If you like to stream wireless music to a desktop speaker or even an AV receiver, there are two ways that are very popular: Bluetooth Audio and AirPlay Streaming. The problems is, when shopping for an AV receiver, which do you look for and why? And then there is the inherent issue of which one offers higher resolution and audio better playback quality. I want to break down both Bluetooth and AirPlay and explain what makes each tick, then I’ll summarize my thoughts on which you may want to lean towards and why.
The conclusions you draw will largely be determined by the personal electronics devices you tend towards in your home, but the general principles and facts behind the technologies will be helpful regardless of which path you take.
Bluetooth Audio, an Overview
First and foremost, Bluetooth is an “in room” technology that has limited range—somewhere around 25-30 feet. Leave the room with a Bluetooth source and you will likely hiccup the music or cut it off altogether. Bluetooth audio, however, is nearly universal and most certainly platform-agnostic. You will find it on all modern laptops, tablets and smart phones (both Android and iOS), though AV receivers tend to not include it with the exception of some models by Onkyo (If you know of others, please let us know). Bluetooth audio streaming is even making its way into garages in the form of shop tools.
Bluetooth was initially created for use with keyboards, mice as a means of allowing them to connect wirelessly to devices within close proximity. Eventually, Bluetooth migrated to earpieces and started taking on a more audio-centric role, but high-end audio wasn’t really on the radar. Speakers and audio devices that used Bluetooth were typically lower quality and the format wasn’t designed to transmit audio of greater than mp3 fidelity.
That started to change with the introduction of the new aptX codec. This allowed near-lossless quality audio that truly transformed Bluetooth into a viable stereo streaming solution for wireless or portable speakers. The other thing that improved over time was pairing. Initially pairing all but required a four digit code, tons of patience and lots of prayer. Lately, Bluetooth 3.0 and later devices have licked this final hurdle, making Bluetooth considerably more convenient to use and a much simpler format to enable at-will.
Another thing that’s helpful about Bluetooth is that it doesn’t require a local Wi-Fi network. That means that two devices possessing Bluetooth can simply connect peer-to-peer without having to worry about WPA passwords or secure networks. Additionally, Bluetooth can be added to almost any audio device quite inexpensively since it doesn’t include manufacturer-specific product licensing fees. About the most confusing aspect of Bluetooth is that is simply includes a ton of “Profiles” or implementation methods, making it all things to all people…or at least all types of devices. The profile I’m generally concerned with is called Advanced Audio Distribution Profile, or as it’s commonly referred to as, A2DP. A2DP is the stereo profile typically associated with Bluetooth speakers, headphones and headsets. It lets you send a stereo audio signal, letting you listen to your music wirelessly. This is a far cry from the sparkling monotastic sound of early Bluetooth earpieces. A2DP also lets you use your speaker or headset with your mobile phone and send and receive calls, switching between music and call modes with a simple button press.
An Overview of Apple’s AirPlay
AirPlay is a network streaming system that works atop your Wi-Fi (or someone else’s…you just need a wireless network for it to function). The strength of the AirPlay protocol for audio is that it uses UDP for streaming audio which has a low overhead. The Apple Lossless codec (AAC Lossless) is what makes up the audio streams, that means stereo audio is sent at 44.1kHz with AES encryption. AirPlay also buffers the stream for 2 seconds so that dropouts are practically non-existent provided your wireless network is even moderately stable. Audio source data transmitted via AirPlay is also sent completely unprocessed with no deterioration in bit depth. Sound quality, as a result, is pristine. Since the original source is sent exactly as transmitted, AirPlay has the added benefit of using the destination devices to individually control the volume.
AirPlay sends metadata along with the audio stream and is known for tracking that data efficiently, so album art, play duration and feedback controls are both accurate and quick. Since AirPlay uses Wi-Fi and not Bluetooth, the range is significantly better, with AirPlay devices having the ability to be placed anywhere in a home or office—even if the controller or source device is a significant distance away from the output device. The downside to AirPlay, of course, is that it is an Apple-only protocol, and thus only available with Apple software and hardware. Because it Is proprietary, manufacturers of AirPlay-enabled speakers and other AV equipment pay a licensing fee to Apple to use the technology and make it available in their products.
* There is licensing associated with the use of AptX streaming technology, but Bluetooth itself requires no special proprietary licensing fee on a per-product basis. ** This is a measured bandwidth number reflecting a particular 802.11n Wi-Fi network configuration and may vary. *** The number given is a generally accepted average distance to an access point for 802.11n. Wi-Fi networks can be extended almost indefinitely with the knowledge that distance actually does reduce the bandwidth or throughput capabilities due to cabling and other factors.
Party On…Party Mode
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that AirPlay has a unique feature whereby iTunes can control multiple AirPlay-enabled speakers and control both the source and volume for each. In this way, you can enact a “Party Mode” whereby the same music is sent and synced to multiple individual speakers in your home or office. This is a very cool feature that is rare in the market for systems that aren’t wholly locked down (like Sonos or other whole home audio systems).
In the end, this isn’t so much about which format is necessarily better. It’s more about which format you need to accomplish your goals. There are a lot of Bluetooth-enabled speakers that provide very quick and high-resolution (thanks, AptX!) streaming of your music to an AV receiver or loudspeaker. If you don’t live in the Apple ecosystem then this may be the way for you to proceed. If you’re already an Apple-user, however, then AirPlay is something you may have already experienced. You may find the premium worth the expenditure in order to have the simplicity and power of that system as well as the potential for lossless quality streaming of AAC files. What’s really odd, though, is that accessing Bluetooth streaming on apps is very much identical to accessing AirPlay streaming. The process, at least on an iOS device, is quite transparent.
With respect to AV receivers, AirPlay seems to be the dominant technology. For desktop speakers, Bluetooth and AirPlay may be evenly matched, with some manufacturers making multiple versions of the same speaker to work with different technologies (check out our article that also discusses Android-based Play-Fi streaming). Smart phones and tablets have either both (iOS) or Bluetooth (iOS and Android). I’d mention Windows phones, but, honestly, they have such a small market share I feel like I’d also have to talk about Palm OS and RIM.
Which streaming format do you use, or which suits your needs better? Drop us a comment below—inquiring minds want to know!