod doesn't have an interface at all, and the Apple TV is limited to use when a TV is on, which isn't practical. What is needed is a HomeKit hub that allows more than just basic controls and settings, something that can store apps that can then be accessed by other devices, which would provide the functionality that Chris is talking about. 

     

    The current concept of the HomeKit hub is amorphous, and quite confusing. I have not set up my Apple TV or HomePod as a "hub," and control everything from my iPhone (or even my Apple Watch) which cannot be a HomeKit hub, according to Apple. 

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    Mirroring Chris's remark, I wonder if Apple will ever evolve their approach to where a phone or tablet is simply a remote and configuration component and not part of the actual stream. 

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    Just now, loop7 said:

    Mirroring Chris's remark, I wonder if Apple will ever evolve their approach to where a phone or tablet is simply a remote and configuration component and not part of the actual stream. 

     

    Exactly. Like the way you can control iTunes from an iOS device. That's what would make more sense; the HomePod can already connect directly to Apple Music and to your iCloud Music Library.

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    This is an interesting write up on features, but I am disappointed that there is not more information on sound quality and listening experience.  (Nor I did not find the linked article much more helpful in this regard.)  Given Apple's history, I expect that the sound quality is less  than most CA readers would hope.

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    And why do you think sound quality would be any different for music streamed over AirPlay than for the same music played on the device you're streaming it from? AirPlay does not compress audio; it converts it to Apple Lossless, which is then played back on the target device. And what does this have to do with "Apple's history?" AirPlay has always worked this way. I've never heard anyone comment on its sound quality. 

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    Curious Kirk...

     

    What's the limit of AirPlay 2? Is it native 16/44.1? Will there be some upsampling to 48kHz?

     

    I can't seem to find any clarity about this. I assume since there's no fanfare about "hi-res", Apple's still not interested in 24-bit or >48kHz.

     

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    4 hours ago, kirkmc said:

    And why do you think sound quality would be any different for music streamed over AirPlay than for the same music played on the device you're streaming it from? AirPlay does not compress audio; it converts it to Apple Lossless, which is then played back on the target device. And what does this have to do with "Apple's history?" AirPlay has always worked this way. I've never heard anyone comment on its sound quality. 

     

    Ummm...I'm not the expert, you are.  So let's not put too much weight on why I might think something.  But since you asked--as I understand it, AirPlay2 relies upon some combination of iPhone, iPad and HomePod--all produced by a company that has pushed great products with sound quality that is typically far below comparable stuff from competitors such as Naim, Klipsch, and (even) Bose.  So most CA readers are going to have a fundamental concern--will the sound be good enough, or am I just going to find this irritating?

     

    I'm sure I'm not the only one who thinks this.  Note that Archimago asks about a very important Apple weakness in the very next question.  He's more specific (and kind?) than I am, but our overriding concern is the same.

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    2 hours ago, Archimago said:

    Curious Kirk...

     

    What's the limit of AirPlay 2? Is it native 16/44.1? Will there be some upsampling to 48kHz?

     

    I can't seem to find any clarity about this. I assume since there's no fanfare about "hi-res", Apple's still not interested in 24-bit or >48kHz.

     

    We need to get an AirPlay 2 device with digital output to do actual testing. 

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    7 hours ago, Archimago said:

    Curious Kirk...

     

    What's the limit of AirPlay 2? Is it native 16/44.1? Will there be some upsampling to 48kHz?

     

    I can't seem to find any clarity about this. I assume since there's no fanfare about "hi-res", Apple's still not interested in 24-bit or >48kHz.

     

     

    It has always been 16/44.1, upsampled to 48 kHz; there's no reason to think that has changed. 

     

    It is upsampled to 48 kHz because of the Apple TV, and the fact that audio in movies is usually 48 kHz. I don't see Apple getting into the high resolution game any time soon, and there really is no reason why they should. The vast majority of their users don't care about high res, and it would just confuse things. I wouldn't be surprised if they move to lossless soon, however, both for streaming and for the iTunes Store. 

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    5 hours ago, Ralf11 said:

    will my Apple TV3 work with AirPlay2 - or did they brick it?

     

    As I said in the article, it works with the Apple TV 4th generation and later. It's likely that the older models don't have the hardware to support the changes. But you can still use it with AirPlay; you just won't get the benefits of AirPlay 2 (larger buffers, multi-device audio). 

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    5 hours ago, The Computer Audiophile said:

    We need to get an AirPlay 2 device with digital output to do actual testing. 

     

    There is nothing to suggest that the audio is any different now than before. The only digital output on supported models is HDMI; the 3rd generation model, which had an optical output, is not supported. However, it still works with AirPlay, just not the newer iteration, and the audio will be the same. 

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    7 hours ago, PeterG said:

     

    Ummm...I'm not the expert, you are.  So let's not put too much weight on why I might think something.  But since you asked--as I understand it, AirPlay2 relies upon some combination of iPhone, iPad and HomePod--all produced by a company that has pushed great products with sound quality that is typically far below comparable stuff from competitors such as Naim, Klipsch, and (even) Bose.  So most CA readers are going to have a fundamental concern--will the sound be good enough, or am I just going to find this irritating?

     

    What I find surprising is your assumption that something about AirPlay "doesn't sound good." AirPlay is a transport protocol; it doesn't affect the sound quality. It doesn't compress audio like Bluetooth. The sound quality is dependent on the playback hardware. You may not like the sound of the HomePod (I don't particularly care for the sound of a single HomePod but I was pleasantly surprised hearing two of them set up as a stereo pair), but that has nothing to do with the digital stream sent via AirPlay. 

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    5 hours ago, kirkmc said:

     

    There is nothing to suggest that the audio is any different now than before. The only digital output on supported models is HDMI; the 3rd generation model, which had an optical output, is not supported. However, it still works with AirPlay, just not the newer iteration, and the audio will be the same. 

    The AirPort Express doesn’t upsample like the AppleTV. I want a similar AirPlay 2 device just to look at the digital output. 

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    Just now, The Computer Audiophile said:

    The AirPort Express doesn’t upsample like the AppleTV. I want a similar AirPlay 2 device just to look at the digital output. 

     

    Right, and the AirPort Express doesn't support AirPlay 2 anyway. 

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    5 hours ago, kirkmc said:

    What I find surprising is your assumption that something about AirPlay "doesn't sound good." AirPlay is a transport protocol; it doesn't affect the sound quality.

     

    You just said it upsampled 16/44.1 to 16/48.  That can be done well or it can also be done poorly.

     

    On this fact alone you can't say it doesn't affect sound quality.

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    4 minutes ago, Dr Tone said:

     

    You just said it upsampled 16/44.1 to 16/48.  That can be done well or it can also be done poorly.

     

    On this fact alone you can't say it doesn't affect sound quality.

     

    Apple has been doing this for years; it's not new. I'm not aware of any complaints about it not sounding good. 

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    8 hours ago, kirkmc said:

    What I find surprising is your assumption that something about AirPlay "doesn't sound good."

     

    You've misquoted me at multiple levels.  My preconception is based on Apple's history, not AirPlay per se.  I trust that you understand why iPhones, iPads, iTunes, etc might have given me this notion.  I hope to change my view based on future products, and I hope CA articles will feature lots of information on listening experience.

     

     

     

     

     

     

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    great write-up Kirk!  for what it's worth, I love my HomePod... it's in the kitchen doing due diligence in keeping me cooking a mean meal......... 😂

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    31 minutes ago, Danny Kaey said:

    great write-up Kirk!  for what it's worth, I love my HomePod... it's in the kitchen doing due diligence in keeping me cooking a mean meal......... 😂

     

    I think it's great for that sort of listening. It's not an audiophile device, however, in any way. 

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    I think a clarification should be made that AirPlay doesn't do the resampling to 48 kHz but rather the resampling is device dependent. Streaming via AirPlay to any number of HiFi devices will pass 44.1 kHz no problem and even the AirPort express is 44.1 kHz. Only the AppleTV resamples the audio to 48 kHz.

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