Streaming Music From the iPhone: AirPlay or Bluetooth?

The iPhone has both technologies but which one should you choose?

Streaming Music From Phone

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Bluetooth used to be the only way to stream music wirelessly from an iPhone. However, since the release of iOS 4.2, iPhone owners can also use AirPlay. Picking a streaming technology is important when investing in wireless speakers. The streaming option you choose depends on the number of rooms you want to stream to, the quality of the sound, and if you have a mix of devices that use different operating systems.

To use AirPlay, your iPhone must run iOS 4.3 or higher and feature fourth-generation or newer hardware.

What Is AirPlay?

AirPlay is Apple's proprietary wireless technology, which was originally called AirTunes — because only audio could be streamed from the iPhone at the time. When iOS 4.2 was released, the AirTunes name was dropped in favor of AirPlay because the standard now supported video.

AirPlay bundles several communication protocols including the original AirTunes stack. Rather than using a point-to-point connection (as with Bluetooth) to stream media, AirPlay uses an existing Wi-Fi network — a practice called piggybacking.

What Is Bluetooth?

Bluetooth was the first wireless technology built into the iPhone that made streaming music to speakers, headphones, and other compatible audio equipment possible. It was originally invented by Ericsson in 1994 as a wireless solution to transfer data without a wired connection.

Bluetooth technology uses radio frequencies, just like AirPlay's Wi-Fi requirements, to wirelessly stream music. However, it operates over relatively short distances and transmits radio signals using adaptive frequency-hopping spread spectrum which switches the carrier between several frequencies. The ISM Band operates between 2.4 GHz and 2.48 GHz.

Bluetooth is perhaps the most widespread technology used in electronic devices to stream or transfer digital data. It is also the most supported technology built into wireless speakers and other audio equipment.

Comparison of AirPlay and Bluetooth

Factor AirPlay Bluetooth
Streaming requirements Existing Wi-Fi network. Ad-hoc network. Can set up wireless streaming without needing a Wi-Fi network infrastructure.
Range Depends on the reach of the Wi-Fi network. Class 2: 33 feet (10 meters).
Multi-room streaming Yes No. Typically single room due to shorter range.
Lossless streaming Yes No. Currently, there's no lossless streaming even with the 'near lossless' aptX codec. Therefore, audio is transmitted in a lossy way.
Multiple OSes No. Only works with Apple devices and computers. Yes. Works with a wide range of operating systems and devices.

Each technology offers comparative strengths and weaknesses. If you are going to stay solely in Apple's ecosystem then AirPlay is probably your best bet. It offers multi-room capabilities, has a larger range, and streams lossless audio.

However, if you want a single room setup and don't want to rely on a Wi-Fi network, then Bluetooth is a much simpler solution. You can, for example, take your digital music anywhere by pairing your iPhone with portable Bluetooth speakers. This more established technology is also widely supported on many devices, not just Apple hardware. Audio isn't as good because lossy compression is used. But, if you're not looking for lossless reproduction, then Bluetooth may be the ideal solution in your situation.