How to share music, video and photos around your home with AirPlay
26th May 2013 | 07:00
Apple's exciting wireless tech is great for more than just audio
AirPlay started life as AirTunes and was originally limited to streaming audio from iTunes on a Mac or PC to Apple's AirPort Express - a Wi-Fi basestation that has audio connectors for hooking up to a stereo system.
Later, it was added as an option in the iOS Remote app, allowing you to control the music you played over AirTunes from an iPhone, iPod touch or iPad.
In late 2010, AirTunes became AirPlay and added the ability to stream photos, video and metadata. More excitingly, however, Apple also announced that it had licensed AirPlay to third parties, so that they could produce AirPlay speaker systems.
There are several ways that you can use AirPlay. You can stream music from iTunes on a Mac to an Apple TV, AirPort Express or third-party system. Or you can play music from the Music app on your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch to the same devices. Some third-party apps also support streaming audio and/or video using AirPlay.
Apple's proprietary technology can even be used as a way of streaming music from your Mac wirelessly to different rooms around your house. Then there's mirroring, which allows you to send the audio and video output of an iOS device or Mac running Mountain Lion to an Apple TV.
AirPlay mirroring can be used for a whole range of activities, from playing Keynote presentations on a large-screen TV, to sharing creations in iMovie, and even as a way of playing, say, a YouTube guitar tutorial or cookery videos on a television rather than a smaller screen.
One of our favourite uses, however, is for gaming. Developers have been quick to explore the possibilities of AirPlay mirroring in games, most commonly allowing you to use your iPhone or iPad as a controller while displaying the game itself on TV. AirPlay is both easy to use and flexible.
From iTunes on a Mac, or the Remote app in iOS, you can send tracks from your Mac's music library to multiple AirPlay speakers around the house. There's much more to AirPlay than meets the eye, and this article we'll tell you all you need to know to get more from it. We'll also tell you which AirPlay speaker systems work best in different locations and why they're worth your money.
How to set up an AirPlay device
Setting up an AirPlay device can be done in a number of ways, depending on which device you're using. Some have a dedicated iOS app to handle the heavy lifting, others use Wi-Fi sharing, some have on-board LCDs and menu systems, and one or two require you to connect directly to your Mac using a USB cable, or a router using an Ethernet cable, in order to configure them.
The easiest device to set up is an Apple TV. Connect it to your TV with an HDMI cable, then follow the on-screen instructions to add it to your Wi-Fi network. The trickiest bit used to be entering your Wi-Fi password using the remote control, but Apple TV now supports Bluetooth keyboards, so even that bit is easy.
Once it's connected, your Mac and iOS devices find it automatically and it's available in the AirPlay menu in apps that support it, as well as the multitasking bar in iOS.
Setting up a device that supports Wi-Fi Sharing is just a matter of connecting a device running iOS 5 or 6 and maybe pressing a button on the speaker. It will then harvest the details of the network to which your device is connected and add itself, once you've given it permission.
Some devices - the Libratone Zipp, for example - require that you join their own network from an iOS device or Mac and then navigate in a web browser to their configuration page where you define your own Wi-Fi network.
The other thing to consider, once you've added an AirPlay speaker to your network, is where you're going to position it. Speakers vary widely in their ability to project a wide soundstage, which will determine the degree to which they play in full stereo.
Some devices, such as the Audyssey Audio Dock Air, are best-placed in a corner so that they can use the walls to reflect sound back into the room. Others, such as Bose's SoundLink Air, are best-placed centrally, allowing the speaker drivers on either side of the unit to fire outwards.
It's important that you don't lose your Wi-Fi connection while listening to music. Make sure that the location you choose for the AirPlay device has a strong Wi-Fi signal. If it doesn't, consider using a Wi-Fi bridge to extend the network, or set up a new network with a different base station. You can connect the new base station to your modem router using a PowerLine adapter if you want to have internet access on the new Wi-Fi network.
Some people recommend having your AirPlay device in the same room as your router and making sure nothing else is connected to the network. For most of us, however, that's not feasible. If you find that you're having problems with a signal dropping, or with AirPlay performance - particularly mirroring video - being poor, you could try switching your router to a wide channel, if it supports it.
The 40MHz frequency, known as a wide channel, usually provides faster speeds than 20MHz, so may help eliminate problems. If your router is already switched to 40MHz, the problem might be congestion.
If there are lots of other wireless networks running on 40MHz in your area, that will slow down traffic on your network. Try switching to the slower, but probably less-crowded, 20MHz channel. You can read more about wireless channels here.
Changing the wireless channel usually involves a trip to your router's web configuration page, so check the manual that came with your router or see the help text on the manufacturer's homepage.
Perhaps you live in a home with other people. If so, the chances are that you won't all be in the same room at the same time. Happily, there are a number of ways you can send audio to AirPlay speakers in separate rooms.
The simplest way to do this is from iTunes on a Mac: click on the AirPlay menu at the top of iTunes main window or in the Mini Player and select Multiple.
You can now choose which AirPlay devices you want to send audio to, and adjust the volume for each individually. This method can also be used to provide stereo from two separate AirPlay speakers, where the speaker manufacturer supports it. AQ Audio's SmartSpeaker works in this way, for example.
You can do the same thing from the Remote app in iOS. Open the app, choose the Library you want to connect to, then tap the AirPlay icon at the bottom of the screen. You'll be shown a list of the AirPlay devices on the network and can choose which to play audio to and adjust the volume for each. Neither of these options allows you to play different output to different rooms, however.
The simplest method for doing that is to use different iOS devices. That way you can play tracks from the Music app, or any other AirPlay-supporting app, to the AirPlay speaker in whichever room you happen to be in. You don't need to have music stored on the device; iTunes in the Cloud or iTunes Match allow you to play music stored on Apple's servers to an AirPlay device, or you could use the Remote app to play music from one Mac via separate iOS devices to different AirPlay speakers.
The other issue in a multi-person, multi-device household is where to store your music. Most of us have digital audio files scattered across a couple of different Macs, hard drives and iOS devices. Far better to have a central repository for everything from which you can then stream to multiple outputs.
Networked attached storage drives (NAS) allow you to do just that. These inexpensive servers can store and play music over a wired and/or wireless network. To set it up, copy your music to the NAS and point iTunes on your Mac to the NAS folder in the Advanced section of iTunes preferences. That will build a Library in your Mac's Music folder, while allowing the music to remain on the NAS box. You can then create playlists as you would normally.
Then, in the Music app on an iPhone or iPad, select More and Shared, and tap the name of your Mac's music library. You'll now have access to all the music and playlists on your Mac from your iOS device. To play music to an AirPlay device, just tap the AirPlay icon in the Now Playing window in the Music app.
One problem here is that you must have a Mac on and running. You can avoid that problem by using an app provided by the manufacturer of your NAS box, if it has one. Synology's app, for example, allows you to play music on your iOS device directly from one of its DiskStations and send the output to an AirPlay speaker.
Synology's latest DiskStation software, 4.2 beta, also allows you to stream video directly from a NAS to Apple TV while using an iOS device to control it. Both options allow you to play different songs to different AirPlay devices, but you'll need one iOS device per AirPlay speaker.
Seedio is an iOS app that allows you to stream music from your device's Music library or from YouTube to other iOS devices on the same network. It doesn't use AirPlay, but since you can dock your iOS devices in dumb speaker docks, it's potentially cheaper than buying AirPlay speakers.
The 'seeding' app is £1.99, but the receiving apps are free, and by hooking up the receiving device to a speaker dock, you can your house with music. Each receiving device can choose whether or not to accept and play a seed, but the streaming device can only seed one track at a time, so you can't have different songs in different rooms.
There are a few restrictions. Music must be in MP3 or unprotected AAC format and can only be sourced from the host device's library or YouTube. In-app purchases allow you to seed music from other sources. On the plus side, you can seed to as many devices as you want. If you'd rather play other audio from your Mac to an iOS device, you can do that using Airfoil ($25) and the free Airfoil Speakers Touch app.
Airfoil can stream any audio playing on your Mac including Spotify and Last.fm to an iOS device running AirFoil Speakers Touch. And it now works in reverse, too.
AirPlay from your Mac
There are a few different options for streaming audio from a Mac to an AirPlay device. The simplest is to use iTunes. Any audio playing from iTunes, whether it's music, an audio book, podcast, or the audio from a movie or TV programme, can be fed to an AirPlay speaker from iTunes' AirPlay menu.
That menu is just to the right of the volume slider in iTunes 11 and in the same place in iTunes 11's Mini Player - though it's not visible in the Mini Player until you hover over the status bar. Click on the AirPlay icon and you'll reveal a list of output destinations.
First is your Mac, followed by each of the AirPlay devices on your local network. To send audio to just one AirPlay device, click it. iTunes takes a few seconds to find the device and send audio to it, so you'll notice a bit of a delay once you hit play. If you want to send the same audio to more than one device, click Multiple at the top of the window and select the devices you want. You can now adjust the volume for each device individually.
If you want to send all the audio from your Mac to an AirPlay device and you're running Mountain Lion, you have two options. The first is to take a trip to System Preferences and click on the Output tab of the Sound pane. Now select the AirPlay device you want from the list. A quicker route is to Option-click on the volume control in the menu bar and select the AirPlay speaker from the drop-down menu.
Mountain Lion introduced another new AirPlay feature to OS X for newer Macs: mirroring. In the same way you can mirror the output of an iPhone or iPad on an Apple TV, your Mac's audio and video can be sent to your TV using an Apple TV. When you connect a compatible Mac running 10.8 to a network that also has an Apple TV on it, an AirPlay menu item appears in OS X's menu bar. Click on it and then select the Apple TV on which you want to mirror your Mac.
If you select Match Desktop Size To Apple TV, it will scale the output of your Mac to fit your TV screen. If you want a sharper image, set the resolution of your Mac to as close to that of your TV as possible. You do this in the Displays pane of System Preferences, by selecting an option that only appears when you mirror to an Apple TV.
Presentations and more
Mirroring to Apple TV from your Mac has numerous possible uses. One of the most popular is for displaying presentations on a large TV screen. Many conference rooms have large-screen HDTVs, so by packing an Apple TV alongside your Keynote-equipped MacBook Pro, you eliminate that perennial worry of having the correct adaptor for whichever projector the client happens to have - though this does add the problem of joining their Wi-Fi network!
To mirror a Mac to an Apple TV over AirPlay, you'll need a Mac made in 2011 or later running Mountain Lion. If your Mac was made earlier than that, or you aren't using Mountain Lion, Air Parrot (airparrot.com) may allow you to do the same thing.
Set up a speaker
Different devices use different methods, but let's look at the basics...
1. Read the manual
Check the manual for your AirPlay device to find out which set-up methods it supports before you begin. From that you can decide whether to use a Mac or iOS device. Whichever method you use, the first step is usually to turn the device on.
2. Network shenanigans
You then need to add it to your network. If your speaker can read your Wi-Fi password from your iOS device, dock it, press the buttons indicated in the manual if necessary, and, once your iOS device has alerted you, just tap Accept.
3. Enter an IP
Some AirPlay speakers will need you to connect to their own Wi-Fi network to configure them. Click the AirPort menu on your Mac - or look in iOS's Settings app - connect to the network temporarily, then enter an IP address (see the manual) into Safari. Once configured, connect to your normal network again.
4. 'Appy days
Another common method is to use an iOS app. Some speakers prompt you to download it when you plug your device in, but you might have to manually search the App Store.