Instead of calling it “a wireless (and sometimes wired) method of sharing music, video, and metadata between Apple iOS devices – such as iPods, iPhones, iPads, and Apple TVs – and computers running iTunes”, the madmen and women in Apple’s corporate marketing department came up with a shorter, sexier name for the technology. Sure, “AirPlay” is easier to say and much more likely to receive a trademark than the wordier version, but it really doesn’t do much to explain all that you can do with AirPlay-enabled devices in your home.
In short, AirPlay is Apple’s way of streaming media from one gadget to another on your home network. People trained in the mysterious ways of DLNA-enabled devices and various media player programs for the PC may wonder what the big deal about AirPlay is. After all, DLNA technology has allowed media to be streamed through a network to various devices for some time now. Isn’t this just another wave of Apple’s marketing magic wand designed to mesmerize the faithful into pulling out their credit cards yet again for the next “must-have” Apple gadget or gimmick?
The truth of the matter is that there are, indeed, other ways of streaming media – but none that are as wonderfully simple to set up or as easy to work with as AirPlay.
It’s important to know that AirPlay is an Apple technology; and, not surprisingly, it requires one or more Apple (or AirPlay-enabled third-party) products in order to take advantage of the easy streaming capabilities. To begin with, you’ll need a sending device, which can be any of Apple’s hand-held products running at least iOS 4.2 or a Mac/PC computer and iTunes 10.2. Then you’ll need a receiving device, such as an Apple TV, an AirPort Express, or one of a growing number of AirPlay-enabled iPod docks and AV receivers from companies other than Apple. You’ll also need a Wi-Fi or Ethernet network connection.
One of the simplest examples an AirPlay system involves an AirPort Express feeding audio to powered speakers or an AV receiver. The small, wall-wart-styled AirPort Express gets plugged directly into an electrical outlet, while the audio output from its built-in headphone jack is connected to the input on the speakers or AV receiver. Once connected to your network, the AirPort Express appears on your iTunes or iPhone/Pod/Pad as a destination for streaming audio from your computer or handheld gadget. In addition to the easy access it provides to your music, AirPlay also allows a visiting friend’s iOS device to join the network and stream his or her music through your AirPort Express.
There are alternatives to using the AirPort Express. Bowers & Wilkins’ $599 Zeppelin Air, for instance, is a high-performance tabletop audio system that includes both a built-in dock for an iPod as well as AirPlay capabilities. At $349, JBL’s On Air wireless speaker system not only boasts built-in Airplay, it also claims to be the world’s first dock with a color LCD screen.
When it comes to AirPlay and iTunes, Sonos’ multiroom music system defies easy classification. Even though the Sonos S5 has built-in speakers, it’s not an iPod dock. The other Sonos ZonePlayers – some with amplification, some without – aren’t receivers, either. But the company recently announced new System Software that lets a Sonos system owner connect an AirPort Express to a single ZonePlayer in the house and hear music everywhere else there’s an active ZonePlayer.
Read a review of the new Sonos PLAY:3 Here.
Rather than searching for the correct length of cable and then squeezing behind your component rack to connect the audio output of an AirPort Express to your AV receiver, you could opt for a receiver with AirPlay functionality already built-in. Denon, for example, will soon have several new AirPlay-equipped receivers, such as the AVR-2112CI, with prices starting at $599. Pioneer’s first AirPlay-equipped receiver, the VSX-1021-K, will retail for $549. Of course, that’s a bit more than the $100 an AirPort Express will set you back; but if you were planning on buying a new AV receiver anyway, it’s definitely a feature to consider.
You’d think that video capability would be included in AirPlay-equipped AV receivers, but currently they’re limited to audio only. As of today, in order to watch video on your HDTV via an AirPlay connection, you’ll need an Apple TV connected to it. Rumors, however, swirl around Apple like gnats on a rotten banana; and there are reports that the company may soon allow at least some third-party devices to pass video – but at the moment, it’s audio only for anything but the Apple TV.
Controlling the various AirPlay devices connected to your network is a breeze. Apple offers a free app, called “Remote” that provides access to your available music libraries and lets you determine which AirPlay-enhanced component will play the music stream. Only one AirPlay device can be controlled by an iPod/iPad/iPhone; but you can fire up (depending on your network) between three and six AirPlay devices from iTunes on your computer. Despite the fact that the volume levels can be set independently, each AirPlay device in the system plays the same music.
If you already own an iPhone/Pod/Pad, and therefore most likely use iTunes as well, AirPlay will greatly expand the capabilities, scope, and ease-of-use of your digital media. And it will definitely take the “work” out of your network.
By D. Speer
View the slideshow for examples of AirPlay-compatible products.
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