Streaming Music From The iPhone: AirPlay or Bluetooth?

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

Streaming Music From Phone
Wireless Music Streaming. Image © exdez / Digital Vision Vectors / Getty Images
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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 users have had the luxury of AirPlay too.

But, the big question is, which one should you opt for when playing digital music through speakers?

This consideration is important if you're going to invest in a set of quality wireless speakers for the very first time. The streaming option you eventually go for also depends on factors such as: the number of rooms you want to stream to, quality of the sound, and even if you have a mix of devices that use different operating systems (not just iOS).

With this in mind, you'll want to carefully consider your options before spending (what can sometimes) be quite a lot of money.

Before looking at the main differences between the two, here's a short run down on what each technology is all about.

What is AirPlay?

This is Apple's proprietary wireless technology which was originally called AirTunes -- it was originally named this 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 due to the fact that video and audio could now be wirelessly transferred.

AirPlay is actually made up of multiple communication protocols which includes the original AirTunes stack. Rather than using a point-to-point connection (as with Bluetooth) to stream media, AirPlay uses a pre-existing Wi-Fi network -- often referred to as 'piggy backing'.

In order to use AirPlay, your iPhone has to be at least a 4th generation device, with iOS 4.3 or higher installed.

If you can't see this icon on your iPhone, then read our AirPlay missing icon fix for some possible solutions.

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 (files) without the need to use a wired connection -- the most popular route at the time being the serial RS-232 interface.

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 -- this is just a fancy name for switching the carrier between multiple frequencies. Incidentally, this radio band is between 2.4 and 2.48 GHz (ISM Band).

Bluetooth is perhaps the most widespread technology used in electronic devices to stream / transfer digital data. With this in mind it is also the most supported technology build into wireless speakers and other audio equipment.

 

Factor 

AirPlay 

Bluetooth 

Streaming requirements 

Pre-existing Wi-Fi network. 

ad-hoc network. Can set up wireless streaming without needing a Wi-Fi network infrastructure. 

Range 

Depends on reach of Wi-Fi network. 

Class 2: 33 Ft (10M). 

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. 

 

As you can see from the table above which lists the basic differences between the two technologies, there are pros and cons with each. 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 just a single room set up and don't want to rely on a pre-existing Wi-Fi network, then Bluetooth is a much simpler solution. You can for example, take your digital music practically anywhere by pairing your iPhone with portable Bluetooth speakers. This more established technology is also widely supported on many devices, not just Apple's hardware.

Audio isn't as good though, lossy compression is used. But, if you're not looking for lossless reproduction, then Bluetooth may be the ideal solution in your situation.