Big-name iPhone/iPod speaker manufacturers like Bose and Logitech have recently rolled out new products designed to wirelessly stream music from your iOS devices using...Bluetooth. Wait, wasn't AirPlay supposed to take over in this space, promising better compatibility, range, and sound quality? It was, but as good as AirPlay is, it's not a great choice for iPod speakers this year, especially with the Bluetooth alternative. Here's why.
Bluetooth works nearly identically to AirPlay on iOS devices
When we reviewed LG's LSB316 sound bar with built-in Bluetooth, we were surprised at how easily the Bluetooth feature worked with our iPhone 4. It felt exactly like AirPlay, offering the same compatibility between apps, and it even uses the AirPlay icon. If nobody told you it was Bluetooth, you probably wouldn't even realize you weren't using AirPlay.
AirPlay products are prohibitively expensive so far
If you really want AirPlay, you can plunk down $600 for the B&W Zeppelin Air Speaker, but that's about four times more than most people want to spend on an iPhone speaker. JBL's On Air Wireless costs $350. Even iHome, known for its budget iPod speakers, is charging $300 for its AirPlay-equipped iW1.
We've heard rumblings that AirPlay licensing and technology can add as much as $100 to the price of an iPhone speaker. While we can't confirm that exact cost increase, there's no denying that iPhone speakers with AirPlay are just too expensive. Until manufacturers can make an iPhone speaker with AirPlay that costs more like $150 or $200, they'll stick with the cheaper, similar Bluetooth option.
You (probably) won't hear loss in audio quality on an iPhone speaker
One of AirPlay's advantages over Bluetooth is its lack of audio compression. That's a significant advantage if you're listening on your home stereo, not so much if you're listening on an iPhone speaker that's already not designed for critical listening. And it's worth pointing out that current Bluetooth audio is much better than the initial incarnations, for which the quality downgrade could be quite drastic.
Range isn't as important on an iPhone speaker
Bluetooth's range is limited to about 33 feet, whereas AirPlay can stretch as far as your home Wi-Fi network. The lack of range may matter in some instances, but most times you'll be staying in the same room as the iPhone speaker, so this isn't a big factor.
- Bluetooth works without an existing Wi-Fi network
What Bluetooth lacks in range, it makes up in portability. AirPlay needs to use an existing Wi-Fi network, so that excludes many locations outside your home--think tailgate parties, parks, and possibly even your own backyard. Since Bluetooth creates its own ad hoc network, you can use it anywhere as long as you stay close.
Bluetooth is universal, whereas AirPlay is limited to Apple products
AirPlay is great, but it only works with iOS (iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch) devices. Bluetooth is compatible with all those iOS devices, plus tons of non-Apple devices, most importantly Android phones. It's much easier for manufacturers to create one model that works with virtually every smartphone, rather than limiting themselves to the iOS market.
What should I buy now?
It's hard to recommend any of the current AirPlay-equipped iPhone speakers, given the steep prices. In the meantime, check out our roundup of top portable Bluetooth speakers, which will work with all current iOS devices and offer very similar functionality.