Will Apple Kill Custom?

Technologies that distribute audio and video around a home are incredibly cool-if you can afford them, if you can tolerate complicated installation, and if you can figure out how to use them once they're in. I've long assumed a big consumer electronics company like Samsung or Sony would invent a more practical multiroom A/V solution, but it seems the technology that finally gets us past the old paradigms may be Apple's AirPlay.

AirPlay is a relatively new standard for streaming audio and video through a home WiFi network. The source of the audio/video is an iPhone, iPad, iPod touch or a computer running iTunes. The destination is any device that's equipped to receive the AirPlay signal, such as Apple TV and AirPort Express, or third-party devices such as the B&W Zeppelin Air, the JBL On Air Wireless, and Pioneer's VSX-1021-K receiver. AirPlay compatibility can also be added to third-party iPhone/iPad apps.

Because a single AirPlay-compatible source can stream to multiple devices at once, it can provide sound to lots of rooms simultaneously (though at present you can't send different streams to your various devices). From your iPhone, you can control the volume in every room. Or one of your cohabitants could play music in the kitchen from her iPad while you're streaming music from your iPhone to your bedroom system.

Assuming you already own an AirPlay-compatible computer or portable device and a few audio systems you can use, all you have to buy to create a multiroom audio system is a few $99 AirPort Express units. Instead of button-covered in-wall keypads, AirPlay uses the same friendly iTunes/iPhone/iPad control interfaces that hundreds of millions of people are already familiar with. Small wonder pundits have been predicting that AirPlay will kill off the old multiroom A/V technologies, which have never gained popularity outside the McMansion set.

When it comes to Apple, I ignore the tech pundits' fanboy prognostications; I'm old enough to remember when some of those same people insisted we'd all be carrying Newtons someday (though on second thought, with the explosion of tablets and smartphones, maybe we are). But take it from a guy who has never bought an Apple computer, and who's been a multiroom audio enthusiast for more than a decade: AirPlay will have a huge impact on multiroom sound.

As I see it, AirPlay has two different applications: streaming media to your TV set and streaming audio to multiple systems. Let's consider the two separately.