Will Apple add AirPlay 2 to AirPort Express?

AirPlay 2 has been out for a few months now and it has generally been well received, but there’s one mystery left for Apple’s upgraded audio streaming feature: will AirPlay 2 support come to the AirPort Express? There’s both reason to be hopeful and skeptical…

Apple’s AirPort Express router is unique in that it features an analog/optical audio jack that connects to standard speakers for adding AirPlay. But it’s classic peer-to-peer AirPlay and not the new and improved AirPlay 2 that works with multi-room playback from iOS and reduces streaming latency. You can stream audio from your iPhone to one AirPort Express-connected speaker, but expect latency and streaming to be limited to one speaker at a time.

The problem with expecting Apple to upgrade the AirPort Express with AirPlay 2 is that Apple discontinued the AirPort Express earlier this year, sold out of inventory recently, and totally delisted the product on its online store as of this week. Even Apple’s refurbished inventory for $49 units has been depleted, although you can still find refurbished stock from Best Buy for $75 if still you’re in the market.

Apple will still provide security updates as needed for the AirPort Express for a few years after exiting the router business, but should we really expect a compelling consumer feature like AirPlay 2 to be added now that the AirPort line has been discontinued?

Even the AirPort Utility app for iOS hasn’t been supported that well — its last app update was in 2014 for iOS 8 support and it’s not optimized for the iPhone X display size. As useful as adding AirPlay 2 to any stereo system would be with AirPort Express, it would be surprising to see AirPort Express actually updated with the feature.

But the whole reason I bring this up is that there’s a non-zero chance that AirPort Express could be updated with AirPlay 2 support. When adding a new HomeKit device in the Home app on iOS 12 beta without a set up code, any nearby AirPort Express will show up and try to join.

The suggestion is that Apple is working on a firmware update for AirPort Express (perhaps planned for iOS 12’s release next month) that will make it work with AirPlay 2 just like select Sonos speakers and other options on the market.

There’s no such firmware update yet, but the message is clear in the dialog box on iOS 12 beta: AirPort Express Update Available: To use AirPort Express with Home and AirPlay, an update using AirPort Utility is required.

This behavior has been present through iOS 12 beta versions and is still included in this week’s developer beta 7 and beta 8 releases. During the iOS 11.4 beta cycle, it also made an appearance for a few releases, but the behavior ultimately didn’t ship in the release that actually introduced AirPlay 2.

Despite AirPort Express being a discontinued and now sold out product, the fact that this unreleased firmware update continues to be mentioned in current betas makes me more optimistic that we could see AirPlay 2 actually come to AirPort Express.

If that happens, speakers connected to AirPort Express can play audio alongside HomePod and other AirPlay 2 speakers in perfect harmony, and a lot of AirPort Express customers will have one last gift from Apple before support totally winds down.

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