Apple AirPlay 2: Everything you need to know

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Almost exactly a year after it was first announced, AirPlay 2 has finally arrived.Apple unveiled AirPlay 2 at last year’s World Wide Developer’s Conference, and — with today’s release of iOS 11.4 — it’s finally available to end users. Apple’s own HomePod is the first device to offer compatibility with the upgraded Wi-Fi audio streaming technology, but it’s not the last: At least 32 products from 6 other brands will soon be compatible too, according to a list on Apple’s site.So, what is AirPlay 2, and how does it differ from the Apple’s original AirPlay wireless music and video streaming protocol? Let’s break it down. Updated May 29 8.58PM ET: Added third-party devices which will support AirPlay 2

AirPlay 2 brings multiroom audio to AirPlay

The Sonos One will be one of the first AirPlay 2 devices
Sarah Tew/CNET

AirPlay is Apple’s proprietary system that allows you to stream audio or video from an Apple source device — iPhone, iPad ($329.99 at Best Buy) or Mac computer — to another device either through Wi-Fi or wired home network. For streaming video that “other device” will need to be an Apple TV, but for audio it can be an AirPlay-compatible speaker, AV receiver or other piece of gear made by another manufacturer. As long as it’s got the “AirPlay” badge on it, it should work. Compared to Bluetooth audio streaming, AirPlay generally sounds better, thanks to the wider bandwidth that Wi-Fi provides. AirPlay 2 adds the ability to stream music to multiple audio devices at the same time. You could use it to call up a song on your iPhone and play it in multiple rooms around the house simultaneously, or pick and choose which AirPlay speaker to stream to. Yep, AirPlay can finally party. Though AirPlay 2 was announced before the Apple HomePod — Apple’s answer to Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home speakers — the two have almost become synonymous. AirPlay 2 will unlock several promised features of the speaker, including multiroom and stereo pairing (the ability to use separate HomePods as left and right speakers). It will also allow you to ask Siri, Apple’s voice assistant on the speaker and other devices, to play music in a particular room or throughout the house. At WWDC 2017 Apple’s senior VP of software engineering Craig Federighi announced that AirPlay 2 would be “built throughout iOS”. He said people would be able to play music to select speakers right from the Apple Music app as well as third-party apps using the AirPlay 2 audio toolkit. Another promised feature will let you create “shared up next”, or multi-user playlists within Apple Music.  airplay-2-mainairplay-2-mainAs seen here in Apple’s iOS public beta, AirPlay 2 allows you to pair two HomePods and group speakers.
Screenshots by Megan Wollerton/CNET

Which Apple device will you need?

The two main pieces of hardware that Apple has been touting as AirPlay 2 compatible are the Apple TV and the Apple HomePod. But AirPlay 2 will also work with recent iPhones, iPads and Mac computers.  Both iOS 11.3 and 11.4 beta have included the ability for developers to test these capabilities (we also did our own beta test of AirPlay 2). In short, any device that can run Apple iOS 11 is also likely to be compatible with AirPlay2. These include: Apple has yet to announce which version of iTunes will be needed, but it’s likely that both Macs and PCs will be able to act as a controller or server for AirPlay 2. Polk Omni S2Polk Omni S2Polk and DTS have announced support for Apple AirPlay 2
Sarah Tew/CNET

Which third-party devices support AirPlay 2?

Apple has listed which specific devices will support AirPlay 2, including many that potentially compete against Apple’s HomePod. Here’s the full list.

  • Apple HomePod
  • Beoplay A6, A9 mk2, M3
  • BeoSound 1, 2, 35, Core, Essence mk2
  • BeoVision Eclipse (audio only)
  • Denon AVR-X3500H, AVR-X4500H, AVR-X6500H
  • Libratone Zipp, Zipp Mini
  • Marantz AV7705, NA6006, NR1509, NR1609
  • Marantz SR5013, SR6013, SR7013
  • Naim Mu-so, Mu-so QB
  • Naim ND 555 ND5 XS 2, NDX 2
  • Naim Uniti Nova, Uniti Atom, Uniti Star
  • Sonos One ($199.00 at Amazon.com), Sonos Play:5 (2015 version), Sono Playbase

In addition these companies announced support at WWDC 2017 but have yet to announce specific models:The Sonos One smart speaker with Alexa (and soon Google Assistant) is a direct competitor to the HomePod, but the company announced support for AirPlay 2 at launch, and has since added the Play:5 and the PlayBase ($699.00 at Amazon.com) to the list of supported devices. Sonos has yet to detail how integration will work, but it is likely to follow the existing Spotify Connect method. Compatible Sonos products will appear within Apple Home as well as in AirPlay menus as available speakers.  Interestingly, half of the manufacturers that will support AirPlay 2 are also Play-Fi partners, and it turns out this isn’t a coincidence. Dannie Lau, DTS Play-Fi general manager told CNET: “We are adding Airplay 2 support to the DTS Play-Fi platform. Any manufacturer interested in licensing AirPlay 2 from Apple can enable this feature in their DTS Play-Fi product.”    

How will AirPlay 2 compete?

There’s no doubt Apple is late to the wireless multiroom audio party, which has been a part of the audio landscape for 15 years starting with Sonos, Squeezebox and Roku. Google’s Chromecast and Amazon’s Alexa system have had multiroom audio support since the summer of 2017. 

As a result Apple is several years and multiple audio products behind the leaders. AirPlay 2 could help it catch up, particularly for owners of the HomePod, but it still has a long way to go. Editors’ note: This story was originally published May 23, 2018 and has since been updated to reflect the release of iOS 11.4 and AirPlay 2.

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