Editorial: AirPlay Speakers Come Into Their Own, A Year Later
So many of Apple’s products “just work”—occasionally “just working” miracles, such as Photo Stream’s effortless sharing of photos between three or five different devices—that it’s surprising when a feature arrives more or less broken, and all but shocking when the company leaves problems unaddressed for an extended period of time. Hard-core iTunes users have justifiably griped about long-standing glitches in small features such as Smart Playlists or metadata tracking, but Apple’s marquee, keynote-mentioned products typically work, and work well. One major exception is AirPlay.
Apple introduced AirPlay wireless streaming technology in September 2010, adding video and photo streaming to its prior AirTunes audio streaming feature. AirPlay support was added to iTunes, iOS devices, and the second-generation Apple TV over two months in the form of an AirPlay button: press the button on your iPhone, select your Apple TV from a pop-up menu, and the small-screened iPhone’s video, photo, or audio content would magically start playing on your big-screen HDTV. It was awesome, and “just worked” reliably as soon as it was introduced. AirPlay was subsequently expanded with even more impressive app streaming and screen mirroring features, which also performed just as expected.
But another new category of AirPlay products—brand new and expensive AirPlay speaker systems—didn’t roll out so smoothly. The idea was appealing: think Bluetooth wireless speakers on steroids, armed with lossless audio quality, the option to simultaneously stream from one source to several speakers at once, and the ability to work with both iOS devices and computers running iTunes. Sitting on your Wi-Fi network after a one-time setup process, an AirPlay speaker could be seen by any networked device without requiring Bluetooth-style pairing, and perform audio at a greater distance than Bluetooth’s typical 33-foot limitation. Unlike Bluetooth speakers, which were designed solely for one-device-at-a-time, same-room/outdoor wireless convenience, AirPlay speakers could be pieces of a whole-home audio system.
Despite AirPlay’s conceptual appeal to speaker manufacturers and customers, reality was somewhat different. After choosing an AirPlay Wi-Fi chip vendor and a handful of initial AirPlay speaker partners, Apple launched a web page confirming that it was working with several companies to release standalone AirPlay speakers, and then went all but silent. The companies wanted to build excitement for their upcoming products, but Apple took the unusual step of restricting what they could say until the speakers were ready to launch. Consequently, there was virtually no advance notice before Bowers & Wilkins’ Zeppelin Air debuted in early 2011 as the first all-in-one AirPlay speaker—it showed up, completed, almost out of nowhere. The lack of hype and built-up actually turned out to be for the best.
During AirPlay’s first year of availability, Zeppelin Air and many subsequent AirPlay speakers suffered from a variety of issues: they were challenging to set up, experienced audio hiccups, and took an unusually long time to respond to control changes from iOS devices. Some, including Pioneer’s Elite Music Tap X-SMC4-K, felt as if their interfaces had been designed by sadists. Others, including iHome’s comparably elegant iW1, sought to streamline the oddly PC-like initial setup process using iOS apps, but still had to deal with complaints of audio and lag issues. User complaints were apparently quite common for AirPlay speaker makers; certain developers told us that they were glad they hadn’t released AirPlay products, since return rates were unusually high due to dissatisfied customers, and particularly difficult for companies to handle during rough economic times. Certain developers tried to limit bad press by offering tested wireless routers to reviewers, but still-working Apple TVs suggested that the routers weren’t really the problem.
Then things became worse. Following the iPhone 4S launch in October 2011, Libratone noted an “issue is widespread and occurring on all AirPlay-enabled speakers”—“short and prolonged AirPlay audio drop-outs.” Our testing found that these issues were even more disruptive to AirPlay streaming than the ones that came before, sometimes crashing the speakers and requiring them to restart before they could be used again. Given that the Libratone Live sold for $700—and only one AirPlay speaker released during the first year sold for less than $300—these problems were largely affecting users paying premium prices. With rare exceptions, the speakers inside these systems didn’t sound like they were worth those prices, either. For six or more months, Apple and developers offered iffy troubleshooting tips such as cutting back on the use of other streaming devices at the same time, turning off an iOS device’s Bluetooth hardware, and even stopping “Internet surfing” while using AirPlay. It bears mention that Bluetooth wireless speakers didn’t suffer from any of these problems, and remained far more affordable, besides.
What was particularly odd about the duration of these AirPlay audio issues was that 2011 was a relatively slow year for new Apple hardware releases, giving Apple plenty of opportunity to focus on polishing its software. The iPhone 4S took an unusually long time to appear, and was so similar to its predecessor that debugging its version of iOS shouldn’t have been particularly challenging. AirPlay speaker problems had become well-documented—traced in some cases to low prioritization of streaming audio data by congested wireless routers—but continued to plague users for an extended period of time, even as Apple TVs streamed higher bitrate videos over AirPlay without issues. Only when iOS 5.1 was released in March 2012 did the audio hiccuping and iPhone 4S crashing problems go away, enabling Libratone and other companies to point users towards an actual solution for the first time in months.
Today, it’s safe to say that the biggest clouds have finally stopped casting dark shadows over AirPlay speakers. The just-released Logitech UE Air Speaker shipped alongside the best AirPlay setup app we’ve yet tested, turning what has sometimes been a torturous process of interpreting flashing lights, flipping between Wi-Fi networks, and entering digits into a much easier four-step experience. AirPlay audio hiccups and crashes have ceased, at least for now, and thankfully never interfered with the third-generation iPad’s performance as they did for months with the iPhone 4S. So if you’ve been thinking of buying an AirPlay speaker, now is a far better time to do it than at any time last year—even if Apple never says as much, AirPlay speakers have belatedly come into their own, a year and a half after AirPlay was introduced.
There are still some big caveats to consider, however. For all of the improvements that have been made to AirPlay, particularly over the last month, many of the speakers remain unjustifiably expensive given the actual sonic quality they offer, and continue to lag behind Bluetooth alternatives in responsiveness and ease of setup. Unless you’re lucky enough to have the $400 Logitech UE Air Speaker, you won’t be able to experience the best-in-class AirPlay accessory setup experience that Apple should really have built into iOS to begin with, and most AirPlay speakers still make users jump through unnecessary post-unpacking hoops. It’s unclear whether Apple will add a simple AirPlay speaker setup feature to iOS, improve audio streaming speeds, or further tweak control responsiveness. Most if not all of the AirPlay speakers are firmware-upgradeable, but it seems like most of the things that need addressing are in Apple’s court for now.
In sum, AirPlay speakers had an unusually soft launch and especially rough first year, but based on what we’re seeing now, the category deserves a second chance. Most of the technical problems have been resolved, and the variety of options continues to improve. That said, overly expensive Wi-Fi components have kept AirPlay speaker prices out of reach for many mainstream consumers, even as Bluetooth alternatives have become more popular and powerful. Hopefully Apple will continue to polish the software side of this promising feature, and make AirPlay hardware available for less expensive devices. Wireless streaming has firmly established itself as an excellent option for enjoying iOS content, and having worked through most of its growing pains, AirPlay has the potential to serve as a worthwhile option for many Apple users.
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