Apple AirPlay 2: Everything we know so far - CNET

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Apple has a reputation for dominating any field it enters. Whether inventing new product categories -- the smartphone or the tablet -- or reinventing old ones like the "watch," if Apple is playing, it often wins.

Things are different when it comes to home audio. The company has been in the category for many years, and it's not all home runs -- remember the iPod Hi-Fi? I didn't think so.

Don't expect AirPlay 2 to be a success story on the level of the iPhone or even the Apple watch. But the successor to Apple's original AirPlay wireless music and video streaming system will bring some cool new tricks. 

Apple announced AirPlay 2 at last year's World Wide Developer's Conference, and it could finally start appearing in products this year. Here's what we know so far.

AirPlay 2 brings multiroom audio to AirPlay

Sonos One

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

AirPlay is Apple's proprietary system that allows you to stream audio or video from an Apple source device -- iPhone, iPad 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-main

airplay-2-main

As seen here in Apple's iOS public beta, AirPlay 2 allows you to pair two HomePods and group speakers.Screenshots by Megan Wollerton/CNET

What 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 S2

Polk Omni S2

Polk and DTS have announced support for Apple AirPlay 2Sarah Tew/CNET

Which third-party devices support AirPlay 2?

Several companies announced support for AirPlay 2 already, including many that potentially compete against Apple's HomePod. Here's the full list.

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 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 Airplay2 support to the DTS Play-Fi platform. Any manufacturer interested in licensing AirPlay2 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.

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