AirPlay All the Way

The time has come to move! By the end of the month I will have moved from the suburbs into the city of Philadelphia. I feel excited about it, but I’ll save that for another post. While evaluating everything as one does before such a move, I realized I needed to find a new solution for streaming music throughout my living space. I have settled on Apple’s AirPlay. I had the answer all along.

Ever since I moved out on my own I have wanted music streaming everywhere. First I had a crappy apartment, and simply ran some cables under the door from one room to the other, and rigged up a quick analog solution. Things got more interesting when I moved into a big older house. Running wires seemed unfeasible. I tried a low power FM transmitter, but it just couldn’t hack it. Old houses have lots of RF-absorbing wood and metal. I got a slightly more powerful transmitter, and have radios throughout my house. This has worked well. It offers a universal solution. I can always add or change a radio. It also has some drawbacks. Some signal loss does occur, and the setup does introduce some background noise. It also introduces a small amount of RF energy into my system, which can become annoying when working with other sensitive equipment. Plus, more people probably live in this condo than on my whole block, and I certainly don’t want them tuning into my audio.

It became clear I needed to find a closed digital system. Such a system offers a way to transmit audio wirelessly without any loss of quality. I wanted something easy to deploy, something which I could integrate into my existing setup, and something that wouldn’t cost me an arm and a leg. I also wanted something simple. I started doing my research.

A lot of people love the Sonos music system. It offers a transmitter and receiver, as well as speakers. It has lots of services, such as Pandora and other radio directories. It also has support for zones, meaning people can listen to different music in different areas. I didn’t need that, a single guy in a single condo just needs a single stream. Plus, it costs a lot. Squeezebox offers some of the same functionality, another popular choice. Of course, accessibility remained a concern. I can’t use touch screens unless they have voice feedback. Sonos and Squeezebox do both offer iPhone apps which would do this, but not the main units. I learned a long time ago I can’t tolerate an inaccessible sound system.

My brain had begun to turn to mush. I tried calling around to some places to get some answers. I called Crutchfield. “Hi! This is Buzz! How can I help you?” He sounded stoned. I told him my problem and he transferred me to their A/V department, but I had to leave a message.

At 09:52 the next morning, Ringo called me back. Buzz and Ringo? Do they live on the Yellow Submarine? I already had a bad feeling, and resolved to hold my tongue. I quickly munched some cacao nibs to wake up and told him my situation.

He pushed Sonos. Everyone loves Sonos, and it has so many streaming options. I don’t care about streaming options. I have the audio! I asked how much it would cost. He said the unit that acts as a transmitter or a receiver costs $300, and the speakers cost around $350. I did some quick math in my tired head and arrived at a figure I didn’t like.

Then, the kicker happened. I asked if a Sonos amplifier would plug into my stereo. Remember I hadn’t fully woken up yet. “No, that plugs into your speakers. This would take the place of your stereo.” “But I want to use my stereo, that’s kind of the point of this.” “Why? What would your stereo offer that this wouldn’t?” He sounded condescending and it pissed me off. “Dude, this is an analog system!” I realized he would never understand, so thanked him and lay back down for a few minutes to think. To quote Hunter Thompson: “It was time I felt for an agonizing reappraisal of the whole scene.”

I rolled the options around in my head. One possibility remained, Apple’s AirPlay. The more I thought about it the better it seemed. After all, I love Apple and their products. But could AirPlay stand up to the demands of an audiophile’s multi-room system? I ate breakfast and resolved to call Apple and have a little chat and see what turned up. It couldn’t go much worse than the chat I had just had.

I told their voice automation system that I wanted to know more about AirPlay, and it transferred me to sales. I spoke to a nice lady, but I forget her name. We started having a good discussion about networked audio and what I wanted to do. She assured me it would synchronize the audio between speakers. I asked if it transmitted the audio losslessly, and she said she had never heard that word before. I later found out that if using ethernet or wireless it does send it losslessly, but if using bluetooth it does not. I also wanted to make sure iTunes could play an arbitrary internet station, and we both learned that it can. Just hit Command-U and type in the URL.

The more we talked the more promising this sounded. I began to form a picture in my head. An Apple TV would cost $99 and go well in the living room. I had thought about buying one anyway just to try it out. Amazingly, an Airport Express would provide a $99 solution to bring AirPlay to any room! Though it primarily functions as a router, it can also passively join a network and use its 1/8 inch audio out jack to provide the audio. Various manufacturers also make AirPlay-compatible speakers. I could hardly believe my luck. Once again Apple had come to my rescue.

I figured an Apple TV and an Airport Express would get me started so placed the order. It arrived on my doorstep within twenty-four hours. I eagerly unboxed everything. I remembered to pay attention to every detail from reading the Steve Jobs biography. The box for the Airport Express smartly has it tucked away with the documentation in another little box. The router looks unlike any router I’ve ever seen. It just looks like the plug to a MacBook Air without the cord. Imagine a plastic rectangle with prongs that swing out, plus a few ports. I hooked it up via ethernet and the Airport Utility came up on my Mac. I told it I wanted the Airport Express to join my existing network, and it joined it effortlessly.

The test had come. I brought it into my bedroom, plugged it in to an electrical socket, and plugged a patch cord into it. I attached the other end to the RCA jacks of my trusty old boombox I got in 1986. I remember buying it, as much as a nine-year-old buys anything. My Dad said I should have a real stereo, so we went to Silo Electronics and picked it out, a JVC-W35. I don’t know how I remember that, but I do. It has served me well ever since. I’d put it up against any shitty shelf system from Best Buy any day! After connecting everything I went back to my iMac, turned on AirPlay in iTunes, started playing some music, and selected my bedroom speakers. Boom! It worked! I had brought wireless connectivity to a radio made twenty-five years ago. Plus, I could hear the same audio coming from my iMac hooked up to a pair of studio monitors. I felt amazed!

Once the shock passed I realized I had to hear this on my good stereo. The Apple TV would have to wait, so I brought the Airport Express downstairs and hooked it up. It didn’t start, so I toggled the speaker off and on, and that got it going. This works from iTunes and with the Remote app for the iPhone and iPad, by the way. This lets you control iTunes and AirPlay from anywhere.

Now I sit in my living room typing this article on my MacBook Air and listening to music with AirPlay. The audio sounds incredible, and has not lost sync in eight hours of continuous play. I think that answers the synchronization question! The crisp clean digital audio makes my FM transmitter sound like crap. Booming base! Crystalline highs! No background noise! No hum! No degradation of audio! I feel like i have missed out on so much good audio, but not really, since this technology became available comparatively recently. This definitely represents the next decade’s way of listening to audio. I have fallen in love all over again.

Now I know what some of my long-time readers will say at this point. “Now wait a minute Austin. In your famous article about the iPhone, you called iTunes the worm in the apple. Now you have begun using it as your source for media. What gives?” I have considered this, and in fact it kept me fro jumping right into AirPlay right away. For now it works, since I mainly play internet radio streams. However, alternatives do exist, and I intend to research them for hack value if nothing else. I think one could use the Music Player Daemon and the MPoD app to provide a very nice experience that would rival or surpass using stupid iTunes.

In fact, iTunes has already caused some problems. I felt very annoyed to learn that it does not allow setting the audio output, a very basic feature found in other media players. I called Apple to confirm this. The guy apologized and told me to send them feedback about this lameness. Consider this my letter. Other than that, I have loved my AirPlay experience. It just works!

I will have more to write. After all, I still have the Apple TV to unpack. That will require getting rid of my old TV and setting up the brand new TV my Mom gave me for Christmas to aide in the move. Now I won’t have to get someone to lug the big old TV I purchased in 2002 when I bought this house. I also won’t need to store tons of CD’s as readily, which means I can buy a new lighter entertainment center, which the movers will also appreciate. This fits into my plans perfectly, for now I can just install the Apple TV and get everything tested and ready, then move into my awesome new condo and hit the ground running with AirPlay.

At first I felt nervous about moving into the city, but now I know it will mirror my experience with audio. I thought I had a great solution with my transmitter. It has brought me and my friends countless hours of enjoyment. Now I have something that blows it away. And now you will have to excuse me as I go back to listening to my beautiful analog stereo with its perfect digital sound. AirPlay rules!