Bluetooth vs AirPlay for Streaming Music
If you like to stream wireless music to a desktop speaker or even an AV receiver, there are two ways that are very popular. Bluetooth Audio and Apple AirPlay Streaming present two competing choices. The problem is, when shopping for an AV receiver, which do you look for and why? In the Bluetooth vs Apple Airplay questions, several factors determine the best way to go.
Bluetooth vs Airplay Overview
With the Bluetooth vs Airplay question, you have several issues. At the top of our list comes: Which one offers higher resolution audio and better playback quality? I want to break down Bluetooth vs AirPlay and explain what makes each tick. Next, I’ll summarize my thoughts on which you may want to lean towards and why. Finally, we’ll draw some conclusions.
The conclusions you draw will largely be determined by the personal electronics devices you use in your home. The general principles and facts behind the technologies are helpful regardless of which you use.
Bluetooth Audio, an Overview
First and foremost, Bluetooth is an “in-room” technology that has a limited range—somewhere around 25-30 feet. Leave the room with a Bluetooth source and you will likely hiccup the music or cut it off altogether. Bluetooth audio, however, is nearly universal and most certainly platform-agnostic. You will find it on all modern laptops, tablets, and smartphones (both Android and iOS). AV receivers also nearly all include some form of Bluetooth audio connection. Bluetooth audio streaming is even making its way into garages in the form of smart power tools.
Bluetooth was initially created for use with keyboards and mice as a means of allowing them to connect wirelessly. Initially developed for devices within close proximity, eventually, Bluetooth migrated to other devices. Earpieces and headphones quickly started taking on a more audio-centric role. High-end audio stayed mostly on the radar—for a bit. Initially, speakers and audio devices using Bluetooth typically provided lower-quality audio. The format simply wasn’t designed to transmit audio greater than MP3 fidelity.
Introducing the aptX CODEC
That started to change with the introduction of the new aptX codec. This allowed near-lossless quality audio that truly transformed Bluetooth into a viable stereo streaming solution for wireless or portable speakers. The other thing that improved over time was pairing. Initially pairing all but required a four-digit code, tons of patience, and lots of prayer.
Lately, Bluetooth 4.0 and later devices licked this final hurdle, making Bluetooth considerably more convenient to use and a much simpler format to enable at-will.
WiFi Not Necessary
Bluetooth also doesn’t require a local Wi-Fi network. That means that two devices possessing Bluetooth can simply connect peer-to-peer without having to worry about WPA passwords or secure networks. Additionally, you can add Bluetooth to almost any audio device quite inexpensively. It doesn’t include manufacturer-specific product licensing fees.
Possibly most confusing, Bluetooth includes a ton of “Profiles” or implementation methods. That makes it all things to all people…or at least all types of devices. The profile I’m generally concerned with is called Advanced Audio Distribution Profile, or as it’s commonly referred, A2DP.
A2DP is the stereo profile typically associated with Bluetooth speakers, headphones, and headsets. It lets you send a stereo audio signal, letting you listen to your music wirelessly. This is a far cry from the sparkling “mono-tastic” sound of early Bluetooth earpieces. A2DP also lets you use your speaker or headset with your mobile phone and send and receive calls, switching between music and call modes with a simple button press.
An Overview of Apple AirPlay Streaming
The Apple AirPlay network streaming system works atop Wi-Fi. It requires a wireless network in order to function. The strength of the AirPlay protocol for audio is that it uses UDP for streaming audio which has a low overhead. The Apple Lossless codec (AAC Lossless) is what makes up the audio streams. It sends stereo audio at 44.1kHz with AES encryption. AirPlay also buffers the stream for 2 seconds. This practically eliminates dropouts provided you have a moderately-stable wireless network.
Airplay also transmits audio source data completely unprocessed with no deterioration in bit depth. As a result, it provides pristine audio quality. Since it sends the original source exactly as transmitted, AirPlay has the added benefit of using the destination devices to individually control the volume.
Airplay vs Bluetooth on Range
AirPlay sends metadata along with the audio stream. It tracks that data efficiently, so you get quick and accurate album art, play duration, and feedback controls. Since AirPlay uses Wi-Fi and not Bluetooth, it provides a significantly better range. You can really place AirPlay devices almost anywhere in a home or office—even if the controller or source device is a significant distance away from the output device.
The downside in using Apple AirPlay vs Bluetooth, of course, is that it is an Apple-only protocol. It only works with Apple software and hardware. As a proprietary system, manufacturers of AirPlay-enabled speakers and other AV equipment pay a licensing fee to Apple to use the technology and make it available in their products.
* AptX streaming technology requires licensing, but Bluetooth itself requires no special proprietary licensing fee on a per-product basis.
** This is a measured bandwidth number reflecting a particular 802.11n Wi-Fi network configuration and may vary.
*** The number given is a generally accepted average distance to an access point for 802.11n. You can extend Wi-Fi networks almost indefinitely with the knowledge that distance actually does reduce the bandwidth or throughput capabilities due to cabling and other factors.
Party On…Party Mode
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that AirPlay has a unique feature whereby iTunes can control multiple AirPlay-enabled speakers and control both the source and volume for each. In this way, you can enact a “Party Mode” whereby the same music is sent and synced to multiple individual speakers in your home or office. This is a very cool feature that is rare in the market for systems that aren’t wholly locked down (like Sonos or other whole-home audio systems).
In the end, this isn’t so much about which format is necessarily better. It’s more about which format you need to accomplish your goals. There are a lot of Bluetooth-enabled speakers that provide very quick and high-resolution (thanks, AptX!) streaming of your music to an AV receiver or loudspeaker. If you don’t live in the Apple ecosystem then this may be the way for you to proceed.
If you’re already an Apple-user, however, then AirPlay is something you may have already experienced. You may find the premium worth the expenditure in order to have the simplicity and power of that system as well as the potential for lossless quality streaming of AAC files. What’s really odd, though, is that accessing Bluetooth streaming on apps is very much identical to accessing AirPlay streaming. The process, at least on an iOS device, is quite transparent.
With respect to AV receivers, AirPlay seems to be the dominant technology. For desktop speakers, Bluetooth and AirPlay may be evenly matched, with some manufacturers making multiple versions of the same speaker to work with different technologies (check out our article that also discusses Android-based Play-Fi streaming). Smartphones and tablets have either both (iOS) or Bluetooth (iOS and Android). I’d mention Windows phones, but, honestly, they have such a small market share I feel like I’d also have to talk about Palm OS and RIM.
Which streaming format do you use, or which suits your needs better? Drop us a comment below—inquiring minds want to know!