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Wireless music

We live in a mega techno wonderland of always on, access anywhere, hands-free, interconnected devices no?

no.

Not when it comes to a simple thing.

You see I’ve recently moved, and here is my living room layout. Observe Macbook Pro on the left, and Hi-fi on the right where the TV is (hidden by the speaker). You see, I want to be able to play music and radio from my laptop through my Hi-Fi, just like I used to. But I don’t, and I’m sure you appreciate this, I don’t want a massive cable running across the floor.

A quick look on the net found surprisingly little. Two options seems to come up: expensive media centre (yuck) or use a Apple Airport Wireless base-station (Airport Express) which has an audio out.

Now, and this is a bit of luck, I had an Airport Express which someone had given to me a while back. So I dug it out, plugged it in, and used a cable to connect it to the stereo. Now what? Well it quickly occurred to be that as a laptop can only connect to one wireless base station, and mine was connected to the Wireless built in to my ADSL modem. I first tried just connecting the Airport to the ADSL wireless router using an ethernet cable.

This didn’t do much so I went one step further: I connected my laptop to the airport station. Surprisingly it connected straight away (I’ve never used it) and the internet ‘just worked’. I found an Airport utility on the Macbook, though had to soft reset the base station to reset the password so I could access it and set it up. Part of the config allows you to give the AirPlay (the wireless audio bit) a name.

With that, I went to the Mac OS X system preferences, expecting the AirPlay->Hi-Fi option to turn up here:

Clearly too optimistic. Airport Speakers do not show up here. Instead, in iTunes you can click on a small icon at the bottom of the window (yeah, that’s not where I would have put it either). And as you might guess, it then starts to play music via the Hi-Fi….. only from iTunes.

Only iTunes. Why? If the ability to transmit sound from a Macbook to a Airport station remotely has been developed, surely it must be just as possible to direct all sounds via this route, not just iTunes. But no.

However, there is a way, it’s called AirFoil, and costs $25.

Airfoil is a great app. If I had one point it’s that by default you have to select the application you want to stream music from, by installing a couple of plugins that come with the application you can direct all sound via AirFoil and Airport to your Hi-Fi, and as I constantly flick between iplayer, Spotify, itunes and youtube this was essential for me, and perhaps it should be a bit more obvious out of the box.

Like I said, AirFoil is great, but the end solution hits some limitations in the Airport design: There’s a 2 second delay in the sound reaching your speakers. With music this is an annoyance, you start to flick through songs, or change the volume and they’s a couple of second lag in hearing the change, which often means you ‘over shoot’ your desired volume or track.

But with Video, this becomes unusable, try watching a TV show with a two second lag on the sound. The AirFoil app comes with it’s own video player to work around this (the video player plays the visual two seconds after the sound), but using this (or even working out if you can use this with youtube and iplayer) is just to much hassle. My solution has been to shutdown AirFoil when watching video, and just use the internal speakers.

So there we have it.

To avoid a cable across the floor in this digital wireless-everything world, I required:

  • an Apple wireless basestation ( which I, very luckily, had lying around)
  • to reconfigure how my laptop connects to my broadband, and the internet, adding an extra hop between my and any content (my laptop connects to the Apple wireless router, which connects to the ADSL modem wireless router which provides my internet which I originally connected to).
  • Buy a piece of software, which requires resources (CPU/memory) and comes at a (reasonable) price.
  • This is not ‘set and forget’ I need to frequently close and start the software based on what I’m doing (i.e. video/non-video).

This all seems a lot of work, and more, not something that is easy to setup without knowing how. It shouldn’t be so difficult.