How To Setup Affordable Multi-Room Audio Using iTunes [MacRx]

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iTunes

These days many people do some or most of their music listening on the computer, and much of that is managed with iTunes.  It’s very nice to have such quick and easy access to your music library, podcasts and internet radio in one place, but by default these only play in the room where the computer is located.

Wouldn’t it be nice to listen throughout your whole house or office, and without breaking the bank?

Running a Wire

Connecting a cable from the computer to the stereo is the classic (and easiest) solution, and sometimes all that’s necessary. Every modern Mac or PC has an stereo mini jack for audio output, suitable for use with headphones or other audio equipment. Stereo Mini JackSimply connect the computer’s audio output to any available input jack (AUX, TAPE, VCR, etc.) and start playback in iTunes. If your stereo or AV system has multiple speakers setup throughout your home, instant multi-room audio. If not, at least you’ll have much nicer single room performance.

For best results you will want the audio cable to be short (ideally 6 feet or less). This type of cable is very susceptible to hum and noise problems. The longer the cable the more hum you may hear out of the stereo. Also the “hard wire” solution is more convenient for desktops than laptops, especially when more than one person wants to listen to music but the laptop is traveling.

Some homes or offices already have dedicated multi-room audio systems installed, like Bang & Olufsen or Sonos. These are very nice indeed, but such high end options cost many hundreds to thousands of dollars and can require professional installation. If you have an existing system, external audio input adapters or file-sharing access across your local network may be available; contact the manufacturer or your dealer for details.

Fortunately some relatively inexpensive gear from Apple offers a nice alternative – or complement – to your existing systems.

Airport Express and AirTunes

For some time now Apple has supported streaming audio from iTunes on your home or office network via wired and wireless connections. This features is called AirTunes and utilizes the audio output capabilities of the Apple Airport Express or AppleTV products. Once configured these devices can act as “remote speakers” for your iTunes library, relaying audio from your computer to other parts of the house.

The Airport Express is currently $99 retail, the AppleTV $229.  Both products can often be found used for a bit less on craigslist or eBay.

To setup an AirTunes relay, you’ll need at least one Airport Express or AppleTV. This gets connected to an audio playback system in the destination room – a stereo system, a pair of powered speakers, a boombox, etc.. For wireless relaying capability you need to have a WiFi network in place (any kind of wireless router will work).

In the remote room, connect the Airport Express/AppleTV to an ethernet cable (if available) or configure the device using the Apple Airport Utility to join your existing wireless network. Give the box a name that relates to where it is located (e.g., Kitchen, Living Room), then select the tab that says Music and make sure the “Enable AirTunes” box is checked.

Click Update to apply the settings, and your device will reboot. Now connect the audio output of the Airport Express/AppleTV to your playback system. Back in iTunes, go to Preferences, select the Devices tab, and make sure the option to “Look for Remote Speakers connected with AirTunes” is checked (this is the default).

iTunes Speaker Selection

At the bottom right of your iTunes window there should now be a popup menu for speaker selection. Initially this will say Computer. Click and hold on this menu and you should see the new system (e.g., Living Room) listed, along with an option to select Multiple Speakers.

To change the output, select Living Room. To play both simultaneously, select Multiple Speakers and in the box which comes up, select both Computer and Living Room. The iTunes speaker menu will then say “Multiple Speakers (2)“.

Press Play in iTunes, and voilà! – multi-room playback for a fraction of the cost of a dedicated system. Want more rooms? Pickup another Airport Express (new or used), hookup that old stereo in the garage or basement, and expand away!

In my house my primary computer with iTunes is located in my second floor office, connected to a dedicated audio system. I have an Airport Extreme router and three Airport Express wireless relays to the Living Room (first floor, stereo system), Kitchen (first floor, powered speakers), and my Mac Museum (second floor, powered speakers).

For a total cost comparable to one high end audio interface box, I now have a four-room system and can listen to music, news and those joyful NPR Pledge Drives (are they now every other weekend?) throughout my entire house.

Bonus for the True Geek: for those with an old Mac or PC around with built-in (or external) speakers, Rogue Amoeba makes an application called Airfoil ($25) that allows audio streaming from iTunes to the external computer as a playback device. See the Airfoil website for instructions and downloads. (Current version requires Mac OS X 10.5, Windows XP or newer; for older versions click here.)

Apple Remote for iPhone & iPod Touch

OK, so now you have multi-room playback going but most of us are still single-room-at-a-time people. If you’re not in the same room with your computer, how can you control iTunes playback?

iPhone Remote AppThe pièce de résistance of the AirTunes Home Audio Experience is the free Apple Remote application for the iPhone or iPod Touch (iPad hopefully coming soon). This handy software allows your iDevice to act as a handheld remote for your iTunes library (or any AppleTVs on the network), browsing playlists, controlling volume, showing album artwork and even turning on and off individual speakers.

A WiFi network and one-time pairing is required (similar to setting up a bluetooth device) to link the handheld with your library. Once connected your remote can roam with you throughout your house or office, giving you full command of your iTunes playback wherever you are located.

I’ve been introducing clients and friends to this technology for the past year, and every single person is delighted at the capabilities. Some have even purchased (or justified) an iPod Touch JUST for this application. “Impresses the friends and neighbors” as they say, and at a reasonable cost. Truly a Poor Man’s Bang & Olufsen!

[An earlier version of this article was previously published in the Adam’s Apple column on Low End Mac.]