What about Apple, Android, Windows and wireless audio?
This is the sixth in a series of blog posts on the subject of wireless audio. Our objective is to simplify what to the average music lover is a complicated and confusing subject. We will publish a new installment about every two weeks, so please check back again. As always, we welcome your comments and participation.
In our last post, we talked about the many considerations to keep in mind when choosing a wireless audio system. It is now time to address the subject of operating systems and compatibility of various Wi-Fi devices with different kinds of smartphones, tablets, and computers.
Before we jump in, a recap of the pros and cons of the two major wireless audio technologies, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, is in order. Bluetooth technology is fairly straightforward and well-known; moreover, because it is so widely available on most smartphones and tablets, it will work to transmit wireless audio from nearly any of those devices to any Bluetooth-equipped speaker. Most important, Bluetooth wireless audio technology works the same way regardless of the underlying operating system on your source device, so you don’t need to worry about compatibility issues. The tradeoff, however, is lower fidelity (unless the transmitting device and the speaker are both equipped with aptX Bluetooth); moreover, Bluetooth technology has limited range (up to about 30 feet) and enables only one device to transmit to one speaker at a time. Wi-Fi, on the other hand, has greater fidelity, range, and multi-speaker connectivity. Unfortunately, Wi-Fi audio is less straightforward than Bluetooth audio. Unraveling Wi-Fi audio’s complexity is the subject of this post.
As with any technology, WiFi audio has its fair share of jargon. Blame it on all those smart engineers who design this wonderful stuff. While intimidating at first, a quick review of the terminology will help you better understand what the various technologies are so you can avoid potential incompatibilities between the many devices—smartphones, tablets, computers, receivers and speakers—that make up a wireless audio system. Principally, it’s important to remember that the two most popular operating systems—Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android—are generally incompatible.
As is well known, iPhones and iPads made by Apple are not compatible with Android devices made by many companies, nor are either of those compatible with Windows devices. For example, an app made for the iPhone will not work on an Android or Windows phone and vice-versa. Among other reasons, this is because their operating systems are different. Of course, this leads to a certain amount of frustration. Most people choose an operating system and try to maintain compatibility by buying products within that system. It is logical to use the same approach when choosing a wireless audio system. Depending on whether you are mainly an Apple or Android user, you will want to choose wireless audio products that are compatible with Apple’s iOS or Android. An iPhone music app, for example, will then operate with an Apple-based wireless audio system. Alternatively, you could choose a proprietary wireless system, where everything must be purchased from a single company; however, this limits your choices to audio products made by that company only.
Apple wireless products use an Apple technology called AirPlay to convey audio signals. AirPlay is a transmission protocol that defines how the various types of data are communicated across a WiFi network. (AirPlay was originally called AirTunes when it was for audio only). In addition, Apple has licensed its technology so that other companies can use AirPlay in their products; in this way, a wide range of wireless speakers are compatible with Apple iOS devices such as iPhones, iPads and the iPod Touch.
Importantly, AirPlay allows stereo lossless audio coding; the sampling frequency is 44.1kHz. With this coding, there is no loss of audio fidelity as the digital audio signal travels to the wireless speaker. In addition, the stream is encrypted for security. Audio data is transmitted at full volume, along with metadata (digital “instructions”) to determine the actual playback volume at the speaker; this prevents any possible signal degradation that might occur if the volume was reduced prior to streaming. Volume can be adjusted independently at each receiving speaker.
As you might expect, there are two kinds of AirPlay devices: senders and receivers. Computers running iTunes, iPods, iPhones, and iPads (with iOS 4.2 or newer) can all act as senders. Receivers include various wireless speakers, AV receivers, stereo systems, Airport Express, and Apple TV. The iTunes Remote app can be used to select devices and control streaming.
Apple is awesome and Apple’s AirPlay is available on a wide array of audio devices. But what about people who prefer Android? That will be the subject of our next post.