Apple AirPlay essential guide: Everything you need to know

AirPlay and AirPlay 2 features, tips and tricks and the best AirPlay devices

Apple AirPlay guide

Sure, you know the basics of Apple AirPlay - you know how to ping music from your iPhone to your speaker - but have you ever gone beyond that? Apple AirPlay, and the upcoming AirPlay 2 platform, is evolving quickly and rivals the likes of Chromecast for casting videos, and Sonos for multi-room music.

Don't believe us? Read on to find out everything you need to know about Apple AirPlay and how you could be getting more from your media setup.

What is Apple AirPlay?

First launched waaaaay back in 2004 - but called AirTunes at the time and pretty limited by today's standards - AirPlay as we know it now was announced by the Cupertino giant in 2010. Essentially it's a two-way protocol, made up of a sender and receiver, that works over Wi-Fi. And you don't need to be on a common Wi-Fi network to get it working, Apple devices are clever enough to find each other without sharing an SSID.

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A sender is an Apple device that's capable of playing media back and sending it to another device, think iPhones, iPads and Macs. The receiver is the device that relays what's being sent - e.g. video on an Apple TV or music on an AirPlay enabled speaker. Apple TV is actually capable of being both a sender and a receiver - it can act as a speaker for music sent over from an iPhone, for example, but it can also ping its audio to a HomePod speaker.

Apple AirPlay - what you can do

Using iOS - iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad

Apple AirPlay guide: Everything you need to know

Now that the technical bit is out of the way we can concentrate on the fun part of what exactly you can beam around your house.

Starting with the simplest AirPlay operation and, when listening to music on your iPhone or iPad - either from Apple Music or third-party apps with AirPlay built in - you can push the little AirPlay button to send that audio to a receiver. If you've got a bunch of AirPlay speakers, Apple TVs and the like you'll see a menu pop up where you select the receiver you want to hear your music on. You can only choose one... but more on that in a bit.

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When you choose your speaker you'll hear your music played back from it and you can use that device's control method to skip songs, change the volume and the like. You can also still use your iOS device for controls too - so you can still scroll through Spotify for example, on your phone, to choose the tunes you want.

From an iOS device you can also fire over visuals - think photos and videos from your stream, and movies from iTunes and third-party apps - to an Apple TV. It's the same little button that appears and, from Control Center, you can also mirror your iPhone or iPad's display - although don't expect video playback using mirroring to be seamless, it can be quite choppy.

Confusingly, you'll sometimes see an AirPlay icon appear when you're watching a video and you'll click it and you'll find that only the audio is sent over. Thems the breaks we're afraid - the world of third-party AirPlay can be an annoying place.

Using macOS - iMac, Mac Pro and MacBook

Apple AirPlay guide: Everything you need to know

On your Mac, you can do all the iOS bits and bobs - i.e. sending over audio and video to recipient AirPlay devices - but it's limited to native Apple apps like iTunes, QuickTime and Safari.

For example, fire up a YouTube video on Safari and you'll see the AirPlay logo and you can relay the video over to your Apple TV. However, load the same YouTube URL on Chrome and the option is gone (replaced by a Chromecast logo, the sneaky so and sos).

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You can, however, mirror your entire Mac display using the AirPlay logo in the top bar. However, you'll run into some severe choppiness if you try to AirPlay a webpage playing a video, or if you try and play a game. Basically, it's only really good for static or slow moving pages - so as a second screen for your Tweetdeck, email, document editing and that sort of thing.

Where macOS does come into its own with AirPlay is audio. Multi-room audio is already available on AirPlay, you don't need to wait for AirPlay 2 - you just have to have iTunes running on a Mac. From the AirPlay logo on iTunes, which looks a bit different, you can select multiple speakers and have them all playing in harmony. Sure, it's limited to iTunes and Apple Music, but it's a start eh?

AirPlay and Apple TV

Apple AirPlay guide: Everything you need to know

You'll have noticed we've mentioned Apple TV a lot in this guide and that's because it's a device you'll be relying on if you want to go beyond audio with AirPlay - it's the only AirPlay recipient that plays back video.

However, Apple TV is also an AirPlay sender (ever since tvOS 11 went live last year). If you are watching a movie on iTunes you can send the sound over to a AirPlay speaker by dragging down on the remote.

AirPort Express

AirPort Express, Apple's networking accessory, also acts as an AirPlay receiver - and you can set up an AirPort as a dedicated device. The AirPort Express has an audio-out 3.5mm jack on the back, which you can plug into existing stereo systems. Then, when you select the AirPort Express on the AirPlay drop-down it will, in turn, play the music through those speakers (if you've set the right input method on your Hi-Fi).

You can also get multi-room music by using more than one AirPort Express and using the iTunes on a Mac method mentioned above.

The best Apple AirPlay speakers

Apple AirPlay guide: Everything you need to know

Obviously Apple wants you to buy a HomePod, but there are plenty of third-party speakers that support AirPlay, from an array of well-known brands including...

  • Libratone Zipp Mini
  • B&W Zeppelin Wireless
  • Naim Mu-so
  • Riva Audio Arena
  • Devialet Phantom
  • Wren V5US
  • Polk Woodbourne AM6119-A
  • JBL Authentics L8

What is Apple AirPlay 2?

Apple AirPlay guide: Everything you need to know

The big sell for AirPlay 2 - which really should have gone live by now, but is now slated for a launch later in the year - is multi-room support from iOS devices. From your iPhone or iPad you'll be able to ping music to multiple AirPlay speakers... Apple clearly has plans for the HomePod to take on Sonos and co.

There's also a new multi-user mode, which will be great for parties. Shared Up Next mode lets different people can connect and fire over songs from their own iDevices.

AirPlay 2 and HomeKit will also be playing nicely when it arrives, with speakers showing up in the Home app and you'll be able to include playback in Home automations: think music playing when you arrive home, a song starting at sunrise - that sort of thing. You'll also be able to get Siri to start an AirPlay session on a particular speaker.

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On a technical level, Apple is making a big noise about the improved level of buffering with AirPlay 2, which should help significantly with latency during playback - something that's particularly annoying and prevalent with third-party AirPlay speakers.

The good news is that Apple is keeping the door open for third-parties - the likes of Spotify, Deezer and Tidal - to make use of AirPlay 2, it isn't reserved for just Apple Music.

And it's not just Apple's HomePod either. Big name audio companies have already announced they'll be launching AirPlay 2 speakers including Bose, Polk, Bang & Olufsen, McIntosh, Marantz, Devialet, Dynaudio, Denon, Bowers & Wilkins, Libratone, Definitive Technology, and BlueSound.

Some existing speakers will also upgrade to AirPlay 2, including models from Libratone, Naim and Sonos - the latter's One speaker, which currently packs Alexa, will have AirPlay 2 support at some point this year. Which brings us nicely onto...

Apple AirPlay 2 release date

AirPlay 2 was supposed to be launched when iOS 11 went live - and there's no way that the HomePod was supposed to be on sale without it. However, we're still waiting and the latest word from Infinite Loop is just, "later this year".

We will, of course, keep you posted.

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