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Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and AirPlay: Streaming Methods Compared

If you are a regular user of any device, it is likely that you are also listening to music or watching videos on your device. If you’re streaming that media to another device at home, you’ve probably wondered which streaming method works best for your device, and whether AirPlay is more reliable than Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. In this article, we will discuss the pros and cons of each streaming method, and offer some tips to get the most out of streaming.

Related: How to use AirPlay 2 from the control center on iPhone

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What’s in this article:

What is streaming and how does it work?

Streaming actually means accessing a media file remotely via an internet connection. In other applications, it also tends to mean that other devices access a media file that you stream on one device over another wireless type of connection. Simply put, if you use the internet to listen to music or watch videos stored somewhere wlse, you are streaming media. If your Bluetooth speaker is playing music through a media connection on iPhone, you are streaming. There are many variations in it, but you get the idea.

What are the different streaming types?

The primary methods most people use to stream are Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. The two methods are so ubiquitous that it is almost impossible to have a conversation about the media without them. Another top competitor is Apple’s AirPlay, which still counts as a streaming method alone despite being dependent on Wi-Fi.

What is Wi-Fi, exactly?

Before we get into the other two methods, we need to discuss the most universal form of wireless access. Lifewire starts us off with a great definition: “Wi-Fi is a wireless networking protocol that devices use to communicate without direct cable connections.” Still unclear? Don’t worry, so was I. For you and me, this means that we can access the internet without being bound by LAN cables and modems. It is a wireless method of accessing the internet that we can use anywhere that has Wi-Fi available.

The limitations of Wi-Fi are few, but the dominant one is that Wi-Fi is localized. It must come from a source, and that source requires a network connection and access to electrical power. The signal strength of different Wi-Fi sources varies, which is why I sometimes struggle to watch Netflix in my bedroom, a full house away from my wireless router. The internet connection from Wi-Fi is also completely dependent on the strength of the source. If your local network sucks, so will Wi-Fi.

Bluetooth explained

The easiest way to explain Bluetooth is this: it’s a way to get rid of cables. It used to be that in order to connect one device to another, you had to have one or more cables to transfer information between the devices. Downloading, uploading, sharing, listening to music via headphones, using a keyboard or mouse, backing up media files from your phone or camera – each one required a cable, and the cable had to have the correct “ends” to work. As a person who grew up with a cable drawer that seemed like a bottomless snake pit, I especially love Bluetooth.

Bluetooth works without Wi-Fi because it uses radio frequencies to send and receive information. It also does not require a field of view (unlike the TV remote control), so your devices can be in separate rooms and still communicate, as long as it is approx. 30 feet. Groups of paired Bluetooth enabled devices are called “piconets” and that Scientific American explains that up to seven active Bluetooth connections or “slaves” can be used simultaneously by a Bluetooth source or “master”. That’s fine, I did not know this either.

Loss of compression: Bluetooth uses lossless compression to stream content, which means there is potential for lower quality audio because the file format is compressed irreversibly to be smaller and easier to transfer or stream. Basically, the file becomes smaller by removing extra data that is not important to the file, so that it is easier to stream, but it is not decompressed on the receiving side, resulting in a potential reduction in quality, but usually it is not very noticeable . One clear point: your actual media files are not damaged by this process, but it is possible you will notice that the sound is not as sharp on the headphones or speakers, for example.

How does Apple AirPlay work?

AirPlay is Apple’s proprietary answer to Bluetooth, but it actually works in a completely different way. The primary boast for AirPlay is that it supports streaming of both sounds and video, while Bluetooth does not support video. In fact, screen mirroring is possible with AirPlay, so you can actually mirror your iPhone to your TV. Another bonus that separates AirPlay from Bluetooth: you can stream several different audio files simultaneously to different receiving devices. This means that you can stream ambient sounds to a speaker in your child’s bedroom while simultaneously streaming an audiobook to your headphones while relaxing in another room.

Lossless compression: A far lesser known boast is that AirPlay uses lossless compression. This means that files are not irreversibly removed from data during streaming, resulting in clearer and higher quality results.

AirPlay depends on Wi-Fi, so the range is as far as the Wi-Fi network it is connected to. In general, it is much longer than the Bluetooth range. Technical source Pocket-lint also points out that AirPlay’s use of wider bandwidths provided by Wi-Fi provides a noticeable boost in quality. The downside of AirPlay is that it is not supported on as many devices as Bluetooth is. Since it belongs to Apple, AirPlay only works on Apple devices and AirPlay certified devices.

Proceed to the streaming method comparison table

AirPlay vs. AirPlay 2

The original 2010 iteration of AirPlay was capable, but not quite the competitor to Bluetooth that Apple had hoped for. AirPlay provided improved quality via lossless compression and Wi-Fi backpack, and also brought our smart TVs to the fun. However, it also brought a larger price tag and a much more limited network of products that could use it.

AirPlay 2, released in 2017, increased the ante by introducing several new capabilities. With AirPlay 2 you can do the following:

  • Stream multiple types of media simultaneously to different devices
  • Receive a phone call while streaming without interrupting power
  • Group and sync multiple AirPlay devices without dropping out of sync
  • Check AirPlay content with Siri

Which devices support AirPlay and AirPlay 2?

Apple’s resource on this will help you decide which of your devices support AirPlay and whether or not you need a cable connection. A good indicator is if your device shows one of the following marks:

Images courtesy of Apple

Which streaming method is best for streaming music and videos?

Is Bluetooth better for streaming, or is AirPlay / AirPlay 2? This question can be interpreted in several ways, so it is probably best to compare the methods side by side to give you a clearer picture. This way, you can decide which streaming method is best for your device (s) and your needs.

bluetooth AirPlay / AirPlay 2
Connecting Unit to unit Device for Wi-Fi to device for piggybacking on Wi-Fi
Internet needed? No internet required, works via radio frequencies Yes, it depends on Wi-Fi
Signal strength Around 30 feet, give or take As far as Wi-Fi reaches
Lossy or Lossless Losing, which could potentially result in lower quality sound Lossless, and preserves file integrity and quality
Supported audio formats MPEG-1, 2 and 4
Apple Lossless (ALAC)
Supported video? no Yes
Price Reasonable, since technology is so ubiquitous More expensive, as the products must be AirPlay compliant or AirPlay certified
Volume control Only controllable on the Bluetooth device You can control the volume of all AirPlay devices individually from the streaming device
Maximum number of units 7 active units max No limit, can stream different media simultaneously to different devices
Paring A little harder than AirPlay A little easier than Bluetooth

Back to streaming types

All in all, your choice of streaming method largely depends on the types of devices you use, how much you want to budget for the devices, and what kind of quality compromises you are willing to make. It can be easy to get overwhelmed by the details,

Top Image Credit: 9091086 / Shutterstock.com

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