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« See? Told You So. | Main | AirPods……………..YES! »
Tuesday
Mar072017

Whole Home Audio On the CHEAP!

I’ve written about this topic before, but recent events and speculation about Apple’s imminent abandonment of its Airport line of Wi-Fi products has prompted me to re-iterate. Yes, the scuttlebutt is Apple plans to discontinue development of its AirPort Extreme, AirPort Express and Time Capsule products. That’s too bad. I’ve always found them all to be very reliable with specs good enough for most users. I’ve routinely recommended them to my “non-geek” friends for their reliability, security and ease-of-use. AirPorts aren’t the fastest Wi-Fi devices for sure, but how much speed does the average user need to surf and check email? The current model AirPort Extreme and Time Capsules are equipped with 802.11 a/c, dual-band technology capable of wireless speeds exceeding a gigabit and their range is good enough to cover the average “3-2-2” suburban home. A single Extreme or Time Capsule is enough to provide wireless networking to a couple of computers while simultaneously streaming HD video to one or two AppleTVs.

The focus of this piece, however, is the Extreme’s little brother, the AirPort Express. The Express is really getting long in the tooth. Even the latest model is only 802.11 n that maxes out at a paltry 300 Mbps and its single Ethernet port is only 10/100. I don’t recommend these to anyone save one exception: for use in a “whole home” Wi-Fi music system. The AirPlay feature built into every AirPort Express is a very capable and reliable way to serve music to multiple zones throughout your home and it’s all easily managed via iTunes and Apple’s free “Remote” iOS app. Every AirPort Express made since 2004 is equipped with a 1/8” stereo audio out port (same as the headphone port on your Mac). AirPlay sends audio through this port when the Express is selected from iTunes and Home Sharing is turned on. For a couple of bucks, you can buy a 1/8” headphone to L + R RCA adapter or a 1/8” male to 1/8” male stereo cable. One or the other will plug into virtually any stereo system with an “AUX” input. You can even plug an old pair of computer speakers into an Express and VOILA! You’ve got a wireless music system. Before I go any further, I DO NOT RECOMMEND PURCHASING A NEW AIRPORT EXPRESS. Apple sells them new for $99, but you’d be silly to spend that while EBay exists. If you do want an AirPort Express with a warranty, shop Apple’s refurbished site where they routinely go for around $70 when they’re in stock. I recently purchased one on EBay for $45 in “like new” condition, but the real bargains are the two previous generation AirPort Expresses. The 2008 model (A1264) is 802.11 n while the 2004 model (A1084 or A1088) is 802.11 g. Both are perfectly capable of streaming high quality audio and it’s common to win bids for them on Ebay for less than $25.

You’ll need one AirPort Express within range of your home Wi-Fi and a music system for each music zone you want to set up. That’s the beautiful part of this approach. You can utilize any old stereo or powered computer speakers as long as it will accept the line level output from the AirPort Express. Powered computer speakers are the easiest because every computer made in the last 30 years uses a 1/8” stereo jack that will plug right into the AirPort Express. If you have a stereo receiver or boom box with a  standard CD, tape or auxiliary input, it’s a simple matter to use the above-mentioned RCA adapter. One word of caution: Don’t connect to a “Phono In” connection if your stereo is so equipped. A phono connection is specifically designed to work with a phonograph’s very low output levels. Normal line-level devices like CD players or the AirPort Express can overload the circuit, make horrible noises, damage speakers or any or all the above.

I really don’t intend for this post to be a “how to”, but to make my point about how simple it is to setup an AirPlay wireless music system, let’s walk through an example using the music zone I setup on my front deck using an old pair of computer speakers and a 1st generation (A1088) AirPort Express I purchased on Ebay for $10. First, I setup the Express by plugging it into the wall, pressing the “reset” button for five seconds with a pencil and configuring it with Apple’s free AirPort Utility running on my MacBook Pro. By resetting the Express to factory defaults, the AirPort utility recognizes that there’s an un-configured AirPort broadcasting nearby and lists it as “AirPort xxxxx” when the “Other Devices” button is clicked. (where xxxx is the last five characters of the device’s MAC address) Selecting it starts a wizard that walks you through naming the Express and giving you the option to 1.) extend your existing Wi-Fi network, 2.) create a new Wi-Fi network or 3.) join an existing Wi-Fi network. For this purpose, option 3 is the one I want. Selecting “join” lists the Wi-Fi networks in range so I simply picked my Wi-Fi network, entered its passphrase and VOILA! The AirPort Express reboots, connects to my network (indicated by the LED changing from amber to green) and AirPlay is turned on by default. For this device, I used the name “Nirvana Deck”. The name can be anything, but for purposes of using AirPlay, the name should describe where the music zone is. You can name the AirPlay zone differently than the name of the AirPort Express, but why would you want to? The point is, Apple’s setup wizard uses the device’s name for the AirPlay zone name by default, so if you have multiple AirPlay zones in your home it’s probably better to have a zone named “Bedroom Stereo” than “Joe’s AirPort Express”. OK, that’s the hard part. Well, as hard as it gets anyway.

Next, I have an old pair of Creative 2.1 computer speakers. The amp is built into the subwoofer as are all the connections and volume control. I used a 1/8” male to male stereo cable to connect the “Audio In” jack on the subwoofer to the AirPlay port on the AirPort Express. I set the volume on the speakers to about 3/4 full. Next, I opened the Music app on my iPhone, selected a song and pushed play. I selected the AirPlay icon from the “Now Playing” screen and BINGO! “Nirvana Deck” was listed as one of my AirPlay destinations. I selected it, set the volume to my liking and listened away.

 

As you can see, I have lots of destinations to send audio to. One of the best features of AirPlay is its ability to sync music to all destinations (zones) you choose simultaneously. I’ve used AirPlay for years now and can’t remember audio being out of sync no matter how many AirPlay destinations I’m using at the time. My second favorite feature is independent volume control for each zone. This is especially great for parties where you may want the music outside to be less loud to avoid disturbing neighbors and louder in a room full of guests. Above all, I love the free “Remote” app Apple supplies for controlling the entire system. In my case, I use iTunes on my iMac as a music server and use the Remote app on my iPhone to connect to and control it. This solves a couple of issues: 1.) my iMac is plugged into the wall (no battery issues) and 2.) I don’t need to put my multi-gig music library on my iPhone or even have my phone turned on for everything to work. Also, my iMac connects to my home network via Ethernet, so I don’t have any connectivity issues to deal with. With the Remote app, my iPhone (iPad & Apple Watch) become very capable remote control devices. It’s always fun to impress one’s guests by controlling music at a party using your iPhone and especially your Apple Watch. Forgive me for being a show-off.

So, there you have it. If you have an old boom box, stereo system or unused computer speakers there’s no need to spend multiple hundreds of dollars on a Sonos, Bose or other wireless music system. For a few bucks each, you can turn them into a nicely integrated, whole-home sound system with the best remote control I’ve ever seen. If you have an older, previous generation AirPort Express sitting in a drawer or closet, put it to use. If not, now is the time to get a used one on EBay for cheap. Apple still sells and supports all its AirPort products, but rumor is they may not sell them for much longer. Thankfully, Apple has a track record of supporting products for years after they are discontinued. AirPlay is still a big part of the AppleTV feature set, so it looks like the technology will be supported for many years to come. So, don’t let that old hardware go to waste. For just a few dollars you can enjoy music throughout your home and impress your friends.

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