• Wireless Music Distribution Part One

    Music distribution throughout a residence has been around as long as I can remember. This may say more about my age than the longevity of whole house music, but nonetheless we are not talking about a new concept. Traditional music distribution used a couple amplifiers and long analog cable runs that frequently suffered signal degradation. While this old-school method worked virtually every time it produced less than stellar sound at a less than stellar price. Today music distribution can be accomplished via ubiquitous wireless home networks and a couple Apple Airport Express units. The cost is greatly reduced and the sound quality is greatly improved when compared to the traditional music distribution systems. The convenience of having a complete music library accessible at the tap of an iPod Touch icon is an improvement over many systems available in the past. Plus it's even possible to turn the music on and off in individual zones from a single iPod Touch. This is the first part in a series of articles about distributing music throughout a residence. Part one provides a diagram and basic explanation of music distribution with a computer based music server. Subsequent articles in this series will show exactly how to configure iTunes and Airport Express units for music distribution as well as Apple TVs for selecting different music in each zone of the residence.

     

     

    There are many different ways to distribute music throughout a residence. Most of these methods either cost an arm and a leg or they just don't sound good at all. some of the proprietary systems function very well but they make it hard to justify moving to a different platform because none of the components purchased in the past will work with anything in the future. Nobody needs electronic bricks worth several thousand dollars laying around the house. For the aforementioned and a few other reasons I really like distributing music with the $99 Apple Airport Express units. When additional features and control are required a step up to the $230 Apple TV is easily justifiable. Both of these devices output bit perfect 16/44.1 audio streams via an optical TosLink cable to any digital audio converter of your choice. It's also possible to use the built-in Airport Express DAC but that's stretching this very inexpensive technology a little to far in my opinion.

    Music distribution with a Mac Mini and an Airport Express is much easier than most people imagine. At a high level, one only needs to tell iTunes where to output the audio signal. Through the iTunes interface it is possible to select any single output device or any combination of output devices throughout a single home network. For example, I can listen to my main Mac Mini system only and disable sending music to any other zone in the house. I can also send the music to other zones only and not play a single note through my main Mac Mini system in my listening room. Controlling this audio output is possible from the music server itself, screen sharing, or via iPod Touch. From the living room it is possible to direct the music to other rooms of the house using the free Remote application from Apple. As I said earlier, part one of this series is just an overview. The following parts of the series will go into the fine details of configuring iTunes and an Airport Express for music distribution and then move to an Apple TV for playing separate music selections in different room all from the same music sever.

    The following is a diagram of a Mac Mini based system with three music zones. In this system it is only possible to send the same music out to each zone. It is possible to select each output that will play the music either via iTunes or an iPod Touch. The diagram has pictures of each interface and shows the selection screen for choosing specific zones. The path of the music in the diagram is from a Mac Mini to an Airport Express via wireless, from the Airport Express to an AV Receiver via optical TosLink and from the receiver to local speakers. Zone One in the diagram does not use an Airport Express because the Mini has its own built-in optical output which connects directly to the AV Receiver in the same equipment rack. As the name of this site suggests I like to focus on Audiophile solutions. This particular diagram uses some components not traditionally thought of as Audiophile grade. While good sound is possible with these components it is always possible to step it up a notch to improve sound quality. For simplicity I elected to send the music into an AV Receiver for the first diagram.

    Note: This is an interactive series of articles. Please let me know what parts of the puzzle you'd like to know more about and what parts just don't make any sense. There is always more than one way to explain concepts and I never said I get it right the first time :~)

     

     

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    Comments 32 Comments
    1. jimim's Avatar
      jimim -
      Chris,<br />
      <br />
      You are familiar with my setup but I wanted to post it here for others for future use if they like.<br />
      <br />
      I have an AE hooked up to my Nuvo Grand Concerto in my home. The AE just becomes a source for the Nuvo. Now I don't get Metadata over the keypad obviously, but I just carry my iPhone around the house with me to change songs. If I need volume control I go to a keypad which is in every room that has a set of speakers (zones). My AE communicates with my Powerbook via a Airport Time Capsule Router which I use as a switch only cause my whole house is fed by structured wiring from the basement over a Netgear switch. At first I had the AE setup as wired to retrieve music but later went to wireless and saw I had no drops at all. It is in a closet with all the other Nuvo gear and the Time Capsule is in a cabinet in my Kitchen with some other gear and I have never had a problem with signal.<br />
      <br />
      Jimi
    1. jitterbug's Avatar
      jitterbug -
      What function is the Airport Extreme Router performing in your diagram?
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hi Jitterbug - Good question. I contemplated leaving leaving it out of the diagram but decided to include it so the diagram closer resembles what I actually use. The Airport Extreme is my wireless connection to the Internet. My Internet connection to my ISP comes into the house in a room far from any listening room where I could have used an Express doing double duty. Plus, the Extreme has a hard drive connected it for testing streaming all kinds of content. There are many roads to Rome, this is my current path.
    1. Wavelength's Avatar
      Wavelength -
      Chris,<br />
      <br />
      As we all know Airtunes and therefore the Airport series is limited to 44.1/16 and so anything connected using this protocol will be limited to these speeds. Now you can stream to the AppleTv and it would be 44.1/16. But if you put 24/96 material on the AppleTv it will play them as 24/96 and not downsample them.<br />
      <br />
      I have been talking to the engineer here and I think this USB WIFI hub combo at $175 might be something that would work with current USB dacs and work up to 24/96 without issues.<br />
      <br />
      http://www.icron.com/products/usb/wi_ranger.php<br />
      <br />
      Thanks<br />
      Gordon
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hi Gordon - Thanks for the info. Are you sure your Apple TV will play 24/96 if the file is stored locally? My research has shown even these files are downsampled to 16/44.1. Can you check this again? I will do the same. Are you moving files to the AppleTV through the native sync process or some other way?<br />
      <br />
      Anyway, thanks for the USB WiFi hub link. This would be pretty cool if it works well. I'm skeptical as I'm sure you are/were. I have my fingers crossed as many readers could benefit from this product.
    1. sastusbulbas's Avatar
      sastusbulbas -
      Not quite as bling as your set up, <br />
      <br />
      I am waiting for an Asus router to come back into stock locally, with certain routers you can add an external hard drive with a USB, this can allow shared storage of wav or flac at home wirelessly shared with the PC's and Macs in my house, I assume such can be integrated into such a set up as your discussing with no problem? Can you not do wirelss connection to the audio devices on some of the sources too?
    1. Wavelength's Avatar
      Wavelength -
      Chris,<br />
      <br />
      Yes I was able to do this with the AppleTv though it's been along time since I did. I don't really use mine much at all.<br />
      <br />
      As I remember I used AIFF files in a playlist and enabled that playlist over and then played them. I used the Prism dScope III to verify they were coming out at 24/96.<br />
      <br />
      Since I did this though I have had 2 software updates so I am not sure if it is still true. But I have seen overs frustrated with this and others who say they have not had problems.<br />
      <br />
      In general I am not really enthused about the AppleTv. Cable in, USB audio out then maybe.<br />
      <br />
      Thanks<br />
      Gordon
    1. Dan.m's Avatar
      Dan.m -
      The AE is a great tool for freeing up your audio. And if you use Airfoil, you can stream any app to it. Basically turning your mac into a wireless preamp. I connect my USB turntable and my hd radio digital out to the mac and stream it to my AE with Airfoil. I've got a nuforce icon in my little budget listening room to handle dac and amp duties. It's a pretty solid setup and very cost effective. <br />
      <br />
      I'd love to see some tests on Airfoil to see how transparent it is, and an article on the better apps to capture digital audio sources. I use Audio Hijack pro now. <br />
      <br />
      And Airfoil + Songbird finally gives us a true alternative to iTunes.
    1. Wavelength's Avatar
      Wavelength -
      Chris,<br />
      <br />
      Another app for streaming is the JACK system. It is still kind of in beta but it would support up to 32 bits per channel at any sampling rate.<br />
      <br />
      OSX:<br />
      http://www.jackosx.com/<br />
      Linux:<br />
      http://jackaudio.org/<br />
      <br />
      Again the problem with Airfoil or Airtunes (Airfoil is merely a wrapper for Airtunes) is that it is limited to 16/44.1 and therefore any OS will have to resample the differences to that rate.<br />
      <br />
      I tried Airfoil with MAC and PC without issues but I could never get the Linux to work on any of the os's I have here and from the support blog it looks to be a problem. Unless they have upgraded the code.<br />
      <br />
      Thanks<br />
      Gordon
    1. VidaBlue2U's Avatar
      VidaBlue2U -
      I have been using AE to distribute music wirelessly for sometime and overall am very happy with the results. I use the DAC in my Marantz SR 7001 receiver and today noticed while listening to an HDCD copy of Doc & Dawg that the HDCD indicator light is showing. If I switch to a non-HDCD selection, the light is no longer activated. It was my understanding that AE was limited to 16bit (itunes shows 16bit in info tab), am I really getting the 20bit version, or am I missing something? Thanks for your help!
    1. Wavelength's Avatar
      Wavelength -
      VB,<br />
      <br />
      HDCD's are really 16 bit data. Only through the HD process do they recover more bits. Most will agree that it's not really 20 bits and I would agree with them. They do sound better if decoded using the HDCD process.<br />
      <br />
      Thanks<br />
      Gordon
    1. cr8it's Avatar
      cr8it -
      I am new to this site (which is incredible I might add), so I am hoping I am posting this in the right place. I found this series to be helpful, but I am still confused (as it comes to what I am trying to do.<br />
      <br />
      I purchased a house a couple of years ago that had a whole house sound system. Does not work great, but allows us to hear music by the pool and in most rooms. We are doing some remodeling, so I need to make some changes to the system, so I need to do some thinking about this now. <br />
      <br />
      Here is what I know so far. There is a major wiring point containing a Speakercraft S-8 speaker control system. With the remodel, this is going to have to move (a pretty big project in itself). I am pretty sure this is an old piece of gear. There is a remote control unit in the bedroom that sends IR signals to the receiver / amp located in the media room in the basement. This equipment is obsolete (unless you still want to power a laser disc player). I have looked into running Cat5 wiring throughout the house, but this is a major undertaking that would require much more destruction to the house than my wife would ever consider for sound. <br />
      <br />
      This brings me to find the article on wireless. What I am not clear on, is can I use the existing wiring and speakers, and somehow set the system up using a mac and itunes to send signals to the existing speaker system? If so, this would be an awesome solution (even moving and replacing the speaker control system). What I seem to be understanding from the article is that I can remotely send music to amp receivers in different rooms and control them from the Ipod, but can I do it through speakers on an existing whole house speaker system?<br />
      <br />
      Thanks for your help - and great site.<br />
      <br />
    1. machei's Avatar
      machei -
      I assume that if I'm streaming using the AE, I attach the Toslink to the DAC, then out to the amp?<br />
      <br />
      Sorry, I know that's probably a stupid question, but I wanted to make sure I understood.<br />
      <br />
      m.<br />
    1. jimmyjimbob's Avatar
      jimmyjimbob -
      Can I connect a DAC with USB input to the USB port of an airport express? I would like to use my laptop wirelessly while I stream audio. If not, what is the best (and reasonably priced, say under $200) way to get digital output from the airport express to a DAC with RCA outputs?
    1. john andy's Avatar
      john andy -
      before few year technological upgared itsalf very fast.<br />
      Today we get lots of comperes pro ducted. we can care that very easily every where. its a realy cool.<br />
      <br />
      <a target="_new" href="http://www.usbid.com/">Electronic Components</a><br />
      <br />
    1. asapla's Avatar
      asapla -
      I made a stab at the academy, but there's too many terms and equipment that are unfamiliar. Any help will be appreciated.<br />
      <br />
      I have a simple XP PC/cable modem/Dlink 802.11g wireless router setup and I want to set up a wireless audio feed of Itunes and internet radio to different rooms. I don't need to send different streams to different rooms. Can this be done? If so, what do I need? And what level of quality can I expect?<br />
      <br />
      Thanks!!<br />
      <br />
      <br />
      <br />
    1. cvthunder's Avatar
      cvthunder -
      Any updates? Does the ATV output 24/96 when files are stored on its internal drive?<br />
    1. peterschindler's Avatar
      peterschindler -
      I'm a novice in matters computer audiophile. I've stumbled upon this site via B&W's Society of Sound. I must compliment you, Chris, not only for creating a very informative site, but also for setting a tone that is constructive. Thank you!<br />
      <br />
      On the SoS site I saw a recommendation for a SqueezeBox Duet paired with a Cambridge Audio Magic DAC as a viable solution for getting the high quality audio files SoS offers on their site from a Windows PC to the a hi-fi system. <br />
      <br />
      Then I read on your site that you don't like the SqueezeBox products because they don't sound too good. That made me read your Academy entries where I came upon the system you recommend which includes an Airport Express which you say produces "bit perfect 16/44.1 audio streams ". But if the Airport Express is only capable of producing 16/44.1 and not the formats/recordings with more bits (24) and higher sampling rates (forgive me if I use the terms not entirely correctly), then why do you advocate the AE? What if one wants to listen to bit perfect 24/48 or 24/96 etc? <br />
      <br />
      I have a Windows 7 PC (with ample storage) and a high-quality hi-fi system. I don't mind using iTunes - might even come to enjoy it - and I also don't mind buying an Airport Express. But I would hope that the high-quality uncompressed (or FLAC) music files won't be downgraded to 16/44.1 by the time they enter my hi-fi system.<br />
      <br />
      What am I missing here? Can you or anyone help out? <br />
      <br />
      Thanks!<br />
    1. davfav's Avatar
      davfav -
      Hi Chris & Hi all<br />
      <br />
      Thank you very much for your 3 posts regarding the music distribution through an airport express.<br />
      <br />
      I am currently looking for a wireless solution, let me explain you my case.<br />
      I have an iMac with apple lossless files and I'd like to buy a wireless all-in-one product like the NAIM unitiqute (http://www.naim-audio.com/unitiqute/index.html).<br />
      <br />
      It is written in the specification that the device can't read ALAC except if I plug an iPod.<br />
      I have read in a magazine, if I plug my iMac with the toslink there is no problem regarding the ALAC codec but in wireless it doesn't work.<br />
      <br />
      I am completely lost can you help me please<br />
      best regards<br />
      davfav
    1. Audio_ELF's Avatar
      Audio_ELF -
      Using the UnitiQute you have a few options for your ALAC files.<br />
      <br />
      First, you could connect, via optical or via a USB device such as M2Tech HiFace and the SPDIF, the iMac directly to the UnitiQute. This would use the iMac to control the playback (iTunes or whatever you choose) and the UnitiQute's internal DAC.<br />
      <br />
      Secondly, you could use a UPnP server such as EyeConnect which will convert (on the fly) your ALAC files into WAV files which can then be played on the UnitiQute.<br />
      <br />
      Third option would be to use XLD or MAX to convert your ALAC files to FLAC or WAV which the UnitiQute can read. You could then use a NAS with UPnP server and access your music even when the iMac is turned off.<br />
      <br />
      Eloise