Q: I’m totally confused over this whole wireless speaker thing. For years I’ve had a couple of speakers with Dock Connectors that I could just plug my old iPod into and later my iPhone. However, I’ve just upgraded to an iPhone 5 and it has that new Lightning connector. I know I can get an adapter for my old speakers, but it seems kind of clunky and I suppose I should get with the times and simply go wireless. I understand the new iPhone supports both AirPlay and Bluetooth, but I’m not really clear on what the difference between those are or why I should want one over the other. I’d be thankful for any advice you can give me on this.
A: Despite both being used for streaming wireless audio from an iOS device, AirPlay and Bluetooth are actually two completely different technologies and generally serve very different purposes.
The short answer is that AirPlay can provide you with a more effective and easy to use “whole-home” audio solution if you’re already primarily an iTunes and Apple device user, but you will generally pay more for the speakers and won’t have the ability to use them away from your home. Bluetooth provides speakers that you can basically pair up with your device and take with you and use anywhere, but won’t integrate as seamlessly into a larger home audio environment.
AirPlay is a technology created by Apple that allows you to stream audio to a set of compatible speakers from an iPhone, iPad or iPod touch using your existing home Wi-Fi network. You can also stream audio from iTunes on your Mac or PC or even use it to stream video to an Apple TV connected to your television set.
Since AirPlay uses your home Wi-Fi network, there is no need for your speakers to be in close proximity to whatever device you’re sending audio from—you can easily walk around the house with your iPhone and as long as you don’t stray out of Wi-Fi coverage your audio will continue playing on whatever speakers you have selected.
When streaming from iTunes on your Mac or PC, AirPlay also allows you to send audio to multiple speakers simultaneously, effectively providing you with whole home audio. iOS devices can only stream to a single speaker at a time, however you can use the iOS Remote app to control playback from your iTunes library, including AirPlay speaker selection, effectively giving you the best of both worlds.
The downside to AirPlay is that the speakers tend to be more expensive due to the additional cost of licensing and incorporating the AirPlay technology. In addition, the reliance on your home Wi-Fi network means that they cannot realistically be used as portable speakers outside of your home. That said, you can easily move a set of AirPlay speakers anywhere in your house where Wi-Fi coverage is available, and there are actually models that are designed to be “room-to-room” portable for this purpose, with rechargeable batteries and charging bases.
Note that AirPlay also tends to suffer a small bit of lag time due to buffering when it comes to doing things like playing back audio and switching tracks. This is not something you’re likely to really notice if you simply put on a playlist and stream through it, however if you’re somebody who frequently skips tracks and changes things up on a regular basis it may become an annoyance.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that since AirPlay is a proprietary standard developed by Apple, only those devices licensed and approved by Apple will ever support AirPlay. So while you’ll be fine as long as you’re using an iPhone, iPad or iPod touch, you won’t find AirPlay support on any other mobile devices should you start using anything else in the future. Arguably, however, this is little different in concept than buying a speaker with a Dock Connector or Lightning Connector, and most speakers still include standard analog audio connections for connecting just about any device directly.
In contrast to AirPlay, which piggybacks on Wi-Fi, Bluetooth is its own entirely independent wireless technology. Bluetooth devices establish a “pairing” connection where audio is transmitted directly from your device to the speakers over a relatively short range. Generally, the two devices have to remain within about 30 feet to get reliable audio playback, although that varies somewhat depending on the specific devices being used and other interference factors.
However, because they don’t rely on a Wi-Fi network but use their own wireless system, Bluetooth speakers can be used just about anywhere, and there are many small portable models available if you’re looking for something that you can throw in your backpack.
Bluetooth devices also generally have a one-to-one paired relationship, meaning that you can only play back audio from a given device on a single set of speakers. Similarly, if you have multiple iPhone, iPad or iPod touch devices, each one must be paired individually with the Bluetooth speakers in order to use them, and depending on the Bluetooth speakers, you may find that you have to manually disconnect one iOS device before you can connect another.
Using Bluetooth speakers with a Mac or PC is generally more complicated than AirPlay, since you must have the necessary Bluetooth hardware support in your computer, and the speakers have to be in relatively close proximity. Unlike AirPlay, you won’t be able to stream audio from your iTunes library upstairs to a speaker in the basement.
Note that Bluetooth has the advantage of being an industry standard supported by just about every mobile phone and portable media player being sold today. The popularity of Bluetooth means that there are dozens, if not hundreds of more speaker options available at more reasonable prices and in many more designs and configurations.