State of AirPlay Speakers

AirPlay is Apple's wireless technology that let's you stream audio and/or video to AirPlay enabled devices. AirPlay (formally known as AirTunes) first appeared in the original AirPort Express Base Station. The AirPort Express has a standard digital audio out jack on the bottom of it that lets you plug in a set of speakers or jack into an existing stereo system. Once you have the speakers plugged in you can stream music to them from your computer using iTunes or from your iOS Devices. Apple TV is also an AirPlay enabled device. With the Apple TV 2 you can also stream video to your TV wirelessly from your computer or iDevice. 

 

Setting up a multi-room AirPlay System

When I moved into my new studio I knew that I'd want music throughout the space. This meant have speakers in at least 3 areas. I've been patiently waiting for more AirPlay enabled speakers to hit the market. While I love my Bowers & Wilkens Zeppelin Air at home, I didn't want to spend that kind of money in this situation for all three rooms! I did get one Zeppelin Air for the largest area, but still needed something for the other two.

 

The folks at iHome have been teasing us with their $299 iW1 for over a year. As of the writing of this it's still out of stock (did they ever ship any?).

 

I also tried the JBL On Air Speaker. I usually don't waste time here writing about how bad something is, but the JBL On Air was probably one of my worst out of box tech experiences of all time. It just flat out didn't work! I made sure it did in fact have the latest firmware update, but it couldn't get through a single song without crashing, rebooting or skipping. I boxed it right back up and sent it back. Although I really liked the design of it and the nice color display for album art, I couldn't deal with that many issues on playback. Now keep in mind I may have just gotten a bad one. It happens, but I wasn't willing to go through shipping back and getting a replacement at this point.

 

Tired of waiting

Since the iW1 wasn't shipping yet and the Zeppelin Air is out of my budget range for this multi-room setup, I went with something that has always worked well for me. I bought a couple more AirPort Express Base Stations and plugged regular powered speakers into them. I'm a fan of the Bose Sounddock II and went with a couple refurbs on those. The system works flawlessly! I can push music through to all three systems simultaneously and even control volume levels from my computer or the speakers themselves. Using the Sounddocks also means that in any room an iPod/iPhone can be plugged in on the spot to play something that someone brought with them and wants to hear.

 

What about streaming other source besides iTunes

While I have a rather large iTunes music collection, there are times that I want to stream other music sources such as Pandora Radio or Sirius XM. This is where the software AirFoil comes into play. AirFoil is a 3rd party utility for your Mac or PC that lets you stream just about any source from your computer to your AirPlay speakers. With AirFoil I can fire up Pandora Radio and have continuous music throughout the day from just about any artist for just about any model or client's music tastes. 

You can check out AirFoil here.

Another reason to go with a computer and AirFoil is that while iOS Devices can stream to AirPlay enabled systems, they can only stream to one at a time. AirFoil and iTunes allow you to stream simultaneously to multiple systems. 

 

The Bottom Line

Even at the relatively low price of $299 for an iHome iW1, it's still hard to beat the AirPort Express Base Station for an AirPlay setup. You can plug in any powered speakers you want or already own and will probably save money. I'll probably still get an iW1 to review and if it works out I'll use it in a 4th location up stairs or in my office. There are more AirPlay enabled speakers and receivers on the horizon. While it's nice to have this technology built-in, unless they become much more reliable, stable, easier to setup and lower the prices I'm going to stick with the AirPort Express/Regular Speakers Combo. It just works!

  • DAve Cheatham

    So you changed your mind and you are going to drop so cash on the Ihome 1W? Expensive ….but seem cool. I bought the airport express base station..they work great!

  • Rudy

    Terry – I too waited and waited for an Airplay speaker and finally gave up. I decided to give Sonos a try after reading all the rave reviews of their new Play:3. And I’m so glad I did. It is an amazing system even though it doesn’t support the ability to plug in an Airport Express like the Play:5 does, but I found I didn’t really need that in the end. I ended up transferring my entire iTunes library to a NAS drive connected to my Airport Extreme router and now I can stream without needing a computer.

    I may consider an AIrplay speaker down the road, but it would strictly be for portability as Sonos is far superior to a home/office situation. You should at least check it out. The sound is amazing too.

  • Ryan

    Check out some powered bookshelf speakers like Audioengine (there are lots of brands available) – I think you’ll find they’re higher quality/louder/cheaper than things like the Bose. http://audioengineusa.com/ (I have no relation to them…just use/enjoy them myself for whole-house audio)

  • Alex

    Hi Terry,
    you had some good arguments to go with the Base Station (like price and reliability). This is the reason why I also went with Airfoil a year ago. Plus you could stream the whole system audio.
    AND it also works with video sync now.
    Oh and the Base Station extends WIFI range compared to the speakers so thats another point for the Base Station.
    Good review.

  • Jim Cutler

    Terry,

    I just want an AirPlay Speaker that does NOT require a dedicated remote control. My iPhone can do the selection and the VOLUME. Neat, easy, and one less dedicated remote needed. I think the iHome speaker is supposed to work that way but will we ever see it? I saw a flimsy iHome device at Staples and immediately decided not to wait for the iHome iw1. then I noticed really good quality iHome radios/players in some of the hotels I’ve been staying at and I’m very impressed. So, the iW1 is back on the radar for consideration. But I think you may have hit on the best solution. I have an airport express somewhere and will try using it with a Bose speaker I have. Good going. BTW the Zeppelin is a little far out looking for where I want to place a speaker.

  • Cindy

    Terry,
    I concur with Rudy about the Sonos system. I have had the Sonos Play 5 for about a month. It took literally 5 minutes to set up, and I can control it through my iMac with a bridge that connects to my base station. I can access and control all my iTunes music, spottily, pandora, etc, easily using their great free apps for iPhone and iPad. And, it’s easy to add more units to your system., and play different music on them. The only drawback is it’s a bit pricey.

  • Mike

    You should look seriously at SOUTH OF MARKET AUDIO DOCK from Audyssey. It is the best. Also check out they’re
    iPhone App. An EQ you can customize to your taste.

    http://www.audyssey.com/products/soma-audio-dock

  • Karen Collett

    I was also waiting for a reasonably priced AirPlay speaker UNTIL I read about Bluetooth speakers. I bought a Creative D100 and I’ve been completely satisfied. I can stream out of all of the AirPlay-enabled apps (iPod, Pandora, Soma.fm, etc.). The downside is that the iOS device has to be relatively close, but that hasn’t been an issue for me.

  • I signed up to the email list that was supposed to notify me when the iW1 started shipping. Theybproceeded to spam me with messages about all their other products, never mentioning the iW1.

    BUT, I visited the Apple store in Alberquerque, NM last week and they had a iW1 in stock! I didn’t buy it though since I just bought a new MacBook pro with lots of upgrades along with the Focal XS speakers and didn’t want to overload my tech spending for the month.

    Just thought you want to know that the iW1 has been spotted in the wild.

    -Ben

    • Yeah, me too. Never got any email from them at all. Nothing saying it was shipping or anything else!

  • Won

    Terry I’m at the Apple store in Newport Beach and they have the iHome iW1 in stock. Maybe check your local apple store.

  • Scotty

    Hey Terry – good review. Where are you finding refurb BOSE?

    • Either the local Bose Outlet Store or their website.

  • Jose Antonio Gomez

    I know this is an old post, but I can’t find any answers. I had my Bose Sounddock Portable connected to an Airport Express for like 3 months and today stopped working. What I was thinking is that maybe because it is connected to the Aux of the Airport Express is Always On and is working all day long died. Help please!