AirPlay is a technology developed by Apple that allows media to be streamed wirelessly via Wi-Fi to and from various devices. The Apple TV is the most conspicuous exemplar of the technology, which allows users of iPads, iPhones, iPod touches and compatible computers to stream movies, photos and music to their TVs without a cable.
But AirPlay has another application that doesn’t get much attention: wireless speaker systems.
There is a small selection of AirPlay-enabled speaker systems that leverage this technology to create a speaker setup in a room, several rooms, or throughout the house. They’re expensive alternatives to traditional iOS speaker solutions, and not for everyone. But if you have certain needs – and a liberal budget – they fill a need few other solutions can: connected wireless speakers with excellent range and sound, with the option to expand to multiple rooms.
I’ve recently spent a few weeks with one of these systems, the iHome iW2, which is one of the more affordable AirPlay units sold. At $199 MSRP it’s not cheap, but its excellent performance and relatively low price make the iW2 a tempting choice for those looking to add AirPlay speakers to their home or office. Sadly, though, the iW2 and other AirPlay speakers share a common usage restriction.
The iHome iW2 AirPlay Speaker System is a compact, rounded rectangle measuring about 10.5-inches wide, 6-inches tall and 3-inches deep.
Unlike its more expensive iHome iW1 sibling, it requires an AC power source (a wall outlet) and has no internal battery. Two Reson8 speaker chambers and SRS WOW provide the sound, which is able to fill a small to medium-sized room with clear, crisp audio.
Other features include 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, an IR remote, playback hardware controls along the top surface (shown right), a USB port for charging an iOS device and/or connecting for audio playback, a wired audio 3.5mm AUX-in jack for non-AirPlay devices, an Ethernet port for connecting to a wired network, and a USB to Dock Connector cable.
The direct price for the unit is $199, and while you can usually find such products from third-party retailers for a good bit less, as of this writing buying direct from iHome seems to be the cheapest way to get one, at least online.
In order to use the iW2, you first have to connect it to your network. You can use an Ethernet cable to connect the system to a router or switch, but most users will likely opt for a wireless connection, which requires a bit of configuration.
First, download and install iHome Connect, a free app from the App Store, onto your iOS device. Connect the device to the iW2 using the provided Dock Connector cable. With the iHome Connect app you can configure how the iW2 connects to your Wi-Fi network, set the network password, change the name of the speaker, etc. Once connected, the unit will appear on your iOS device and in iTunes (v10.2+) as an available audio output in the AirPlay menu:
That’s it. You won’t have to setup the iW2 again unless your wireless network changes.
One thing to note here is that the unit doesn’t make nice with routers set for 802.11n only; as most Wi-Fi devices sold today are 802.11n, your router may already be set exclusively for these devices. If so, you’ll need to configure your router for N+G.
As I mentioned before, AirPlay speakers aren’t the best solution for many users. If you want a bedside speaker or one you’ll only use while you’re in a specific, confined location (at a desk or on a bathroom counter, for example) you’re better off getting a traditional dock-based speaker for your iPhone or iPad.
But there are situations where AirPlay makes more sense:
Odd Speaker Location: If you have a room with a spot that’d be perfect for a speaker, but not so great for reaching to regularly connect your iPhone or iPod touch, the iW2 can fill the bill. You can put it on top of a book shelf, for example, and use it without having to reach up to connect your device, or to disconnect it when you’re finished. Or, you can place the speaker out of sight behind a piece of furniture or a plant.
The Kitchen: If you’re frequently in and out of the kitchen, the iW2 can be uniquely beneficial. Walk into the room and instantly transfer music, a podcast or an audiobook to the speaker with two screen taps. You can then go about cooking or cleaning with the phone in your pocket; if there’s a call, you don’t have to worry about getting the speaker wet or running over to the speaker dock.
Maximum Control: With AirPlay, you’re still using the Music, podcasting, radio or audiobook app of your choice, but with the output going to a secondary audio system. This offers full, familiar on device control without having to worry about remotes (though a remote control is included with the iW2). You interact with the audio apps on your iOS device just as you would if you were listening with headphones, and because the wireless connectivity mechanism is Wi-Fi instead of Bluetooth (as with other wireless speakers) you have much greater range.
iTunes Speakers: If you have a laptop, the iW2 gives you the ability to listen to iTunes audio from a source far superior to the built-in speakers, and without regard for distance from the laptop or negotiating a cord around obstacles.
Multiple Rooms: This is perhaps the strongest use case for the iW2 and speakers like it. Because AirPlay supports multiple outputs, you can have an iW2 in your kitchen, living room, bedroom and office, and have audio streaming to all systems simultaneously, or even to just the speakers you want.
This is great if you have a small to medium-sized house, or if you have a section of the house you’re often in. With two or three AirPlay speakers, you can have music play in multiple rooms without the need for wiring or running cables beneath baseboards.
That said, there is an important drawback worth considering. iOS 5 only supports AirPlay audio output to one source at a time, while iTunes running on a Mac or PC can send audio out to multiple AirPlay speakers. There is a software workaround called Airfoil from Rouge Amoeba that runs on both your iOS device(s) and computer to stream audio to multiple AirPlay units, but while AirFoil is free for iOS, you’ll have to pay for a license to run the required app on your Mac or PC.
Too bad multiple AirPlay output isn’t included in iOS. Hopefully it will be soon.
If you’d like a system that’s able to have multiple speakers play from an iOS device without a computer workaround, check out Sonos.
For around $200, there are better sounding speakers available, but few with the range of options provided by the iW2. It can act as a standalone wireless speaker for iOS devices and iTunes, become part of a multiple room speaker system for iTunes (or iOS devices with software workarounds), allow flexible speaker placement, and/or double as a speaker system for your iTunes-installed PC without the need for running wires.
If any of these uses are on your wish list, the iW2 is one of the most affordable options out there. The only downside – and it’s a big one – is that iOS limitation of one AirPlay output at a time, so you’ll have to do some software jujitsu to make it work from your iPhone, iPod touch or iPad. While not the fault of iHome or the iW2, it does limit its and similar speakers’ utility, and iHome could have included its own workaround, sparing buyers’ need to look elsewhere for the functionality.
I look forward to reviewing other AirPlay speaker systems in the near future – and to Apple updating iOS AirPlay for multiple audio output support.
M. Nichols, Products Editor