Taking Flight: Wireless Audio
There are many different ways to stream wireless audio around a house or to a HiFi system. Most of these methods require a unique software interface that's good only for specific wireless devices. For example iTunes & Airport Express, Logitech Squeezebox & Squeezebox Server, Sonos hardware & Sonos software. The best solutions allow bit perfect local playback, flexible wireless playback, and good library management. iTunes and Airport Express on Windows is OK for broadcasting wireless audio and library management, but local playback (Windows only) is compromised without support for WASAPI, ASIO, or Kernel Streaming. Logitech and Sonos solutions are very good at what they do, but local library management is virtually nonexistent compared to applications like J River Media Center and MediaMonkey. In addition learning a separate interface for wireless audio via Sonos or Logitech isn't a show-stopper but is far from ideal.
Bringing It Together
My preferred solution for streaming wireless audio from a Windows based computer is J River Media Center 15, Air UPnP, and an Airport Express. This $150 a la carte solution offers great music library management, excellent local bit perfect playback options, and can stream multiple tracks to multiple Ariports simultaneously.
Assuming computer audiophiles already have a Windows based music server the only hardware required, excluding cable, is an Apple Airport Express ($99). It's possible to output analog or digital audio from an Airport Express. I strongly encourage using the digital output via a Mini-Toslink to Toslink cable or standard Toslink cable and an adapter.
J River Media Center 15 ($50), and some previous versions, must be installed and the appropriate options must be enabled. Air UPnP from Illustrate, the same company behind dBpoweramp, is currently a free product.
Configuration of the Apple Airport Express can be done by an installation wizard or manually. If computer audiophiles already have an Airport Express in their network there is no extra configuration to be done. There's no need to worry about reconfiguring the Airport for use with wireless Windows audio as Air UPnP doesn't change a single configuration item on the unit. Air UPnP simply allows DLNA compliant software (J River) to view the Airport as a DLNA ready device and use it as such. Another great thing about Air UPnP is that there's absolutely no configuration or user intervention required after installation. The install process is simply a few next-next-finish mouse clicks. The application then runs as a Windows service at system startup.
J River Media Center must be configured to see the Airport Express as a DLNA aware device. Under Tools > Options > Media Network is where the appropriate boxes must be "ticked" as the CA U.K. readers would say. The only item that must be enabled is DLNA Controller. This allows J River Media Center to view the Airport Express as a separate Zone. Readers will notice in the graphic below I have DLNA Server, Renderer, and Controller enabled. I use J River in many different capacities one of which is with the PlugPlayer iPhone app featured in the Bonus section of this article. In that section the DLNA Server is also required.
Currently here at Computer Audiophile I have J River Media Center configured to output audio locally using a Lynx AES16 card via AES/EBU to an Esoteric D-07 in for review. This Zone appears in J River as Listening Room. Zones are easily renamed from the default Zone1, Zone2, etc… The Airport Express is connected to a Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC via optical S/PDIF Toslink. Since Air UPnP is installed on this music server the Airport Express appears as a separate zone in J River Media Center. I've renamed the zone Airport Express 1. When properly setup per the simple instructions above additional J river zones appear automatically. I did nothing outside of the instructions to make the Airport Express appear in my system.
Playing tracks in each zone is very simple. The zones can be synchronized by selecting Player > Zones > Link Current Zone. Using iTunes there is no option to synchronize zones because it's impossible to send separate audio streams to separate Airports. In J River playing different tracks in different zones is as simple as clicking on the zone and selecting the music to play. Toggling between zones by clicking them displays the different items playing through each zone. There are also other ways to initiate playback in a zone. The other method I use is to right-click and select Send To the specific zone I wish to play the track.
Note: Using a Lynx AES16 card allows multiple channels of audio output and input. It's possible to create zones in J River for up to eight stereo zones using a Lynx AES16 card. This would allow sending audio via AES/EBU to multiple zones for users who need up to 24/192 high resolution and users who want to avoid wireless audio transmission. An AES/EBU cable can extend lengths of 100 meters or more.
Bonus: J River Sending Wireless Audio To iPhone
As a bonus I thought I'd just tack this little piece of information on to the article. The PlugPlayer app now allows UPnP control points to control it as a UPnP renderer. In layman's terms this means J River users can send audio wirelessly straight to an iPhone. It's also possible to use the PlugPlayer interface to pull audio from a UPnP server, but I've yet to use an iPhone dock that allows easy navigation of an iPhone touch screen. All the docks seem to present the iPhone at an awkward angle and the dock connection always seems far too touchy. Just my preference. I really like using J River to send audio to my iPhone. This method could also be used as a poor mans's Linn Majik digital streamer. The Majik DS-I and PlugPlayer on the iPhone support UPnP as renderers and can be controlled by UPnP control points. I'll stop this comparison right here as the two units are much further away from each other than apples and oranges. Anyway, here are the pieces to this J River-to-iPhone puzzle.
1. iPhone, or iPad, or iPod Touch
2. J River Media Center running on Windows Music Server
3. PlugPlayer application, available from Apple App Store, running iPhone or similar
As mentioned earlier in the J River configuration section, under Tools > Options > Media Network make sure to enable the DLNA Server. I could not get this setup to function without the DLNA Controller and Server enabled within J River. The only other option I elect to change within the Media Network configuration page is to Never Convert the audio streamed to the rendering device (iPhone in this case).
Once the PlugPlayer app is installed on an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch it must be configured to use J River Media Center as its Media Server and PlugPlayer must be selected as the Renderer and UPnP control enabled. A graphic below displays a screen shot of this configuration.
Playback of wireless audio directly to an iPhone is accomplished the exact same way as the zones mentioned above. The iPhone will appear as a zone in J River Media Center (see screen shot). Selecting the zone followed by the music is all that's required.
Coming In For The Landing
There are numerous ways to send music flying around the house. Mac users are nearly all setoff using iTunes with Airport Express. It's a simple solution that works for most Mac based listeners. However, when additional wireless flexibility, bit perfect local playback, and good library managements are needed on the Windows platform the J River Media Center 15, Air UPnP, and Airport Express combination is tough to beat. I've used quite a few different systems and landed on this combination as one I use most frequently. At around $150 to start and $99 for each additional zone (Airport Express cost) it's hard to talk one's self out of at least trying this solution.
Air UPnP $free
J River Media Center $50
Airport Express $99