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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