Apple AirPlay 2: Here’s everything you need to know

When it comes to listening to music wirelessly, most people think of Bluetooth. It’s built into just about every smartphone on the planet, and a huge number of tablets, desktops, and laptops have it too. But if you own Apple hardware, you need to know about a Bluetooth alternative that works over Wi-Fi, called Apple AirPlay 2.

AirPlay 2 is much more than just a simple pairing option: It lets you send both audio and video to a growing variety of devices, such as TVs, speakers, Apple TV boxes, Macs, and home theater receivers, all sans wires. If you own more than one AirPlay 2-compatible audio device, you can stream your music to just one of them, some of them, or all of them without losing synchronization. If that sounds cool, stay with us: We’re going to point out all of the exciting features of AirPlay 2 and show you how to use it.

What is AirPlay anyway?

iPhone with the AirPlay control panel screen on it.

Originally debuted in 2004 as AirTunes, AirPlay is Apple’s proprietary wireless protocol suite designed to allow users to “throw” audio and video signals from one “sender” device to one “receiver” device. Streamed content includes music, video, photos, and screen sharing, all of which retain their metadata when sent via AirPlay.

Back then, sender devices included Windows computers running Apple Music, iOS devices including iPhones, iPods, and iPads, and Mac computers running macOS X Mountain Lion or later (depending upon the processor).

Receiver devices included Apple’s long-discontinued AirPort Express routers, but now include Apple TVs, Apple’s HomePod Mini, Mac computers with Monterey macOS or newer installed, and a wide variety of supported third-party wireless speakers, as well as a number of smart TV platforms.

AirPlay also lets you “mirror” the screen of an iOS/iPadOS/MacOS device to an Apple TV so that you don’t end up with a group of people huddling around a tiny screen just to see a map, photo, video, etc.

What does AirPlay 2 do?

Apple AirPlay 2 devices.

Announced in 2017, AirPlay 2 builds on the original AirPlay feature set and lets you exert more control over AirPlay devices through Apple’s HomeKit platform. With it, you can:

  • Stream music to multiple AirPlay 2-compatible speakers simultaneously, creating a true multiroom streaming system. Under the original AirPlay, only one could be used at a time.
  • Apple Home compatibility. You can use the Home app to label these AirPlay 2 devices and add them to rooms and scenes, which can then be automated. For fans of Apple’s Siri voice assistant, this is a big deal because Siri can control any devices that HomeKit recognizes. Initially, this only worked with an Apple Music subscription, but Apple has been adding support, including Deezer, Spotify, Pandora, and more.
  • If you own two of Apple’s HomePods or HomePod Minis, you can use AirPlay 2 to set them up as a stereo pair.
  • AirPlay 2 supports higher-grade audio standards offered by Apple, making it an easy way to know your wireless connection is benefiting from Apple Music perks like lossless audio, which can transmit over AirPlay 2 up to 44.1 kHz. None of Apple’s wireless headphones are compatible with these formats. In fact, right now, there are no Bluetooth headphones or earbuds that are capable of supporting lossless audio, though this will eventually change.
  • AirPlay 2 can also be used to control streaming video, and on many more devices than just an Apple TV. Smart TV models from Samsung, LG, Vizio, Toshiba, and Sony are now AirPlay 2-compatible, as are all Roku TVs and select 4K-capable Roku player devices. For some people, this will mean they no longer need an Apple TV device at all — especially as many of these same TVs will be getting Apple’s TV app too.

Other devices that support AirPlay 2 include multiple soundbars, smart thermostats like Ecobee’s, and other smart speakers.

AirPlay 2 is baked into iOS, iPadOS, and macOS, so whether you are using an iPhone, iPad, or computer, you’ll have full control of playback.

Does AirPlay work on all my Apple devices?

Latest version of Safari in MacOS Monterey.

AirPlay 2 is baked into iOS, iPadOS, and macOS, so whether you’re using an Apple mobile device or computer, you’ll have full control of audio playback. The same goes for the Apple TV and Apple TV 4K streaming devices. Apple’s tvOS turns your Apple TV into a “sender” device for audio, so if you’re playing a movie on Apple TV, you can turn every AirPlay 2 speaker in your home into an expanded home theater sound system — a handy feature for those without a dedicated soundbar or 5.1 home theater system.

With the macOS Monterey update, Apple has also added the ability to AirPlay directly from another Apple device, like an iPhone or iPad, directly to your Mac. This can be used to show media on a larger screen if you want to share it with an audience, among other purposes. This macOS support is only available on Mac models sold within the last few years but works on MacBooks, iMacs, the Mac Mini, and more. macOS Monterey also added a number of capabilities, including SharePlay, Live Text options, and more.

How is AirPlay 2 different than Bluetooth?

House of Marley Get Together 2 XL Bluetooth speaker.
House of Marley

There are several important differences that make AirPlay a different choice from Bluetooth:

  • AirPlay and AirPlay 2 work over a Wi-Fi wireless connection, while Bluetooth directly pairs devices together. This requires that all AirPlay devices be on the same Wi-Fi network, connected to the same Wi-Fi router. Unfortunately, it also means that AirPlay will not work when you’re away from your home or office unless you have a portable travel router that you can use to create a temporary Wi-Fi network.
  • AirPlay can send video as well as audio, while Bluetooth only works with audio.
  • But because AirPlay uses Wi-Fi, it’s capable of a higher quality of streaming audio than Bluetooth. However, Bluetooth can enable certain audio features that AirPlay cannot.
  • Bluetooth wireless range is less than Wi-Fi and has a harder time penetrating walls and other obstacles.
  • You can use a Bluetooth speaker as a speakerphone if it’s got a mic, and some will let you create stereo pairs over Bluetooth. AirPlay doesn’t have the same mic-oriented features.
  • Bluetooth is a more universal standard and is used to pair keyboards, mice, and much more. AirPlay is focused on streaming media.

What devices work with AirPlay 2?

The Sonos Roam in multiple colors.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

As previously mentioned, the list of AirPlay 2 sender devices is fairly short, comprising mostly iOS devices (they’ll need iOS 11 or later) and Mac computers (macOS 10.13 or later) — it won’t work on any devices made before 2011.

The list of receiver devices, on the other hand, is growing rapidly, and by our count, includes many brands of wireless speakers and AV receivers, plus a growing selection of TV brands (if you don’t count Roku TVs, which are offered by several different manufacturers). AirPlay 2 has been expanding its reach in the streaming world as well, thanks to Roku device support.

Here are just a few of the companies that already support AirPlay 2 on some of their products:

  • Amazon Omni and Fire TV
  • Bang & Olufsen
  • Bluesound
  • Bose
  • Bowers & Wilkins
  • Definitive Technology
  • Denon
  • Devialet
  • Ecobee
  • Ikea
  • LG
  • Libratone
  • Marshall
  • Marantz
  • McIntosh
  • Naim
  • Pioneer
  • Polk Audio
  • Roku
  • Sonos
  • Sony
  • Vizio

As you might expect, this is likely just a small fraction of the companies that plan to add Airplay 2 support to their products eventually. Plus, some existing apps and products can be updated to support AirPlay 2, in addition to newly developed apps and products. A recent example comes from Bose, which added AirPlay 2 to its SoundTouch wireless speakers, some of which were years old already.

So, if you have some swanky, Wi-Fi-enabled B&W speakers, don’t throw them out the window just yet!

How to start using AirPlay 2

The AirPlay menu bar.

If you have compatible devices, using AirPlay 2 is very easy. Start playing your audio or video, then look for the AirPlay icon, a screen-like rectangle with an arrow in front of it. Sometimes the AirPlay icon is hiding behind a settings or streaming option, but it’s often right there on the player.

When you bring AirPlay up, it will automatically detect any available devices that work with AirPlay 2 and list them. Choose one (such as your smart TV), and your media will automatically start streaming on that device. Select AirPlay again to stop when you’re ready.

If you want to mirror your iPhone or iPad directly to a compatible TV, head into your Control center and select the two-screen icon for Screen mirroring. This will automatically look for a nearby AirPlay 2-compatible TV or Mac that you can use.

AirPlay 2 compatibility issues

Apple TV (2015)
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

AirPlay 2 compatibility can vary, and some devices may age out of AirPlay compatibility, especially when it comes to new features. This is least likely with Apple’s own devices, but issues can still crop up. For example, when iOS 16 was released, updated iPhones lost AirPlay 2 compatibility with some of the oldest Apple TVs from 2010 and 2012. It’s still uncertain if this is intentional or not, but if you’re working with devices that are a decade old or more, know that you may run into some operational issues.

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