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AirPlay 2 on existing speakers requires firmware update, raising questions for Apple's AirPort Express

This week's announcement of AirPlay 2 came with a caveat: Old hardware will need a firmware update, at the very least, to work with the new protocol. With Apple said to have ceased development on its router products, it's possible that AirPort Express owners using AirPlay could be left in the dust.

Representatives from Apple at this week's Worldwide Developers Conference indicated to AppleInsider that third-party hardware can be updated to support the new AirPlay 2 protocol.

In the fine print on Apple's own website, the company notes that a firmware update may not be enough for some devices to support AirPlay 2. In those cases, new hardware could be necessary.

Apple is partnering with major speaker companies for new, upcoming AirPlay 2 devices. Support includes the company's own Beats, as well as Bang and Olufsen, Polk, Denon, Bowers and Wilkins, Definitive Technology, Devialet, Naim, and Bluesound.

In a post to Facebook, Bose indicated it plans to make AirPlay 2 available for "most" of its current lineup of Wi-Fi enabled speakers, including its SoundTouch lineup.

A switch to AirPlay 2 in iOS 11 does not mean the end of support for legacy AirPlay, however. While regular AirPlay devices cannot be added as HomeKit accessories, they'll still work as previously, with an iOS device capable of streaming to one AirPlay speaker at a time.

AirPlay 2 also supports multi-speaker out. Legacy AirPlay speakers support this feature from a Mac, but not from iOS devices.

As of the first beta of iOS 11, Apple's AirPort Express router running the latest firmware does not appear as a HomeKit device and does not allow multi-speaker streaming, suggesting AirPlay 2 support is not yet available. It is unclear whether Apple plans to update its AirPort products to add support for AirPlay 2.

But with multiple reports suggesting that Apple is exiting the Wi-Fi router business, it's possible that the legacy AirPort Express may not receive the necessary firmware update for AirPlay 2. Instead, Apple could use the opportunity to push users to adopt its new $349 HomePod speaker, set to launch this December.

Of course, the HomePod is designed as an all-in-one high-fidelity speaker solution, including beam forming microphones for Siri input. The advantage of the AirPort Express, priced at $99 new, is that it boasts its own digital-to-analog converter, along with a 3.5-millimeter headphone jack, allowing users to plug in their own speakers and configure AirPlay to their liking.

Of less concern is the company's fourth-generation Apple TV, which will almost assuredly become an AirPlay 2 compatible receiver with a forthcoming software update. While the Apple TV lacks a headphone out, it does offer connectivity with home theater systems via HDMI.

Unlike with its AirPort routers, there has been no suggestion that Apple plans to abandon development of the Apple TV— on the contrary, the company said at Monday's keynote that more information on a forthcoming update to tvOS will be provided later this year.