November 4, 2010 at 12:56 pm

The First Sound Systems and Speakers To Play iPhone Apps

It’s Apple AirPlay month here at Evolver.fm.  By November’s end, Steve Jobs has pledged to release Apple AirPlay for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch, allowing those devices to send audio and video from their mobile apps directly to the large television screen and nice speakers in the living room over Apple’s proprietary AirPlay wireless media protocol. The wires, adapters, and other clutter have dissapeared; all you have to do is tap an icon on the phone you’re carrying around anyway.

Plenty are rightfully excited about what this means for Apple’s own $99 Apple TV device, which will soon be AirPlay-compatible. However, there’s no reason you can’t send the audio from iPhones to sound systems that lack screens — after all, the iPhone and its siblings have great color screens for music navigation. All that remains is for sound system manufacturers to add AirPlay internally, so that iPhones can send them music.

Enter the AirPlay-enabled speaker or sound system, which plucks music from an iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad out of thin air. The massive home stereo of yesteryear disappears into an iPhone app — gaining millions of potential features in the process — while the speakers continue to function.

Starting later this month, you’ll be able to walk around your home tapping music apps on your iPhone and streaming tunes from a range of sources that would have been unimaginable mere months ago — and all without a big, clunky, computer-to-television interface. All you need is a phone and some speakers, generally speaking.

Without further ado, we present the first sound systems and speakers that can play music from the music apps on your iPhone — everything from on-demand music to fart pianos:

Marantz's Apple AirPlay-compatible SR7005 Home Theater Receiver (more below) looks simple, but its back panel has scores of jacks for connecting to televisions and other components. For connecting to your iPhone music apps, no wire is required.

Denon and Marantz: First to Market, Assuming You Want to Upgrade Your Receiver

Sibling companies Marantz and Denon released the first AirPlay-compatible receivers, which starting later this month, will be able to play music from music apps with a $49 firmware upgrade. Neither company sells speakers that connect directly to Apple AirPlay, so you need to upgrade your whole receiver/amplifier box in order to listen to music apps on your iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch.

Considering that a tiny Apple TV box costs $99 and adds AirPlay’s iPhone app playback to your TV surround sound speakers — and Apple Airport Express (also $99) likewise adds AirPlay to any existing sound system — you would only buy one of Denon’s or Marantz’s receiver systems ($700 to $2500) if don’t already have a receiver, or you really want to upgrade your old one (to add surround sound, more surround sound speakers, better audio processing, more inputs, etc.).

However, if what you’re after is a bookshelf system for playing music apps from your phone, Denon shipped a lower-priced “networked CD player” this week that includes AirPlay. A Denon spokeswoman told Evolver.fm that she expects most people will listen to music apps rather than the AirPlay-compatible bookshelf CD player/speaker system. We suppose it was a matter of “why not,” because there’s extra space in a bookshelf system like that otherwise, and after all people still do have some CDs laying around.

But clearly, the Apple AirPlay is the system’s main selling point. Why were Denon and Marantz first out of the gate? The spokeswoman credited “working with Apple.”

These systems are available now except where noted, with standard retail pricing:

Denon Home Theater Receivers with AirPlay

Marantz Home Theater Receivers with AirPlay

Standalone Units with AirPlay (both companies)

Denon and Marantz claim to be first-to-market with Apple AirPlay-compatible systems, but others are hot on their heels.

iHome AirPlay plays music any iPhone music apps wirelessly, but its design is more suited to replacing an iPod dock than connecting to the best speakers in the house.

iHome AirPlay Wireless Speaker System (coming soon):

This simple speaker system can’t pretend to be a fully-fledged sound system — think of it instead as a sort of wireless iPod dock that can play whatever music the apps on your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch are playing. As with other AirPlay devices, this makes the phone feel like a remote control, when in fact it’s also the source of the music itself.

Specs are scarce, but just look at the thing: It’s small, there’s no real stereo separation between the left and right channels due to it being a single unit, and it runs on a rechargable battery, which is never an indication of high wattage.

But the rechargeable aspect is handy for dropping this speaker wherever you need music temporarily (stove, backyard, pool, hotel, treehouse, beach, campsite, etc.). And as with the rest of the speakers in this list, the AirPlay integration means no wires. Anyone in your crew with iOS 4.2 or later installed on their iPhone, iPod Touch can send music from the apps on their phones directly to the speakers with the single tap of a screen.

iHome AirPlay Wireless Speaker System

That’s all well and good, but things will get even more exciting when AirPlay shows up in higher-end speakers:

Bowers & Wilkins’ and JBL’s AirPlay-Compatible Speakers (coming soon)

Longtime iPod speaker dock manufacturers Bowers & Wilkins and JBL each partnered (separately) with Apple to add AirPlay functionality to their various lines of speakers. A Bowers & Wilkins spokesman was sworn to secrecy, but did confirm that the company’s current speakers are not AirPlay-upgradeable, the way Denon’s and Marantz’s are, so it will be rolling out a new line that works with AirPlay.

We expect these to be in the bookshelf-iPod dock range as well, although hopefully they’ll have some nice stereo speakers that can be placed away from each other for a wider stereo image than some iPod docks have had in the past. Best case scenario: they and other speaker manufacturers integrate AirPlay into their medium- and high-end units, such as the Bowers & Wilkins CM Series speaker pictured to the right.

iPod docks… yawn. iPhone app speakers? Cool. They might end up looking the same as regular speakers, but they’ll be capable of playing music from an order-of-magnititude more sources.

Closing the “Analog Hole”

For the paranoid and copyright-averse among us, these speakers signal a dreaded moment: when electronics companies finally close the so-called “Analog Hole,” creating a purely digital signal from the mastering studio to the consumers’ speakers. Normally, digital music becomes analog at some point along the chain, allowing it to be recorded, but not so with AirPlay and similar technologies to come.

By staying digital all the way to the speaker, they can be encrypted in such a way that the only way to tap into the signal is to play the music over the speakers with microphones placed in front of them.

In AirPlay’s case, convenience and powerful functionality will prevail, as they usually do. AirPlay will just be so convenient that  much worry about the loss of the “Analog Hole” could dissipate — unless  The Powers That Be train these digitally-connected speakers not to play music that’s been downloaded from P2P, for which the user lacks a license, and so on. But that nightmare scenario seems unlikely, because if AirPlay (and the obligatory Android copycats to come) can play music from any app, the user still has a good amount of freedom, even if the analog hole is closed.

Analog hole notwithstanding, stay tuned for more on the exciting November rollout of Apple AirPlay throughout the rest of the month. This is a big deal: the best apps, connected to the best speakers, using the ultimate remote control: the smartphone.

Photo of non-AirPlay-compatible speaker courtesy of Flickr/lineup33