Apple teases third-party AirPlay support, but details are scarce

Apple's Web site suggests wider support for AirPlay wireless streaming from third-party vendors, but offers few details.

Compatibility for Apple's AirPlay network audio streaming is coming to third-party audio products soon. According to an updated page on Apple's Web site, "AirPlay wireless technology will be fully integrated into speaker docks, AV receivers, and stereo systems" from non-Apple hardware partners. Denon, Marantz, JBL, Bowers & Wilkins, and iHome are listed as "featured partners."

The earlier version of AirPlay, known as AirTunes, allows Apple products to be set up as a de facto multiroom audio system. For instance, speakers could be attached to an Apple AirPort Express or Apple TV, which could then play music stored on a networked PC or Mac running iTunes--all controlled by an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch using Apple's Remote app .

The forthcoming AirTunes upgrade, as demonstrated by Apple CEO Steve Jobs during today's press conference , seems to add quite a bit of functionality, including enhanced interactivity with the new Apple TV . But details are currently scarce, and they may remain so until the iOS 4.2 upgrades for iPad and other iOS devices (which were shown during the demo) become available later this year.

To my mind, there are two important unanswered questions about AirPlay:

Is AirPlay an iTunes-only protocol, or does it work with other audio sources? The current versions of AirTunes restrict you to using iTunes audio libraries based on networked PCs or Macs. The iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad is used simply as a remote to access those libraries and choose which destination to which you'd like to stream. That's great, but it's of little use if you want to listen to any app-based online streaming service such as Pandora, Slacker, XM Sirius, and the like. If AirPlay remains an iTunes-only affair, it gives a boost to Sonos, which uses the iPhone/iPod/iPad as the remote for accessing cloud-based audio services and streaming them directly to Sonos audio hardware. If AirPlay can accommodate any audio source on the iPhone, iPod, or iPad, and play it over your AirPlay-equipped home stereo, it may well be the "poor man's Sonos" that many have long wished for.

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Does AirPlay offer any added value over Bluetooth for streaming audio? If you want to stream any audio from your iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch, there's already an easy way to do it: buy a Bluetooth speaker or Bluetooth adapter for your existing stereo. (See the video below for full details.) It works well enough, and it's as easy as pairing a phone to a Bluetooth headset. More importantly, it's effectively just a disembodied speaker, streaming any audio from the source device (iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad) to the Bluetooth speaker. Bluetooth's major disadvantage is its less than optimal audio quality. If AirPlay can also offer better quality, that would be one potential feather in its cap. And the ability for AirPlay-equipped devices to show artist and song information (as mentioned on Apple's site) is another small but desirable leg up on Bluetooth.

What would you like to see on AirPlay's feature list? Are you already an AirTunes user? Or do you use Bluetooth streaming for your Apple-centric audio? Share your thoughts and opinions in the comments below.

 

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