It’s always good to get something for nothing and Apple’s AirPlay 2 should allow us finally to create multi-room audio, a la Sonos, without firing up iTunes. The iOS 11.3 Beta brings our first look and hands-on with Apples AirPlay 2.
AirPlay 2 is the first significant update to AirPlay since its introduction in 2010. Standing on the shoulders of AirPlay, AirPlay 2 provides an enhanced set of capabilities comprising:
- Multi-room audio, streaming to multiple devices simultaneously with tight synchronization
- Enhanced buffering between devices resulting in less drop-outs
- Add and configure speakers to Apple HomeKit
- Multi-Device control
So you dont have to (and honestly you shouldnt), we installed the iOS 11.3 Public Beta 1 on our iPad Air 2 and the tvOS 11.3 Public Beta 1 on both our 4th Generation Apple TV and 5th Generation Apple TV 4K.
All Apples devices that support iOS 11.3 will be AirPlay 2 compatible including the above-mentioned 4th and 5th generations of Apple TV.
Of interest to Android users, the HTC 10 and HTC U11 have supported streaming via AirPlay. Its not known if HTC will update their firmware to support AirPlay 2.
For iOS there was nothing unique to AirPlay 2 during the iOS 11.3 installation process.
AirPlay 2 speakers are now considered an Apple HomeKit accessory, and as a result of which we now see a new lightly animated set-up screen shown during the Apple TV tvOS 11.3 installation shown below.
Youre now asked to pick the location for your Apple TV during set-up, once completed, the Apple TV will show up as an accessory within Apple HomeKit.
During the installation process on the second of our Apple TVs, the iPad was another room, and seemingly as a result of which, we were shown the following screen prompting us to Start Using AirPlay 2 with a corresponding prompt appearing on our iPad. This screen looks to be transferring iCloud settings; confusingly at this point, the Apple TV knows our iCloud settings, so we’re not sure why we are seeing this.
The only other outward facing sign that the Apple TV is a HomeKit accessor can be seen in iCloud settings on the Apple TV has added a new HomeKit section.
As expected our Apple TVs now appeared within the Home app as Accessories.
Selecting an AppleTV in the HomeApp currently does very little apart from allowing you to change the Room and see hardware related information such as Manufacturer, Serial Number, Model Number, and Firmware level.
You dont need to see or control much more on an Apple TV as it has its own extensive setup options that you can see on your TV. We suspect that for a device such as the upcoming Apple HomePod (being a headless device) youll be able to see and control more of its settings from here in addition to updating firmware levels.
Right, now weve got that out of the way, lets put AirPlay 2 through the wringer. The two things that we wanted to see was the multi-room playback and the connection robustness.
Firing up Apple Music and selecting the AirPlay icon brings up your AirPlay 2 sources, now shown separately. Not wanting to ease ourselves in we were curious to see if we could play to a Bluetooth speaker from the iPad in addition to two AirPlay 2 sources, but this was a stretch too far.
We could successfully select both Apple TVs to stream music to from the iPad, with the TVs displaying the Album artwork and track information.
We performed our testing on a Google Wi-Fi mesh network with each Apple TV being connected to a different Google Wi-Fi router within the mesh. What impressed and gave an insight into the potential of AirPlay 2 was that the music was in perfect sync, and not once during our testing did we experience any drop-outs or sluggishness, happy days.
We even managed to make a quick FaceTime Audio call of the iPad without interrupting the music – were not sure how useful this is, but the point is that no matter what we did on the iPad the stream remained robust.
Thats the kind news out of the way and from here on forward the beta tag earns its name.
Firstly, youll notice that initially from the above screenshots there was no individual volume controls shown for the AirPlay 2 sources. Our expectation was this should be the case as moving to each TVs attached sound system to alter the volume would be a pain. For no rhyme or reason, at some point during our testing after having started and stopped the streams several times, the volume sliders appeared. We could then control the volume of our two Apple TVs independently. Clearly work in progress.
Secondly, it should also be possible to use one of the Apple TVs to select music and playback to AirPlay 2 devices.
This proved problematic and we couldnt use the Apple TV to select a track to playback on both Apple TVs, at one point we had two different tracks playing from our Apple TVs instead and while this may be desired functionality it wasnt completely clear how we got this to work and ended up in this situation.
Additionally, we couldnt explore was Shared Up Next for Apple Music – collaborative features that enable friends to add tracks to your Up Next playlist. This may be that we were only willing to install the iOS 11.3 beta on one device or that Apple hasnt enabled this functionality in the betas yet.
As a final pressure test we tried throwing two video streams to the Apple TV’s, of course, this didn’t work, with only the audio from the video going to both sources – in fairness Apple never promised this. But, in this beta the ability AirPlay to one Apple TV has broken. It was at this point we regretted installing the beta as this is a common use-case for us.
AirPlay 2 Compatible Speakers
HomePod will be available on February 9th 18 and will become AirPlay 2 capable in the Spring following a Firmware update enabling it to join in on the multi-room fun.
Also, many highly reputable speaker manufactures have stated that they will be supporting AirPlay 2 in future products.
Wed be amazed if Apple updated any of its older devices such as AirPort Express or previous generations of the Apple TV to be AirPlay 2 compatible. Theyll still work but cant be included in a multi-room setup and only streamed to on a 1-2-1 basis. The same applies to any third party AirPlay speakers that you may own too, some manufactures have said they will provide firmware updates though, so its worth checking before you write them off.
Third Party Apps
During WWDC 17 Apple held a specific workshop for app developers, detailing the Audio Playback API that allows developers, for example, Spotify, to enable their apps to become AirPlay 2 compatible.
Were sure that once AirPlay 2 ships well start to see a raft of apps become AirPlay 2 capable on the App Store.
While expectedly still buggy – spasmodically appearing volume controls, inability to use the Apple TV to control both sound sources, in our testing when playing tracks we had no issues with music synchronizing or any drop-outs and in this respect AirPlay 2 performed flawlessly.
We eagerly await to explore the Shared Up Next Playlist functionality – we may just need to convince one of the team to install the beta.
Were looking forward to the next iOS and tvOS beta releases as we move towards the full release of AirPlay 2 in the spring. We’ll bring you more hands-on as additional betas are released.
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