How to get started with AirPlay

AirPlay (formerly called AirTunes) is Apple’s technology for streaming media over a local (usually in-home) network. It lets you stream audio from any Mac or iOS device to any AirPlay-enabled audio system, or video from a Mac (of recent vintage) or an iOS device to an Apple TV (also of recent vintage).

AirPlay works over any modern ethernet or Wi-Fi network (for video over Wi-Fi, that ideally means a fast network using 802.11n technology). The sending and receiving devices also need to be compatible with AirPlay.

How you set up and use AirPlay depends on the devices involved and on whether you’re streaming audio or video. Here’s how you can get up and running.

(Note that these instructions assume AirPlay and your local network are working correctly. If not, Apple provides AirPlay troubleshooting information).

The basics

At its simplest, AirPlay is a convenient way to get audio from your Mac or iOS device to a speaker across the room—or across the house.

Though most people think of AirPlay as a wireless technology, you can also stream audio over a wired network, or between wired and wireless devices—for example, from an iPhone to an ethernet-connected AirPlay receiver. But AirPlay is also a relatively inexpensive way to set up a whole-home audio system—at least when compared with a custom-installed setup or something like a multiroom Sonos system.

Compared with Bluetooth‚ the much more common approach to wireless-audio streaming‚ AirPlay has a number of advantages. For starters, Bluetooth uses lossy compression, while AirPlay is lossless, so, assuming that you’re streaming high-quality audio to begin with, AirPlay offers better sound quality. And while Bluetooth audio streaming is limited to devices no more than about 30 meters apart, AirPlay lets you stream from as far away as your Wi-Fi or wired network can reach. Finally, while Bluetooth allows you to stream to only a single Bluetooth receiver, AirPlay lets you stream audio to multiple speakers or receivers simultaneously.

AirPlay does have a couple drawbacks: For one thing, streaming is limited to Macs and iOS devices—very few non-Apple devices can transmit over AirPlay (at least not without employing third-party software or hacks); and for another, AirPlay gear tends to be more expensive than the Bluetooth counterparts.

Audio options

Streaming audio over AirPlay requires a Mac or an iOS device on one end, and an AirPlay-compatible receiver on the other. The simplest AirPlay receiver is a dedicated AirPlay-enabled speaker system. These speakers have network capabilities—usually Wi-Fi and ethernet—built in, along with special circuitry that allows the speakers to receive AirPlay-audio signals. Similarly, some recent home-theater receivers have AirPlay built in.

Alternatively, you can use Apple’s AirPort Express as an AirPlay receiver. The Express will take any AirPlay signal it receives and send that audio through the unit’s output jack‚ and, from there, to any speaker system or other audio component connected to that jack. (The Express can output either an analog- or digital-audio signal.) For example, you can connect a set of powered computer speakers or studio monitors directly to an AirPort Express.

Another possibility is to connect an Express to your existing stereo system; you can even build your own AirPlay audio system using a compact amplifier or an amp/digital-to-analog converter (DAC) and a set of unpowered speakers.

Finally, if you already have an Apple TV (second generation or later) hooked up to your home-entertainment system, that Apple TV can serve double-duty as an AirPlay-audio receiver. One caveat, though: The Apple TV can output only a digital audio signal.

Make the audio connection

Before you can stream audio to an AirPlay destination, you must configure your AirPlay receiver. How you do so depends on the kind of receiver you have.

AirPlay-enabled speaker system: Most dedicated AirPlay speakers are easy to set up. Often, you just connect an iOS device to the speaker via a USB cable, and then use a dedicated iOS app to configure the speaker to join your local network. Other models create their own Wi-Fi network; you join that network on your iOS device or computer, connect to a built-in Web server on the speaker, and then reconfigure the speaker to join your network. In either case, the speaker will come with a setup guide for performing this procedure. (During this process, you can also—and probably should—give the speaker a useful name, such as Kitchen Speaker; this name is how you’ll identify the speaker when using other devices on the network.)

AirPort Express Configuring an AirPort Express as an AirPlay receiver is a bit more involved, but it’s still fairly easy. If the Express is already a part of your network, you launch AirPort Utility, select the Express, and click Edit. Next, click the AirPlay tab, check the Enable AirPlay box, give the Express a useful name, and then click Update.

In the AirPort Utility, clicking Enable AirPlay configures an AirPort Express to act as an AirPlay receiver.

If you’re setting up a new Express unit, you’ll first need to follow the setup wizard to configure the Express to join (or extend) your existing network, and then you’ll perform the same steps for enabling AirPlay.

In either case, you can also enable a password so that anyone who wants to stream audio to the AirPort Express must provide that password. If your AirPort Express is on a network accessible by other people, a password is a wise idea. Once you’ve set up the Express, you’ll then need to connect it to your audio system using an analog- or a digital-audio cable.

Apple TV See “Streaming video,” below.

Streaming audio

To stream audio, you should first turn on your audio system and make sure it’s set to the correct input (if it has more than one). Your next steps will then depend on the type of transmitting device.

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