A Breakthrough – Airport Express Music Throughout My House

I’ve noticed that 2-3 times a year I get an absolutely major breakthrough and it has a huge benefit to my life somehow. I’ve just hit one of those and want to share it with you.

Imagine if you had your perfect audio management system – one which would let you control it from every room in the house, take music directly from the internet, be wireless, and relatively cheap to roll out. Read on and I’ll tell you how to do it.

When I was about 12 years old I made a special audio system in my bedroom. I connected wires to lots of different speakers I pulled out of old radios and tape recorders. I probably had 7-8 different speakers just in my own bedroom. I had a music system that was REALLY surround sound. Back in 1984 for a 12 year old that was amazing!

I’ve always loved listening to music but have been frustrated in the past few years as to how to implement a good audio system in my house. The changeover from CD to mp3 is obviously happening – but how to implement it? I won’t bore you with the different things I’ve tried, you can just trust me that I’ve wasted thousands of dollars over the years on different things that don’t work very well.

My requirements are:
– 100% of my music should be digital, downloaded from the internet
– I should be able to listen to it in every room of my house
– when a new song is downloaded, it should be accessible from everywhere virtually immediately
– I should have one remote control which easily searches the entire music catalog
– I should be able to take my music collection with me on the road with me, to the gym and traveling or in my car
– It should be reasonably good quality. I’m not an audiophile, but I like good sound.

Finally I have this working! And its turned out to be trivially simple!

The key has been switching from PC to mac. I resisted this for a long time but finally decided to switch both my machines at once. Since switching, I’ve acquired some more apple components to my network such as a wifi network and and iphone. While itunes is ok on the PC, I’ve noticed on the mac that it just works better (I note that while itunes is slow on the PC, Microsoft Office is extremely slow to load on the mac. Coincidence? I don’t think so). Itunes on the PC felt a little like an install of AOL – it takes over your machine. It doesn’t have this impact on the mac, it just nicely fits in with everything else. What has been particularly impressive on the mac is that each new piece of hardware I buy seems to add additional, unexpected value to all the other pieces. I’m not mac fanboi yet, as my switch has been rather painful. But this has been an unexpected benefit with massive payoffs.

Anyways, on with how to set up this audio system which has worked so well for me:
1. Buy an Apple airport extreme for your network. This is apple’s long range wifi network device. Its just a white box which enables a wifi network in your house from your internet connection. ($150)
2. Hook up a couple of Apple’s airport express units to audio players around your house. The airport express is a smaller wifi receiver (relayer) unit. It provides 3.5” line out to audio devices. ($85/each)
3. Install itunes on your computer. It should work on PC and Mac (free)
4. Get an iphone or an ipod touch. This is a critical element – you need this as the remote control. ($200-$400)
5. Get some audio devices. I use the Harman Kardon Go+Play units – they cost around $350/each which isn’t cheap, but the audio quality is amazing. ($350/each or use what you have already)
6. Download apple’s “remote” software from the appstore and install it on your iphone or ipod touch. (free)

Now, you have a wifi lan in your house, which for starters is pretty handy if you don’t already have one. It runs very fast, since its 802.11N, so even if you have a wifi lan this may be faster. The Airport express devices act as repeaters as well as providing audio, so you end up with a very strong network signal through your whole house.. But, you can also stream audio through it using the computer, streaming out to the two airport express units. If you have a really small place or very thin walls you may be able to do it without the airport extreme, but its probably a good idea to get it (I have 2 so I can extend the signal further).

The audio quality is GREAT! I was concerned it would not be good.. but I am very happy with it, and I am quite picky. I have read that the airport express units actually provide digital out signal, which is bit for bit the same as the source audio, so if you have digital receivers you may want to consider this. I am using analog and it sounds great.

I’ve talked with some friends about this and apparently the iphone remote control software was initially not very good. As of now, as an overall setup this is basically perfect. When you have it working you can walk around your house, selecting music in each room, selecting the song and controlling the volume. It does basically everything you’d expect a remote to do – but its your CELLPHONE! And you have no music to move around – as soon as its on your computer its live in your kitchen, bedroom, etc, etc. If you want to take it with you, it syncs with your iphone or ipod touch, and then you plug it into your car using an adapter.

It also controls Apple TV, which I will be testing out next.

The only thing we need is for Itunes to become a service where we rent music per month, rather than needing to rip and/or download our own music collection. I’ll happily pay $20/month to access all the music that is out there. That should also include streaming audio so we can listen to the radio and streaming audio off the net such as Pandora. Sonos offers this today, but has an expensive setup cost ($350+ per room compared to $85 for the apple airport express units).

The great thing is I can add as many rooms as I want, just by buying more audio systems ($350) and airport express units ($85), or around $430 per room. There are also $100 audio systems which would bring your cost per room down significantly. I plan to add another 3 rooms shortly.

Go try it out and let me know how it works for you!