Streaming wireless audio is a great way to listen to your music, and phones and other mobile devices with audio capability usually come with Bluetooth or AirPlay pre-installed – some recent devices may even feature both.
So what’s the difference between Bluetooth and AirPlay? And which is best? Though both technologies are used for streaming wireless audio, each is designed to do so by different means, resulting in several important differences in the end product, as described below:
Bluetooth is a very common wireless protocol which establishes its own direct synchronised connection between two Bluetooth enabled devices – a process often described as ‘pairing’.
Once pairing has been achieved, a Bluetooth connection is generally reliable within a range of 10-15 metres, though specific devices may achieve more and local interference may also reduce the effective range. Because no Wi-Fi network is required, Bluetooth offers true portability, and users can operate devices almost anywhere.
Wireless speakers are often used for paired music playback over Bluetooth and, as with all Bluetooth applications, each phone or tablet looking to access the speaker for Bluetooth playback must establish its own individual paired connection.
Multiple pairing – for example, six phones wirelessly connecting to one speaker – is possible, but different devices may have different ‘rules’ as to how this is achieved. Most speakers will connect with just one device at any one time, but may ‘remember’ other paired devices, making subsequent re-connection almost instantaneous.
A Bluetooth connection from a phone or tablet to a wireless speaker allows the user to control the volume from the music streaming device (phone/tablet), but will not allow volume adjustment on the receiving device (speaker).
Though Bluetooth was not designed specifically for audio transfer, the development of newer Bluetooth audio formats, such as AAC, A2DP, and aptX – which offers CD quality audio – has undoubtedly enhanced the wireless-listening experience.
Bluetooth audio formats use various kinds of ‘lossy’ compression during data transfer. This means that some of the original audio data will be missing from your Bluetooth playback. How much this affects music quality depends upon both the audio format and the quality of your system – at best it can be hard to detect any reduction in audio quality at all.
AirPlay is Apple’s own wireless audio-streaming technology for streaming music from your iPod, iPad or iPhone to AirPlay-compatible speakers, using a Wi-Fi network. Similarly, a PC or Mac can stream audio to speakers via the iTunes app, and also stream video to a Smart TV.
When streaming via iTunes, AirPlay protocol permits simultaneous transfer to multiple speakers from a PC or Mac, making audio distribution throughout your home a realistic prospect Because AirPlay uses Wi-Fi, range restrictions won’t apply, and streaming will work continuously and well provided the Wi-Fi network signal remains strong.
Unlike Bluetooth, AirPlay communication allows the streaming device to control some parameters and features on the receiving device, including volume control. AirPlay’s audio format uses a ‘lossless’ form of compression during data transfer. This means the process preserves all of the original audio detail for subsequent playback.
The difference between Bluetooth and AirPlay is that each has been designed for a different purpose, and as a consequence, each technology has its own particular strengths. AirPlay is a dedicated audio system with good playback quality just for networks and Apple-only devices, whereas Bluetooth is portable, common, and universally compatible.