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Streaming 101: Airplay vs Spotify Connect vs Bluetooth

20 June 2018

There are lots of ways to wirelessly stream music to your speakers these days, but what are the differences between Airplay, Spotify and Bluetooth?

The ability to stream music has made listening to your favourite artists and bands easier than ever. These days, smartphones and tablets can link wirelessly with the latest speakers to enjoy music anywhere in your home, allowing you to switch track or adjust volume with a tap or swipe of your screen.

Within the world of streaming there are different ways to achieve wireless music. This article compares three leaders: Airplay, Spotify Connect and Bluetooth. These technologies are highly versatile and capable of streaming high quality music, but the best experience comes when you use the most appropriate one for your situation. This article discusses the pros and cons of each.

What is Airplay?

Airplay is a wireless streaming system created and owned by Apple. It works by sending wireless audio over your home WiFi network. This is the same WiFi that connects all your household gadgets, from Apple TVs to Airplay-enabled speaker systems. No sound quality is lost in transit, so when you select a song in Apple Music or an app, and select an Airplay speaker, you’ll hear it with the same resolution as the source recording.

The downside is that, like most Apple technologies, Airplay only works with Apple products for playing music. This is fine if you’ve got an iPhone and don’t plan on switching to Android any time soon, but those with gadgets made by other manufacturers won’t be able to make the most of Apple’s exclusive streaming technology.

Another limitation of Airplay is that, unlike Bluetooth, it relies on a WiFi connection. If you’ve got super speedy, ultra reliable home broadband then this shouldn’t matter; however, it becomes a problem if your WiFi regularly suffers from slow speeds and connectivity problems. It also means you cannot wander away from your WiFi area, and expect the music to keep playing.

No Apple device? PC/Android users may see devices on their home WiFi labelled ‘DLNA’ speakers. This is the same kind of process and system as Airplay, and has all the same advantages and disadvantages. Televisions often support this type of playback.

What is Spotify Connect?

Spotify Connect is the leading music streaming service. It is mentioned as an alternative to Airplay because although it too will use your WiFi network, but, it works quite differently.

If you’ve ever used your Spotify account on more than one device (e.g. on your laptop and phone at the same time), then you will have noticed that you can control the playback of one from the other. If you haven’t tried it yet, do - it’s really cool, and useful. This is because of Spotify Connect, a system that is exclusive to Spotify that works across all Spotify devices. If you are using a WiFi speaker at home with Spotify from your phone, and are playing from Spotify, then it will not be working the same as Airplay. The speaker will be streaming music directly from the Spotify library in the Cloud. Your phone will just be a remote control. This means that if you pop out, or even leave completely, the speaker will keep playing music.

Did I leave the iron on? If you head out to catch a bus, and had left the music on, no problem. Open Spotify on your phone and you will be able to see what is playing and even control it. You won’t be able to start playback to a remote speaker in another place, and you won’t be able to play in more than once place at once without a family account, but it’s very neat. Control of your Spotify account follows you.

What is Bluetooth?

Bluetooth is a direct device-to-device communication system that can be used for many things, including audio.

Bluetooth’s birth was long before that of Airplay or Spotify Connect. It was one of the earliest technologies for wirelessly transferring data and remains an incredibly popular option to this day. Early versions of Bluetooth were designed for small files, which meant that streaming music resulted in a flatter sound due to the limitations of the transmission speed and capability. This inevitably changed with the development of better Bluetooth and AptX, which is capable of streaming CD quality music from a wide array of modern smartphones and other remote devices.

From Apple or Android phones, Bluetooth is the simple way to play anything from any app. As well as being supported by a broader range of gadgets, Bluetooth connects directly with the device you’re streaming through, rather than having to take a detour through your WiFi network. Whether you’ve got no access to broadband or are stuck without WiFi, your phone will be able to play music through a Bluetooth enabled speaker, as long as it’s within range (usually within 10 metres).

When should I use which technology?

Bluetooth

Are you travelling, visiting friends or outside perhaps? Think Bluetooth. It will be the only way to get a simple, reliable and easy connection as WiFi will be unavailable or time consuming to set up.

Spotify Connect

If you are at home or office and are a Spotify user (particularly from a mobile devices), you should use Spotify Connect. The main advantage is battery life. Bluetooth and Airplay are streaming technologies. This means that the audio you hear is being transmitted from your phone or tablet. This will intensively use the battery, and you will notice the battery die quickly. Spotify Connect is a remote control, so the mobile ‘controller’ does very little; the speaker streams directly from the Cloud. It only uses the phone when you do something like change track, search for something, change volume etc. It’s really efficient.

Airplay

If you are at home and using another app (e.g. BBC iPlayer Radio), then Airplay is a great option for listening. If you have your Airplay enabled speaker on your home WiFi and ready to go, then all you need is to be connected to the same WiFi to listen directly. You don’t need to go through the hassle of connecting Bluetooth and pushing buttons, just press play!

Which is better quality: Airplay, Spotify Connect, or Bluetooth?

All of the technologies mentioned here are able to transfer audio in super quality. Airplay edges ahead of the other two in terms of the quality that is accessible by default, being anything up to CD quality. Bluetooth can achieve the same quality in some circumstances, with certain codecs (like aptX). Spotify Connect is currently limited to the source material which varies in bandwidth. It is available at high-end mp3 standard now, and is likely to go lossless (CD quality) at some point in the future.

How to choose the right streaming technology for you

Our conclusion is to use all three of these whenever you can. They all have benefits in different situations, and they all beat wires hands down! For us, Spotify Connect has the limitation of only being usable on Spotify, but otherwise has the edge on the other two for sheer speed and convenience.

At Orbitsound, we understand the benefits of all Airplay, Spotify Connect and Bluetooth. That’s why our game-changing speaker, the Dock E30, comes with all these technologies enabled. It makes streaming music at home a breeze, even if you’ve got a mix of Android and Apple products. Plus, with the option to charge wirelessly or via USB, any device can sit neatly in the DOCK E30’s versatile docking groove and top up on power while it plays your favourite songs. Check out the DOCK E30 here, the perfect Airsound streaming music companion.

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