When it comes to streaming audio playback, Bluetooth and AirPlay seem to be the most popular choices. They both reliably stream audio from across a room without much issue, but apart from that, they’re quite different methods. So, what exactly separates these two playback systems, and most importantly, which one is better?
Bluetooth uses an independent piconet network created independent of an external wireless network. AirPlay, however, uses Wi-Fi to establish connections. Bluetooth is more portable and cost-effective but Airplay provides higher quality audio and can be used for multiple devices.
For most people, the difference between the two really doesn’t matter. As long as the music is playing well, they don’t have an issue. But that’s not true for everyone. Some people are looking for ultimate portability while others want the highest quality audio possible. Whatever it is you prioritize, we’ll walk you through the differences between these two popular audio playback systems.
Is Bluetooth the Same as AirPlay?
While both provide wireless audio playback, the way Bluetooth and AirPlay accomplish this are quite different. For someone looking only for reliable playback, both can work quite well.
But in certain situations, you might prefer one to the other. So, what makes these two wireless systems work differently? What do you need to know before you buy?
First, Bluetooth uses a process called pairing to connect two devices without using WiFi. Next, AirPlay, Apple’s proprietary wireless playback system, works with your existing wireless network (WiFi) to enable playback across devices.
That’s the simple version of how these two systems operate. But of course, there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes, and we’ll get into that a little later. But for now, just know that the main difference between the two is how they connect. With Bluetooth, you don’t need Wi-Fi. This has some pros but also some cons.
AirPlay won’t work without a wireless network. There is a reason for this, and we’ll get to that too. But for practical purposes, this means you won’t be able to go too far away from your WiFi router and still get a good connection.
What’s the Difference Between Bluetooth and AirPlay?
So now we know that these two playback systems are different, even though they both accomplish the same task. How do these systems really work, and what separates them other than how they connect?
Let’s take a quick look at both Bluetooth and AirPlay and see what makes them so different.
How Does Bluetooth Work?
Bluetooth operates by using electromagnetic waves to transfer data. This is a little similar to how Wi-Fi works but different in many ways. In fact, some Bluetooth devices use a similar band to wireless networks — which can lead to interference issues. This is one of the many reasons why 5 GHz Wi-Fi has become a popular option for home networks.
Bluetooth works by sending and receiving radio waves in over 79 bands, all centered around the 2.45 GHz band. Devices automatically detect and connect to each other. When two devices communicate, they pick a channel or “switch” channels to find the most unpopulated band.
When two or more devices connect to each other, they create what is called a piconet. This is essentially an ad-hoc computer network.
Other devices can connect at any time, but there is usually a “master” device that has ultimate control over the network. Because of this piconet configuration, you don’t need an additional network to facilitate a connection.
How Does Airplay Work?
AirPlay is a proprietary wireless protocol that was developed by Apple. Much like Bluetooth, it allows for devices to connect and share data over a network. But, unlike Bluetooth, AirPlay requires an external wireless network to operate aka WiFi.
There is a very good reason for this, mainly because the wireless network can perform well with bigger data packages — meaning sending things like videos is possible.
It also means you can send metadata through the connection. This has loads of benefits for people looking to stream different forms of media. The system uses senders and receivers; for example, iPhones are senders, and Apple HomePods are receivers.
One thing to be aware of is that this is only available for Apple devices. As it stands now, there is no public API available for AirPlay. This means you can only use this playback system if you own both an Apple-branded sender and receiver.
What’s the Audio Quality of Airplay?
Before we jump into AirPlay’s sound quality, let’s first examine what the story is for Hi-Fi audio and Bluetooth playback. You see, part of what makes Bluetooth work so well is how the playback system handles sending audio data.
To keep things running smoothly requires clever compression codecs (a device or computer program which encodes or decodes a data stream or signal).
Bluetooth uses compression codecs to help lessen pressure on bandwidth and lower transmission speeds. Popular codecs like AptX make streaming music easy, painless, and avoid annoying audio dropouts. While this does benefit audio playback, it means you’re going to be losing a little quality along the way.
While codecs like AptX stream at near-perfect quality, they don’t quite hit the mark. AirPlay, on the other hand, approaches the streaming problem quite differently.
Since AirPlay uses Wi-Fi, higher amounts of data can be easily transferred without any dropout issues. This means streaming audio at 16-bits is possible using Apple’s Lossless Codec, or ALAC. For audiophiles, this makes all the difference.
Here is the thing, while both screen-mirroring and AirPlay use the same principles, they aren’t quite the same. Apple bundles them both up in a single package, so for you, the consumer, it really doesn’t make much of a difference. But if you’re interested in what makes them different, we’ll walk you through it.
AirPlay screen mirroring is different from AirPlay as it uses H.246 video format to stream video. The stream is created inside the graphics card of the receiver device simultaneously to the screen that is streaming, which makes the video stream run with little delay. The compression level of the video is still unknown, but in most cases, is quite un-noticeable.
AirPlay and AirPlay streaming work differently in the Apple streaming package. But they are different media formats, so it makes sense. You can’t just run a video through an audio compression codec; that’s not how it works.
So it makes sense that Apple has developed a separate feature for video streaming. For the average user, though, this really doesn’t make much of a difference.
Should I Use Airplay or Bluetooth for Audio?
When it comes to choosing which playback system is right for you, there are a few things to consider. At the end of the day, though, they both accomplish a similar goal.
Both Bluetooth and wireless speakers offer a similar end result, but how you get there and how everything works is just very different.
If you’re looking to stream audio-only, then you can’t go wrong with either. For specific situations, though, you may have a preference for one over the other. Let’s take a look now at some of those possible situations.
- Outdoor playback — AirPlay is great, but it’s not portable. Without a Wi-Fi network, you’re out of luck when it comes time to streaming audio playback. In this situation, Bluetooth is much better.
- Hi-Fi Audio — Bluetooth is great, but because it uses compression codecs, you’re never getting the full audio experience. For this reason, you’ll want to use AirPlay-enabled devices.
- Multi-room playback — Another downside to Bluetooth is the fact that you can connect only one device at a time for playback. Standards are changing, but as it stands now, you’re stuck with using a single playback device. With AirPlay, this isn’t the case- you can stream to multiple speakers easily.
- Cost-effective option — AirPlay is great, but there is no denying how expensive Apple products can be. Seeing how you need both an Apple receiver and sender, setting up this system can get pricey. With Bluetooth, even a cheap speaker, like this OontZ Angle 3 (on Amazon), will work.
Here’s the thing, if you already have AirPlay-enabled devices, why not use AirPlay in your home. If you’ve got a HomePod and an iPad, then you can easily connect both devices without any issues.
Apple is all about the user experience, so connecting two devices using AirPlay is super easy. Bluetooth, on the other hand, can be a bit more tricky.
If you’ve ever frustratingly tried to pair a device without any luck, you know what I mean. Since most Bluetooth devices are third-party (the two devices you’re connecting are from different brands), you won’t find much support if a problem occurs.
Apple, however, has a very helpful list of resources on their site that can aid you with almost any problem.