Simple AirPlay setup for whole house audio

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…

Time Warner Cable Wideband Internet or How to make all your Geek friends jealous for $99 a month…

If you know what DOCSIS 3.0 is, please stop reading now… this posting will be of no interest to you.  For everyone else (and I’m thinking that’s alot of people), please read on.

I’ve been through a few versions of Time Warner‘s cable modem offerings and spent some time as a system admin when the first cable modems were being deployed.  You can say that I’ve had some exposure to the technology on the delivery side and the consumer side.  I’ve even dipped my toes into the FTTH (fiber to the home) services like AT&T’s U-verse.  Nothing, and I mean nothing, compares to the quality and consistency I’ve received out of this service so far.

When I first ran a speed test, I giggled (and that’s not something you necessarily want to admit on the Internet).  I’ve seen $8000 a month commercial services try and have download speeds and ping responses at this level.  Granted the upload speeds are a 10th (as expected) but as a home user, other than uploading pictures to Picassaweb or Smugmug, it’s not that big of a concern.

The first day we had this, I had to share my joy (i.e. brag) so I posted the speed results to my Facebook wall.  One of my astute networking friends quickly asked “are you really going to use all that bandwidth”.  Well, no.  Not now at least.

What can I do with it?  More than I could with my previous 6Mb/s U-verse service.  With U-verse I couldn’t reliably watch Netflix.  Switching to TWC Wideband make the Netflix experience enjoyable.  At the time, I was able to stream Netflix to two different Apple TVs, a computer, and an iPad without any degradation.  Now that Netflix has limited you to one concurrent stream, I can’t do that anymore.  But I have the bandwidth if I could.

With this bandwidth as a springboard, we took the plunge and dropped the U-verse television service also.  With that, we have gone cable/satellite free.  And free is to be interpreted as “without” as opposed to “for less money”.  With the cost of the wideband service, plus the number of small boxes I’ve bought to interface with our TVs and the various subscription services (HULU, Netflix, PlayOn, etc) I’m not sure there are any financial benefits to this approach yet.

For about half the cost I could have had the TWC 30Mb/service.  But what fun would that have been?  The 50 meg service has a “guaranteed” 40Mb/s SLA (service level agreement).  I have this information from both the tech that did the install and the person I ordered it from at TWC.  Granted I’ve not found this anywhere else online, so I lack the ability to substantiate that claim beyond what I was told.  Many are not going to have a consistent measurement to see if they are getting the full throughput at all times (unless they have a spare Linksys running MRTG at home and I told them to stop reading in the first sentence).  At best I’m doing spot checks with a less than scientific website (speedtest.net) but I’m getting pretty pictures each time I check it. 🙂

Is any of this scientific.  No.  But as far as putting a stake in the ground as to what’s possible for the next gen of service offerings, I think TWC has done very well.

iOS 4.2 is out! Update your iDevice!

Image representing Apple as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

While many people (me included) are happy to update their devices to iOS 4.2 for the new features enabled, most are not aware of the security fixes included that are also necessary.  iOS 4.2 (like many iOS updates prior) includes fixes to address multiple vulnerabilities. Exploitation of these vulnerabilities may allow an attacker to execute arbitrary code, initiate a call, cause a denial-of-service condition, gain system privileges, or obtain sensitive information on your iPhone, iPad, or iTouch.  (While there is an update for AppleTV also, I’m not aware of what, if any, vulnerabilities were addressed with that update).

A quick overview of these fixes includes fixing an issue with the new iAD service where the ads could send you to malicious sites, fixing mail issues where properly formatted HTML emails could send information back to the sender of the email, and a network issue where properly formatted PIM messages could cause a denial of service situation or the device to completely shut down.

To see a full list of the vulnerabilities addressed, please see Apple’s security page here:  http://support.apple.com/kb/HT4456

Related Articles

Why we need the iPad

I will disclaim that I am a fan of almost all products made by Apple.  I often try not to read any information on the days of product launches and instead wait until I can get the video and actually watch Steve (Jobs) sell me on why I need the next big thing.  However, when I watched the iPad launch, I felt… well, underwhelmed.

Time has since passed and having used an iPad I can definitely see a use for it.  It’s convenient, intuitive and most of all necessary.  Ok, I probably had you right up until necessary right?

Most post I’ve read are arguing about the convenience of this device vs a laptop or even a smartphone, that the lack of multitasking kills the usefulness, or that they can’t adapt to the keyboard.  That’s well covered everywhere else and I don’t have the background to weigh in on those concerns.

However…

For the average user  (I’m going to put that number at 80-90% of people using some personal computing device) whatever they have  for a pc or laptop does far more than they need.  The openness of those systems, flexibility, the power to meet most any need make it challenging for the casual user to maintain and have meet their needs.  Power users will have specific applications that require more advanced hardware and in doing so, they sign themselves up for the challenges of maintaining that device.  Netbooks were the first (dare I say feeble) attempt to fill this market space.  They were something inexpensive that gave people access to the Internet and allowed them to send and receive email.  Good concept, poor execution.

Along came the iPad.  After giving it some thought, I think the iPad is exactly what we need.

Allow me to digress…  Every day I learn something.  Being in Information Security, usually that’s something that makes it more difficult for me to sleep at night.  Vulnerabilities increase, threats become more aggressive and better at defeating security measures, and I begin to wonder if we aren’t fighting a losing battle.

Which makes me wonder…  What if… What if the iPad really is what we need?

A constrained device (yes this is a good thing), with controlled application deployment (yes still a good thing), where all applications have very limited access to the operating system?  I say, yes.  Absolutely.  PLEASE!  There is a tremendous market for this (which Apple certainly knows). Many more tech savvy users are screaming blasphemy as their screens as they read this, however having a PC with unlimited capabilities, interfaces, and expand-ability is only a requirement for a percentage of users (and I dare say that percentage is probably lower than most initial guesses).  Even those users, as intelligent and well intentioned as they may be, tend to do things that allow themselves to be compromised everyday.  Trust me, I see it.

The majority of users want a simple device that works and can offer some level of assurance of stability and data protection.  Remember “it just works!”  🙂

No more OS patches that break applications (well not the ones that Apple is allowing on the device anyway), no more security applications that accidentally break the operating system (hello McAfee? hows that XP thing going for you?), just a highly controlled computing environment that’s set up to meet the needs of most users.  Most users are not aware of these issues anyway and honestly don’t want to be bothered.  They often only find out about much of this once they’ve experienced a significant system issue and even then, they don’t care, they just want their system back and working.

Will these devices eventually become as much of a target as “normal” systems?  Probably.  But I believe they are well suited to be managed more easily and better protected from threats.  They will be more limited in function than a PC, yes, but the end users will express a higher satisfaction rate regardless.

While everyone will continue to argue over the size, shape, wether or not it has a camera or can be a giant phone.  I say they’ve missed the point.  We really do have a game changer here.