One of the advantages of Apple's AirPlay 2 when it arrived in 2018 was that it would allow playback to multiple AirPlay 2-compatible speakers at once. This multiroom ability will become ever more valuable as TVs are now getting AirPlay 2 as well.
But in fact this group playback had always been possible in a limited way, by controlling the system through iTunes on a computer. While iOS devices could only stream to a single AirPlay speaker at a time, the desktop software for iTunes has long had an AirPlay menu like the one below, which allows you to select multiple playback devices and control their volumes individually.
While this ability required you to interact with your desktop computer, Apple's powerful and underestimated 'Remote' app for iPad and iPhone allows you to do that remotely, so you could achieve control of party playback from a mobile device.
Then came the release of AirPlay 2, which delivers multiple playback from any Apple device, even Apple TV. Good news? Not for some particular AirPlay speakers.
"6 years ago I bought 3 Loewe Airplay speakers at £500 each for use together through our home!," Andy Pavey wrote to us from Plymouth in the UK, as a somewhat desperate flame comment attached to a Facebook post about a recent Sound+Image award for a Loewe TV.
"They worked very well until Airplay 2 was launched late in 2018... Whilst the speakers work individually they do not work together because Loewe have not created a Firmware update. I have been bounced between Apple and Loewe each blaming the other, each suggesting the other finds a solution... I would have had more fun throwing £250 worth of bread to the Seagulls on Plymouth Hoe," he told us.
Mr Pavey showed us Loewe's response (from Loewe UK support, who had contacted their German colleagues), which suggested he might roll back to an earlier software system (such fun on a Mac), but otherwise suggested that since the speakers were fully operational except for party playback, return or replacement wasn't possible, and there was nothing they could do.
But of course party playback, the now-missing component, was exactly what Mr Pavey wanted to do, and was why he had bought three of the speakers in the first place.
Loewe also suggested that some B&W AirPlay speakers have the same issue. This is unconfirmed, though What Hi-Fi? noted that some B&W wireless speakers wouldn't get an AirPlay update here.
We were surprised that the latest version of iTunes for desktop couldn't do what the old iTunes did. We tried our systems, and the various original AirPlay devices we had available were all still groupable and didn't require any update. iTunes has a strong history of back-compatibility, though it was always possible that AirPlay 2 was not fully back-compatible with original AirPlay abilities. We suggested Roon as a possible workaround (though at a price, of course).
When smart becomes dumb
But then again, we have long been writing about the potential reduced lifespan of 'smart' products. There are conventions regarding spare parts availability, but how long is a manufacturer duty bound to support a product's software or the app that controls it? As hi-fi gets smarter and smarter, it seems inevitable that its lifespan will being to approach that of a computer, rather than the "passed down from my father" status of much less intelligent hi-fi of the past.
One example of this came last year when Spotify Connect was just turned off for a number of products when the system changed beyond the abilities of those products to be upgraded, or beyond their manufacturers' desire to invest the work required to do so. Our piece on that is here. No fix was available.
A fix from iTunes?
Then we noticed an iTunes update issued on Jan 24th 2019, which stated "this update resolves an issue which may prevent iTunes playing media to third-party AirPlay speakers".
We notified Mr Pavey, who tried it, and was delighted to find his Loewe speakers were now returned to their group playback abilities. "My 3 Airplay speakers work again perfectly after 2 months of them not working!" he replied.
So if you're in the same situation, do two things -- make sure your speakers are on their latest firmware (some will auto-update, others may require a more laborious downloading and updating via a USB input). And make sure you have the latest version of iTunes (12.8.2 was the version that did it for Andy).
Then get ready to party!