Holiday 2012: Apple AirPlay for Wireless Tunes

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When Apple decided to license its AirPlay technology to speaker and receiver manufacturers so their components could play audio wirelessly from iTunes on a Windows or Macintosh computer or from such iOS devices as an iPod touch, iPhone or iPad, few realized how many companies would bite. Today, with more than a dozen AirPlay speaker manufacturers and a half-dozen receiver makers aboard with AirPlay products, user options range from portable speakers to compact stereo systems to audiophile-friendly receivers.

What AirPlay components have in common is that they rely on your Wi-Fi network for signal delivery. Unlike speakers that use Bluetooth, a wireless system that operates without Wi-Fi, AirPlay doesn’t further compress the music, so potentially it sounds better. Wi-Fi can also provide greater coverage. If you’re sending audio from your mobile device, you need to be within the bounds of your Wi-Fi network, typically the walls of your entire home or apartment and then some. If you want to stream music from the desktop computer in your home office while you lounge in the living room by an AirPlay component, there’s no need to get up. Simply load the free Remote app from the iTunes Store into your iOS device and you can control iTunes from the sofa.

If a component is AirPlay enabled, it has built-in Wi-Fi reception. Usually, it also has an Ethernet port, the wired alternative to Wi-Fi. Your mobile device must be running iOS 4.2 or later and the computer needs to have at least iTunes 10.1 installed.

If you want to stream video and photos in addition to music, you’ll need to connect an Apple TV (1080p) media receiver to your TV or home theater receiver. Although AirPlay was originally called AirTunes when it was only for audio, Apple, so far, has been licensing AirPlay to other manufacturers only for audio use. So, if you want to mirror what’s on your iPhone or iPad screen on your big-screen TV, you’ll need an Apple TV. If you want to take advantage of the dual-screen mode of a race-car game, for example, in which controls occupy your iOS device but the track view is on your TV, you’ll need an Apple TV.

As for AirPlay equipment that’s strictly about audio, choices abound, with varying features and across a wide range of price points.

AirPlay-Enabled Speakers

One of the first tabletop models was introduced by Altec Lansing with its InAir 5000 Wireless AirPlay Speaker. With a 19-inch span and 8.5-lb mass, the black-grille model is rated at 110 watts (peak) and contains a 3” mid-range speaker, 4” subwoofer and 1” tweeter. It features an audio line input, 1/8” (3.5mm) headphone jack and a USB port for charging and local playback.

The Klipsch Gallery G-17 AirPlay-Enabled Speaker System seems to float on its detachable base. Inside the piano-black-finish cabinet is a pair of 2.5” long-throw woofers and a pair of 0.75” aluminum-diaphragm tweeters. The amplifier puts out low frequencies at 2 x 20W RMS and high frequencies at 2 x 10W RMS. With a 16.9” width, the G-17 weighs 7.5 lb.

The Bose SoundLink Air Digital Music System is a relatively svelte (4-inch thick, 4.67 lb) AirPlay speaker that contains Bose Waveguide technology to enrich the sound. The system is powered by the included external power supply on 8-foot cord or optional Bose rechargeable lithium-ion battery that snaps onto the back. The SoundLink Air contains a 3.5 mm auxiliary input and Micro USB port.

The most powerful AirPlay speaker in our group is the Sony XA900 Wireless Speaker Dock with AirPlay & Bluetooth for iPod / iPhone / iPad. With a 200-Watt, 2.1-channel speaker system in a 15.4-lb cabinet, the system contains a 5.3” subwoofer, two 2.8” woofers and two 0.8” tweeters. The sub puts out 100W and the woofers and tweeters, 25W each. In addition to AirPlay reception and control, the XA900 is Bluetooth-compatible and also plays content from a retractable iPod/iPhone/iPad dock. There’s a stereo audio-in mini jack (3.5 mm), digital optical (Toslink) input and composite video output.

With 100 watts of total power across 2.1 channels, the cherry-finished Samsung DA-E750 Wireless Audio Dock provides AirPlay and Bluetooth compatibility and offers an unusual vacuum tube amp combined with a digital amp. There’s a hidden dock that that not only accommodates an iPod/iPhone/iPad but also a Galaxy S2, Galaxy Note or Galaxy Player. A user app is available for the Galaxy S2. The model features USB Direct Play for playing MP3, AAC and WMA files stored on an attached USB memory stick or hard disk. And if you own a Samsung LED series ES6500 TV and up, or plasma series E550 and up, the DA-E750 accepts wireless audio from the TV using Samsung’s SoundShare technology.

Compared to the 19-pound DA-E750, the ABX-N300 Speaker Dock for iPod and iPhone from Onkyo weighs just 5.3 lb and puts out a power level (10W + 10W) meant for a smaller room. Still, even without invoking its AirPlay facility, the system’s Wi-Fi capability streams audio from a networked PC or server and Internet radio. Its sliding aluminum top panel reveals a 30-pin dock for your iPod (touch generations 1 - 4, iPod Classic or 2nd - 6th generation iPod nano). There’s also a 3.5mm audio input. And you can’t miss the distinctive Wi-Fi antenna most other manufacturers are embedding in their AirPlay products.

Samsung also offers an AirPlay speaker dock that’s more competitive with the Onkyo ABX-N300 than the tube amp model above. The Samsung DA-E670 Dual Audio Dock is a 2.1-channel (40 Watts total power) system with dual 10W speakers and a 20W subwoofer. A hidden dock is compatible with iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Samsung Galaxy S2, Galaxy S3 and Galaxy Note. The unit is also Bluetooth compatible and offers USB Direct Play support of WAV, MP3 and WMA files.

Stepping it up 20 Watts in power takes you to the Sony RDP-XA700IP Dock for iPod/iPhone/iPad, which has a total output of 60 Watts. Designed like a pyramid on its side with retractable 30-pin dock mid-drift, the RDP-XA700IP is a 2.1 system putting out 15W + 15W + 30W of power (with no more than 10% harmonic distortion). The model contains an auxiliary audio input jack.

Panasonic offers a 10W wireless speaker system and a 40W compact stereo system, each with AirPlay capability. The SC-AP01 Wireless Speaker System puts a pair of 5W speakers into a 2.2 lb bar-shaped cabinet only 2.3” deep. There’s a USB port for charging only. The SC-HC57 Compact Stereo System builds in a CD player and FM radio. Panasonic also provides a headphone jack and a free remote control app for your iOS device. The unit is wall-mountable and features a fluorescent display.

Sony, meanwhile, offers a trio of AirPlay speakers capable of exploiting an in-home social phenomenon the company terms “Party Streaming.” Party Streaming technology lets you synchronize playback with Sony network speakers, BD players and home theater systems. You can also play BRAVIA Internet music apps, Pandora, Slacker, v.Tuner, Music Unlimited and more. The most flexible of the bunch is the cone-shaped SA-NS500 HomeShare Wireless Portable Speaker because with its built-in rechargeable speaker, you can simply carry it with you from room to room. As long as you stay within Wi-Fi range, you can move about without any power cables or source players dangling or docked. With its four 2-way speakers and one subwoofer, the 8 lb 10 oz (3.9 kg) speaker puts out 360-degree sound. The built-in battery lets you enjoy up to 5 hours of uninterrupted partying.

Both the NS410 Wireless Speaker and NS310 Wireless Speaker must be plugged into a power outlet. The NS410 is a two-way, 5-driver Wi-Fi speaker system with four 1.2” (30mm) tweeters and one 4.3” (110mm) woofer. The NS310, at 2.4 lb (1.1 kg), is significantly lighter and smaller than either the SA-NS500 or NS410. It’s equipped with a 2” (50mm) woofer. All three Sony speakers contain a stereo mini (3.5 mm) input jack for direct connection of a music player or play wirelessly via a free iOS or Android app you download into your smart phone or tablet.

AirPlay-Enabled Receivers

A full-fledged home theater receiver with networking capability and AirPlay audio support can serve as the main switching station/amplifier/radio tuner/surround sound decoder between all your attached source components, TV, speakers and mobile devices. While the majority of these models are A/V receivers, an AirPlay-enabled home theater in a box (which comes with speakers) and a model incorporating a CD player are included. Covered here are products from Denon, Pioneer, Yamaha, Sony and Marantz. We’ve ordered them by brand, based on which manufacturers offer the most AirPlay receivers. Within each brand we’ve described models in the order of most to least expensive at the time of this writing in late October.

Denon has alighted on the AirPlay express with wings of abandon. We count seven AV receivers as well as a network CD player and a network receiver with iPod dock. The flagship AVR-3313CI 7.2-Channel Integrated Network AV Receiver pumps out 125 Watts each across 7 channels, passes through 3D video, upscales the picture resolution to 4K and handles 3-source, 3-zone content distribution. The AVR-3312CIP Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver is just as capable, except that it has one fewer HDMI output (two instead of three) and doesn’t support 4K upscaling—something you won’t really need until you acquire a 4K projector or TV displaying a horizontal resolution of about 4,000 pixels.

Denon’s AVR-2313CI 7.2-Channel Integrated Network AV Receiver keeps the 4K upscaling but takes the power output down to 105 Watts x 7 channels, the distribution down to two sources and two zones and the number of HDMI inputs from seven to six. The AVR-2113CI 7.1-Channel Integrated Network AV Receiver drives 95 watts x 7 channels while the AVR-1913 7.1 Channel 3D Pass Through and Networking Home Theater Receiver powers 90 watts x 7 channels. The latter lacks 4K upscaling.

Turning to 5.1 receivers, the AVR-1713 5.1 Channel 3D Pass Through and Networking Home Theater Receiver and entry-level AVR-1613 5.1 Channel 3D Pass Through and Networking Home Theater Receiver differ mainly in the number of HDMI inputs (six on the 1713, five on the 1613) and amount of power on each of five channels (80W for the 1713, 75W for the 1613).

For dedicated two-channel (stereo) users, Denon offers a wireless-networkable CD player with iPod dock and radio, in white or black. The RCD-N7 Network CD Player (White) and RCD-N7 Network Ready Receiver with iPod Dock (Black) are equipped with an AM/FM tuner and a 30-pin iPhone/iPod dock on top. They stream thousands of Internet radio stations, can receive the Pandora, Napster and Rhapsody music services, play music from a memory device plugged into the front USB port and can be controlled from the free Denon Remote App. They each have two AUX audio inputs, a digital optical input, an AUX out and a headphone jack. There are terminals for a pair of speakers and an output for a powered subwoofer. The models are rated at 65W + 65W (1 kHz, 4 ohms). Each sports a rod antenna for Wi-Fi and an Ethernet port for a wired LAN connection. They’re each compatible with the optional pair of Denon SC-N7 2-Way Bookshelf Speakers in white or black. Or you could use your own speakers.

Pioneer offers a quintet of AirPlay-enabled A/V receivers led by its most elaborate model, the SC-1522 9.2-Channel Network Ready A/V Receiver with 720 Watts total power. The model is THX Select 2 Plus-certified. It’s followed by two 7.2-channel models, the SC-1222 7.2-Channel 3D Ready A/V Receiver (600W total) and VSX-1122-K 7.2-Channel 3D Ready A/V Receiver (90W per channel) and one 7.1-channel model, the  VSX-1022-K 7.1-Channel 3D Ready A/V Receiver with 80W per channel. The fifth receiver, delivering 5.1 channels, is the entry-level VSX-822-K 5.1-Channel 3D Ready A/V Receiver. The latter puts out 80 Watts per channel. All are 3D video compatible and stream Internet radio.

With two 7.2-channel receivers, one 5.1 receiver and one home theater in a box, Yamaha is also ready for AirPlay. The RX-A820BL A/V Receiver (100W x 7 channels) and RX-A720BL A/V Receiver (90W x 7 channels) each feature 4K and 3D pass through, contain six HDMI inputs and work with Yamaha’s AV controller app. For a mainstream 5.1 system, Yamaha offers the RX-V473 A/V Receiver, putting out 115 watts per channel. It has four HDMI inputs. The YHT-897BL 5.1 Channel Home Theater in a Box System bundles Yamaha’s RX-V473 A/V Receiver along with two NS-F120 front speakers, two NS-B120 surrounds, NC-C120 center and YST-SW216BL2 subwoofer.

Marantz offers the SR5007 7.2-Channel Networking Home Theater Receiver with AirPlay. The receiver incorporates 100 watts per channel, 4K and 3D pass-through, two-zone audio capability and six HDMI inputs. You can stream content from 12,000 Internet radio stations and such services as Pandora and SiriusXM. It all works with the Marantz remote app.

Thanks to AirPlay technology built into each of these receivers from assorted manufacturers, you can use your living room stereo system or home theater to play songs from your iTunes library on a computer in another room, wirelessly stream music right out of the iPod or iPhone in your pocket or levitate music from the iPad on your lap. The consequence of all that music afloat is that the tunes you love will surely get all the air play they deserve.