I’ve been enamored with home audio since I was a very young. I can recall turning on radios in separate rooms of the house so I could run from room to room playing my guitar along with the radio, preparing myself for future “rock-stardom”. Fortunately for us all the long hair and spandex didn’t survive the 80’s but my desire to have audio in every room of the house didn’t.
Since then, I’ve spent more time (and money) than I should trying to build a fully distributed, multi-source audio distribution system, or what has been marketed at Whole House Audio but the big A/V vendors. None of these efforts have been inexpensive, user friendly, or as functional as I would have wished.
Needless to say, I was very excited at the potential uses of AirPlay when it was initially introduced by Apple. Utilizing this feature built into IOS devices and iTunes, you can easily put together a reasonable system (from a cost and complexity standpoint) that will give you fairly good results.
I’m certain there are more ways to do this than I’ll give you here, so please don’t flame me for forgetting your preferred method….
Step 1 – Start with a source
The most basic of AirPlay sources is iTunes. If you’ve accepted iTunes to be your central storage for all digital media, this gives you a good based from which to start. iTunes gives you a lot of flexibility here and can easily be controlled via the Apple remote app from any IOS device.
From iTunes or the Remote app you can select your music or playlist as well as the destinations within your home. Each AirPlay target has a separate audio level control available so you can balance out the levels to your preference (or the devices capability).
If you don’t want to use your media library and you prefer to stream your music selections, you are in luck. You can use a streaming source, like Pandora, to feed AirPlay. In this case I will use an iPad which I have Pandora set up on. Launch the app and start playing your preferred playlist. Once it starts you can double-click the home button to bring up the “multitasking bar”, swipe to the right and you’ll see your audio controls, from there you can click on the AirPlay button to choose which target you would like to use.
Step 2 – Simple target devices (or audio destinations)
Since AirPlay has been out for just over a year now and manufacturers are now starting to integrate it’s features into their devices. Audio/Video receivers from Denon and many small speaker/dock devices have implemented AirPlay, but I’ve yet to see one of these solutions that are reasonably priced to use if you wanted to stream music to say 5-7 locations in or around your home.
The approach I’ve taken doesn’t really care if the speakers or stereos are “AirPlay enabled” or not. In fact, most of my target systems are built from either powered speakers or systems we’ve had in our home far longer than the existence of AirPlay.
So how do I connect them?
One of the simplest and underrated devices from Apple is the Airport Express. While it has the capability to extend your wireless network (albeit at the expense of your throughput), make USB devices like hard drives or printers wireless, or provide ethernet connectivity to a non-wireless device, the biggest feature is it’s ability to be an endpoint in an AirPlay environment.
On every airport express is a combination mini-toslink and analog miniplug connection. So you can connect to a RCA input with a mini to RCA cable or directly to a digital input with the mini-toslink to toslink cable. I am very aware that Apple sells a nice “kit” with both these cables for an astonishing $39. A quick Google search will find an appropriate cable for your application for less than $5 per cable.
I have Airport Expresses using both options. Where I have a bookshelf stereo unit with optical input, I’ve connected the AE via the toslink cable. However in a simple and somewhat portable setup, I’ve used another AE simply connected to a pair of powered computer speakers. With these two options, you can probably accomodate most any stereo or powered speaker setup you have in place today.
To extend my options a bit further, I’ve also utilized Apple TV2s as target devices for AirPlay. ATV2s fit quite a different category of use verses the AE. The biggest difference for me is the lack of an analog audio out on the ATV2. While it has a full size optical output, it can perform the same function as an AE connected to a receiver with an optical input. This is truly a matter of preference, do what you wish here. The deciding point for me is what is the end device. If it’s really at TV, then the ATV2 is the preferred component. If it’s an audio only device, then the AE is my preferred device.
So now rooms like bedrooms and the family room don’t necessarily have to have a dedicated audio system in them to have audio streamed to them. The downside to this particular option is that you have to have the television on in those rooms in order to have the audio output. Whereas you can leave the stereo or speakers connected to the AE always on and set to a preferred volume level.
Step 3 – MultiSource?
While not a traditional multi-source setup, you can get a similar function from this setup. I cannot use iTunes running from my central media server to serve up different playlists to different rooms/targets. This would be a wonderful feature if someone on the iTunes dev team could work that out. However you can use a couple of sources (possibly multiple iTunes or IOS devices) to control separate sets of speakers. So my daughters could use the iPad to connect to speakers in the bedrooms upstairs to play Radio Disney while I have iTunes or my iPhone streaming music to all the speakers downstairs or outside.
If you’re looking to distribute audio on a fairly reasonable budget, I don’t believe you can easily beat this setup. It definitely gives you a lot of flexibility about what you want to put where (from a target perspective) and can easily grow to fit your needs. As each iTunes and IOS update come out, I eagerly look to see what new AirPlay options may be enabled. Especially as Apple starts to introduce the ability to distribute video in the same manner. But that’s a whole other topic…